Satellite-communications provider Iridium Satellite unveiled the 9555, the company’s newest phone that is significantly smaller and more powerful than its previous generations.

“We have a continual request for smaller, lighter phones with advanced capabilities,” said Liz DeCastro, spokeswoman for Iridium. “We took our customer input and launched the 9555, which is 30% smaller and lighter, more powerful, and features new capabilities.”

These new features include an integrated speakerphone, improved SMS and e-mail capabilities, an upgraded mini-USB data port and an internally retractable antenna. In addition, the 9555 has a new interface that is designed to be so intuitive that “customers can start making calls right out of the box, skipping the traditional learning curve,” according to the company.

While the 9555 includes new capabilities, the key characteristics of the phone remain the fact that it is rugged and provides access to the Iridium system of 66 low-orbiting satellites that enable communications from any location on the globe. The fact that the system does not depend on a terrestrial network is attractive to users in remote environments, as well as those working in an area where a disaster has rendered terrestrial networks unavailable — a scenario that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

DeCastro said the 9555 represents the fourth generation of Iridium phones. Motorola, which envisioned and built the system, manufactured the first two Iridium handsets, and Iridium manufactured the 9505A model in 2006. By manufacturing its own phones, Iridium is able to have “greater control over the process and the cost savings, which we’re able to turn around and allow our partners and end-user customers to realize,” she said.

The phone currently is being beta-tested by a transnational emergency response team supported by the David McAntony Gibson Foundation, a Canadian charity based in Toronto that provides disaster relief services to global large-scale catastrophes. Its operational arm, GlobalMedic, deploys a Rapid Response Team that runs search and rescue operations, provides civilians with access to clean drinking water, and uses inflatable field hospitals to restore medical infrastructure. Amir Azimi, a multimedia manager with GlobalMedic, said his team of emergency responders is testing the new Iridium phone as a source of communication in the field to respond to disasters.

“Most of the areas we go to are remote and heavily damaged,” Azimi said. “A lot of the time there is no cell phone reception, so we rely on the Iridium phones.”

In October, GlobalMedic deployed a team to Haiti to install water purification units for the local people who were affected by the hurricanes. They were stationed in the small, rural town of Jacmel, where there was no cell phone reception or Internet access.

“My BlackBerry wasn’t even able to get proper reception,” Azimi said. “The Iridium phone didn’t let us down. Every time we needed to make a call we were able to get clear reception.”

Azimi said the phone lets him and his team communicate almost anywhere in the world. It also offers a long battery life, convenient size, durability and ease of use. Heavy clouds obviously affect the connection, he said, and there are points when a connection can be lost.

“It could use a larger antenna for when we are driving,” Azimi said.

Iridium partners are expected to begin selling the 9555 in November, with pricing expected to be about $100 more than the $1100–$1200 price tag accompanying most configurations of the 9505A, DeCastro said.