MSS Operators Take Familiar Mass-Market Consumer Mindset

By | January 1, 2012 | Feature, Telecom

MSS players have come a long way in recent years. Savvy operators like Inmarsat, Iridium and Globalstar are looking beyond niche markets for growth. The question is, can MSS technology become part of the mainstream?

If some of the Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) technology and handset rollout announcements in 2011 sounded familiar, it is most likely because the products were designed that way. Familiarity breeds a wider customer base, especially when the language of a new product description mirrors that of one of the widest markets in all of history — consumer electronics.

MSS operators and service providers have long sold handheld satellite devices as a concept of convenience and emergency for a niche of end-users operating their businesses and exploring in the most remote regions of the world. They were expensive and justified in their price due to the physical and financial impossibility of erecting cell phone towers in the ocean, or wherever these explorers dared to tread. Satellite phones, whether exclusive or hybrid, also justified their price by providing peace of mind like an insurance agency — GPS, SMS, voice and/or data communication links will be available during that Coast Guard rescue mission or mountain range survey.

Besides the steep price for the budget-conscious, there were other elements of these products that kept them separate from the average consumer. The handsets were once too big and bulky for the business traveler. Some had to be held at specific directions and angles for data reception and when services were received, they were too slow for the tech geek, who for the last six years, had enjoyed high-speed Internet connectivity to every aspect of his or her life. And how often would these products be used? How many would remain in shipping company storerooms, still in their original, unwrapped box?

In recent years, with the availability of cheaper materials, higher-throughput satellites and advanced chipsets, these issues began to sort themselves out, and MSS developers found an opening into a much larger playing field. New products could now target a most important transitional market — small- and medium-sized businesses and their civil service counterparts. Some product features unveiled and advertised were on par with their competitors in the multibillion-dollar terrestrial industry and satellite services had emerged as a rejuvenated threat, just as it had become in the broadcasting world. 

IsatPhone

When MSS operator Inmarsat released its IsatPhone handheld satellite phone to commercial markets in July 2007, former Inmarsat president and COO Michael Butler described the release as an attempt to “shake up the market.” The dual-mode satellite and GSM phone targeted business and personal users for travel or work at a retail price hovering around $500, with voice call charges costing less than $1 per minute. At the time, Butler said Inmarsat’s goal was to “target a 10 percent share of the [satellite phone] market by 2010.”

It would not be until the summer of 2010 that the operator would release its advanced, global IsatPhone Pro model and perfect the offering with a rugged, dust, splash and shock-resistant design, including a fully maneuverable antenna for easy hands-free use via Bluetooth, a GSM-style interface and a larger keypad. The handset was introduced with an IP54 rating and was capable of operating from -20 degrees Celsius to 55 degrees Celsius. Despite the new features, Inmarsat kept the phone at a market price between $500 and $600 and lowered usage rates to 59 cents per minute. In a statement attached to the release of IsatPhone Pro, Helen Stalker, commercial director for global satellite phone services at Inmarsat, said the exact same thing of this new model as Butler did three years earlier. “IsatPhone Pro will undoubtedly shake-up the global handheld market.”

But would the IsatPhone Pro solve the traditional and technical challenges that had once haunted the market? In terms of bulk, the pocket-sized IsatPhone Pro weighs just 9.8 ounces. For connectivity issues, Inmarsat says the GEO satellite constellation providing the service gives the IsatPhone Pro the ability to stay connected for longer periods of time without dropping calls. For quality, the company claims it spent much effort in improving voice clarity on the IsatPhone Pro while eliminating latency in the connection. For familiarity, the object of the upgrade was to trick the person on the other end of the line into thinking the call was placed from a standard mobile phone — and it was Bluetooth compatible, which has become the tech world’s stamp of familiarity.

Inmarsat launched IsatPhone Pro data services the following March as a circuit-switched capability offering data rates of up to 20 kbps immediately followed by firmware upgrades. Inmarsat’s director of land services Drew Brandy acknowledges the importance of service enhancements during the life of a product in order to increase its financial appeal. “The IsatPhone Pro design means the device can be placed on its side with the antenna deployed for connection to the satellite while a micro USB cable connects it to a laptop. In testing we have actually exceeded 20 kbps throughput with plain text email on several occasions.”

