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AT&T Introduces Satellite-Enabled Smart Phone 140

Posted by timothy
from the each-bit-is-gold-plated dept.
crimeandpunishment writes "Here's one way to deal with spotty cell phone coverage: backstop the network on a satellite. AT&T is now selling its first satellite-enabled smart phone....which could be invaluable for boaters, forest rangers, and others who regularly leave regular cellular coverage areas. But the TerreStar Genus comes with a hefty price tag: $799.....and the data costs are as sky-high as the satellite....400 times more than a standard plan. It also has to have a clear view of the southern sky, which means it can only be used outdoors."
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AT&T Introduces Satellite-Enabled Smart Phone

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  • Does it come pre-encrusted in diamonds or not? :p
  • As long as someone else pays the bill...like the government (ie forest ranger)
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by catmistake (814204)

      As long as someone else pays the bill...like the government (ie forest ranger)

      I don't mean to pick, and basically agree with you... but, presumably, forest rangers work in a forest. Forget cell, it doesn't go through trees... and if you have a view of the southern sky, you're probably in a desert not a forest. Forest rangers need good RF, not cell or satellite. I speak, of course, without knowing anything about which I speak.

      • by tibit (1762298) on Wednesday September 22, 2010 @09:04AM (#33660994)

        The "clear view" of sourthern sky is not necessarily so. Maybe if you were in a tropical forest, you'd have a problem. A standard pine forest does attenuate things, but pine needles aren't leaves. I've used Iridium for a bit and I've never ever had a situation where a satphone connection wouldn't work on the ground, but would work above the tops of the pines. Terrestar uses way better space segment, with comparatively colossal beamforming, so I'd expect it to work much better than Iridium did.

        In the U.S., detached residential construction is basically relatively dry plywood with a wire or a pipe here and there, and with some bitumic shingles on the roof. Unless the shingles are the dealbreaker, I'd expect GENUS to work just fine indoors in a regular home. In commercial buildings -- sure, there will be problems, perhaps a bit more like there are with cellphone reception there.

        As for cellphones in forests: assuming that the forest is well within a covered area, the trees should pose no problem. You always get attenuation from something. Trees, walls, rebar -- somehow my cellphone works just fine in a building with extruded corrugated steel roof (big seamless sections), and with reinforced concrete walls, at ground level.

        Forests in remote areas simply may suffer from generally poor coverage, where the trees just make a marginal situation unworkable. But the trees aren't the main problem, the coverage is. And that's where GENUS steps in: you have poor land-based coverage, so it'll switch to the space segment.

        I've been tracking Terrestar's PR quite closely, and they seem to be quite good at what they do. Their space segment is unique, and so far I have no reason to distrust their engineering. They cover their asses, but from what little experience I have, I'd expect GENUS to pretty much "just work" anywhere within the northern U.S., even in the middle of nowhere, Utah.

      • by jandrese (485)
        It may shock you to hear this, but there are places in forests where you can get a view of the sky, and typically foliage fade is manageable unless you're in a tropic rainforest anyway.
      • by hughk (248126)
        Depends on the forest. Some have very good coverage, such as Malaysia and Finland. Forestry workers used to use VHF with repeaters on the Fire towers.
  • by poptones (653660) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @10:00PM (#33658102) Journal

    Why hasn't someone created a device like this that uses the widely available direcway/blue sky technology? Given the maximum per channel bandwidth and the relatively small needs of a voice communication device it seems like a fairly low power device should be able to function with acceptable psnr.

    • by Gazoogleheimer (1466831) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @10:06PM (#33658156) Homepage
      because Iridium has -- for a bit over a decade.
      • uh no (Score:4, Interesting)

        by poptones (653660) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @10:49PM (#33658454) Journal
        Iridium uses its own network of satellites. Iridium is expensive. A direcway subscription is like 60 bucks a month with about 600MB a day allotment. Seems they could partner with a phone provider to offer a 10MB a day channel for a pretty low fee, what's needed is a means of accessing the technology.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by MoonBuggy (611105)

          I don't know about this tech specifically, but I'm thinking perhaps they need a decent sized parabolic dish rather than a phone antenna to provide an acceptable signal.

          • Re:uh no (Score:5, Informative)

            by DarthBart (640519) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @11:28PM (#33658656)

            Irridium has the advantage of being in low earth orbit versus Direcway's geosynchronous orbit. The path loss between a 250ish mile orbit and a 22,500 mile orbit is a hefty number of dB.

