Democracy & Technology Blog The Birds are Back

Among the many failures of infrastructure and management in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the loss of communications contributed mightily to the confusion inside New Orelans and the poor decision making outside. No terrestrial telecom infrastructure can be entirely immune to 140 mile per hour winds and week-long floods. While most mobile phones and land-lines failed, we have reports of sporadic cell phone coverage in the days following the storm/flood. Eight days after the storm, numerous cell sites came back online in New Orleans. Within a week, Bell South reported that its main regional telecom hub in New Orleans was up. Nevertheless, the company estimates $400-600 million in damage to the telecom infrastructure.

The big telecom winner coming out of New Orleans — if there can be such a thing — is the satellite phone. Globalstar says it has shipped 10,000 of its sat phones to the Gulf Coast region and maintains performance has been excellent across the board. The company has donated some 100 phones to government agencies, and fellow satellite operator Iridium has sent 150 to similar departments and utilities.

The satellite phone industry, which was launched in the late 1990s to great fanfare, crashed with the rest of the debt-laden telecom market in 2000-02, as an ultra-strong dollar punished anyone using leverage to build large new capital-intensive projects. Bill Gates and Craig McCaw of McCaw Cellular fame announced a broadband satellite project called Teledesic, which has yet to achieve reality. But a number of both GEO and LEO (geosynchronous or geostationary orbit and low-earth orbit, respectively) projects did make it off the ground (so to speak), among them the Hughes and EchoStar geo birds now broadcasting cable television, the Iridium and Globalstar constellations, and later the Sirius and XM Radio sats. For a time, mobile phone carriers considered building mobile/sat phones incorporating Iridium or Globalstar, and Qualcomm, a key owner and technology developer behind Globalstar, announced a partnership with Ford Motor called Wingcast that would have used Globalstar to deliver full “telematics” capabilities to the automobile fleet, outdoing today’s OnStar product from GM. The crash, alas, stopped many of the most ambitious satellite applications in their tracks.

I think it’s now safe to say the birds are back in a big way.

-Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson is a Senior Fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, where he researches technology and economics and contributes to the Disco-Tech blog. He is currently writing a book on the abundance of the world economy, focusing on the Chinese boom and developing a new concept linking economics and information theory. Swanson writes frequently for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal on topics ranging from broadband communications to monetary policy.