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SatPhones — Why Can't They Make It Work? 337

Posted by Soulskill
from the carrying-around-the-dish-is-hard-work dept.
RedEaredSlider writes "Satellite phones aren't as clunky as they once were, and technology has made them more powerful. Gone are the days when satellite phones had to be accompanied by a suitcase. Yet to date, the field is littered with bold attempts at a phone that could be used anywhere, without depending on earthbound cell phone networks. Billions have been invested, with relatively little to show for it. Part of the answer is debt. TerreStar is only the latest casualty of a crushing $1.2 billion debt load. The company introduced its Genus phone last month, but is in the middle of Chapter 11 proceedings. It's unclear that the phone will sell enough to help TerreStar stay in business, especially when it carries a $799 price tag."
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SatPhones — Why Can't They Make It Work?

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  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:11PM (#34539066)

    What other phone can boast of having a full audio archive of every single phone call you ever make, courtesy of the NSA? Carrying one of these puppies comes with the cool prestige of being able to hit on the classy girl at the bar with James Bond lines like "Either I *am* a spy, or I'm getting spied *on*--that's for you to decide, my darling."

    • by zill (1690130)

      What other phone can boast of having a full audio archive of every single phone call you ever make, courtesy of the NSA?

      Every cell phone on Earth?

      • Not cell phone, Satellite phone. For quite a while they were tapped into BinLadens phone. Then some dumbass senator wanted to show off, so he told everyone about it.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by abarrow (117740)

      RING RING!

      "Just a minute honey. Sip on that martini while I get this satellite call"

      "HELLO?? Yes. WHAT? Sorry, I can't hear you I'm indoors. YOU ARE BREAKING UP. WHAT? I'LL HAVE TO GO OUTSIDE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PARKING LOT TO TALK TO YOU. WHAT?"

      "Sorry honey, I guess I gotta go. I guess the blowjob is off?"

    • by billstewart (78916) on Monday December 13, 2010 @06:55PM (#34540470) Journal

      At least one of the proposed LEO satellite networks ran into real problems because lots of governments insisted that they route satphone traffic from that network's customers in their countries through earth stations in their countries. It was partly security paranoia (like the recent Blackberry regulations around the world), but largely protectionism for the monopoly telcos, which didn't want to lose revenues from people who could use satphones to save money. (Typically this was third-world countries with poor infrastructure and government-run telcos, which were one of the big markets for satphones.) Remember when calling India cost a dollar a minute?

  • That carries a huge delay penalty, which lowers the quality of a conversation significantly.
    • by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:16PM (#34539156)

      Iridium satellites are at 475 miles, not geo sync

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      TerreStar, Sky Terra (Lightsquared), and Inmarsat use geostationary satellites. Iridium and GlobalStar use low earth orbits (below 1000 km ), while ICO Global initially opted for satellites in a medium earth orbit, at about 10,000 km. ICO's latest bird, however, will be geosynchronous.

    • by snowraver1 (1052510) on Monday December 13, 2010 @06:41PM (#34540304)
      I sometimes talk to people that use these phones up in Northern Alberta. The quality is actually far better than you would expect, and the delay isn't too noticable. I think the phone the other guy was using was on the Iridium network.

      I think that the problem with these phones and why they will never take off is that they will never be cheap enough for mere mortals to use. They just don't have enough bandwidth to have the unwashed masses using it to talk about the latest celeb gossip. With a space based solution, it would be hard to break geographic areas into cells like what is currently done with cell phone tech. The result is that everyone is on the same tower, and there is only so much signal to go around. Because supply is so tight, price has to remain high.
      • by Cimexus (1355033)

        Exactly. I wouldn't say satellite phones are 'failing'. But they are simply a niche market. You use the right tool for the right job, and a satellite phone is a tool intended for use in remote locations. There are better and cheaper technologies (i.e. cellular) for widespread use in more densely populated areas.

        Sat phones get extensive use in the remote areas here in Australia. Every farmer has one, and they are generally very reliable and hold a good quality call. The people who benefit from having an 'ava

  • by Anonymous Coward

    cause ya cannae change the laws of physics (captain)

    • Sure we can. You just link the posimetric neutrino inducer concentrator into the antimatter magnetic coils via the tachyon beam generator and push it all through the warp engines and... and... and... Damn! I forget the problem that my technobabble was supposed to solve.

