AT&T unveils dual-mode Genus smartphone

AT&T and TerreStar Networks today announced the TerreStar Genus, a smartphone that can use a satellite network when AT&T's cellular wireless network is unavailable.

The companies called the device unique for its dual-mode cellular/satellite capability, with a single phone number serving both networks. It will ship in the first quarter of 2010 and sell for between $800 and $900, although the exact price has not been determined, said Chris Hill, vice president of mobility product management for AT&T business solutions.

Both companies believe it will be valuable for emergency responders who might need access at an accident scene where cellular wireless service is disrupted. In order to reach the satellite network, a clear line of site is required.

With data capabilities, including MMS, utility crews could receive schematic drawings of pipelines or electrical lines to show a trouble spot; the user could view the images on the device's 2.6-inch diagonal touchscreen.

In addition to emergency responders, mariners and even adventure seekers taking outdoor treks or mountain climbs could find it useful, Hill said.

Daniel Longfield, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, predicted that government agencies would be interested in the Genus for first-responder situations. He said the pairing of a satellite network with a terrestrial cellular network carrier is unique and will help the product's adoption.

Thuraya Telecommunications Co. in Abu Dhabi, UAE, makes a dual-mode satellite/cellular smartphone, called the Thuraya SG-2520, but it is not promoted by a specific U.S. cellular carrier, which limits its sales potential, Longfield said. It also could cost nearly twice the price of the Genus, depending on where it is bought, he said.

Genus users will need to choose from existing business voice and data plans for monthly cellular service from AT&T. Satellite service will cost extra, at $25 a month per device, with additional charges for voice calls: 65 cents a minute for calls and $5 per megabyte for data. Terrestar President Jeffrey Epstein said those satellite rates are up to 50% below existing voice and data rates for dozens of satellite phones on the market.

Satellite connections will be made to the Terrestar-1 satellite launched in July into geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above North America, Epstein said.

The Terrestar Genus is not exclusively tied to AT&T, and Epstein said it could work eventually with other cellular standards than AT&T's High Speed Packet Access and GSM networks.

The Genus runs Windows Mobile 6.5 Professional, which is not officially released yet; Epstein called Windows Mobile a "very viable platform," especially for government users who like Windows Mobile for its security features. "For me, security was one of the crucial points for using Win Mobile," Epstein said.

Some have criticized Windows Mobile and wonder whether Microsoft Corp. will support the operating system beyond a Windows 7 release in 2010. Even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently told investors that he wished Windows Mobile were doing better , and that he had reorganized the Windows Mobile team to bring about improvements.

Hill said AT&T still has a full line of mobile devices running on Windows Mobile and expects it to remain "very viable" for 18 months for the carrier's needs. But he wasn't sure what might happen after that. "As we look at 2011 and beyond Windows 7, it will be interesting to see how Windows Mobile evolves."

The Genus is smaller than previous satellite phones, and does not require an external antenna as many satellite phones do. It includes a 2.6-inch touchscreen with a full QWERTY keyboard below the screen. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS are supported. A microSD card slot will support a card with up to 16 GB and the device has a 3-megapixel camera. Microsoft Office Mobile software applications are provided.

The device is 4.7 inches by 2.5 inches, and is 0.8 inches thick. TerreStar did not say how much the Genus weighs in its spec sheet for the device.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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