Wireless World: Satellite cell phones

By GENE J. KOPROWSKI   |   April 15, 2005 at 3:05 PM

CHICAGO, April 15 (UPI) -- Remember satellite phones? During the last decade, technology companies heroically went bust vying to replace conventional mobile phones with sophisticated handsets that transmitted calls off satellites orbiting Earth.

Now, telecommunications companies seem ready for another try, but analysts told UPI's Wireless World they do not know if consumers will be more willing today to spend a dollar a minute or more for the phone service than they were a few years ago.

"The bankruptcy of Iridium has been a boon for the industry -- all of the debt was erased," said Sascha Segan, the lead analyst for telephony at PC Magazine in New York City. He was referring to the network of 66 satellites the company operates to provide worldwide mobile-phone service.

"All of these satellites are available for use that are really cheap," Segan said.

Like virtual-network operators in the mobile-phone business, he said, many companies are moving forward with plans to lease unused satellite capacity to market mobile services to customers. Other companies, meanwhile, are planning to launch their own satellites and target consumers with hybrid phones that can use either satellites or conventional cellular networks. This kind of a service will help to bridge the gap many users experience when they roam from one city to another and suddenly lose their connection.

"From a technology viewpoint, it's an amazing accomplishment," said Herschel Shosteck, a leading telecom analyst who works in suburban Maryland near Washington, D.C.

This week, a firm called TerreStar Networks Inc. in McLean, Va., disclosed it was building a satellite, the TerreStar-1, which will be able to communicate with standard wireless devices over the 2 gigaHertz frequency band. The company has hired Space Systems/Loral, a subsidiary of Loral Space & Communications to build the satellite at its facility in Palo Alto, Calif.

"The satellite will have an antenna almost 60 feet across that almost makes it like a cell site in the sky -- indeed, that may be what they are thinking," said Fred Morris, director of product management and development at Intelsat, a telecommunications firm in Washington.

The satellite will begin operation in 2008 and will orbit above Canada, the company said.

"We have been working with SS/L for several years and are excited to reach this important milestone," said Wharton B. Rivers Jr., president and chief executive officer of TerreStar, in a statement.

Experts wonder, however, how well consumers will take to the satellite phone service. Cellular network carriers are covering more and more of the country, and consumers seem willing to pay roaming charges when they move from one carrier's network to another.

"Satellite phones have always had a relatively limited market," Segan said. "They were only relevant where you had no cell phone coverage. They were designed for particular industries -- oil and gas -- or safaris in Africa, but now the great wide-open spaces of America are studded with cell towers from Cingular and other carriers."

The service might be marketed to fill whatever gaps exist in coverage areas, Segan said, adding that another possibility would be to rent the phones at, say, national parks, where hikers could take them off the beaten path to retain the safety of staying in touch via the satellite-cellular phone hybrid.

"That might be an opportunity," Segan said.

TerreStar could attempt to develop markets in the United States, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Canada.

"What they are talking about is pretty interesting," Morris said. "They are doing what other geostationary satellite and cellular companies have done and are taking it to the next level."

Such hybrid communications services -- satellite and cellular -- have been used in Asia for some time now.

"ACSIS is an Asian service," Morris said. "If you have an ACSIS-enabled phone, you can roam onto a conventional phone system, and where there is no conventional network, you go with the satellite."

One engineer said cellular phones will need a lot more power than they currently have if they are to operate via satellite.

"The common cell phones today have too little power to have their signals reach the altitude of satellites -- even LEOs (low-earth orbit satellites)," said Dave Mock, an analyst with CurrentOfferings.com, a research consultancy for the IT business. "GPS (global positioning system) signals obviously have the power to reach many cell phones today to provide position location, but this is a downlink signal only."

Mock said he thinks there may be a more promising -- but less high-tech -- alternative for technology companies to pursue.

"There's also a new breed of services that may finally be emerging that are often called 'stratellites' -- a very large balloon or plane in the upper atmosphere," Mock said. Balloon-based telecom relays would be less costly to build and launch than satellites, but they would have a smaller footprint, or coverage area, he said.

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Gene J. Koprowski is a 2004 Winner of a Lilly Endowment Award for his columns for United Press International. He covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

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