By Keene Haywood
Satellite phones are the de facto way to keep in touch with the world when you are on the edges of it, where no other communication options are possible. However, sat phones have always been very expensive, bulky, and somewhat finicky even on a good day, let alone in a raging blizzard or hurricane. In recent years, the size of the phones have come down, but they are still mostly one trick ponies that do voice communications and some slow data and video transmissions (for a hefty per minute price tag). No apps or fancy touchscreens for your sat phone sorry to say. But that is about to change.
AT&T is teaming up with satellite phone service provider TerreStar to provide Genus, a smartphone that also can be used as a satellite phone. It is a clever hybrid that may appeal to those who spend a good bit of time beyond traditional cell connections but then venture back into the civilization and want a more traditional phone to use.
The phone looks like a BlackBerry smartphone at first glance, but it is actually a device running Windows Mobile 6.5. This is not exactly the most up to date or robust mobile operating system, but it can get the job done in terms of basic smartphone functionality. The very BlackBerry-like keyboard allows for texting, although I would not try it with gloves on. It has a meager 2.0 megapixel camera, but has Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and traditional 3G cell capabilities, along with a micoSD slot to increase memory storage. You can also record video and audio with the phone but it most likely won’t be as robust as some other smartphones out there.
These features would all be a yawner except for the one little trick it does with satellites. The Genus can connect to the TerreStar satellite system and give you communications when the 3G connection stopped working at the trailhead. Try that with your average smartphone. This is quite nice as you leave the bulk and stubby sat phone antennas out of the mix, but still get the sat communications.
Now all of this comes with some limitations. For starters, this phone only works in North America for now. You also need a clear view of the sky, so no bunker use unfortunately. Specifically, it works best in the United States, so it won’t make the gear list for your next Himalaya trek at this time. You can actually surf the web on this phone and use it to send data via satellite, but like the orbiting tech miles above you, the cost for doing this is sky high ($5 per mb).
The one thing that has not changed is the cost of making a call. Calling on this phone via satellite will set you back big time. You will have to be very aware of your time on the satellite system to avoid big sticker shock on your next bill. If you want use the satellite capabilities you will have to pay $25 extra for this and calls will cost 65 cents each minute, so hopefully you are not a chattering icicle when you phone home or the bill will be steep. The good news is this phone does not come with a contract, but you do need a voice and data plan from AT&T.
What you get is the convenience of having one phone number to serve as both your regular cell and satellite number—and just one device to manage. For some, this may very well be worth the price of admission. The phone points to the continual convergence of mobile communications so expect to possibly see more traditional smartphones with this capability down the road. If nothing else, you can whip out this phone at your next weekend warrior bar stop and impress your friends and a few others with the only phone right now that can make both cell AND satellite phone calls. Oh, and one more thing. The phone is available now for governments and commercial users. Individual consumers will have to wait till later this year for bragging rights.
Additional information about this phone can be found at: