In the latest wave of new-and-improved technology, satellite phones are back in the headlines. TerreStar (News - Alert) Networks has put what it calls the "largest, most advanced commercial communications satellite" into orbit above North America and promotes a new business model for the use of the high-flying technology for voice and mobile broadband. Will it work? Or is this another case of satellite promising the sky and delivering less?
Satellite can have some great advantages and some daunting disadvantages. For mobile "gotta have it" communications in remote areas and/or in areas where other infrastructure doesn't exist – say, wiped out by a hurricane -- satellite services provide a clear communications path with the right equipment. However, getting that infrastructure up in the sky isn't cheap, so voice and data services tend to be much more expensive than comparable terrestrial offerings. Depending on what you want to do, the equipment to establish a voice or data connection will also be more expensive and may require some setup of antennas and other gear – a novel shock to those used to grabbing the iPhone (News - Alert) or netbook and just turning it on.
To oversimplify a bit, there are two types of commercial satellite networks available: low-earth-orbit (LEO) based systems and geostationary earth orbit (GEO) bases systems. LEOs, typified by Iridium (News - Alert), have lots of little satellites relatively close (200-300 miles) to the earth's surface, so there's hardly any lag time in placing a phone call or moving around small amounts of data. However, because those satellite are smaller, they have smaller antennas to receive signals and less transmission power to deliver information.
GEOs, such as the TerreStar Network, usually have two or three satellites parked in lock-step movement with the earth's rotation – basically it looks like a big fixed antenna in the sky. Bigger antennas and more power can be translated to smaller devices – and much smaller antennas -- on the ground side. The tradeoff for GEO is distance – a satellite has to be parked out over 22,000 miles away from the earth's surface. Multiple by two for a round trip of over 44,000 miles and the net result is a slight but noticeable delay when making a phone call or conducting a video conference; you can often witness the results live when watching remote reports on CNN.
TerreStar can't beat the speed of light, but it has engineered around some of the other drawbacks that plagued previous satellite systems. Data and voice are moved around using all-IP, so the company can take advantage of a simplified infrastructure. Putting a big 60 foot long antenna in the sky means that devices on the ground can have an embedded antenna inside of a smartphone-sized device – no lugging around phones with foot-long antennas.
More importantly, TerreStar has teamed up with a smartphone manufacturer to incorporate satellite into a GSM/WCDMA/HSPA phone that also has 802.11 b/g for the ride – if you can't find a wireless network for this phone in North America, you may no longer BE in North America. It runs Windows Mobile 6 and list disturbingly like any other smartphone. TerreStar is preaching the virtues of an open architecture, so device manufactures can build in satellite capabilities to their devices – be they smartphones or M2M – a lot easier and more affordably.
Needless to say, TerreStar wants to get as many customers onto the network as possible, so while the company expected to get a lot of first responder and government users, the door is wide open for commercial users and applications that require connectivity across North America and beyond the bounds of traditional cellular networks.
Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.
Edited by Patrick Barnard