AT&T Unveils Satellite Smartphone

by Matt Klassen on September 24, 2010

Earlier this week a product release happen to come across my desk that caught my eye, not because it employs any revolutionary technology, nor because it’s destined to be the next iPhone killer, and certainly not because I would ever consider purchasing the device, but because, for once, it strikes me as enormously useful for a large demographic across North America. What demographic is that, you may ask? How about the millions of people that have to live day in and day out with really awful network coverage—I’m talking about you San Francisco.

To combat poor network coverage AT&T unveiled the TerreStar Genus satellite smartphone, a dual-mode device that connects to AT&T’s spotty 3G network coverage whenever it can, and when it can’t, the device automatically connects to a satellite for uninterrupted coverage. But before you think that you’ve finally found the answer to your ongoing communication problems, there’s a catch…heck, there’s always a catch.

In fact, since this is AT&T you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that there are multiple catches, meaning that this innovative stopgap solution to poor network coverage may not even be a solution at all.

As I read the product release I took some time before writing this post to think about the last good thing that AT&T managed to do. Sure it managed to secure the world’s most popular smartphone with its exclusivity agreement with Apple and managed to secure the go-to tablet device when the iPad came on sale earlier this year, but AT&T continues to demonstrate time and time again that it can’t handle the work load of either device and really can’t provide the network coverage its customers need. Then, finally when a workable solution comes along…AT&T doesn’t plan to release it to the public.

The plan behind the TerreStar Genus is to market the device to businesses, government agencies, and disaster response groups, as it offers an innovative way to maintain communication in situations where network coverage simply cannot be an issue. While I do agree with this marketing plan, why not release a consumer product with a similar design that also sports satellite connectivity?

Beyond this, however, there are two more glaring issues with what otherwise could have been an innovative product for AT&T. First, for those who hoped over the course of reading this post that they may have found a great global communications solution…think again, the TerreStar Genus connects to satellites that are in geosynchronous orbit over North America; meaning if you’re out the country, you’re out of luck.

Second, if you hadn’t guessed it already, is the price. The fact that customers will pay $800 up front to purchase the device, plus one of AT&T’s thieving cellular voice and data plans, and also pay a satellite subscription fee of $25 means that this phone certainly isn’t for everyone—or anyone for that matter. But think it ends there? Beyond the fee, the contract, and the purchase, to actually use the satellite AT&T will charge customers 65 cents per minute for voice, 40 cents per message, and $5 per megabyte of data. Yikes!

In the end, however, finally bringing satellite technology to the smartphone world is a great idea. Sure it’s not really innovative, but at least its practical…at least it would have been had AT&T not got its hands on it.

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