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AT&T has weathered plenty of complaints about spotty cell phone coverage. On Tuesday, it will start selling its first phone that includes a backstop for AT&T’s own network, over a satellite. That means blanket coverage of the U.S., even in the wilderness or hundreds of miles (kilometers) offshore. The new phone, the TerreStar Genus, could be an important tool for boaters, fishermen, forest rangers, emergency crews and others who go outside regular cellular coverage.
There are a number of caveats, though. To use the phone, it has to have a clear view of the southern sky, where the satellite hovers, with no intervening trees, buildings or hills. That restricts its use to the outdoors. The satellite is aimed at the U.S. and doesn’t provide global coverage in the same way Iridium Communications Inc.’s satellite constellation does. AT&T will initially be selling it to professional customers through business channels, but it will be in retail stores later this year, said Chris Hill, the Dallas-based phone company’s vice president for Advanced Enterprise Mobility Solutions. The phone will cost $799 without a two-year contract, and requires regular AT&T voice and data service plans. It uses the AT&T network where it’s available. The option to be able to switch over to the satellite costs $25 extra per month, and then 65 cents per minute of calling.
Calls won’t be the only way to communicate using the Genus: It’s the first satellite phone that’s also a full-blown smart phone. It runs Windows Mobile 6.5 software and has a full-alphabet keyboard and looks much like a slightly thicker BlackBerry. It doesn’t have a large, protruding antenna, like other satellite phones do. It can send and receive data over the satellite, which means it can be used for e-mail and Web surfing. The cost, like the satellite, is sky-high: $5 per megabyte, or 400 times more expensive than a standard $25-per-month terrestrial data plan. Text messages, by comparison, are a bargain.
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