SkyTerra Plans Public Safety Cell-satellite System

A subsidiary of hybrid satellite-cellular company SkyTerra is seeking U.S. federal stimulus money to develop public-safety communications devices that work all across the U.S. and Canada.

The devices would be able to use 700MHz terrestrial wireless networks reserved for public safety agencies, but also two satellites that SkyTerra is planning to launch. It's seeking stimulus money to develop and deploy two dual-mode devices optimized for public safety use.

On Tuesday, SkyTerra Safety Access LLC applied for US$37 million from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The company would add $9 million of its own money to that sum for the project, according to a SkyTerra press release. The request was made under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Stimulus Program, designed to increase broadband adoption. SkyTerra's plan is intended to increase broadband adoption among public safety agencies, such as police and fire departments.

With the dual-mode devices, public safety agencies would be able to use their terrestrial network wherever it was available and then have calls automatically switch over to SkyTerra's satellite network wherever the 700MHz network wasn't available. An agency could also start out by using the devices on satellite and gradually transition to also using a terrestrial network as one is built, using the same model of handset, according to SkyTerra.

Much of the 700MHz band, which had been home to analog TV stations in the U.S., was opened up in June when analog TV was replaced with more efficient digital technology. Part of the band was set aside for public safety use.

SkyTerra is one of two companies building hybrid satellite-cellular networks. In July, TerreStar launched the TerreStar-1 satellite and announced AT&T Mobility would resell hybrid service, initially to state and local governments. TerreStar, SkyTerra and Infineon Technologies said in April they would develop a multi-standard mobile device platform about the size of a standard cell phone, using a software-defined radio. That handset is expected next year.

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