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Thuraya SatSleeve Turns iPhone into Satellite Phone

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

March 20, 2013

Thuraya SatSleeve Turns iPhone into Satellite Phone

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Satellite 2013, Washington DC – “Have you seen anything interesting at the show?” is the typical question I get at every conference meeting. Thuraya’s SatSleeve is definitely the big winner this show, a $499 (MSRP) device that turns the Apple (News - Alert) iPhone into a satellite phone. 

How hot is the SatSleeve? It’s so hot that the mobile satellite services (MSS) operator has already sold out the first production block of 5,000 units to its worldwide distributors. It’s so hot that the U.S. military has been looking for a device like this for close to a year.

At first glance, the Thuraya (News - Alert) SatSleeve looks like a protective case for the iPhone with a stub on top. Pull out the stub to extend the L-band antenna, fire up the free SatSleeve app downloadable from the App store, and you’re ready to make calls and send SMS text messages through Thuraya’s network.

The app provides dialing and can direct dial from Apple’s address book. 

The lithium-ion battery built into the SatSleeve provides up to three hours of talk time and up to 48 hours of stand-by time. It also serves as an extra battery to keep the iPhone charged.

Another feature on the SatSleeve is a pre-programmed SOS (News - Alert) button, enabling a user to make a satellite call even without the iPhone. Depending on the country of use/purchase, the button can be programmed with a specific number, or has to be directed to a national public safety organization. 

Pressing the button dials the number and may also deliver an SMS text message with the GPS coordinates of the device.

Apple’s choice to add the new Thunderbolt connector to the iPhone (News - Alert) 5 proved to be an unpleasant surprise, both in terms of design and cost. Using the 30-pin connector standard on “old” iPhone and iPad devices only costs 50 to 60 cents, said a Thuraya official, but licensing for Thunderbolt parts adds $5 to $6 dollars, plus having to design an adapter for the iPhone 5.

Pricing starts at $0.75 per minute on Thuraya’s network, with pre-paid and post-paid plans available.

The first-generation voice/text SatSleeve sold out its first run “within a few days,” said company officials. A second lot mixed between the voice/SMS SatSleeve and a data version will be available around August, with the SatSleeve Data expected to retail between $600 and $800.

A company official hinted that Thuraya has SatSleeve-esque products in the works for Android smart phones and tablets, but didn’t offer any further information. Designing a product for the iPhone was a relatively straightforward process, given Apple’s relative standardization of devices (other than switching to Thunderbolt without telling anyone beforehand). 

Apple also holds the second-largest share of smartphones sold worldwide, according to most recent statistics (Samsung has the top, Nokia (News - Alert) third).

Thuraya operates two satellites covering Europe, Africa and Asia, leveraging GSM to provide worldwide roaming capability in the Americas. It already has an established base of over 200,000 subscribers and 600,000 phones sold at the end of December 2012.  

Apple and the iPhone provided a unique opportunity for Thuraya. The company said many of its customers already carried around iPhones and Thuraya phones, so there was an opportunity to provide a single form-factor device “merging” the two. Thuraya has customers in the energy, maritime, government and media industries, as well as a range of non-government organizations (NGO) working “in the world’s hot spots” and responding to disasters.

Company executives said one major U.S. military command had been in discussions with the company over the past year on finding a way to put together a smart phone and satellite connectivity. Thuraya is also in discussions with the British and French militaries on purchasing SatSleeve.

Edited by Braden Becker

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