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SatPhones — Why Can't They Make It Work?

Soulskill posted more than 3 years ago | from the carrying-around-the-dish-is-hard-work dept.

Businesses 337

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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Yeah, but it comes with cool perks (2, Funny)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 3 years ago | (#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."

Re:Yeah, but it comes with cool perks (1)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539128)

Like the NSA doesn't have an archive of or at least keyword search every call we make on cell phones.

Re:Yeah, but it comes with cool perks (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539416)

Dude, this is slashdot. We don't do bars, and the only way to get close to a classy girl is to download a wallpaper of Quorra...

Re:Yeah, but it comes with cool perks (2)

zill (1690130) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539588)

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?

Re:Yeah, but it comes with cool perks (1)

MrQuacker (1938262) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539766)

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:Yeah, but it comes with cool perks (1, Insightful)

abarrow (117740) | more than 3 years ago | (#34540016)

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?"

Do they still use geostationary satellites? (1)

alfredos (1694270) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539076)

That carries a huge delay penalty, which lowers the quality of a conversation significantly.

Re:Do they still use geostationary satellites? (5, Informative)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539156)

Iridium satellites are at 475 miles, not geo sync

Why Can't They Make It Work? (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539082)

cause ya cannae change the laws of physics (captain)

Re:Why Can't They Make It Work? (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539532)

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.

Re:Why Can't They Make It Work? (1)

DWMorse (1816016) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539730)

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

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

Re:Why Can't They Make It Work? (1)

peragrin (659227) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539918)

actually the last plumbing issue I had, we did use the side bypass, to reverse the flow, to break up the point of failure.

You just have to watch the pressure and flow, so it doesn't get to high and cause an explosion.

Yes I am being honest.

Can't make a call from inside (5, Informative)

troylanes (883822) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (5, Informative)

fpp (614761) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (1)

h4rr4r (612664) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539344)

Why not use higher power to get over this limit?

Re:Can't make a call from inside (1)

BitZtream (692029) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539408)

Because refueling satellites because they burn energy trying to talk to people in a building is so expensive its not worth mentioning, you'd just launch a new sat and it'd be far too often.

The power increase would be considerable due to the frequencies involved behaving more like light than what other parts of the frequency spectrum do.

That also goes the other way on the ground, the phone would need considerably more power, making its battery life craptastic.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (1)

h4rr4r (612664) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539562)

I would assume the sats use RTG or solar power.
Low battery life is fine if the cost per minute is this high.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (3, Informative)

Guspaz (556486) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539876)

Few satellites use an RTG. Too high a risk of the radioactive material being released into the atmosphere if something goes wrong. Really hard for private companies to get the clearance to use them. It looks to me like most satellites using RTGs are government-backed.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (1)

Quiet_Desperation (858215) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539420)

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.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (1)

Chris Mattern (191822) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539536)

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

Re:Can't make a call from inside (1)

NewWorldDan (899800) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539580)

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 fail because they don't do what most people need, and most people don't need what they do.

There is a huge market for satellite communications, but it's not for making phone callse, it's for low volume remote data acquisition. It's actually what my product does, only we use GSM networks because it's a lot easier and cheaper.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (5, Funny)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539758)

If you are in a car you just need to give the phone enough power to burn away the roof of the car so that it has a clear view of the sky.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539946)

then why not a sat/cell hybrid that uses cell towers save for when you are in the middle of nowhere....no cell coverage, sat connect? yes/no

Re:Can't make a call from inside (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (2)

DigiShaman (671371) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539392)

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.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539846)

And your GPS doesn't even have to transmit anything! Imagine if it needed a transmitter that could reach orbit...

Re:Can't make a call from inside (1)

Agent0013 (828350) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539984)

The GPS on the Droid is probably switching to cell tower triangulation when you are indoors also. I use I much more accurate hiking GPS reciever and it only gets a signal when there is a clear view of the sky. Perhaps if you were right next to the window or something, but not anywhere indoors. Even a dense pine tree forest will block the GPS satalite signal.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539394)

Wow, I never realized that. That removes from their market a large number of people with money who travel the world, and don't want to be constantly pestered by the annoyances of different phone systems and their incompatibilities.

