From the air, the devastation Hurricane Maria brought to Puerto Rico appears to be catastrophic.
SAN FRANCISCO – So many U.S. satellite phones are being shipped to Puerto Rico right now that phone providers say they may run out by next week.
With 90% of the island’s cell phone network down and few landlines operating, satellite phones are one of the few ways for people to communicate and for relief workers to coordinate efforts. Unlike cell phones, the heavier and more powerful phones don’t rely on cell towers or landlines. Instead, they communicate directly with satellites in orbit around the earth.
“Our industry is a small one and everybody’s just had their shelves wiped out because demand is so high given all these hurricanes,” said C.J. Webber, CEO of the SatPhoneStore in Miami.
He just got an order for 350 sat phones from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We’re scraping the bottom trying to get them those phones, so even FEMA’s having trouble,” he said.
The situation in Puerto Rico is unprecedented, said Matthew Desch, CEO of Iridium Communications, which runs the world’s largest satellite constellation for satellite phones.
Normally after a big disaster, satellite phone usage lasts about three to five days and then falls off as temporary cell towers mounted on trucks are brought in.
“That isn’t happening in Puerto Rico. We’ve had eight days of incredible spiking of usage — up 100 times over normal,” he said.
There are usually no more than ten Iridium phones working in Puerto Rico. As of Friday, that number was around 2,000, he said. “And that doesn’t include the phones the Department of Defense is using there.”
The Miami-based Satellite Phone Store has shipped hundreds of satellite phones to people heading to Puerto Rico over the past two weeks, said marketing director Marco Spasovski.
“We’ve seen a massive jump in rentals,” he said.
A typical satellite phone customer uses it for hunting, hiking or work in areas with no infrastructure. That’s changed entirely since Hurricane Maria swept through the Caribbean two weeks ago, said Webber.
“When we pick up the phone now it’s just ‘Please help me. I’m going to Puerto Rico,’ ” he said.
Many customers are relief agencies or people coming to the island to help rescue family.
Satellite phones are expensive but they’re the only game in town. The cost of a phone ranges between about $600 and $1,500 to buy, depending on the technology and the features offered, said Spasovski.
The usual rate is $1.50 a minute for calls, and about half that for texts, though incoming texts are free on most networks, he said.
In normal circumstances the charge per minute on his phones jumps from $1.50 to $1.75 when a customer goes beyond the allotment they’ve chosen. But for relief workers many companies are holding the rate steady no matter how many minutes they use.
“We realize these aren’t recreation trips,” said Mike Mikha, sales director for Satmodo Satellite Phones in San Diego, Calif.
Low earth and geosynchronous
Satellite phones come in two types, those that work with low Earth orbit satellite networks and those that work with stationary satellites.
Iridium Communications has the largest low Earth orbit, or LEO, network, with 66 satellites constantly buzzing about 500 miles above the planet. A phone that uses its network looks for a signal from the nearest Iridium satellite and sends a call or text up to it. The other large LEO network is Globalstar.
If the call is going to another phone on the Iridium network it bounces through the satellites until it finds the one closest to the phone it’s trying to reach, then relays the message.
If the call is going to a cell phone or landline, it bounces through the Iridium satellite network until it finds the satellite nearest to one of Iridium’s ground stations. The message is sent from the ground station out to terrestrial or cell phone networks and completed that way.
High Earth orbit satellites, also called geosynchronous satellites, stay above one particular location over the equator at about 22,000 miles above the planet.
The largest of these is Inmarsat, with another, Thuraya, operating mainly in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Phones on these networks work across broad swaths of the globe, though less well at the poles because the satellites are located at the equator.
While demand is uniquely high just now, the networks are easily able to accommodate it, said Iridium’s Desch. “That’s not a problem at all,” he said.
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