      • by DWMorse (1816016)

        You're overthinking it, Ensign Crusher. Just reverse the polarity.

        Oh, and... avoid the bathroom we tried using that technique to repair the plumbing.

  • by troylanes (883822) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:13PM (#34539094)
    I've worked in the industry for the past 7 years or so -- most of the support calls that came in were related to the fact that the phone would not work indoors or in a car. People were really confused and often angry when you told them they need to be outside to make a call. This is small fact is one of the reasons, not to mention the cost, that satphone adoption has been stagnant.
    • by fpp (614761) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:25PM (#34539300)
      I second this. I also work in the industry and people generally don't know that not only do you have to be outside, but you have to have a clear line of sight to the sky and not be near obstructions like buildings. Also, the higher off the ground you are, or the higher the elevation, the better. Even in the best conditions, the call quality can vary as a satellite goes over the horizon and passes your call to another satellite. Also, satellite calls are very expensive, and the hand held units, although getting smaller (like the Iridium 9555 handset), are still bigger than a large cell phone.
      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        Why not use higher power to get over this limit?

        • Because the transmitter is way up there in orbit. And there's dozens of them. Good, steady work if you can get it, but the commute is a bitch. especially if there's no travel allowance.

        • Because more power means a much bigger phone, and the phone is already too damn big NOW.

        • rofl.

          I'm not sure if that's trolling or ignorance. The amount of power required on both ends is prohibative. Remember, power dissapation is a function of distance squared. You double the distance and you need 4 times as much power. I'm not sure how high those satellites are, but it's a lot more than the typical 2-3 miles you might have to your nearby cell tower. About the only way you can make it work is if you have a hybrid phone that makes 99% of its calls via a land based cell network. Sat phones f

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Um...why doesn't the sat phone provider build in a crappy little GSM/CDMA into the hand unit, and then gateway from the cell phone network into the sat phone (when needed, although I don't know why you'd do it that way). That way you can have your cake and eat it too, swapping from sat to cellphone as necessary.

        Also, if the sat phone providers were any way more business 'savvy', they'd way oversell the service like any internet/mobile phone provider anyhow. Charge $199 for the unit and make a monthly fee/su

    • Makes sense. GPS on my Droid works half the time when inside a 1 or 2 story building. Malls, parking garages, or anything with lots of concrete kills it without question.

    • by bhcompy (1877290) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:33PM (#34539418)
      Would be nice to do a hybrid system. Wifi(SIP) calls indoors, Sat outdoors/outside of Wifi coverage
      • There have been satellite/GSM hybrids in the past, which let you pay conventional cellphone prices with terrestrial latency when service was available, and use the satellite when you couldn't get GSM or when you were somewhere that roaming was even more expensive than satphone minutes.

    • by mjperson (160131)

      If that's the problem, and the phones themselves costs >$500 anyways, why not just put a cellphone chip in each one? If you are in a crowded metropolis, or a car, the phone uses the cell system, if you are in the woods, it uses satellites. Boom! Phone that works nigh-everywhere all the time.

      • by vlm (69642)

        why not just put a cellphone chip in each one?

        You can also increase your subscription revenue that way. That'll be $100/month for the cellphone and $200/month for the satphone.

    • Cant they make some sort of picocell (sp?) for these people? Leave it outside or in a window with view of the sky, and then use encrypted walkie-talkie tech to link the base station with the handset.
    • by dargaud (518470)

      People were really confused and often angry when you told them they need to be outside to make a call.

      Also THE main reason to get one is for use when you NEED to call outside of standard cell reception areas, for instance in mountian rescue operations. But for those satphones that use geosync sats (not Irridium), it means that you cannot be in the shadow of a north face (in the northern hemisphere). Another BIG DEADLY drawback.

      • by Altus (1034)

        Yea, but if the only people who buy these phones are the ones that regularly travel to the boonies, then it limits the market for the phone and the service. Since the satellites cost a lot, that means the service has to be brutally expensive which limits the number of people in the already small group who can afford it.

