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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 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 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 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 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.
  • 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).
  • 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) 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.

  • Re:Let's see... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:36PM (#34539482) Homepage Journal

    3. Doesn't have Twitter client

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

  • by The Grim Reefer2 (1195989) on Monday December 13, 2010 @05:49PM (#34539676)

    "...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 Anonymous Coward on Monday December 13, 2010 @06:12PM (#34539972)

    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/super expensive phone packages.

  • 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.
  • by abarrow (117740) on Monday December 13, 2010 @06:16PM (#34540016) Homepage

    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 John.Banister (1291556) * on Tuesday December 14, 2010 @05:11AM (#34544088) Homepage
    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.

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