Satellite Company Exec Living Katrina's Wrath

Globalstar chairman and CEO Jay Monroe's home in New Orleans was in the path of the storm, and he and much of his family are among the displaced.
As Hurricane Katrina powered toward New Orleans two weeks ago, there was one group of telecommunications executives with Gulf States roots who understood the looming danger and took steps to battle the storm.

Globalstar executives realized that satellite phone service could be pressed into service if the situation deteriorated. As the world now knows, the situation did indeed deteriorate, but not even to the extent Globalstar thought imaginable. Chairman and CEO Jay Monroe’s home in New Orleans was in the path of Katrina.

“My home is in New Orleans and most of my family lives there,” Monroe said. “None of us (has) received a reliable report on the condition of our houses and neighborhoods, and all of us are among the displaced.” At last report, Monroe and his family members were safe, but they still had received no reliable information on their property.

In addition to Monroe, other Globalstar executives are from the Gulf States area that was pounded by the storm. Most live in California now near Globalstar’s headquarters, but they have homes and family members in the region they grew up in.

“We all knew what could happen,” said Bob Miller, Globalstar’s vice president of engineering and operations, in an interview. “Being from that area, and knowing what was going to happen, we started ramping up quickly.” Miller grew up in hard-hit Venice in Plaquemines Parish on the oceanfront, “Venice is gone,” he said of the destruction that demolished his hometown.

Anticipating a surge in call volume for its constellation of satellites, Miller said Globalstar’s “rocket scientists” began preparations to beef up the satellites sun-driven battery power that would see increased volume during the storm and its aftermath. Arrangements were made to use Globalstar gateways in Canada and press them into service to help relieve the pressure on Globstar’s Mississippi gateways.

One problem cited by Miller was the lack of history and experience with cell phone service in a big disaster area. He feared cell phone service would be compromised if and when their landline connections were flooded. Miller noted that while cell phone towers and over-the-air signals can be unscathed in a disaster, traffic still must be transmitted through landlines.

As it happened, the worst-case scenario developed: cell phone service along with landline service was largely demolished; nearly 2 million phone lines were dead. Satellite service from Globalstar, and also from Iridium, another satellite phone company with a constellation of orbiting birds, became the most reliable way of communicating in the region and for many parties, the only way of communicating.

In the first week alone, Globalstar shipped 10,000 satellite phones. Iridium also shipped 10,000 phones in the early days of the disaster as satellite phones often became the only means of communicating.

Miller said some government emergency organizations had begun to acquire satellite service in the months before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. He noted that the price of the phone ($749 suggested retail) and the service has become affordable in recent months.

“In retrospect, it seems silly not to have one,” he said.

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