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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 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.

  • 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
  • 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 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).

  • 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?

  • Mobile stellite phones have *never* used geosynchronous to the best of my knowledge. The transmission power needed to hit a satellite that far away without a directional antenna is too great, and a directional antenna isn't an option on something the size of a 10-years-ago cell phone.

    There are geosync communication satellites and specialized "phones" that relay through them, but those are generally fairly stationary or even "installations" rather than something you can hold in one hand, and walk around freely while using.

Whenever a system becomes completely defined, some damn fool discovers something which either abolishes the system or expands it beyond recognition.

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