NASA awarded a contract to satellite-communications provider Globalstar to
develop an Internet protocol that would make a network easy to transport and
would allow users to stay connected from multiple platforms on land, at sea
or in the air.
NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, is using Globalstar’s
network of satellites. The firm owns 48 low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellites
and four in-orbit spares.
Glenn performed an experiment with the Neah Bay, a Coast Guard ice breaker
based in the Great Lakes. “It was connected back to headquarters, aboard
ship, docked, in the 80 to110 kilobit range. What they did was allow that same
IP connection to remain in place as the Neah Bay left port. It transitioned,
albeit at a lower throughput, but it maintained the IP address,” said
Steve Long, Globalstar’s director of government contracts.
As the Neah Bay moved out, it switched from the terrestrial radio system to
the Globalstar system. Data transfer occurred at a slower speed, approximately
56 kilobits, but it didn’t lose the IP address, said Mac Jeffery, Globalstar’s
director of communications.
“We’re really demonstrating how to maintain connectivity across
mobile platforms,” said Pete Vrotsos, the project manager at NASA Glenn.
“We’re trying to see if we can use mobile IP for more robust applications,
especially in the aeronautical field, including civil aviation and the FAA,”
he said. “We’re trying, as much as we can, to use the investments
that the commercial industry has made in the infrastructure of the country,”
“The initial goals of the demonstrations were reached, but there’s
still some work that needs to be done, because we have to make this happen seamlessly.
As a user, you don’t want to notice, nor are you concerned with, how the
network connection is getting through. You just want to maintain it,”
NASA is using Globalstar’s multiple channel modem (8 channels), which
is roughly the equivalent to a 56K home-PC modem. “They can transmit with
Globalstar normally, but with mobile IP, you are always in the firewall, when
you’re getting into the Internet. You’re bringing the Internet along
with you,” Jeffery said.
The mobile IP program is part of a broader effort to gain a larger share of
the government’s satellite-communications market. In the defense sector,
Globastar is seeking to challenge Iridium Satellite LLC, which has a low-earth
orbiting constellation of 66 operational LEO satellites and 14 in-orbit spares.
In 2001, the Pentagon signed a two-year, $72 million contract with Iridium,
for unlimited use of 20,000 satellite phones and a secure ground processing
station. The first of three renewable one-year contracts was exercised in January
2003. “They’re obviously finding it very useful, because we’re
getting an increased usage. Usage on our military contract has tripled since
January 2003,” said Warren Brown, an Iridium spokesman.
According to a Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) spokesman, 204,626
calls were made in 2001 on the Iridium satellite, and a total of 611,332 minutes
were used. In 2002, 1,127,252 calls were made and a total of 6,049,730 minutes
were used. In January and February 2003, 381,990 calls were made, using 2,844,184
total minutes of airtime.
Globalstar officials said they can offer more competitive rates than Iridium.
“Globalstar now has the lowest price structure in satellite voice and
data communication,” said Jeffery. “We offer 17 cents a minute for
Globalstar’s capacity is 7 million users, while Iridium has the capacity
for only 2 million, said Jeffery. “We can afford to charge less, because
we can carry three times more compared to Iridium,” he said.
“We have established lower prices, because—projecting ahead—we
will have lower subscriber costs, because it costs just as much to process one
call as it does to process hundreds,” said Jeffery.
Globalstar phones sell for about $600, and lower-end usage runs from $1.50
to $3.00 per minute. The phones currently operate on a monthly charge basis,
like many cellular phones, and “the more you use the less you pay,”
Commercially, Iridium charges $1.50 a minute. Iridium to Iridium handset calls
are 84 cents a minute, said Brown.
Customers in the United States have access to Globalstar’s five pricing
plans, which lets customers choose from a range of per-minute call charges based
on their anticipated monthly usage, to one monthly charge for all calls to any
location in the United States, Canada, or the Caribbean, including the maritime
regions. The company plans to offer comparable plans elsewhere in the world
in the coming months.
Globalstar’s overlapping satellite pattern is said to result in fewer
dropped calls and higher service quality. A Frost and Sullivan report commissioned
by Globalstar and issued in July 2002, purported to measure the “quality
of service” of both Globalstar and Iridium. The report found that under
ideal conditions, Globalstar’s drop rate was 2.6 percent, while Iridium’s
was 18.4 percent. However, in less than ideal conditions, both systems performed
less well. “The greater the physical interference with the signal, the
greater the rate of call drops and unobtainable service was noted,” the
report said. The report also indicated that in a rural environment, 84 percent
of calls from Globalstar phones connected on the first attempt, compared to
71 percent for Iridium.