I always thought it was the cost, size and lag that were the major barriers to adoption (and could all be solved in time by technology). I doubt Satellite phones will ever have more than a tiny niche taking that into consideration.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (3, Interesting)

bhcompy (1877290) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539418)

Would be nice to do a hybrid system. Wifi(SIP) calls indoors, Sat outdoors/outside of Wifi coverage

Re:Can't make a call from inside (2)

mjperson (160131) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539540)

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.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (2)

vlm (69642) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539664)

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.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539708)

Cost, now you are paying for a voice plan with AT&T and another with

Re:Can't make a call from inside (1)

MrQuacker (1938262) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539834)

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.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (2)

dargaud (518470) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539904)

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.

Re:Can't make a call from inside (1)

Altus (1034) | more than 3 years ago | (#34540006)

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 minute down to a reasonable level (though without cheep satellites it will be hard to compete with cell phones).

It's not cost effective. (5, Insightful)

OdoylesRule (1765008) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:It's not cost effective. (5, Interesting)

edremy (36408) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539370)

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.

Re:It's not cost effective. (1)

postbigbang (761081) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539738)

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

Re:It's not cost effective. (1)

lee1026 (876806) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539956)

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]

Re:It's not cost effective. (2)

Frosty Piss (770223) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539592)

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.

Re:It's not cost effective. (1)

OdoylesRule (1765008) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539684)

You're not unique, but there are also a number of ways for people like you in remote locations to communicate with the rest of the world.

Re:It's not cost effective. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539798)

Care to name a few of these ways? I don't have this need myself, so I'm unsure as to what they are... but I'm always looking for ways to "always be connected" in one way or another, so I'm genuinely interested.

Re:It's not cost effective. (1)

Frosty Piss (770223) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539844)

Care to name a few of these ways?

He's talking about smoke signals an runners. Or maybe sending a bottle down the river and hoping someone finds it. But seriously, in areas where there are no land-lines or cell towers, you have two realistic choices, radio and sat phone.

Re:It's not cost effective. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539968)

Meh. Old timer. I communicate over 1000 miles of nylon string and two paper cups!

Re:It's not cost effective. (1)

Andy Dodd (701) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539658)

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.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iridium_Communications_Inc.#cite_note-11 [wikipedia.org] - Yes, they have their own network, but in some cases it's easier to resurrect someone else's failed network for pennies on the dollar, and cost-reduce it a bit with paying civilian customers (Again - ships and aircraft).

Re:It's not cost effective. (1)

'Aikanaka (581446) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539696)

you have no idea what you're talking about. ask the guys in Antartica, or scientists who have remote glider-type sensors that are in the middle of the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, or even folks out in countries without infrastructure. there is no cellular or wireless service there. satellite phones address these problems and more.

Re:It's not cost effective. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539862)

So why don't we compromise. A cellular blimp network! It'll solve the problems of both technologies!

Re:It's not cost effective. (1)

gilesjuk (604902) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539940)

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.

Just another way of saying (5, Insightful)

jpmorgan (517966) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539122)

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.

Re:Just another way of saying (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539386)

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

Re:Just another way of saying (1)

multipartmixed (163409) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539578)

> 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.

Re:Just another way of saying (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539850)

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)

Let's see... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539132)

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?

Re:Let's see... (4, Funny)

RapmasterT (787426) | more than 3 years ago | (#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:Let's see... (1, Insightful)

mcgrew (92797) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539482)

3. Doesn't have Twitter client

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

Re:Let's see... (2)

dargaud (518470) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539962)

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.

Re:Let's see... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539750)

Actually, many effectively do have a twitter client since they can send and receive SMS messages. Roz Savage is a ocean rower and tweets from the middle of the ocean using her sat phone.

Re:Let's see... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539822)

Actually the difference in price is suprisingly small. The big financial factor is that the cell phone is subsidized by your commitment to the cell carrier for 1,2, or 3 years.

Duh (2)

SethThresher (1958152) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539190)

It's because satellites are WAY too big to carry around as a phone. That's what SatPhone means, right?

Same applies to the Cr-48 (-1, Offtopic)

bogaboga (793279) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539212)

It's unclear that the phone will sell enough to help TerreStar stay in business, especially when it carries a $799 price tag."