            Assuming both systems At 2Ghz, it is 150dB at 250 miles and 190db at 22,500 miles. That 40db difference either has to be made up in raw transmit power at both ends or by using a 5.3m dish antenna.

            • Re:uh no (Score:4, Informative)

              by TheRaven64 (641858) on Wednesday September 22, 2010 @06:36AM (#33660160) Journal
              The loss isn't the only problem. There's also the question of latency. A geosynchronous orbit is an altitude of 36,000km above sea level at the equator, meaning that a signal has to go at least 72,000km there and back. To put that in perspective, that's just under 0.25 light seconds. This means that if both endpoints are directly under the satellite, the minimum latency is 0.25 seconds. In practical terms, encoding, decoding, and routing at the other end will add a bit, making it absolutely horrible for bidirectional communication. When you have a minimum of half a second round trip time, you're going to be constantly interrupting each other because you both start talking when you think there is a pause in the conversation and don't find out that there wasn't until half a second later.
              • by mrops (927562)

                That is why I have been saying spend more money on subspace communication R&D.

              • by DarthBart (640519)

                Not true. I've run many voip calls across geosync links, and despite the lag time, conversations can flow quite nicely.

                Going through two geosync links, now that just gets ugly.

              • There are successful GEO based satphone systems. While i'm sure latency is annoyingit is something people can learn to live with. Especially when that task at hand is important information rather than idle conversation (and at current prices few people will be doing idle communication on a satphone)

                LEO systems have several problems. They are horribly expensive since they need huge numbers of satelites and end up with basically uniform coverage of the planet rather than coverage density varying with demand (

    • Satellite phones predate even Iridium (as mentioned by the other followup).. Iridium was a new way of marketing the technology to be more acceptable (which ultimately failed spectacularly) (and also significantly improving the handset form-factor), but I remember using a suitcase sat phone in the early 90s.

    • by DarthBart (640519) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @11:12PM (#33658580)

      The links just won't close. I don't have the exact numbers I'd need to do a link budget, but the Direcway links are engineered for a Ku link with a .9m dish on the ground and a 3-4m dish on the spacecraft, with the ground transmitting at 2-4 watts. The TerreStar satellite has an 18m dish on the satellite. That's a crapload more gain. TerreStar also uses a 2Ghz link which is also virtually unaffected by weather.

      Also keep in mind that generating sufficient output power at Ku frequencies is extremely inefficient. A Direcway 4W BUC amplifier draws about 50 watts out of its power supply. I doubt your average cell phone's battery can tolerate that.

      • by DarthBart (640519)

        The other issue is this: The direcway uplink bands are on frequencies shared with other uplinks on other satellites. Interference isn't a problem because each customer uplink dish is precisely aimed at the satellite and the antenna's beamwidth is such that there is no interference to adjacent satellites. Imagine the insanity of one person on the satphone to his stock broker, pacing back and forth, his uplink beam spattering all over the sky.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by MasseKid (1294554)
        The 2Ghz link is nice for being unaffected by weather, however you're going to need a very large dish or a huge SSPA/HPA to get enough output. Remembering that beam width varies linearly with frequency, a ~40Ghz Ka band is going to start at 13dB more gain from a similar dish verses a low end S band signal. One of the reasons it takes such a huge dish on the satellite. Now, my quick math is putting an 18m beamwidth at only .58 degrees at 2ghz. That's hardly enough to cover all of America, and in fact the
    • by Burdell (228580)

      HughesNet (the former DirecWay) uses satellite(s) in a geostationary orbit, over 22,000 miles above the equator. That results in a significant delay (round trip of almost half a second), which makes regular voice conversations impractical. The satellite phone systems like Iridium use a whole constellation of satellites in low-Earth orbit to avoid the big delay, but running a large number of satellites and ground stations costs a whole lot more (so the service costs a whole lot more).

      • by 0123456 (636235)

        HughesNet (the former DirecWay) uses satellite(s) in a geostationary orbit, over 22,000 miles above the equator. That results in a significant delay (round trip of almost half a second), which makes regular voice conversations impractical.

        Uh, I've made many calls via geostationary satellites and while the delay is mildly annoying, it's far from impractical.

