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Palo Alto company brings Haiti relief from cosmos

Space Systems/Loral satellites provide broadband, phone services in earthquake-torn nation

As relief workers toil to rebuild Haiti following a massive earthquake, they're getting a boost from Palo Alto technology floating 22,000 miles over their heads.

Two satellites manufactured by local company Space Systems/Loral are providing communication support in Haiti, where a Jan. 12 earthquake destroyed much of the nation's infrastructure.

One satellite, operated by EchoStar, has been enabling phone, radio, television and Internet services to residents and relief workers. Another one, operated by Intelsat, is providing broadband connectivity and transmission services for media in Port-au-Prince, the country's devastated capital.

These satellites are filling a communication void in Haiti and allowing relief workers to more effectively distribute supplies and provide assistance, said John Celli, the company's CEO.

"When you have a disaster like the one in Haiti, a lot of the infrastructure that was once there no longer exists," Celli told the Weekly. "A satellite can be used to bring a lot of information to the area."

In addition to building the satellites, Space Systems/Loral workers made another direct contribution to Haiti's recovery this week: a $31,493 donation to the Silicon Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross for Haiti release. Space Systems/Loral submitted the donation from the employees, along with a $25,000 check from the company, to Red Cross officials Friday afternoon.

Space Systems/Loral, which is based on Fabian Way in south Palo Alto, is currently working on about 20 satellites. Once launched into space, these devices will allow the masses around the globe to watch satellite television, listen to satellite radio and get directions from their satellite-fed GPS systems.

But Celli said the company's satellites have also been used for other, less recreational functions. These include finding ships lost at sea, providing educational resources to Mexico and measuring water and the ground temperature in India -- data that helps the country plan its crop production.

Both Intelsat and EchoStar used Space Systems/Loral-made satellites to improve communications in Haiti shortly after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit. Intelstat used its satellite and network infrastructure to bring broadband connectivity to Haiti. EchoStar, which provides satellite service for the DISH Network in the United States, donated its satellite-communication services to Haiti on Jan. 14.

Another satellite operator, ICO Global Communications, is also planning to deploy its Space Systems/Loral-built satellite to provide Internet access to Haiti. According to a statement from ICO, Space Systems/Loral was one of the companies that donated its technical services to assist with its Haiti initiative.

The Space Systems/Loral satellites in Haiti are geostationary -- which means they appear fixed in space and orbit in sync with the Earth -- and produce beams that cover broad geographical regions. After the Haiti earthquake, Space Systems/Loral helped one of its customers move a satellite that was providing service to North America to enable broadband connection in Haiti, Celli said.

The satellites typically resemble giant, gleaming boxes lined with solar panels and antennas that fold out like accordions. One of the satellites in their Fabian Way facility is headed for SIRIUS Satellite Radio. Another one will be used to enable video services for mobile devices. A typical device costs more than $200 million.

The satellite business, in fact, has been virtually immune to the ongoing recession, said company spokeswoman Wendy Lewis. The company currently has 59 satellites in orbit, Lewis said, including seven that were launched last year.

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