On July 1, TerreStar, an American company, launched a satellite through which it will offer phone and Internet service directly to pocket-sized phones, PDAs and laptops in the U.S. and Canada, eliminating the need for conspicuous satellite dishes. The service will start before the end of the year in partnership with AT&T, and consumers will use a dual-mode smartphone that connects both to the satellite and the ordinary cellular network. A competitor – SkyTerra – plans to offer similar services next year, after placing two spacecraft into orbit.
Putting a similar satellite over the other side of the globe would go a long way toward helping to ensure a free flow of information in Iran and Central Asia. How affordable the idea would be depends on two trends.
First, launches are becoming cheaper as private space companies begin their operations. One of them – SpaceX – wants to slash costs 90%, and it's already half way there: On July 13th, it launched Malaysian RazakSAT for $8 million, 50% off the industry average for the same type of technology.
Secondly, dual-mode phones could become commonplace in the next couple of years, which would make launching SkyTerra-like services elsewhere in the world cheaper and less risky. Qualcomm, a major supplier of mobile phone chips, plans to integrate satellite capability into its mass market products. Infineon, another big maker of mobile phone processors, has something similar in the works.
This option of adding extra functionality to their products at little or no extra cost will be attractive to handset makers. The opportunity would be especially appealing to those like Taiwan's HTC and its Japanese competitors that are otherwise big in size, but want to expand their tiny U.S. market share. The former manufactures cell phones for many of the world's biggest brands. The latter make the world's most innovative phones. Both suffer from weak brand recognition in the U.S. Offering a dual-mode handset might be a way to remedy that.