      • As others have said, a geostationary satellite isn't a problem for voice comms. I've made calls over satellite to the south Pacific -- there's a minor lag. You can carry on a conversation using voice, via EME (Earth-Moon-Earth) with the right equipment, if you're willing to put up with the distortion and doppler shift.
  • by cosm (1072588)
    All the better to track you my pretty.
    • by markdavis (642305)

      You can already be tracked, with good accuracy, when carrying ANY cell phone that is "on". And the big issue is that those records can be (and might be) stored.

      • by jonbryce (703250)

        In England they are stored. I know this because they were used to prove that a murder suspect wasn't at the scene of the murder, which meant he was found not guilty.

  • Texting (Score:3, Interesting)

    by timeOday (582209) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @10:08PM (#33658180)
    Voice via satellite is still too expensive; instead they should offer satellite texting at a reasonable price. At least then you're still connected.
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      SMS sucks. Why not email? Latency and bandwidth wouldn't be issues.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by timeOday (582209)

        SMS sucks. Why not email?

        I agree completely. Why somebody felt compelled to invent a bastardized version of email in the first place is beyond me.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by hedwards (940851)
          It was for testing purposes, it's just that somebody later had the brilliant idea that people would pay for it.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          For extremely brief messages, SMS is faster and the recipient doesn't need to have their chat or email client open. As long as their phone is on, they'll get the message. This is useful for messages like, "Answer your goddamn phone. We need to talk now!" or "I'm watching you sleep."

        • Re:Texting (Score:4, Funny)

          by TooMuchToDo (882796) on Wednesday September 22, 2010 @12:37AM (#33658966)

          Because it was super-easy to bolt on to the status channel and it can be sold at a high margin? My god! I've invented business!

        • by c0lo (1497653)

          Why somebody felt compelled to invent a bastardized version of email in the first place is beyond me.

          (hmmm... question of a fresher in this world... a better wording would be pre-dates you)
          A dose of history [wikipedia.org]... see where the SMS originated (when the gadgets weren't connected to the internet. Heck, when the Internet was something that DARPA and a bunch of universities used - 9600 BITS/s was quite decent at the time).

        • quote>

          SMS sucks. Why not email?

          I agree completely. Why somebody felt compelled to invent a bastardized version of email in the first place is beyond me.

          Yes, God forbid the rich get richer at the expense of the not so rich. But how do we stop it?

        • Uhm. Because it was invented at a time when a constant internet connection was prohibitively expensive land-based, or downright unavailable on many cell networks?
    • Re:Texting (Score:5, Interesting)

      by timeOday (582209) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @10:16PM (#33658242)
      PS the article says texts are "40 cents each, only four times the piece rate for cell phone." That's way too much, just as 10 cents for a regular text is a complete ripoff. 40 cents each works out to around $3000/MB, whereas (non-texting) satellite data on the same phone costs $5/MB [fiercewireless.com]. It really makes me wonder how they come up with these prices.
      • Still, it's a text that goes to space and comes back! Of course, I'd buy one text like that and not send any more.

      • Re:Texting (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Charliemopps (1157495) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @10:45PM (#33658434)
        Because people pay it.
      • It really makes me wonder how they come up with these prices.

        Some prices are derived based on market and financial models. Others (and I've seen this first hand) is someone in a meeting throwing a number on a whiteboard and someone else saying "That works, we'll try it at that price".

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by genik76 (1193359)
        Why should things be priced based on their actual cost to the provider? It makes much more sense to demand a price, which maximizes the profit. If you decide to use the service, it's obviously worth the price and both parties have gained something from the transaction.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by shentino (1139071)

          If there was actually a bit of competition in the area I'd be satisfied with that explanation.

          But when a long term contract means I'm locked into whatever they see fit to hide in the fine print, I'm not exactly at liberty to take my business elsewhere, now am I?

        • In economics professor land what you say is true.

          In the real world, people get upset and offended when they discover that the price differential between what they paid for something and what it cost to make is too large. It's not economically rational, it's just human nature.

      • by Splab (574204)

        You can't compare those technologies.

        SMS is using the signalling service within the GSM network, this is a very limited technology and can't easily be upgraded, thus you pay way more than for the technology where you can offload to a separate link.

      • by StikyPad (445176)

        It really makes me wonder how they come up with these prices.

        Because items (and services) don't have inherent values. They're worth whatever someone's willing to pay. That said, the ability to receive and transmit data to and from a dynamic remote location can be priceless.

