Turning Smartphones Into Satellite Phones: Industry Trend or Temporary Distraction?

Satellite provides telephone access for millions of people, particularly in remote or rural areas that cellular networks don’t reach. As more people demand mobility and faster Internet access in these areas, satellite providers are focusing on extended coverage and new technologies to provide broadband access in all areas. Some satellite providers and other manufacturers are turning to devices that provide satellite service on Android phones or other smartphones.


Getting Satellite Service on Your Smartphone

Some smartphones can harness satellite using small devices that are about the size of GPS units. Of these, DeLorme and SPOT devices are probably the most well-known. Devices like DeLorme’s InReach, which pairs with the Iridium network, and SPOT Connect, which connects to Globalstar, can connect to a smartphone using Bluetooth. With these devices, users can send short, Twitter-length messages and also transmit map data. If you find yourself in trouble in a remote area, then you can useSOS buttons on the units to transmit your coordinates to the International Emergency Response Coordination Center. The InReach has more capabilities thanks to its Earthmate app, but SPOT Connect is more compact and less greedy for battery power.

Other manufacturers are creating devices that do not require a separate Bluetooth connection to function. Thuraya’s SatSleeve is an iPhone case that can send voice and SMS signals within Thuraya’s network. Also, Thuraya has negotiated GSM agreements with big carriers like AT&T so iPhone users can use their own phone numbers even in the wilderness. Thuraya is rumored to be working on an upgraded SatSleeve that will include data capabilities, and the company is also working on an Android version. Also, the SatSleeve costs as much as a basic satellite phone.

Launching Smartphones Into Orbit?

Smartphones aren’t just capturing satellite signals on Earth. Earlier in 2013, NASA launched three PhoneSats into orbit. Essentially, these devices, which are about the size of a coffee cup, use smartphone processors to transmit signals from space back to Earth. For now, ham radio operators are picking up the PhoneSat signals and transmitting them to NASA. NASA is working on piecing together data packets so that it can assemble the photos taken by PhoneSat cameras.

Android-based PhoneSats cost just a few thousand dollars for parts, including processors and strong cases called “Smart Boxes” that can protect them from both the heat of launch and the chill of space flight. NASA plans to launch another smartphone satellite this year. When it’s perfected, the technology could revolutionize the satellite industry.

Sat Phone or Smartphone?

While you’re probably not ready to launch your smartphone into orbit, you may be wondering whether to purchase a satellite phone or a connecting piece of technology like the SatSleeve or the SPOT Connect. As you make your decision, consider these questions.

  • Is your smartphone compatible? As mentioned before, SatSleeve is currently only available for the iPhone. SPOT Connect and InReach only work with iPhone and Android. Therefore, if you have a BlackBerry or a Windows Phone, you’re out of luck—for now, at least.
  • How’s your network coverage?SatSleeve works with Thuraya’s network, which covers about two-thirds of the globe. However, that coverage doesn’t extend into the Western hemisphere. SPOT Connect connects to Globalstar, which doesn’t have coverage as extensive as Iridium’s, which connects with InReach.
  • What about Internet?None of these smartphone extensions will have the Internet capabilities of a full-featured satellite phone.
  • What is your budget?SPOT Connect and InReach are about US$169 and US$249, respectively. The SatSleeve costs about as much as a satellite phone. Until the technology catches up with what regular satellite phones can already do, you may want to spend a bit more and get a satellite phone.
  • Do you need to buy anything?If you’re a frequent adventurer or you’re on the water a lot, then you may want to invest in either these smartphone extensions or in a satellite phone. On the other hand, if you’re taking your once-in-a-lifetime trek through Nepal, you can rent a satellite phone for a lot less.

All of these new technologies are exciting to watch. Ultimately, they benefit the consumer more than anyone. Satellite phone distributors and manufacturers will have to make sure they’re flexible enough to roll with the changes.

About the Author: Steve Manley is the president of Globalcom Satellite Communications, a leading distributor of satellite phones for both purchase and rental. If you need to rent a satellite phone, visit Globalcom online at

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