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TerreStar Genus: A Satellite Phone You Can’t Afford to Love

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AT&T (s t) today introduced the TerreStar Genus (s tstr), a relatively thin cellular smartphone that can use a satellite network for backup voice and data communications. The $799 handset is targeted at users that must have connectivity everywhere, such as government employees, disaster recovery and maritime workers. But it’s also a tangible clue as to why LightSquared’s planned wholesale LTE network will be such a hard slog.

The Genus runs the older Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.5 (s msft) operating system, and, unlike satellite phones of the past, is pocketable thanks to an internal antenna. Satellite connectivity from anywhere in the U.S., Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or territorial waters doesn’t come cheap though: Engadget reports a $25 monthly fee plus per-minute and per-message charges of $0.65 and $0.40, respectively.

With such service fees and a meaty $800 hardware cost, I wouldn’t expect sales of the Genus to rival that of AT&T’s other popular smartphones. After all, the Genus isn’t meant to compete with the Apple iPhone (s aapl), BlackBerry Torch (s rimm) or AT&T Captivate, just to name a few consumer devices. But considering the design and features that TerreStar (s tstr) integrated into the handset, the device looks nothing like the bulky pre-smartphones used with the old Iridium satellite network. It helps that there’s no flip-up, external antenna on the Genus, although for satellite communications, a user must maintain a line of sight with the southern hemisphere and must also hold the phone from the bottom. You can see the warning label for where to hold the device on a satellite call in this unboxing video.

As the newest dual-mode handset with support for both land and sky, the TerreStar Genus shows why satellite providers will be relegated to niche markets, barring any regulatory changes. The company most likely affected will be LightSquared, which is planning a nationwide LTE network that will combine it’s satellite network with a to-be-built terrestrial network. Unfortunately, a 2003 FCC ruling requires that these providers operate and build a network using both terrestrial and satellite, which also means the devices running on that network should have the ability to access both networks.

That means more phones like the Genus: too expensive for millions of consumers and a step behind the latest and greatest smartphones, making them undesirable for most. For a minimum cost of $3.5 billion, LightSquared thinks it can cover the majority of U.S. consumers with ATC spectrum, but if expensive, dual-mode phones are required, the impossible mission will be attracting enough customers. Maybe that’s why it’s touting its paltry 13 MHz of spectrum that’s unfettered by ATC restrictions, or why its first customer is a utility that doesn’t require handsets.

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4 Responses to “TerreStar Genus: A Satellite Phone You Can’t Afford to Love”

  1. Aside from the craptastic video, I’m not sure how this will ever sell a lot. Honestly, if the plan is to use a sat provider for HUGE coverage gaps, why not partner with someone existing like Iridium?

    If LightSquared’s objective is to throw money away and go into Chapeter 11, then they’re on their way.

  2. About what I expect from AT&T, the people who used to have a “death star” logo. TerreStar is awfully close to TerrorStar, the name of a Death Star clone which, in its fictional anime setting, wiped out 90% of the Earth’s population and devastated the planet. Not a fun device.

    Fictional, to be sure. But damn that name. What were they thinking?

    The name has apparently also been used in video games and whatnot, also for a menacing thing.

    • pretty horrible. couple interesting things though. 1.) he had no trouble switching the phone on even though the battery was still in the box wrapped in plastic. 2.) there was a really weird loud screeching sound when he pulled the plastic off the front of the phone. i have never heard that sound when removing the plastic from any new electronic item, and i have had quite a few new items that i have removed the plastic from.