A Chandler-based distributor of satellite telephones is rushing communications equipment to the ravaged Gulf Coast, which lost most of its conventional land line and cellular telephone service to Hurricane Katrina.
World Communication Center, 1347 N. Alma School Road, has shipped more than 150 Iridium satellite telephones to utilities, emergency response agencies, health care organizations and even telecom companies helping with the recovery effort, said CEO Weldon Knape.
The Iridium phones are in demand because the voice signals are relayed by satellites in low Earth orbit rather than by land lines and cell towers, most of which were damaged or destroyed by the water and high winds.
"Before the storm hit we had one customer that ordered phones in anticipation," he said. "After it hit, our phones went crazy."
The firm could ship another 75 to 100 of the special Iridium phones if more requests come in, he said.
Many of the requests for satellite phones are coming from utility companies as far away as Florida and North Carolina that are sending crews into the stricken area to help the local utilities restore electricity, he said.
"The crews in the field need these phones to communicate," he said.
World Communication keeps an emergency supply of Iridium handsets on hand to respond to disasters, he said. It’s part of the nature of the company’s business that demand for satellite phones can be subdued for long periods, then explode with some natural disaster or major event.
"At first we felt funny about that," Knape said. "On the other hand we do maintain the phones for this purpose. We feel pretty good about being able to help people without communication."
Greg Ewert, executive vice president of Maryland-based Iridium Satellite LLC, said traffic on the system has doubled in the past 24 hours, and heavy traffic is expected to continue for at least several more days.
"Depending on how serious this is for the terrestrial infrastructure, this could last longer than people anticipate," he said. Much of the increased traffic is coming from the U.S. Department of Defense, which has contracted with Iridium for satellite telephone services, he said.
"Initially a lot of the traffic was from first responders, but as we move along there will probably be a lot more from support organizations such as the Red Cross as well as utility companies and construction companies," he said.
So far the Iridium system has plenty of capacity to handle the call volume, and the capacity could be increased if necessary, Ewert said. Also additional Iridium handsets could be flown in from Asia and Europe, he said.
Iridium was developed by Motorola engineers in the East Valley in the 1990s, and the company launched a constellation of 77 satellites to relay the voice signals, allowing users to communicate from anywhere in the world with other Iridium users or with users of cellular or land line phones in areas not affected by outages.
Motorola left the business in 2000 when the expected market failed to materialize, but the Iridium system continues to operate as an independent company following a bankruptcy reorganization. Non-government domestic calls are relayed through an Iridium ground station at the Arizona State University Research Park in Tempe.