    • Re:Texting (Score:4, Insightful)

      by DarthBart (640519) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @11:38PM (#33658696)

      In my experience with satellite phone users, there's two types:

      1) The guys who are going camping way out in the middle of Nowhere. They wont use their phone unless someone is dying. At that point, I don't think they care about per-minute costs. Usually, those folks have bought $50-100 prepaid airtime cards.

      2) Businessmen who need to be in contact with home base no matter what. That includes oil/gas industries, or senior-level executives. The folks in accounting get the bill and the end user just knows to dial, press send, and then carry on.

      Source: Me, having to provide sales & support services to Irridium and INMARSAT users.

      • Don't forget the "ran out of bug spray, call Search and Rescue" prima donnas with too much dollars and not enough sense.
        • I loathe people like that. There should be hefty fines, and organized public mocking of people who pull that kind of crap.
      • I fit in to the first category. If I'm flying my GA aircraft somewhere without cell service, the Iridium phone and my prepaid card are coming with. If something critical or life threatening is happening, I care not about the minutes cost. I would love if my Nexus One had an Iridium chipset on board (would've paid for it as well).

  • by zymurgy_cat (627260) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @10:09PM (#33658184) Homepage
    See? I was right all along. I'm gonna make millions on this, I tell you, millions! This will totally make up for my Iridium investment....I can feel it.
  • Doesn't matter if it's satellite enabled or not, you're probably not going to have the patience to make a call!
  • by Charles Dodgeson (248492) <jeffrey@goldmark.org> on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @10:38PM (#33658388) Homepage Journal

    In the late the late 80s, Motorola had a scheme to launch 77 LEO satellites to provide global satellite coverage. I thought it was a great idea at the time, and bought a bunch of Motorola stock. It didn't work out very well. They eventually launched 66 satellites, but didn't change the name of the project to whatever has atomic number 66.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iridium_satellite_constellation [wikipedia.org]

    • And Iridium is still working. After the original company went bankrupt, all the assets got scooped up for 25 million (a bargain!) and now the company is happily making money. They're even planning on the next set of sats to replace the current generation as they start to age/fail. There is still a market for these devices, though most of the time its people/groups renting out units for a month or two instead of continuous subscription. Though I'm sure there are some mining/gas exploration companies and the
      • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @11:39PM (#33658704)

        The US government loves it. They are a major customer. No surprise, they have people operating in areas that have shit cell coverage and they want to maintain communication.

        • The US gov isn't just a major customer. They are *the largest customer*. You get that status when you get your own Iridium downlink station. =) At the prices they pay for service, it might just make sense for them to buy out Iridium.

          • by Animats (122034) on Wednesday September 22, 2010 @02:35AM (#33659430) Homepage

            At the prices they pay for service, it might just make sense for them to buy out Iridium.

            Essentially, they did. When Iridium was about to go under and the satellites were days from being de-orbited, DoD bought into the system at a bargain price. This turned out to be extremely useful once the US got entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan. Originally, DoD bought unlimited airtime for 10,000 users. Now they're past 100,000 DoD users. Iridium overall has about 360,000 users.

            It's the thing to have if you need to communicate from Outer Nowhere. Works anywhere on the planet that you can see the sky. Airtime is about $1 to $2 a minute, and phones are about $1500. A roll-up solar panel is a common accessory. The typical user drives a HUMMV, a yacht, or a dogsled.

    • by cute-boy (62961)

      Just look on ebay to see how well Iridium phones hold their value. There's probably a growing market for them in Australia.

      Iridium even have spare satellites they can manouvre into position to replace broken ones. and with the latest phone, easy access to a 9,600bps data service by plugging your phone into a USB port, which is good enough to access your email if you use a remote text client such as Mutt, Pine, etc.Their 2,400 data connection. And their low orbit satellite constellation provides true global

    • by jo_ham (604554)

      That would be "Dysprosium" - just doesn't have the same ring to it.

      Get it? Ring?! I'm here all week, please try the fish.

  • 799? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @10:40PM (#33658400)

    799 is a hefty price for a gadget?? remind me how much nexus was going for on google site? and with regards to data costing 400 time more - excuse moi, i don't know where are you from, but here in canada rogers beats any satellite plan hands down.

    • Yes, 800 USD is about the first ten minutes of a search and rescue operation. Put one aircraft in the air and you have spent that much money.