        The only way something like this is likely to be viable is if satellites get really cheep or if they are useful enough that you can market them to everyone everywhere, bringing the cost per

    • by Kabuthunk (972557)

      Now y'see, this confuses me. I must obviously be mistaken in my understanding, but my Garmin GPS recevier (GPSMap 60Cx) can ridiculously easily get a signal from inside of a car. Inside the apartment, actually initially getting a signal can be a bit rough... pointing it in the general direction of a window and giving it an extra minute tends to solve that though. Once it's GOT a signal, I've seen it somehow still manage to hold onto that signal in a room without windows whatsoever... no clue how the hell

  • by OdoylesRule (1765008) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:14PM (#34539108)
    Sat phones are trying to solve a problem that doesn't really exist. Most folks are ok with terrestrial cellular service. If they need wireless comms outside that service area, it exists... it's just expensive. For something to be affordable it has to be mass consumed, and the masses just don't need it.
    • by edremy (36408) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:30PM (#34539370) Journal
      Not just that, but the infrastructure you need to build is just staggeringly expensive. Cell towers are bad enough, but at least they're on earth and can be easily built and repaired. To get full satellite coverage of the earth, you either need a whole pile of satellites in LEO (Iridium uses 66 with several spares) or a couple massive ones with amazing antennas in GEO. Iridium's satellites are considered amazingly cheap, and they still run over $5 million each according to Wikipedia- that's $350 million just for the satellite hardware, and launch costs are going to triple that. Tack on running and replacement costs, the costs to design both them and the phones....

      I'm honestly amazed anyone bothers.

      • Yeah, but think of the cool on-site support calls to the sat.

      • by lee1026 (876806)

        That sounds expensive until you consider that AT&T just spent 18 billion to upgrade its system. 350 million sounds like chump by comparison.

        http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20101207-714727.html [wsj.com]

        • by metamatic (202216)
          The problem is, it's not one-time cost. Iridium satellites only last 7-9 years. So you're spending $44 million a year just on satellite launches, and the number of customers who actually need satellite phone service is pretty small.
        • by bertok (226922) on Monday December 13, 2010 @06:32PM (#34540194)

          It's not a direct comparison, AT&T-s network has a much higher aggregate capacity.

          The Iridium satellites can only handle 1100 concurrent phone calls each. While there are 66 active satellites, most of the coverage is over the poles because of their orbits, so the capacity over occupied land is much lower than one would think, probably below 10,000 concurrent calls. Each of those channels in turn is very narrow bandwidth, about 2400 bits per second, and uses heavy audio compression to make speech intelligible. This explains why Iridium plans are so expensive. They're not for "chatting", they're for professionals that need emergency communication in the middle of nowhere.

          The iPhone in my pocket has a higher bandwidth for a single connection than an entire Iridium satellite!

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            I used to buy Iridium service for $30 per month + per minute charges for the calls. If I made three minute data calls every other day or so to send/receive email (message size limited to 2k), it wasn't too expensive.
    • Sat phones are trying to solve a problem that doesn't really exist.

      I spend a significant amount of time in parts of the world where there are no cell towers. It is a problem that exists for me, and I am not unique.

      • This of it this way. How many cell phone users are there. Well lets see. A billion+? Those people have terrestrial cell phone networks, and it works fine.
        Now even if there are 100,000 people all over the world who need a Sat phone, its still 10,000 times less than cell phone users.
        So this is where economy of scale comes in.
        You can invest 1 billion dollars in cell phone network upgradation, and still make money, but 100 million spent in satellite phone tech and satellites will need prohibitingly expensive pl

    • by Andy Dodd (701)

      There are problems that exist, and some satphone manufacturers do better at trying to focus on those solutions.

      Inmarsat still seems pretty healthy, and they focus on two major market segments - maritime and aviation. Ships and aircraft are two situations where the exorbitant prices (and limitations) of satphones are justifiable.

      The other is the military - At least if you look at Wikipedia's citations, apparently DoD income represents about half of Iridium's revenue if I read it correctly. http://en.wikipe [wikipedia.org]

    • by gilesjuk (604902)

      The people doing the satellite phones should just stick up some cell phone masts in signal black spots and offer to rent service to all the other networks.

    • by symes (835608)
      So why don't they produce a hybrid? One that will work with the regular mobile network when it can, but has the option of satelite communications when you find yourself up a hill?
    • by CAIMLAS (41445)

      It's also not practical. People who are outside the bounds of a society that don't have wired or cellular service for phones likely do not have electricity, either, at this point in time.

      Aside from that, you've got very few groups that need/could use them:

      * government military
      * hikers/backpackers
      * explorers(%)
      * ... can't think of any more.

