AT&T dials up disaster solution for Networx

New smartphone uses cell and satellite communications

Disaster relief workers can look forward to dropping a few ounces from their toolbelts — AT&T Inc. has promised to have its dual mode, cell-satellite smartphone on the market in the first quarter of 2010 and available on the company’s Networx Enterprise contract almost immediately thereafter.

AT&T is partnering with TerreStar Networks Inc. to offer the TerreStar Genus running Windows Mobile. The Genus runs on AT&T’s 3G and GSM/EDGE phone networks. However, it can switch to TerreStar’s all-IP satellite network where cell coverage is down or non-existent, such as after a disaster or in remote areas of the United States, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and coastal waters.

AT&T showed off a working prototype in August at the General Services Administration conference in Chicago. “We got a lot of interest from people from several federal agencies," said Jeff Mohan, AT&T’s Networx program manager. To design the device for enterprise and government use, the company talked to government and business users, Mohan said. “We listened, so we gave it features they said they wanted and didn’t put stuff on that they didn’t want.”

Part of what’s on it is a 2.6-inch touchscreen display, keyboard, Global Positioning System receiver and Bluetooth and WiFi capabilities built in.

What’s not on it: the external antenna that usually identifies a satellite phone. The antenna on the Genus is instead integrated into the device.

“It’s like the industrial strength BlackBerry they gave President Obama — a little thicker than a regular BlackBerry,” Mohan said.

The device will be available on both GSA’s Networx Enterprise and other federal contracts, said Stacey Black, AT&T vice president of strategic programs and mobility product management. “We’re looking at where agencies’ missions take them, so we’re looking at [U.S.] Customs and Border Protection, the national parks, FEMA, any agency whose work puts them in an area where there’s not going to be cell coverage.”

Satellite service will cost about half the current average. “We were aiming for affordability,” Black said. “This first generation TerreStar device will retail for about $799, plus $24.99 a month service, and about 65 cents a call [for satellite calls].”

The dual-mode device operates as a user’s regular cell phone until satellite service is needed. Then a switch on the device lets the user change functions. Switching functionality to, for example, get your email via satellite rather than cell phone is about as complicated as changing your ring tone.

“Typically, satellite phones sit in a suitcase, waiting for a disaster,” Black said. “A disaster strikes, you pull them out of the suitcase and usually find the batteries are drained, plus you’re going through the manual trying to figure out how to operate them, which can be very frustrating.”

On the drawing board: “We’re looking at a machine-to-machine product for mounting on a vehicle to be able to send and receive calls, like the vehicles that would be sent in after a disaster,” Mohan said.

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

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