Mobile Satellite Comes of AgeThursday, October 22, 2009
Inmarsat was initially conceived to provide international maritime satellite communications services to the shipping industry. It began by offering data and voice services to shipping companies and their crewmembers and eventually offered telephone service to passengers on cruise ships. The new satellite mobile phone on display in this stately old hotel ballroom was developed to provide voice service on land, employing Inmarsat's array of geocentric satellites.
This first attempt at a satellite mobile phone made the first cellular car phone look tiny in comparison. While it was indeed mobile, it required a strong person to heft it around. It was huge. It was heavy. It was clumsy. The operator carried it via a modified backpack contraption that had to be removed, placed on the ground, and set up in order to place a call. It even incorporated a collapsible dish antenna that needed careful positioning. But it was original. Calls could be placed through a satellite from in the middle of a desert or on top of a mountain.
Iridium followed a few years later with its handsets. Substantially bigger than its peers in the portable or mobile phone category, it was functional if not aesthetically pleasing. Then Globalstar joined the club, and to this day still provides a phone with a sizable antenna.
All three of these early satellite mobile communications service providers faced similar challenges to their business model. Building and launching satellite networks for relatively small user groups proved financially difficult if not embarrassing since huge operating costs and high service fees limited customer acceptance except for the most challenging communications requirements. And in the cases of Iridium and Globalstar, this was their standalone model. Iridium went down in financial flames, even though it had cut back from its prelaunch 77 LEO (low earth orbiting) birds to 66 saying it could provide the same level of service with 15 percent less LEOs. Maybe it should have changed its name to Dysprosium, but that just doesn't have the same ring to it.
This historical perspective leads us to a recent meeting I had at CTIA's Wireless I.T. & Entertainment conference and exposition in San Diego where I was introduced to the latest satellite phone concept. It is amazing to see how far technology has come since the first mobile satellite phone. A joint effort between AT&T Wireless and TerreStar has resulted in a mobile satellite phone that looks like a modern smartphone. It is sleek, comfortable in the hand, well designed for one-handed or two-handed typing and most notably is missing the ubiquitous antenna that has come to be accepted on prior devices with satellite functionality.
AT&T will act as the distribution channel while TerreStar is responsible for building and launching the satellite that will provide service across the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands as well as the coastal waters offshore. Users will have fully functional 3G mobile service for typical communications needs within the existing wireless coverage areas and may opt to switch to the satellite service when they leave those areas. AT&T and TerreStar envision the device as filling the communications needs of enterprise customers who are traveling through poorly covered regions-e.g., long haul truckers. They also are looking toward the first responder market as a backup communications system if and when the terrestrial network becomes unserviceable due to natural disaster or other causes.
The "bird" is being flown from two control centers, one in the United States and the other in Canada, providing for operational redundancy. Built by Loral and launched by Arianespace, it provides 20 MHz of spectrum in the 2 GHz range. With testing currently taking place, AT&T and TerreStar expect the satellite service to become available during Q4 of this year.
Andrew Seybold, Inc.