I understand that the Cr-48 costs $450. Too expensive in my opinion. I am afraid that at this price, Google's product could be Dead on Arrival.

Re:Same applies to the Cr-48 (1)

DragonWriter (970822) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539360)

I understand that the Cr-48 costs $450. Too expensive in my opinion. I am afraid that at this price, Google's product could be Dead on Arrival.

The Cr-48 is an unbranded testing device; its cost to the only people who can get them from Google is $0.

The actual costs of retail Chrome OS-based netbooks, which a couple of manufacturers have announced will be making and selling under their own branding, are not yet known, but I'd be very surprised (given existing netbooks and the fact that Chrome OS isn't going to need much in terms of hefty hardware) if the initial models were anywhere close to $450. I'd more expect the low-end of the initial range of products to be around $250 or lower.

Re:Same applies to the Cr-48 (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539378)

I paid $549 for my Nexus One.

Virtually any top of the line cell phone costs 500 bucks if bought off contract.

I don't think cost of the device is the objection here.

Is this a real question? (4, Insightful)

RapmasterT (787426) | more than 3 years ago | (#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?

Re:Is this a real question? (2)

icebike (68054) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539470)

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.

Re:Is this a real question? (1)

Tolaris (31078) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539514)

Mod parent up!

Not cost effective for casual user (3, Insightful)

sureshot007 (1406703) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Not cost effective for casual user (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539348)

Their client base is 300 journalists, a few rich morons, some commandos and Osama.

Re:Not cost effective for casual user (2)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539460)

Then get a SPOT Satellite Messenger, you are the type of user they were developed for.

http://www.findmespot.com/en/ [findmespot.com]

Re:Not cost effective for casual user (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539824)

I looked into that before. The problem is that I need 2 way communication with someone else in the middle of nowhere. So that one won't work for me.

Ho8o (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539280)

FrreBSD project,

they work fine for me (1)

Dolphinzilla (199489) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539288)

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.

Nothing to see here. (1)

Mr. Foogle (253554) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539310)

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.

Not shocking. (2)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539328)

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.

Re:Not shocking. (1)

Frosty Piss (770223) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539780)

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.

Re:Not shocking. (1)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539890)

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."

Re:Not shocking. (2)

oracleguy01 (1381327) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539988)

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.

Isn't it obvious? (3, Insightful)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539334)

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).

Seems pretty simple (1)

vadim_t (324782) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539364)

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 are some sort of aborigine that can't pay for it anyway. Not a huge customer base there.

Not much of a market (3, Insightful)

mcsqueak (1043736) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Not much of a market (1)

tsa (15680) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539486)

Biological researchers, sailors, adventurers, cavemen...

Re:Not much of a market (2)

dltaylor (7510) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539978)

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 to subsidize the initial cost of the wireless infrastructure as AT&T and Verizon did.

ICP (0)

mooingyak (720677) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539388)

Fucking SatPhones, why can't they make it work?

Fine Connection (1)

turtleAJ (910000) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539436)

SatPhones -- Why Can't They Make It Work?

I don't know what you're talking about.
I'm using a satmodem right now, and clearly

Why can't the make it work? WTF? (1)

multipartmixed (163409) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539450)

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

buythissatelite.org -- Terrestar 1 is up for grabs (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539452)

These guys are trying to buy Terrestar-1 and move it over Africa.

genius idea, if they can get the business plan figured out.

Just a bit more than an iPhone (4, Insightful)

tsa (15680) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539474)

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

Three reasons: (1)

Chris Mattern (191822) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539510)

--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 problem 1 above), or high orbit, which means you don't have to launch as many satellites, but delays long enough to be actually noticeable.

The only problem with sat phones (1)

hesaigo999ca (786966) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539546)

is that it is not mainstream, if any of the big cell cos were to start their own sat service and evolve a torrent like connector where they could easily switch between one or another to give you the ultimate coverage package, of which you could even say set up temporary accounts for the average joe blo that only would need it once in a while, so that month add a service extra for 100$ that guarantees your service even in the middle of the amazon or arctic, you would end up with a whole lot of people using it, making it even cheaper as things progressed. alas...it is the same death hd and blu ray are suffering...never having been able to really jump into the mainstream, you cant buy a blu ray disc to burn on under 5$ a pop, even though you get a 50gb data load you can burn unto it....it still is not cheap enough to be bought by the masses...so same thing with sat phones.

