A weekly series by UPI examining emerging wireless telecommunications technologies.
CHICAGO, Aug. 20 (UPI) -- Cathy Lewis speaks with her son, who serves in the Peace Corps in a remote locale in the tropical rainforest in Ecuador, every week.
The mother and child conversation is not via conventional telephony, however, for there are no landlines there. The call comes via a satellite phone, shot up through the atmosphere and transmitted via communications satellites in low Earth orbit, to her home in the United States.
"These phones get service in places where there is no regular phone service," Lewis told United Press International. "It works great."
Close to a decade after companies like Motorola Corp., Globalstar LLC, Teledesic and other technology pioneers started touting satellite phones, they are coming into their own.
Whether it is in New York City at the Republican National Convention -- where planners are renting sat phones in case a terrorist attack cripples the mobile phone network, or at sea, near Fiji, for photographers conducting a photo shoot for a major magazine, satellite phones are emerging as a viable, if costly, way to communicate anywhere with anyone at anytime.
"In places where there is no terrestrial infrastructure, or in places where the infrastructure is not usable -- such as post-hurricane Florida -- sat phones can fill the gap," William Johnson, a professor of telecommunications engineering technology the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State, told UPI.
The satellite phone industry debuted during the 1990s with a lot of hype. Commercial systems did not start operating in earnest until about three years ago. The satellite phone companies went through a number of years of troubles, financially and technically.
Some problems persist today, as when a satellite in a provider's network fails. There are some successes as well.
Iridium Satellite LLC, which has 66 satellites, boasts about 100,000 subscribers, just behind Globalstar's 110,000 subscribers.
Recent growth of about 1,000 new subscribers per month is forcing Iridium to ask the Federal Communications Commission if it could access another 3.1 megahertz of spectrum.
Earlier this month, the state of Alaska reached an 18-month deal with World Communications Center, based in Chandler, Ariz., to provide satellite communications services.
The agreement calls for the company to standardize the satellite service the state currently receives for the 400 satellite phones it uses.
The contract also calls for the supplier to provide text messaging, short-burst data and other data technologies to provide tracking and remote monitoring, and L-band transceiver services, Sam Romey, president of WCC, told UPI.
"Just like any fledgling industry, it is not always who is first to market but who makes the best case for the technology," Romey said. "A lot of companies with good technology went right into the dirt."
One criticism of satellite phones is that they are expensive -- much more costly than conventional mobile phones at upwards of $1 per minute or so.
That means that most consumers don't use them on a regular basis, but save them for emergencies, such as during the aftermath of Hurricane Charley in the Punta Gorda, Fla., area.
To counter this, Globalstar is offering a new pricing plan that includes 30 more minutes of airtime for $5 more per month, the company said in a statement. The biggest users of satellite phones have been the maritime industry --commercial shipping -- as well as the government and non-profit organizations.
"While we do not use them on a regular basis, they are a critical part of our efforts to help the people and animals in Florida," Rachel Querry, a spokeswoman for The Humane Society of the United States, told UPI. "We have established temporary pet shelters and are staging rescues in areas where pets may have been left behind."
With cell towers down, the satellite phones have been the only way, in many cases, for staff to maintain communications in the field and with headquarters, she said.
"We are also relying on sat phones for communications among our teams in Florida," Querry added.
For the Republican National Convention, satellite phone marketer WCC is providing more than 220 sat phones, in case of emergency.
"If anything happens, their people will be connected," Romey said. "A command center will be set up and the partner company we're working with allows use of satellite phones inside of a building. With their repeater system, it will work even in a subway. We went all out to take care of them."
To soften the public perception of sat phones, the industry is undertaking some interesting promotions, including a project called "Operation Call Home," which aims to provide Iridium satellite phones, free of charge, to 3,000 national guard soldiers serving in Iraq. The project wants to raise $1.2 million to provide the soldiers from Washington state pre-paid airtime and phones for a year, throughout their expected deployment.
Over the next year, sat phone technology really will get a chance to prove itself, in an important, national security setting.
Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, government officials in Alaska have feared that terrorists might strike the Alaskan pipeline, which runs from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay.
If a terrorist blew up a section of the pipeline -- and it is vulnerable where it intersects with a major bridge -- that could foster an economic and natural disaster. In addition to the environmental damage caused by the crude oil spill, about a third of America's oil supply would be interrupted.
"It's a national security issue," Romey said. "So they want to track the trucks that go over that highway, near the pipeline. If someone hijacks them, they can send a signal over the Iridium satellite network and disable the truck, and stop the attack."
Truckers who are moving goods through Alaska must stop at a weigh station upon entering the state and be outfitted, at the state's expense, with the satellite phone-based technology, which is linked to a network with about 14 levels of security and encryption, Romey said.
"The state Department of Transportation in Alaska is doing this," Romey said. "They can track the trucks in real time, using the Iridium network."
Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com