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.
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.”