03.04.09

Contract cancelled: Another ISatPhone setback

Posted in Globalstar, Handheld, Inmarsat, Iridium, LightSquared, TerreStar at 11:52 am by timfarrar

Its been revealed today that EMS has taken a $3.4M charge to terminate its work on the Inmarsat next generation satellite phone, and that Inmarsat will be assuming “more control over production phases of the product development”. This is the latest in a long line of setbacks for the ISatPhone, with the first generation phone failing to achieve any meaningful traction and repeated delays in completion of the next generation phone since Inmarsat acquired the ACeS customer base two and a half years ago.

In our view, a key reason for the failure of the original phone was its poor performance on the Inmarsat I4 satellite, with users advised to use a hands-free kit and keep the phone antenna pointed at the satellite! It remains unclear if EMS had solved these technical challenges with the new phone (which are caused by the smaller 9m antenna on the I4 satellites, compared to the 12m antennas used by Thuraya and AceS), and therefore it is quite possible that serious constraints may still apply to the usability of Inmarsat’s new handheld, a concept model of which is shown below. Certainly we expect that it will be difficult if not impossible for Inmarsat to ensure satisfactory handheld performance in Alaska and much of Canada.

Inmarsat’s concept model for its next generation satellite phone

The launch of the new phone had already been pushed back from early 2009 to the end of the year, with features such as packet data dropped to save time and money. Now it looks like Inmarsat will experience a further delay until well into 2010, and yet another increase in costs, adding to a development program which already totals around $100M. We will be looking with interest at whether Inmarsat maintains its stated intention to sell the phone for around $500 retail, thereby making it even harder to recover its investment in handset development. Notably, this price point has already met with pushback from potential distributors, who would be unable to realize the margins they make today on the sale of other satellite phones.

The clear winner is Iridium, who will have even more time than they had expected to capitalize on the lack of handheld competition from Inmarsat, and who managed to complete the development of their new 9555 phone on time and at a cost of less than $10M. Other current and potential satellite handheld providers, such as Globalstar, Skyterra and TerreStar, who have faced a barrage of criticism from Inmarsat in recent months, will also be rubbing their hands with glee at Inmarsat’s embarrassment.

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