At the SATCON conference in New York this week, TerreStar was showing its Elektrobit Genus phone. The company had conducted live demos of calls over the satellite at the IACP conference in Denver the previous week (with reportedly very good results in terms of call quality), but unfortunately a similar opportunity wasn’t available in New York. Nevertheless a few interesting facts emerged about the phone.
Firstly you have to switch manually into satellite mode (via a menu selection) in order to use either voice or data over the satellite. This was not necessary from a technical perspective (the phone could have roamed automatically since the satellite is basically treated like an international GSM network), but was insisted on by AT&T so that users know they will incur roaming charges, and that they will not be able to get the same quality of service that they would expect from a terrestrial network (i.e. they will have to stand outside, and not be inside a building or a car).
Secondly, as shown in the picture below, there is an external antenna port, enabling a cradle-type device with an external antenna to be connected, so that adequate link margin is available in Northern Canada and Alaska. The external antenna is a quad helix antenna about 0.3 inches in diameter (about the size of the Thuraya antenna) and 3 inches in length which swings up from the back of the cradle in the same manner as the rotating antenna on the old Iridium 9505 phone. These cradles will be sold separately (pricing is unclear but we’d guess in the $100-$200 range) and will increase the handset volume by about 60%.
In the lower 48 states and southern Canada (i.e. below the red line in the map above) the Genus phone uses an internal patch antenna located at the right upper corner of the phone in the picture above. It will be particularly interesting to see how sensitive the call quality is to the orientation of the phone when it is being used in practice – users are instructed to hold the phone so that their fingers do not obstruct the link (per the sticker on the back of the phone), but if you are moving around, then inevitably your head will come between the phone and the satellite some of the time. TerreStar’s very large (i.e. very sensitive) satellite antenna will certainly help to close the link, but given how many arguments there have been on conference panels we’ve chaired in the past between proponents of getting the antenna clear of the head (i.e. Globalstar, Inmarsat and Iridium) and those who don’t believe an external antenna is needed (i.e. TerreStar and SkyTerra), this will be one of the first things to examine when the phones become available for testing.