      What's more, the governments already has satellites in place for their own exclusive military/political needs, and backpackers/hikers have shortwave, CB, FRS, and I'm sure

  • by jpmorgan (517966) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:14PM (#34539122) Homepage

    Saying that the problem is 'debt' is just another way of saying that the value of the service over traditional cell networks isn't enough to outweigh the enormous initial investment required.

    Which makes sense. Satellites are enormously expensive and only a handful of people really get any benefit over a normal cell phone. For those who do find a benefit, there are more cost-effective ways of dealing with communication than launching dedicated satellites into orbit.

    • by QuantumG (50515) *

      umm.. the sat phones came before cell phones. So doesn't that make it a "traditional sat phone service"?

      • > umm.. the sat phones came before cell phones

        Who had birds up before Inmarsat? Because I'm pretty sure both Dokomo NTT and AT&T had cellular offerings before Inmarsat was installing voice phones in ships.

        • by vlm (69642)

          AMPS cellphones definitely first deployed in the US in 1983 (IMTS dates back to early 60s but you specifically stated cellular offerings)

          Inmarsat formed in 79 but its very unclear when they began service (beyond, obviously, after 1979)

  • by Anonymous Coward

    1. don't work indoors
    2. cost a lot more than cell phones that do work indoors, show real-time video, run apps. etc.

    Did I miss anything?

    • by RapmasterT (787426) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:16PM (#34539154)

      1. don't work indoors 2. cost a lot more than cell phones that do work indoors, show real-time video, run apps. etc.

      Did I miss anything?

      3. Doesn't have Twitter client

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by mcgrew (92797) *

        3. Doesn't have Twitter client

        That's a benefit, not a disadvantage! Twitter is for twits.

        • by dargaud (518470)
          Well, you are kidding, but that's mostly true. I've used a russian satphone while on expedition in the farthest reaches of the earth. When you are there you don't really need to call, unless in emergency (and in that case it's only to say goodbye). But you do want to post regular updates (be it email or web), but what data access you had was much worse than SMSs: 150 chars and you had to sync with the sat timing orbits. We later figured out that 9 out of 10 of our messages just went to the bit bucket.
  • It's because satellites are WAY too big to carry around as a phone. That's what SatPhone means, right?
  • by RapmasterT (787426) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:22PM (#34539256)
    Maybe I'm missing some subtleties, but "why can't they make it work" doesn't sound like a real question. It sounds like a literary device where the author asks himself a question that he can then answer, without having to sound like he's just sounding off on an obvious subject that everyone already understands.

    But if not, I can hazard a guess why sat phones haven't taken off. Cost. Putting satellites in orbit is exponentially more expensive than putting up terrestrial towers. It's always going to cost a LOT more than cell phones. Combine that with the fact that the market of people who NEED sat phones because cells aren't good enough is very small. So you end up with expensive infrastructure, plus very small user base, that equals enormous individual consumer expense.

    Anyone shocked by this revelation? anyone other than RedEaredSlider at least?
    • by icebike (68054)

      Not to mention the power requirements in the hand-held to reach a sat in a 475 mile high orbit has got to be way higher than reaching a cell tower 1 to 20 miles away.

      So in addition to the need to be outside, you have a short battery life, and the cost of calls is also high.

      For anyone in the North America this generally means the market is limited to off-shore boaters and a few places in the western US and far northern areas of Canada.

    • by lgw (121541)

      Putting satellites in orbit is exponentially more expensive than putting up terrestrial towers

      Please stop misusing that word.

      • by NoSig (1919688)
        Some people just could care exponentially less about what they are saying. :P That battle is lost; the only way to win is for you to care as little about them sounding like idiots as they do.
  • by sureshot007 (1406703) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:23PM (#34539274)
    I've looked into buying a pair of sat phones and using them for communication when in the forest/mountains. I would be more than happy to make that initial investment for the phones if I could buy minutes that don't expire in 30 days. I would only need the phones 2-3 times a year. It's the cost to use them that really hurts. Think of the number of people that would buy one if the minutes either never expired, or you could pay as you go. I can think of a bunch of people that would love one in case of emergency, but don't want too have to pay a monthly fee for something they will never use.
  • so lets see. Thuraya phones usually have a cell phone mode as well, the are small and reliable - Iridium phones also are small and some have integrated GSM phones as well - in my experience they work well, they could be cheaper but they do work.

