Rediscovering Old-Fashioned Reliability In A New-Fangled World: 2-Way Radios, Satcom Phones

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One contingency credit union disaster plans had not anticipated in the hectic, terrible days after Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in late August of 2005 was just how completely communications would cease. Conventional telephone lines and poles had been snapped, and many cellular phone towers were blown down or partially submerged.

One man who couldn't talk with anyone and who didn't like it one bit was Navigator FCU Chairman Joseph Krebs. "We were out of communication for days, if not weeks," he recalled.

Krebs was particularly upset with local telephone company officials who had rejected his idea of placing power generators at the base of cell phone towers in case of a power outage. Katrina flooded the bases of Gulf Coast antenna towers and after cellular phone batteries ran out of juice, everyone in the area, including Krebs and his credit union, were finished.

"This thing was worthless," Krebs said as he held up his cell phone two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, when The Credit Union Journal toured the Gulf Coast.

As the 2006 hurricane season approaches, Krebs believes he has a solution to communication and data transfer after such disasters: two-way radios. While the latest rage in communications is the satellite telephone, some satellite networks have ground terminals that are just as susceptible to mayhem as any telephone pole, and they can also lose available bandwidth if too many users are trying to talk at the same time.

Often overlooked and even forgotten in a world full of increasingly small cell phones are plain-old (and reliable) two-way radios. A network of radios owned and operated by a credit union could communicate between branches, learn the status of employees, members and staff, and transmit account data with high-end, encrypted systems already on the market.

From handheld walkie-talkies used on family vacations, to ham radio operators, to a trucker's citizen's band (CB) radio or professional, "hardened" systems such as those used by firefighters and SWAT teams, radio technology has served humanity well since its invention in the late 19th century. Among its selling points to credit unions is that it's available now for purchase, and is relatively inexpensive even for smaller credit unions. Best of all, a credit union-owned radio network would be independent of local communications infrastructure damaged during a large disaster such as Katrina, according to Allen G. Pitts, spokesman for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), which was founded in 1914. "It all went down. Only the hams were left," Pitts said of the Gulf Coast in 2005.

A new radio network might not cost as much as it sounds. Pitt estimated a starter Ham radio rig could be bought for $250 plus a license fee of around $50. Radios come in many sizes, ranges and capabilities, but are reliable and will work in an emergency.

That being said, creating a independent network of radios will involve purchasing, staff training, the establishment of radio procedures and maintenance plans, FCC licensing, antenna placement and safety plans regarding electrical power and rechargeable batteries which can actually catch fire and even explode if handled improperly.

Radios can handle the job according to Motorola Director of Sales Operations for State and Local Government David Manning. "Yes, it can be done and yes Motorola does offer these products," he said. "They are built to work when no other will."

For the purposes of this article three different radio options are outlined: on-site (e.g. within a credit union or the surrounding half-mile area); locally (talking to a branch five to 10 miles away); out of the region (distant communication with a hot-site or a branch located more than 30 miles away).

For on-site communication, Family Radio Service (FRS) walkie-talkies are sold everywhere today, provide clear communications and don't require an FCC license. FRS radios are made by Panasonic, Midland, Uniden, Cobra and Motorola, among others, and range in price from $24 to around $100. Walkie-talkies can take the place of an out-of-power intercom system or for staff located outdoors. After Katrina many credit unions had staff outside walking to member vehicles as the drive-through tellers were out of commission. They are short-range radios, usually operable at no more than a mile.

Radio experts say an independent system designed for a credit union would be required to talk to a branch in the five-to 10-mile range. These would be system similar to Motorola's HT 750 Professional Series used in emergency services, construction, security and port facilities. Motorola Customer Solutions Architect Claudia Rodriquez said each radio system is essentially a miniature computer that can be customized for a particular credit union's needs, whether for daily use or only during a disaster. Rodriquez said a computerized handset with a signal repeater could reach the 10-mile range and would start around $750 for the handset and required software. Systems can also be designed to provide encrypted messages for voice and data transmissions.

"It's reliable, redundant communication they can count on," Rodriguez said. "We'd be more than happy to work with them. We've been designing radios for over 70 years."

For true long-range communications from 40 miles to transmitting into another state, there are satellite telephones and ham radio. American Radio Relay League's Pitts said that while ham radios are excellent for contacting a distant station for voice communications, FCC regulations don't allow ham radios to be used for business purposes.

Emergency messages, such as checking the safety of CU members, employees and board members are permitted, he said.

Satellite telephones are all the rage now, with Iridium reporting a 3,000% increase in sales due to Hurricane Katrina. Satellite phone service has fallen in price but can still be expensive with monthly fees from $45 to $60 per month and $1 per minute talk rates. Globalstar satellite handsets can be found for around $550, while Iridium sets start at over $1,000, but have a larger coverage area around the world.

Iridium EVP Greg Ewert said financial institutions are an unexplored market for satellite companies, but managers can presently send spreadsheets over a satellite phone, although it would be slower than a computer or T1 connection.

Ewert also said Iridium will rollout an encryption function for commercial use later this year. Credit unions could jump into a basic satellite phone set up with Iridium for around $1,200. Iridium also sells a "data kit" that can be attached to a satellite phone and a laptop for field operations. Like all communications experts, Ewert stressed planning, training and matching the technology to the organization's needs.

"Having a system in place is critical. It's not difficult technology," he said.

Menlo Park, Calif.-based satellite telephone consultant Tim Farrar said even satellite phones have limitations. For instance, at present they have to be used outside of a structure with the antenna having an unobstructed path to an orbiting satellite, a practice known as "line of sight."

Farrar said if a credit union manager is inside talking with members, an incoming phone call won't ring the handset and will instead go to voicemail.

Furthermore, if you're talking on a satellite phone in a moving vehicle your signal could be blocked by large buildings, tunnels or terrain features, such as a mountain.

"It's very easy to miss a call. It's not the best solution for person-to-person inside a disaster area," Farrar said.

Farrar said a satellite telephone's real benefit is sending messages out of a region, such as contacting a credit union hot site, many of which were located far away from a credit union.

Farrar also said any satellite phone would have the same limitations with rechargeable batteries as any cellular phone. An average satellite phone battery would have around eight hours of talking time, he said. Farrar recommended training staff before hand so they can get accustomed to using the antenna, lining it up with the designated orbiting satellite and transmitting data.

Regardless of which option a credit union might take, experts were all in agreement saying that any financial institution can create, maintain and operate their own independent communication system with a phone call to a local vendor.

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