If all goes well tomorrow, TerreStar Networks will launch a new satellite that is so big that the traditionally large antennas found on satellite devices no longer will be necessary. With these next-generation satellites, device antennas can be small enough to fit into the form factors of traditional commercial wireless handsets.

TerreStar is not alone in launching such satellites, but the company is the first to have announced a reciprocal roaming agreement with a major carrier — AT&T Mobility. By the end of the year, consumers should be able to buy an HSPA handset that also provides communications via the new TerreStar satellite when outside the range of AT&T's terrestrial network.

For the satellite industry, seeing this vision become a reality is huge, because it allows the sector — traditionally a niche-market player — to tap into the commercial wireless market's massive economies of scale. Instead of customers having to buy dedicated (and typically expensive) equipment and learn specialized operating procedures to access a satellite network, they can use the same devices they use every day.

While some consumers may consider such satellite capability handy, I question how often most will use it. For first responders and enterprises that regularly work outside the range of terrestrial networks — be it commercial or private — such a capability would be invaluable to add to mission-critical devices such as LMR radios.

Mind you, adding next-generation satellite capability is not a silver bullet that solves all communications problems. Even with the larger satellites, the signal is not going to be heard inside buildings or in areas with heavy foliage.

"Unfortunately, physics is physics, and we haven't found a way to bend that yet," TerreStar CTO Dennis Matheson said.

Despite such limitations, the fact is that a satellite-capable device is going to provide much greater availability/reliability than a device that can only operate within range of a terrestrial network — and the cost to add the functionality to a device is less than $5 per unit, according to the satellite industry.

That seems like an awfully small price to pay to ensure that a first responder's communications device doesn't transform into a useless brick the minute a tower goes down or the user travels out of range of terrestrial networks. Hopefully, the first-responder community will make it clear that such "backup" capability is needed, so manufacturers and carriers will embed the functionality in future mission-critical devices.

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