Cellular handsets capable of also acting as satellite phones could be available in the next three years, thanks to an agreement between Qualcomm and satellite communications providers Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) and ICO Global Communications to develop an integrated chipset.

Devices equipped with the chipset would transmit signals over a traditional terrestrial cellular network but would be able to link to a satellite service when a terrestrial network is not available. The chips are expected to be available in 2010.

In July, SkyTerra — parent company of MSV — announced it had secured the $500 million in funding needed to launch MSV's next-generation satellites in 2009 and 2010.

Traditionally, satellite phones have required large antennas so signals can reach satellites. However, the next-gen satellites are so large that future handsets can have a form factor similar to that of current cell phones.

Roger Entner, vice president of communications for IAG Research, questioned whether wireless carriers would want to partner with a satellite provider.

“This would be something more for someone like FEMA — a catastrophe-proof solution that also works outside the general footprint,” Entner said.

Mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold agreed that the addressable market is limited but believes it can be a valuable one to carriers, as it would be attractive to customers such as public safety, government, utilities and energy-related enterprises.

Year when chipsets that transmit over both cellular and satellite could be available.