Brandy includes a list of familiar selling points when describing the ideal end-user — people wanting to access emails, jpegs, documents or PDFs — the same reasons people buy an iPhone.

Inmarsat most recently launched IsatPhone Link global fixed satellite phone service based on the IsatPhone Pro, which went live June 30 with voice capabilities, email, low-speed data and support for both single and multi-user capability in a fixed installation for global customers. Brandy says the plan was to target new services at familiar sectors that typically operate in remote areas not served by terrestrial networks — oil and gas, mining, construction, utilities and NGO aid organizations.

“IsatPhone Link brings all the benefits of IsatPhone Pro into a fixed environment, and this opens up new opportunities for remote users and field workers. Many of these businesses will not have had access to a service like this before. With a global capability, we expect to see this deployed in a wide variety of industry sectors and environments.” 

GEO and LEO

The major partition between Inmarsat and its major competitor Iridium Communications is an argument regarding the performance of GEO satellites as opposed to LEO satellites, but both companies are employing similar strategies to familiarize their products to the general consumer.

In September, Iridium saved up a month’s worth of new mobile satellite products and services announcements and packaged them into Iridium Force — an initiative that involves the opening of its core Iridium technology licensing, the launch of a new handset and the expansion of capabilities under its existing portfolio. The first item on that list brings the term “open source” directly from the software industry and into the satellite world.

Iridium CEO Matt Desch sounds like Apple’s upper management as he describes the new Iridium Force initiative as a, “vision that accelerates the development of enhanced personal communication capabilities … and breaks the mold of traditional satellite industry go-to-market strategies by making Iridium technology more accessible and cost-effective for partners to develop a wider range of Iridium-based products and services.”

Personal, accessible and non-traditional technology — all terms used in the same brochure for next year’s netbooks. The Iridium Force strategy includes allowing connectivity to these same Wi-Fi enabled devices, as well as smartphones, tablets and laptops for applications beyond the reach of terrestrial networks. Iridium says it plans to invest in developing open and embedded technology for its partners to allow collaboration with a broader set of solution partners in new markets. Service enhancements under Iridium’s program focus on location awareness, as Desch says his company will integrate GPS location-based services for its mobile location-specific applications and personal security capabilities.

“With Iridium Force, we are leading an industry transformation once again by significantly extending the universe of handheld connectivity options,” says Desch. “Iridium Force is more than the launch of a new satellite phone; it signifies our commitment to enable powerful new capabilities including those devices that are already in customers’ hands to work on the Iridium network — today and in the future.” 

Iridium Force

Iridium Force also outlines the launch of a variety of new Iridium voice and data products, including Iridium Extreme, a rugged satellite handset with the ability to locate users anywhere on the surface of the planet. The handset was designed to meet the U.S. Department of Defense’s Military Standard 810F for durability and features a dedicated, two-way emergency SOS button on the unit.

The initiative also introduced the Iridium Core 9523 voice and data module — a device packaged into a platform enabling Iridium partners to develop new Iridium-based handheld solutions. According to Desch, a number of the operator’s partners are already developing products and services surrounding the Iridium Core 9523. “More than 17 of our partners are creating customized online tracking portals developed using Iridium’s open software platform,” says Desch. “Iridium Portal features include tracking an Iridium Extreme user’s real-time status and location, zooming to street level via online maps, scheduling regular check-ins, providing emergency services, geo-fencing and sending free-form, canned and social networking messages.”

The final element of the Iridium Force initiative is the Iridium AxcessPoint — a Wi-Fi hotspot accessory that connects BlackBerry and Android devices to the Iridium network using an Iridium Extreme or Iridium 9555 satellite phone. To access the service, end-users will need to download a free Iridium AxcessPoint Mail and Web application to their devices. Iridium launched AxcessPoint in the fourth quarter of 2011 with a retail price of around $200.

Yankee Group analyst John Keough says he believes that a satellite-based hotspot and product suite will be targeted to enterprise and consumer users that demand ubiquitous connectivity on devices they are familiar with. “For multinational organizations, such a suite provides a simple global alternative to navigating the complex roaming agreements currently found on terrestrial networks.”

