Hybrid satellite cell phones aren't far off

The largest commercial communications satellite ever has been launched. The Terrestar-1 from Terrestar Networks lifted off from the ESA (Europe's equivalent of NASA) aerospace center in French Guiana on the northern coast of South America.

The satellite's network will operate in two 10 MHz blocks of contiguous MSS spectrum in the 2 GHz band throughout the United States and Canada with a footprint that covers a population of nearly 330 million. The company will offer both wireless broadband and voice services which will improve inconsistent rural coverage and dead zones throughout North America. Connection to the satellite, however, requires a clear line of sight with the southern sky.

At CTIA Wireless in April, Terrestar showed off a prototype device which would switch back and forth between AT&T's terrestrial network and the Terrestar satellite network as coverage changed. Unlike most consumer SatPhones, this prototype lacked a large external antenna, and was fully enclosed in a candy-bar phone similar to early Sony Ericsson K-series phones.

Two more satellites, even larger than Terrestar's, are expected to launch next year from SkyTerra Communications. That company already has two MSAT satellites in geostationary orbit which cover North, Central, and parts of South America, as well as Hawaii and the Caribbean, up to 250 miles offshore.

Like Terrestar, SkyTerra will upgrade to a hybrid MSS/Cellular architecture when its two next-generation satellites launch in the first half of 2010. Earlier this month, the company outlined plans to transition its subscribers over to the new network.

"SkyTerra's two next-generation satellites are phenomenal communications assets that will enable government and enterprise customers as well as consumers to take advantage of new capabilities and applications using conventional handsets and mobile devices," SkyTerra's Executive Vice President of Strategy, Development and Distribution Marc Montagner said.

Neither company has yet divulged subscription prices for these hybrid networks, nor have they discussed how much the dual mode satellite phones will cost. Typically satellite-only handsets are unwieldy and expensive, costing more than $1,000 for the hardware alone.

The timing of Terrestar's launch is important, as it coincides with the Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) for the American Recovery and Reinvestment act, with $2.5 billion going to the Rural Utilities Service -- a.k.a., the rural broadband stimulus money, which Vice President Joe Biden announced yesterday. Various groups have been testing their own solutions for rural broadband improvement, such as Airspan Networks which thinks WiMAX is the solution, and Skycasters, which supports satellite broadband.

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