  • I love a story that answers it's own question. No need to click and read, move along.

    headline / question
    SatPhones — Why Can't They Make It Work?

    answer
    it carries a $799 price tag.

  • by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:27PM (#34539328) Homepage Journal

    Look at the downside.
    1. They will not work inside or in a car.
    2. Cost.
    The upside is they will work in places that don't have cell coverage which are now few and far between.
    The use case is limited and the cost to put up satellites is high. Not only that but satellites just can not support as many users as cell sites+fiber.
    The math only works out for things like ships, trains, aircraft over the ocean, news organisations, military, spies, aircraft, and scientists. Even the phones on planes tend to use ground towers because of cost.
    They reason why the struggle is so simple. Small user base plus high deployment costs equals not a great market.

    • The upside is they will work in places that don't have cell coverage which are now few and far between.

      In the Western World holes in cell coverage are "far and few between", but thare are indeed MANY parts of the world that are still cell-tower-free.

      • by LWATCDR (28044)

        Really?
        Exactly where do you have a lot of people without cell towers and the money to pay for satellite phones?
        I will even take the wealth part out. Where do you have a lot of people and no cell towers.
        Almost universally everyplace with a lot of people has cell coverage.
        "Cuba and North Korea do not count because.. well let's not be stupid the government would never allow satellite phones."

      • I don't think I would even go that far. There a plenty of places in the US for example that have no cell coverage at all. Granted they are all in pretty rural areas but the exist nonetheless and are usually large areas.
      • by Zan Lynx (87672)

        In the Western World holes in cell coverage are "far and few between"

        It's funny that you bring up the Western World as an example of good cell coverage because in the Western United States (Idaho, western Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Montana, the Dakotas), much of the land area has no cell coverage and even the areas that do claim cell coverage are very spotty. That's what you get when there's one tower in 20 miles and there happens to be a hilly spot between you and the tower.

    • by CAIMLAS (41445)

      The math only works out for things like ships, trains, aircraft over the ocean, news organisations, military, spies, aircraft, and scientists. Even the phones on planes tend to use ground towers because of cost.

      Ships, trains, and even aircraft can use shortwave radios, too. The same goes for all the others you mentioned - and these are tried and true tools which work well, despite inclement weather.

  • Isn't it obvious? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:27PM (#34539334) Journal
    While their cost in strict $/km^2 terms might actually be pretty reasonable, satellites are a pretty horrid form of infrastructure in most other respects. Maintenance is difficult, launches are costly and don't always go well, latency is inherently bad, capacity is low, signal strength can be an issue and so forth.

    Therefore, anywhere with more than a relatively low density of people who aren't penniless and living in their own filth and an absence of militias blowing up cell towers with impunity already likely has a superior GSM network of some sort.

    Satellite has its niches, they just aren't big enough to spread the fixed costs, thus making calls extremely expensive, which doesn't make the niche any bigger. At present, the only reason they exist at all is that foolish investors took a huge bath on the project and then the corpse was snapped up for pennies on the dollar(almost certainly just so that the CIA could continue to chat with their BFFs in assorted hellholes without interruption).
  • The technology is expensive for the company to set up, it's also expensive for the user, and it provides a very niche service: ability to call people from the middle of nowhere, and from nowhere else.

    If you're anywhere even relatively civilized there are cell towers that are much cheaper and convenient, and buildings inside which the tech doesn't work. If you do happen to be in the middle of nowhere you're either one of the 20 people working at some research station on the north pole or similar location, or

  • by mcsqueak (1043736) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:30PM (#34539372)

    The only people I see this of being a real use for, in any quantities making it worthwhile to pursue, is the military market, with researchers that operate in very remote areas being a smaller secondary market.

    Who else is really going to be away from a traditional cellular network for long enough to need such a phone, outside of military and research folks? It just doesn't seem like a reasonable product for 99.9% of the population.

    • by tsa (15680)

      Biological researchers, sailors, adventurers, cavemen...

    • by dltaylor (7510)

      Most of the geographical western United States is outside of cell phone coverage.

      Ranchers, farmers, and highway construction/maintenance workers could all use a reliable means of communication when not "in the big city". If there's ever a service that will live long enough and that has a combined sat/cell pay-as-you-go plan, I'll be in it.

      BTW, it's nonsense that satellite coverage costs too much to set up, relative to cell phones. It's just that they don't have the overpriced monopoly land-line business t

    • by bcrowell (177657)
      Two other markets are backpackers and boaters. However, people in those markets generally don't have a need to yak on the phone, they just have a need to be able to get help in an emergency. That's why PLB [wikipedia.org] and SPOT [wikipedia.org] exist. (But an awful lot of people misuse these systems as well, expecting to get helicoptered out of situations that they could have avoided or gotten themselves out of.)
  • They work just fine.

    Christ, my 10-year Kyocera handset still works like a charm on the Iridium network. It even still holds a half-decent charge!

    Using one is pretty basic

    10 PEEK up
    20 IF you cannot see the sky THEN GOTO some place where you can
    30 DO make phone call WHILE patiently accounting for propagation delay in conversation
    40 END

  • by tsa (15680) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:36PM (#34539474) Homepage

    $799,- is just a bit more than a SIM-lock free iPhone costs. So the price is most probably not the problem.

  • --Massive launch costs (where do you think the debt came from?)

    --Inverse square law, aka "Your base station is a helluva long way away, Pt. 1". Making a convenient hand held device that can get enough signal from something in orbit to maintain the required data speeds is not easy

    --Lightspeed delays, aka "Your base station is a helluva long way away, Pt. 2" You get two choices. Near earth orbit, which means you have delays that are only slightly irritating and you have to launch a lot of satellites (see p

  • "...especially when it carries a $799 price tag."

    Didn't this story answer itself with this last line?

    Besides, the women I saw at the grocery store last week isn't going to pay this kind of money to yell into a sat phone about her husbands vasectomy. Oh wait, it won't work in the grocery store anyhow. Now that I think about it, all phones should be sat phones.

  • by dara (119068) on Monday December 13, 2010 @06:13PM (#34539976)

    I work in the aerospace industry and though I haven't been involved closely with any of the major programs (Iridium, Globalstar, TerreStar, SkyTerra, ...), I'm familiar with Thuraya which is apparently making a profit (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thuraya). As others have said, satellites cost a lot of money, and many large systems were thought up anticipating a given customer base and willingness to pay for monthly charge and minutes that just wasn't there by the time the systems were operational (I believe this was due to mis-predicting cellular network penetration).

    At this point, I don't know if any non-GEO systems will be profitable in the future. GEO satellites are really expensive, but at least you only need 1 (with a spare) to server a pretty big market (like the Middle East, parts of Europe and Africa). The bummer about GEO though is in addition to latency, you may not have coverage in many situations (high latitude, obstruction from hills, trees, etc.). What I'd like to see is a LEO network with satellites as cheap as possible that provide store and forward text/data messages only. Orbital Sciences tried to get this market with ORBCOMM (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbcomm), but I don't think their market ended up as big as they hoped for either. What you really need is just about every cell phone on the planet carrying the hardware needed to interface with the satellite (which means it has to be a small and cheap addition to standard phones). Then every user can opt to use the satellite system to receive or send email or text messages when outside of the terrestrial network (when you are willing to pay extra). I would think this is a fair amount of money to capture, but I haven't done any estimates. It would fit my customer pattern perfectly since I normally wouldn't want to pay a monthly fee, but I'd probably send a few 1 dollar emails if the situation required it. Whether the world aggregate demand is in the 100s of millions of dollars for revenue per year is the question.

  • by hawguy (1600213) on Monday December 13, 2010 @06:13PM (#34539980)

    "Why Can't They Make It Work?" was answered in TFA. Satellite phone service is capital intensive and has a small market.

    In many industries you make up for capital costs by increasing the size of the market, but you can't easily do that with sat-phones. There are real constraints both in the number of satellites (there are more than 200,000 cell towers in the USA -- Iridium has 66 satellites to cover the globe) and in bandwidth. AT&T can use the same cell frequencies across the USA because they know that phones associated with a particular tower won't cause interference with those same frequencies a few miles away. (ok, CDMA and other spread spectrum technologies makes this more complicated but the same theory applies - there is a limited to how many users you can handle within a particular frequency band). A single satellite covers a huge area - whereas a cell site may cover a few square miles (or less), a satellite may cover many thousands of square miles.

    Even if you could physically launch 100,000 satellites to give global satellite coverage and carefully tune their antennas to minimize overlap, unless you can find a geosynchronous orbit to park them in to concentrate coverage over populated areas, each satellite would still cover 2000 square miles or territory.

