Thuraya Link issue 8 Nov 2014
Issue 10 | MAY 2015
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The Affordable Satellite Phone: No Longer a Contradiction of Terms
Advancements in satellite technology have helped the MSS sector break into the consumer segment. Alexander Lachner, Senior Product Manager, Voice Services at Thuraya, explores how the mobile satellite phone has evolved, in terms of affordability and functionality, to find its way into the hands of the everyday consumer.
Fahad Kahoor
When satellite phones first debuted they offered a new, unparalleled opportunity to communicate across all corners of the globe. This was an exciting technological breakthrough—for the select few who could afford it. Retailing at well over $1,000 and boasting per minute rates of over $10, satellite phones were clearly out of reach for the everyday user. Plus they were literally the size of a brick.

Over the past decade, mobile satellite companies like Thuraya have been studying consumer trends and developing satellite phones that appeal to a larger customer segment. Satellite phones today are smaller, easier to use, and more rugged and reliable, with the capability to withstand harsh environmental factors at the top of mountains, in the middle of the desert or even at sea, where there is no terrestrial connectivity or cell towers for miles.

Recently, we’ve seen a slew of devices that have broken new ground and taken the mobile satellite industry to a completely new segment; the retail customer. Whether it is an adaptor that turns the iPhone or Android smartphones into a satellite-enabled device, or satellite phones at prices that were previously unheard of, satellite communications is no longer an exclusive resource to be used only by enterprises and governments—it has now reached the everyday user.

Satellite operators are challenged by what casual users look for when it comes to purchasing their first satellite phone. As someone who uses their satellite handset periodically or keeps it as a backup for emergencies, they want an affordable, easy to use and compact handset that can be used for calls and SMS, which doesn’t take up too much space in their backpack or pocket.

In the future, users will expect to have one device that will take care of all their global communication needs, but are we there yet? For now, satellite operators and manufacturers are attempting to bridge the gap by addressing the questions: how affordable can a satellite handset be and does affordability compromise quality?

Setting the record straight

Before we tackle the above questions, consider this: satellite handsets are inherently different from regular phones because of two key differentiators.

Technology. The satellite communication technology that sits on a chip in a satellite handset requires niche expertise and materials which results in longer development time. While there are hundreds of companies that build good feature phones and smartphones with modules that are easily available, there are only a handful of companies that are capable of developing the technology to build the satellite chip that is used in a satellite phone.

Economies of scale. Because of high user demand and quicker development time, feature phones and smartphones can be manufactured in the millions. This isn’t the same for the satellite industry as the volumes manufactured are much lower, thus making unit costs higher.

There is good news. Due to technological advancements made in the industry, satellite operators are able to develop terminals that can now cater to a variety of needs—whether for heavier, frequent usage or for lighter, more casual use.

Addressing affordability and functionality

These advancements are palpable. In addressing affordability, satellite operators have targeted handsets at costs between US$400 and US$500, a price that is comparable to a standard mobile device. One mobile satellite service operator, Thuraya, has now achieved this key price for a satellite handset. The key functionality of this phone is simple; to provide a reliable means of communication in remote areas or in the occurrence of natural or manmade disasters. Affordability in this instance means safety, security and a channel to reach out for help, if needed, for a much larger audience today.

The quality and aesthetic appeal of satellite handsets have also improved over the years. Long gone are the clunky, heavy phones. Today, satellite phones have evolved into smaller, sleeker designs that can easily fit into any piece of luggage or travel pack.

The final misconception that satellite operators have long tried to dispel, is the preconceived notion that satellite airtime rates are always higher. In fact, satellite airtime rates are lower than people might think. If you brought your GSM phone to another continent or country and made a call home, did you know that the charges could be more expensive than if you called using a satellite phone? Satellite voice price plans, depending on the region a user is in, can be as low as US$0.75 per minute. In comparison with standard international roaming charges, satellite calling rates can be a bargain.

Advancements in satellite technology are being made every day to address the needs of consumers; whether it is affordability, supporting the BYOD trend, enabling the Internet of Things or even adding features that lead to seamless connectivity for communication. These are exciting times, where satellite operators and phone manufacturers are competing and also collaborating with each other to develop the next best satellite communication device. Innovation breeds fresh ideas and we can't wait to see what will be next.
The Affordable Satellite Phone: No Longer a Contradiction of Terms
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Governments Want Simplicity, Security and Reliability from Mobile Satellite Providers
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