09.09.09

Satellite phones: up, up and away?

Posted in Globalstar, Handheld, Inmarsat, Iridium, Operators, Services, TerreStar, Thuraya at 12:43 pm by timfarrar

Unfortunately its not new services, but the prices of current and future satellite phones and airtime that seem to be headed upwards. The last year has seen Iridium introduce its new, improved 9555 handset at a higher price than the 9505A that it replaced, with phones now selling for about $1500, while Thuraya has “simplified” (i.e. increased) its airtime pricing and introduced the more expensive ruggedized XT phone. Inmarsat admitted in June that its new GSPS handset may sell for up to $750 at launch in 2010, compared to the $500 retail price point it suggested previously. Even TerreStar has now indicated that its new handset may cost up to $800, with airtime pricing at “less than $1 per minute”.

We’ve commented before on how satellite phone revenues have been falling since 2005, and competition has certainly diminished as Globalstar has experienced problems with its two-way services over the last couple of years. However, it seems the consensus amongst current participants in the handheld MSS market is that there is little if any growth potential still left in satellite phones, and the actions of Iridium and Thuraya appear to indicate that their remaining customers are relatively price insensitive.

Even more surprising is that so far, at least, the new entrants do not seem to be particularly keen on shaking up the existing “premium price” paradigm for satellite phones. In the case of TerreStar this is rather worrying, given that their objective is to greatly expand the satellite phone market, and bring satellite-cellular roaming to a mass market, which seems very unlikely to happen with an $800 phone. Is TerreStar simply trying not to give too much away about its future pricing plans, while it focuses on developing all the other elements needed for a commercial service, such as distribution channels, billing systems, etc.? Will TerreStar actually be able to convince a cellular operator to subsidize its phone (which would require a significantly greater commitment from a partner than its current roaming agreement with AT&T)? We should find out soon, as TerreStar intends to launch commercial services at the end of 2009.

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