Can’t get any cellphone reception…thank god there’s a satellite to back you up.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009 13:40
Posted in category Cellular Technologies, Featured

At the mere mentioning of the word “satellite phone” some of you may start to cringe and remember a failed attempt at what looked good on paper.  Instead of having to deal with wireless towers sucking up physical space, why not just launch some more junk in to space to meet our wireless communication needs.  That is exactly what Iridium and Globalstar tried to do 10 or so years ago.  However as mentioned before that attempt was for naught as they eventually filed for bankruptcy due to high entrance costs for consumers and large unwieldy handsets.  But that was 10 years ago and, Iridium still is around as a last effort communicatoin method, though mainly dealing with the military and the lucky few consumers who can afford the higher costs of equipment and service.  However, a lot has changed in the mobile/cellphone world since then.  Are satellite phones on the road to a comeback?


If you life in the big city and can’t get a signal on your cellphone to save a small childs life, chances are that a satellite equipped phone won’t do you much good either as they don’t fair so well in heavily populated/dense areas with concrete all around.  Instead the famers, land ownders, and other fine folk who grace the nations vast, open, and cellular dead zones known as the country have long had to deal with either no cellphone service at all, or settling for some ruarl/local carrier.  While rural/local carriers aren’t bad by any means, (a lot of the time they destroy the larger carriers when it comes to consumer friendliness and your wallet’s happiness), however if you want to travel abroad you are often met with some not so nice roaming charges.  Though in the day and age of everyone more or less getting along, roaming charges are also becoming a thing of the past.  One other not so great feature of smaller rural carriers is the often non-existent and downright shamefull excuse of a lineup in regards to cellphones.  Heck, a three old WinMo device could be their “iPhone”.  Enough picking on the rural readers as I myself would love to have a place to get away from it all and relax.


Back on task, it is this openess and freedom that often cuts us off from the outside world as carriers will spend the bulk of their money wherever the bulk of their money is coming from.  Read: Large user base in the city, therefore more network upgrade dollars are spent in the city.  It may be harsh and blunt, but wireless carriers, especially the larger ones don’t really care or think too often about the well being of their network in areas outside of big city limits.  And until now, those unlucky people have had to rely on such ancient methods as landlines and sometimes when the times are really bad the ‘ol two cups on a string trick.  There is hope however as TerreStar Corp is set to launch what has been classified as the largest (to date) commercial satellite into space.  Why?  To bring satellite phone coverage to rural users across the USA once and for all.  In order to claim the title of “worlds largest”, the satellite has a wing span that has a god-like reach of 60ft!  And that’s not all.  Two more even larger satellites are planned by rival SkyTerra Communications Inc. next year with the latters satellites reportedly costing a whopping $1.2 billion.


“Great, back comes the 1980’s/military grade looking “cellphones” that weigh as much as several bricks and could bring down a small warship and cost upwards of $1000″, you think to yourself.  *Chuckles*  Such antiquated technology is now reserved for museums.  The fine niche in the consumer market for satellite phones has progressed in the decrease of size and cost as well as bringing an increase in style meaning that your satellite phone won’t look too outdated.  As you can see from the image at the beginning of the post, the new age satellite phones aren’t that big at all.  Though it’s debatable on the physical looks being considered “modern”.  But when  you have the choice between talking on your wireless phone out in the middle of no where, or listening to a bunch of silence, I’ll take slightly old and ugly any day.  Besides they are a big step up from the old satellite phones of just a few years ago.


The satellite phone market is heating back up again as more people are moving in to the country side or simply more rural dwellers are looking for wireless coverage.  Either way wireless carriers not following quite as quickly as people were hoping or needing.  If the two companies TerreStar Corp and SkyTerra Communications Inc.  do become successful, expect to see exec’s from at least a couple wireless carriers showing up on their doorsteps with dollar signs in their eyes looking for a buyout.  Could or would a carrier such as AT&T or Verizon purchase a successful satellite “carrier” in hopes of creating a monsterous network that knows no bounds with cusotmers never again seeing “zero bars”?  I think we still have some time before that happens as at least the 4 wireless carriers should beef up their networks where they have coverage before they even start looking towards space.  Why screw up two areas of the market?  Fix what you have.  Am I right?


So how much are these new fangled spacey handsets going to cost you the consumer?  TerreStar chief executive Jeff Epstein is claiming that the first handsets from his company will ring in around $700.  At first you may be jumping out of your seat claiming this is a ridiculous price.  But take a second and think about your subsidized handsets from your carrier you currently have.  Your carrier as already eaten a chunk of that price, though you signed 1, 2, or more years of your life away.  Think of “satphones” as they’re called merely as unsubsidized cellphones.  If satphones pick up in popularity coupled with an equal increase TerraStar’s and SkyTerra’s userbase, we can definitely expect to see satphones drop in price quite considerably to the price of $200-$400, the same as many higher end cellphones/smartphones today.  Users who need more than just a simple cellphone but instead need a mobile power house of a smartphone like many business users are now equipping themselves with today shouldn’t worry.  At a cellphone trade show last week, Elektrobit showed off a full qwerty deviec running (dear god) Windows Mobile that was only a tad thicker than your typical WinMo handsets.  Plus there wasn’t any protruding antenna on this “Blackberry-esque” device.  Phone calls are one thing as data is in a completley different ballpark.  If anyone has satellite broadband service, they know that at times of bad weather it can go out completely.  Even in fair weather latency times aren’t the greatest as the data has to travel tens of thousands of miles from earth to space and then back to earth.


So the devices are a tad pricey but what about the service?  According to both TerryStar and SkyTerra, calling on satphones will only cost you a little less than $1 per minute which is about the same as Iridium charges for their service.  To sweeten the deal, TerraStar even has a roaming agreement with AT&T that will allow users’ satphones to roam on the terrestrial carriers network when in range.  Globe trotters will want to think twice before choosing TerraStar or SkyTerra as their satphone service providers as said networks will be limited in size inside the US where as Iridium has a worldwide advantage.  As will all satellite phones and satellite devices in general, they work off of a “line-of-sight” transmission more or less meaning a tree, building, car, and even tall country grass could hurt your signal and render your nice expensive satellite phone a slightly smaller paper weight.  This also means outdoor only use.  If you dream of sitting inside on your couch yakin’ it up on your fancy new satphone you will be sorely dissappointed.


Is there really a market for satellite phones or are the companies involved just spinning their wheels with a dead technology that is either dead for good or still not ready for the prime time?  Do you live in a rural area or use satphones?  If you do live way out there, would you consider a satphone at the prices mentioned?  If not how much would prices have to fall before you give in?  All questions that only you can answer.

Souce: USA Today, Tech Gadgets *Old satellite phone pic*

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