After months of delay, AT&T and TerreStar Networks have introduced a hybrid smartphone that can uplink to a satellite if it cannot connect with cellular service. The TerreStar Genus is intended for business
customers -- particularly government, energy, disaster responders, maritime or transportation employees and small businesses -- and carries a $799 price tag that would be prohibitive to ordinary consumers.
A voice, text and data plan is required, with the additional satellite coverage available for $25 per month and 65 cents per minute. Satellite text messages are only 40 cents, but the cost of web surfing is high: $5 per megabyte.
"This is focused on vertical markets where cellular coverage isn't available," said wireless industry analyst Gerry Purdy of MobilTrax. A consumer version of the phone is planned down the road, and TerreStar's web site is now collecting information from those who want to be kept up to date.
But Purdy said the idea isn't likely to catch on among consumers "unless someone lives in a place that is not covered by a cell phone." Sprint Nextel and AirTouch, a predecessor of Verizon Wireless, have previously tried to sell satellite phones, but could not find a market for them.
The TerreStar Genus is powered by Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6.5, has a touchscreen as well as a wired QWERTY keyboard, and is equipped with standard cell-phone features such as a 2.0-megapixel camera, GPS and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability.
The service can be useful for those who travel offshore or in areas where there are few or no cellular towers, but TerreStar warns that the device will only connect if there are no impediments, such as trees or buildings, in the way of the transmission. Dallas, Texas-based TerreStar launched its own satellite for this purpose, the 65-foot TerreStar 1, in July, the largest commercial satellite ever launched.
The Genus satellite covers the United States, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and territorial waters. TerreStar noted in launching the product that an AT&T Business Continuity Study earlier this year found that companies are stepping up their technology investment and disaster planning despite the economy, with mobile devices a key part of those plans.
"We understand the importance to stay connected in remote locations and especially in emergency situations, and today's announcement is the latest example of AT&T's commitment to delivering the highest levels of service, quality and reliability for customers," said Michael Antieri, president of advanced enterprise mobility solutions at AT&T Business Solutions. "With this expansion of AT&T's innovative mobility portfolio, AT&T is helping businesses and government agencies stay connected with a single device, single support contact, and single bill."
TerreStar CEO Jeff Epstein added, "With advancements in satellite technology, satellite-based communications is poised to be the next standard in everyday mobile devices."