When Iridium launched its complete suite of Iridium AxcessPoint products and services to customers in commercial markets in October, it highlighted the design of the downloadable application to transform any Windows-based laptop into a global Wi-Fi hotspot when connected to an Iridium Extreme or Iridium 9555 satellite phone. Iridium then made AxcessPoint compatible with Apple iOS devices in November and suddenly, the satellite phone has become a possible new toy for the small business tech-geek.

But Desch is not expecting to see too much consumer development this year; instead, he’s counting on it in the long-term. “The development will come as Iridium moves toward consumer-size devices that could take advantage of the small size of our 9602. I think we’ll have at least six different consumer-like devices come out in the near future that could generate significant volumes themselves,” says Desch. “Cost is extremely important to that development. For now, we have more than 100 different partners who are building the 9602 into their solution. We’re seeing a lot of activity in the trucking, mining, transportation, fishing and tracking industries. There are so many different ways the 9602 can be used for and are deploying a lot more units because of it.” 

Retail Exposure

Speaking on the SATELLITE conference’s popular MSS panel in March 2011, GlobalStar executive chairman and former CEO Jay Monroe took a similar approach to acquaintance when he envisioned the future retail exposure of his products. “I’d like to see our products sold at rates that places them on the racks of a Wal-Mart,” he told audience members. Five months later, Globalstar’s satellite messaging and emergency notification subsidiary Spot released its Spot Connect App to international customers.

The “app” short for application integrates the platforms that were responsible for transforming this term into a buzzword. The Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch were all named as devices that Spot Connect could integrate with satellite communications service. The aim is to allow users to transmit messages via Globalstar’s satellite network from any location on the planet. The app sets up a direct Bluetooth wireless connection between the user’s device and the Spot Connect device to send custom messages from remote locations as well as notify an international emergency rescue coordination center.

“The service also allows the user to store up to 14 predefined messages and 10 personal contact groups consisting of up to 50 contacts each. Users also can send location-based messages to Facebook and Twitter and Spot Adventures from isolated regions,” Monroe says, including social networking sites that have recently been woven into a majority of mobile satellite tech releases.

To support these features and repair its mobile satellite voice and duplex data services that have been just short of full capacity for some time, Globalstar launched six new second-generation satellites in July. The new constellation, now 12 satellites strong, also provides the backbone for Globalstar’s Spot product family devices and Globalstar’s simplex asset tracking solutions. In early September, the company announced that it had started processing commercial mobile satellite telephone calls for customers throughout the United States, Canada, Northern Mexico, Puerto Rico and the surrounding regions using its new second-generation satellites. Monroe says Globalstar voice and duplex data customers in those regions began experiencing improved coverage availability and call performance due to the activation of six ground stations located throughout North America.

By the end of September, Globalstar established both its Simplex commercial M2M asset tracking business and its Simplex consumer retail market success based on its enhanced Spot Satellite GPS Messenger offering. The company recorded more than 30,000 simplex data and Spot product family activations during that time, bringing it one step closer to Monroe’s vision.

While MSS operators are well aware of their potential market appeal, they are just as aware of how others have struggled in their attempts to break mass consumer ground. Nothing could provide a better example than the satellite entity TerreStar Networks, which in September 2009, signed a cooperative deal with AT&T to bring the consumer-friendly Genus hybrid cellular handset to the public sector, government, emergency services and maritime markets.

In its unveiling release, the Genus’ capability was described as “familiar 3G wireless connectivity with satellite capability at your hip.” The service was offered at prices of $24.99 per month, with voice calls at a rate of 65 cents per minute and SMS text messaging at 40 cents per message. Data usage was priced at $5 per megabyte. Subscription to these satellite solutions required qualified AT&T’s wireless voice and data plans, much like the iPhone. The satellite service, which acts as a backup when a terrestrial connection is not available, was to be provided by the TerreStar-1 satellite.

The Genus did see its full commercial launch in November 2010, and is currently available for purchase in the widely recognized Amazon online marketplace, but it was not enough to prevent Terrestar’s bankruptcy and the absence of its CEO on the SATELLITE conference MSS panel. TerreStar Networks eventually sold its business to Dish Network for $1.375 billion, and in an October 2011 court paper, the company said that $33 million should be left over from the sale for eventual distribution to unsecured creditors.

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