      • by MoonBuggy (611105)

        True, but I'd suggest that the SAR guys want the money to go on a ruggedised basic call/text model rather than a smartphone which has a lot more to go wrong in both hardware and software.

        It seems to me that they're marketing it as a satellite phone that's good for every day use - problem is, if you're in the niche that needs a satellite phone then you probably don't have the same everyday needs as your average businessman.

    • The HP-65 calculator I received for HS graduation in 1974 was the same price.
      100 programming steps, 10 registers, mag card reader/writer and numeric LED display.
      I finally traded it for a S-100 memory card. A friend later picked it up from the buyer.
      It's his most treasured calculator to this day. Bastard!

  • It's not the first time a phone company has tried to sell combined satellite-terrestrial phones. Sprint Nextel Corp. sold Iridium phones in 1999, and Airtouch, a predecessor of Verizon Wireless, sold Globalstar phones a year a later.

    So this has been done before

    "Neither of them had any meaningful success because there just wasn't mass market demand for the phones," said Tim Farrar, a satellite industry consultant.

    It crashed and burned

    Hill said the Genus is a different breed, because it can be used a main phone, with most of the conveniences expected from smart phones, without the bulk of a traditional satellite phone. The cost to include the satellite option is also coming down, which means the feature could show up in more, and cheaper, phones in the near future, he said.

    But this is different, because you can use it like a normal phone, only it's -really- expensive. However, a cheaper option may be available in the future. Someone needs to be fired. No one wanted to pay $5/meg before, and no one wants to pay $5/meg now. I don't care if it has a built in keyboard and calendar. Come back when you have the the cheaper future version.

    • by cute-boy (62961)

      If was living, working or travelling in a remote region with not other coverage, and you've just had a major accident, and need an air ambulance, or even just a recovery truck to get me and my car home, I'd be really happy I'd got a device like that!

      -R

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by TheRaven64 (641858)
      The point is that no one wants to use an Iridium phone as their primary phone, because it's insanely expensive. No one wants to take an Iridium phone with them in case they go out of the coverage area. On the other hand, if you find yourself in the middle of nowhere where there is no mobile phone signal, then you might decide that it's worth paying $5/minute to be able to make a call.
  • They should be selling a PicoCell that relays to the satellite with priority going to land based cell towers. Then don't charge for access. This way, it would be a lot harder to NOT rationalize putting one in your car. What is $600 added to the price of your car to know that you will always have coverage. With the current plan, there is no way I would ever user their service. I simply could not rationalize the price. If I already had the service, and only had to worry about minute charges, I just migh
  • Southern sky from what part of the planet?

    Frikking Northernhepisphereocentrics.

  • If you're going charge 800 fucking dollars for a phone your could atleast load it up with a better OS than Windows Mobile 6.5 (can I say EW!).
  • At 40 cents a minute, it is way cheaper than all other Sat phones, and would be great for marine use.

    Too bad they will only target the US, that leaves any cruising boats out of the picture once they venture away from the shores of the US (_sigh_).

  • AT&T are full of it! Instead of improving their network, they are busy doing this stuff. Where's the leadership?

  • But...if it has the power to go like 60 miles up through the ionosphere (I assume but don't actually remember how far up that is) and hit a satellite, it'll probably melt your freaking face off with radiation. Or more realistically at least give you like 100x the dose of radiation compared to a normal cell phone. Sounds kinda scary.
  • I was told that what killed Iridium was the local Telecom laws.

    Originally Iridium was going to bounce international calls directly satellite to satellite, but the local Telecoms screamed blue-murder so Iridium was forced to put ground-stations in each country and use conventional international links. So the cost of calls went way up.

    It gets worse, it also means using multiple synchronous satellite links, so it has long time delays.

    I don't really know, but it does sounds convincing.

    • by tgd (2822)

      I bet all the people working at Iridium would like to know they've been killed.

      How unfortunate.

  • Anyone complaining about the cost is missing the point of this phone. Satellite mode is not for idle chatter. It's for essential weather/safety/navigation/professional needs. And perhaps brief family communication such as when to expect you home. I would expect boaters to lease this just for the trip rather than purchase their own $800 device. All in all AT&T should be able to sell the service even for 5x rate with the right marketing.

  • $5 per megabyte is actually a bargain compared to, say, the AT&T international roaming data rate of $19.97 per megabyte, as illustrated here [araneus.fi].
  • Offtopic: Am I the only one getting a Bussiness Software Alliance anti piracy ad on top?

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