Satellite-communications provider TerreStar Networks is scheduled to launch a next-generation satellite tomorrow that is expected to bring satellite functionality to everyday devices, including consumer wireless handsets and — eventually — LMR radios used by public-safety personnel.

Traditionally, satellite devices have required large antennas to receive the signal from the satellite. However the large next-generation satellites — the TerreStar-1 has a satellite the size of a small bus and a reflector that is more than 60 feet wide, according to TerreStar CTO Dennis Matheson — will allow the satellite signal to be received by antennas that fit in the small form factors found in consumer wireless handsets.

TerreStar already has a non-exclusive reciprocal roaming agreement with AT&T Mobility and a dual-mode handset that works on AT&T's terrestrial networks and TerreStar's satellite networks when a user is outside AT&T's terrestrial coverage area. Assuming a successful launch and testing during the coming months, TerreStar plans to begin providing next-gen services using the new satellite by the end of the year.

"We believe it's definitely going to change the outlook on communications, because you're going to be able to get communications wherever you need them, not just where the towers happen to be," Matheson said. "It will allow people to be a lot more mobile and flexible, and it gives them the ability to be where they want to be and still have great communications — voice, video and data services."

Exactly how the roaming between terrestrial and satellite networks will be done is still being determined, Matheson said.

From a technological perspective, the handoff between networks could be done automatically, allowing users to seamlessly continue their communication sessions while moving between networks, Matheson said. However, TerreStar is conducting marketing studies to determine whether customers would prefer some sort of warning — or even a dropped call — that they are moving from a terrestrial network to the typically more expensive satellite network, he said.

Initially, TerreStar is targeting the commercial markets. The first dual-mode handset will operate terrestrially on 3G HSPA networks — as well as EDGE and GSM networks — and the TerreStar satellite network, Matheson said. In the future, handsets are expected to include LTE capabilities as 4G terrestrial networks are deployed.

Adding satellite capability to mission-critical LMR devices is a "natural evolution," Matheson said.

"As we move forward, we see this moving into a wide range of products, including LMR-type units for the public-safety arena," he said.

Another feature of the next-generation that should be attractive to public safety is the fact that TerreStar can dynamically concentrate as much as 15% of satellite's power into one "spot beam," greatly enhancing the capacity in a given area — a capability that is expected to be particularly helpful in the wake of a disaster. Matheson said TerreStar has been working with government entities to ensure that the next-generation satellite is able to handle their communications needs in such trying circumstances.

"The studies that we've done with those government agencies have all indicated that we could handle far more than the number of people that they would expect to put into theater on any given issue that has occurred," he said. "And we didn't max out, so all the other consumers would still have capacity for all the family and friends calls."

Under normal conditions, data throughputs from TerreStar's next-generation satellite are expected to range from 64 Kb/s to 400 Kb/s, Matheson said. Handheld devices used primarily for text-based services may use lower speeds to conserve battery life, while the higher throughputs rates are optimal for more bandwidth-intensive services that use devices with fewer power limitations, he said.

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