  • by jberg712 (1958276) on Monday December 13, 2010 @06:15PM (#34540000)
    For someone who lives out in the boonie's, this may be the only solution for those who need some form of communication. Very few places who can't receive cellular service, cable, dsl, etc, have to rely on the satellite service. As many of us who have ever had to work with Hughsnet or any other satellite internet service... well it blows! The reason they are not as successful as cable and dsl is because of the cost of the service, the quality is poor (by poor I mean it fluctuates from time to time), not to mention they all use this fair use bandwidth limiter that once you exceed a certain bandwidth, they take away the high speed and leave you with the bandwidth of a 14.4k datafax modem. Think XM/Sirius satellite radio. Think of Direct TV and Dish Network. Satellite phones work similar to how we get our XM radio or DirectTV. My XM satellite radio goes out everytime I enter the parking garage or go through a tunnel. And DirectTV gets flakey during a storm. The reason hughsnet stays in business is partly because of people who live out in the middle of nowhere. There are no other options for them. If hughsnet was able to increase the quality of their service, reduce rates, and remove the whole fair use bandwidth policy, they might be able to compete with cable/dsl. Same with the satellite phone. Now it may be much cheaper to put up a cell phone tower as opposed to launching a satellite in orbit, but i have yet to see anything that makes the satellite phones any better than cellular phones as far as reliability. Now that I can walk into an elevator and still talk on the phone, I wouldn't want to have to go back to saying "hold on, i'm walking in an elevator. I'll call you back" because of reduced quality.
  • Is sat phone ownership illegal in China, Iran, etc.? More to the point, do the sat phone providers cooperate with the countries where the calls originate from (block calls, turn over records, etc.)?

    I imagine fast-cheap-discreet-and-out-of-control sat phone service (not to mention fast-cheap-discreet-and-out-of-control sat internet service) would be a headache to many of the world's republics. Is such a service physically feasible, like "millions of simultaneous users" feasible?

    .
  • by WoTG (610710) on Monday December 13, 2010 @06:19PM (#34540044) Homepage Journal

    I have some friends who have rent sat-phones to go hiking in remote areas. It's amazing for peace of mind. They actually used it last year after being cut-off from the road by a storm. They were able to use the phone to notify relatives that they'd be late a couple days.

    But the # of people who need this is relatively small compared to the immense cost of satellites. Of course, the biggest users of sat phones aren't the occasional hikers. I think it's the government and resource extraction sectors, e.g. mining firms.

    I wonder, could someone launch a SMS only satellite service based on only a few geo-sync satellites rather than the 66 (!) that Iridium launched? With texting only, the extra lag and a few dropped packets don't matter (as long as it re-sends them later).

  • It goes like: "These phones work everywhere" or "These phones work where there's no other signal"

    Let that second one sink in for a moment, by itself it's almost breathtakingly salespeakish.

    Then the truth:

    "not only do you have to be outside, but you have to have a clear line of sight to the sky and not be near obstructions like buildings

    So they DON'T work EVERYHERE. I'll not bother to ask them to work underwater. Just working where my cell phone does not would be cool, but that won't be in my living room.

    W

  • It costs billions of dollars to create a satellite constellation.
    It costs hundreds of millions per year to maintain a satellite constellation.
    Most people are far better served by cellular.
    The phones themselves are bulky, and the power output necessary would induce (more) RF-hysteria in (more) idiots.
    There is a vapor-trail of bankrupt sat-phone companies which have taught the lesson to potential investors.

    In other words, the cost people are willing to pay is far less than what it costs to provide the s

  • which costs the same as a sat phone, but with no ongoing call costs, will probably do better than a sat phone anyway - especially with the latest digital technologies. Even some of the less recent digital modes eg psk31 are probably better than sat phones in physical conditions that block sat phones, such as under forest cover. Unfortunately there are no (to my knowledge anyway) cheap/free digital voice modes available for HF radio and mere mortals yet.
  • The traditional utility model is not being used. The companies are not operating like a traditional utility and they want to recoup the investment to fast. But if they deployed a multi-billion dollar earth spanning network and then had a service plan that was competitive to terrestial cell-tower based service, or partnered with a terrestrial provider (to lessen satellite loads) then they could offer subsidized phones at competive rates for longer term contract commitments, especially if they open the phone

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