Comm in the High-Tech War

Real-life combat may spur new corporate interest in videophones and Global Positioning Systems.

From the real-time broadcast of a desert assault to the deadly accuracy of the latest smart weapons, the war on Iraq has been fueled and punctuated by technology like no other conflict in history.

Personal satellite communications, videophones and GPSes (Global Positioning Systems) may have struggled for purchase in the enterprise, but the technologies are getting a real-world, life-and-death trial on the battlefield. While its difficult to look beyond the grave situation in Iraq, the tools being tested in combat could become the corporate technologies of the future, observers say.

"Were starting to see increased interest for things like critical systems backup and such," said Perry Milton, vice president for partner and commercial relationships at satellite network company Inmarsat Ltd., in London. "Theres a lot of discussion around homeland security, where municipalities are looking for independent secure communications in case of the failure of the main lines."

Inmarsat earlier this month reallocated its backup satellite in anticipation of heavy use of its global area network ISDN services in the Middle East.

Several military and media outfits have been using the Inmarsat network for videophone broadcasts and logistical communications, through rental and service deals with companies such as 7E Communications Ltd., of Middlesex, England.

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7E makes the Talking Head line of videophones, which run over what is essentially a mobile ISDN line. Some broadcasts are transmitted over a standard 64K-bps line, while others link two terminals together to create a 128K-bps link, which is why some broadcasts are spottier than others.

Meanwhile, in the past several weeks, Globalstar USA LLC has sold about 1,000 satellite voice-only phones to American media and military customers in the Middle East. "A number of print journalists are using our phones now in the Middle East for both voice and data—they can file stories by modem," said Mac Jeffery, a spokesman for Globalstar, in San Jose, Calif. The phones are the size of a home cordless handset.

Globalstar—which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February 2002 and lost a $55 million funding deal last month—has traditionally struggled to compete against cell phone services, which are far less expensive than, if not as reliable as, satellite services.