However, the most dramatic difference between the two networks, according to
the Frost and Sullivan report, was in the assessment of audio quality. “Conversations
over the Globalstar satellite telephone were regularly superior to that of Iridium
and could even be described as approaching that of a good quality cellular telephone
call,” it said.
For connectivity, Globalstar also requires only a small omni-directional antenna,
not a satellite dish like Iridium. “You have an antenna about the size
of your thumb that you can hold in your hand,” said Jeffery.
However, Globalstar’s Type 1 (military level) encryption device is quite
large, actually “slightly bigger than a videocassette, something you’d
want to set down,” said Jeffery. Iridium’s encryption device is
tiny. In fact, “it slips into the back of the phone,” said Brown.
Globalstar phones provides voice and data capability at 9.6 kilobits, which
is four times faster than Iridium. Globalstar also has multi-channel modems
and up to 144 kilobits transfer ability for data.
Globalstar is making an attempt to tap the homeland security market. The National
Communications System (NCS), a federal entity tasked to provide government officials
emergency communications in the event of a war or crisis, was transferred from
DISA to the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003. NCS will soon be
tasked with distributing phones to state and local emergency agencies, said
“The NCS already has 1,700 Globalstar phones,” he said. Long added
that NCS has been paying the monthly subscriptions and usage charges, and now,
NCS is asking the individuals whom they’ve passed the phones off to, to
take over the subscriptions.
“We anticipate selling more to them in the future. First responders in
all states would benefit from having the Globalstar phone to communicate with
other first responders,” he said.
Globalstar satellites cover the United States from 70 degrees north to 70 degrees
south, said Long. The constellation provides coverage of 80 percent of the world’s
landmass, excluding Antarctica, as well as territorial waters in North and South
America, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
“For commercial maritime purposes, it’s on the order of all maritime
traffic. Every major ship in the Italian Navy has a Globalstar phone,”
Other customers include the Canadian military and the Royal Canadian Mounted
Police. Also, provincial governments from every Canadian province use Globalstar
phones. “The further north they go, the more they use them for basic communications,
emergency, search and rescue, etc.,” said Jeffery.
Although Long claimed that Globalstar phones are used by U.S. military units
in Afghanistan and the Middle East, a DISA spokesman said the agency is “not
aware of any Globalstar phones being used by war fighters.”
Jeffery argued that Globalstar’s design allows for software to be programmed
and fixed on the ground. “Globalstar satellites are like a bent pipe reflecting
a signal, like a mirror,” he said.
The company also is offering a service called “secure asset tracking.”
A small modem placed inside a shipping container could serve as a tracking system,
and then the modem could be programmed to track the container’s position.
It also could indicate whether the container has been opened.
“We’ve developed a very low cost simplex modem that can be used
to send data as frequently as you like, or on a timed basis, sort of like a
homing device,” said Jeffery.
The modems cost approximately $80. That cost includes $60 for the satellite
transmitter, $10 for a Global Positioning System (GPS) card, and $10 for an
integrated sensor. In volume, the unit can be purchased for $60 per unit.
“The tracking of containers across borders could be a huge bottleneck
for the economy, and the solution is to have baggage pre-cleared and sealed.
The Globalstar modem could track the container along the way and, in fact, trigger
an alarm if the seal is broken,” said Jeffery.
Jeffery said that transportation and shipping companies are looking at the
modem as a way to monitor vehicles containing gasoline or volatile chemicals.
Recent cross-border security hearings on Capitol Hill have indicated that there
could be regulations for trucking and shipping, and companies would have to
know where every container and tanker is going to be at any time.
The Globalstar secure asset tracking system uses palm-size modems developed
in cooperation with AeroAstro, Inc, a nanotechnology firm based in Ashburn,
Va. GPS information attached to each container is automatically sent back to
a central control office via Globalstar’s satellite network, allowing
the customer to track the position of the container fleet in real time, even
when the containers are in remote locations.
The modem allows data to be sent at regular pre-set intervals or whenever a
specific event, such as a rise in temperature or the opening of a lock, triggers
an external sensor. The data is sent via modem over the Globalstar network and
then e-mailed to the customer’s data collection facility.
“One of the largest operators of container fleets in America has beta-tested
(testing that occurs one step before total commercial release) this system,
tracking cargo containers all around Canada and the U.S.,” he said. The
system is now commercially available, Jeffery said.
The modem also can be used as a short-burst messenger for meter reading. The
modems currently are attached to liquefied petroleum gas tanks in both the United
States and Canada, and they automatically alert the gas company whenever tanks
are running low on fuel.