the iPad is just the leading edge. Other technology providers are surely going to have to respond to this. We are on a whole new cusp of innovation."
New satellite technology brings smartphone features to disaster-ready communications.
In disaster situations, communication is vital. But in cases where disasters damage or destroy communications equipment, exchanging information can become nearly impossible. That is, unless, the hardware that facilitates communication is impervious to earthly dangers - such as a satellite perched 22,000 miles above the ground, safely away from hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and terrorists.
Satellite phones have been around for years, but they've never worked as well or offered as many features as the devices routinely shown in movies and on TV. Reston, Va.-based TerreStar Networks intends to change that. Last summer, the company launched what it claims is the world's largest and most powerful communications satellite, TerreStar-1, which will power the world's first satellite smartphone, the Genus.
"Our satellite was launched July 1 last year," said Dennis Matheson, CTO of TerreStar Networks. "Since then we've been doing different integration activities of the new network, which is an all-IP wireless network, and we're ready to roll out our first service offering."
The Genus is actually a terrestrial and satellite smartphone rolled into a single device. It offers a QWERTY keyboard, touchscreen and the Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system. Users can make voice calls, send text messages and check e-mail.
Under normal circumstances the device uses AT&T's cellular network. But when terrestrial networks are down or unavailable, all its communication and data transfer features are still available thanks to the satellite. This sets the Genus apart from past satellite phones which required their own device, phone number, batteries and a clunky housing.
"What we wanted to do was to put a unit on the hip of a person that would be their day-in and day-out device, yet would have satellite capabilities at the same time when they needed it," Matheson said. "If you see our unit, it's a little bit larger than a BlackBerry."
Currently it costs users an extra $24.99 per month to add satellite capability to the Genus. But Matheson said chipset agreements with manufacturers, such as Qualcomm and Infineon, mean TerreStar Networks anticipates the monthly price dropping to as little as $5. The company also is investigating the possibility of incorporating the technology into emergency response vehicles.
Still, the technology isn't perfect. Users need an unobstructed view of the southern sky to use the satellite functions. But, Matheson added, "It's not one of these [situations] where you have to be right there, standing still, basically aimed at a specific spot."