2 tech factors (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539610)

You need clear view to the sky and the distance is a problem.

Atleast their expensive phone uses dualband... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539624)

TerraStar's blackberry knock off is dual band.. so it'll use the AT&T crapnetwork, and when it needs to, uses satellite (in times of no signal). I guess its useful if you're working remotely in some woods.. but for $800 for a Winmo6.5 device? I'll end up passing up on that one, if the high prices didn't twart me away already.

It would be useful for climbing Mt Everest (1)

billrp (1530055) | more than 3 years ago | (#34539628)

Oh never mind, they already have cell service, I suppose that had been a big market for sat phones

Engineer with an MBA here (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539630)

The problem is a misalignment of features with the market population. It seems they didn't do a very good job of market segmentation.

The technology is cool, and it's great if you're in the desert and need to communicate. But the traditional cell phone is better for the vast majority of people who need to make a phone call. For non-military use, the only time you really need a Sat phone is when you're in the middle of 'nowhere' without any phone infrastructure nearby. Most people are 'somewhere' the majority of the time, and because of the low cost and ability to work indoors, the plain old cell phone wins (or now smart phones with the added benefit of data/internet is also a tempting choice). I think the marketing term is that there is a high amount of risk/competition from "substitute goods/services".

So there's fewer Indiana Jones style archeologists conducting digs out in the Sahara, because fewer people will buy it, it has to cost more to cover the prices. Then you start to get a negative feedback loop from buyers because they fear the company will go out of business, who will buy less, which makes the company go out of business.

If I remember correctly from the Irridium case study (which I read a few years ago), they also didn't cover the whole world. So it still couldn't be used in Antarctica, further limiting where it could be used (don't quote me on that part, but I remember thinking it was something mind bogglingly silly like that when I read it).

More detailed info (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539666)

Too bad they are filing Chapter 11. The costs aren't nearly as bad as the old services. I can handle $0.65 a minute for phone calls for satellite service. The older phones required you to take out a second mortgage to place a call. Here's more detailed info.

"It's been just shy of a year since TerreStar's Windows Mobile-based Genus was announced for AT&T, offering a unique combination of GSM / HSPA backed up with satellite capability for those times when you find yourself in the middle of nowhere; in fact, you may have assumed that it had already been released by now. After all, this isn't the phone for 97 percent of the population -- it runs Windows Mobile and still works in places where us soft city folk would never dream of going -- so odds are good you never bothered to follow up on it. Fact is, though, it's just now available for the first time today, so as long as you've got a line of sight to TerreStar's bird and a willingness to tolerate WinMo 6.5.3, you'll be able to make and receive calls throughout the US, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and in the surrounding waters -- and it's all on one telephone number. Of course, having a single number eliminates the cool factor of being able to say "if you can't reach me, try my sat phone," but let's be honest: convenience wins here. Right now, the phone's only available to business and government users... and with $799 upfront for the phone and satellite service running $25 a month plus per-minute, per-message, and per-megabyte charges of 65 cents, 40 cents, and 5 dollars, respectively, that's probably for the best. Follow the break for AT&T's full press release. "

SatPhones — Why Can't They Make It Work? (1, Insightful)

The Grim Reefer2 (1195989) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

As with all things space-related (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539828)

No one cares, this is solving a '60s era problem. Get over it Space Nutters, it's over, dead, stick a fork in it. Maybe private enterprise will save this? Oh wait....

remote internet access (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34539884)

Latency does not matter (much) for low speed remote area internet access. There must be hundreds of applications. Anyone tried it?

It's a tough business plan, but they do work (4, Interesting)

dara (119068) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

They answered their own question (2)

hawguy (1600213) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Satellite is still like any other Satellite Servic (4, Insightful)

jberg712 (1958276) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Illegal to use? (1)

RevWaldo (1186281) | more than 3 years ago | (#34540012)

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?

.
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