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August 1, 1997


Satphones set to beam up India

Satphones, satellite-based telephones, are all set to invade India's fledgling mobile telephony market.

The Satphone has an aerial which hooks the caller directly to a satellite. The satellite then hunts for the number dialled by using earth stations and beams down the call to the person you wish to talk to.

The new telephone's manufacturer, ICO, claims it makes no difference where you are, whether in the middle of the desert or far out at sea, you can always get through.

Like the cellphone system, the Satphone is mobile and can transmit both voice and data. But unlike the car phones it is not restricted by the number of cell sites.

Currently, ICO has four satellites covering the entire globe. It also permits the same operator to function across the globe and the user to carry the same instrument anywhere in the world.

While there are several versions, the one being touted for personalised use is the mini-M, a smaller version of 'M', the earlier briefcase model launched two years ago.

The service is, however, far more expensive than cellular phones because of the price of the technology itself. The handset should cost Rs 250,000 and the charge for each call could be around Rs 120.

The Satphone is being marketed by NEC of Japan, Nera and the Mekaster Group for ICO, a company promoted by the Inmarsat organisation.

Subscribers to Satphones will first have to approach the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited for registration. The telephone number will be allotted by Inmarsat and all details of the buyer recorded with VSNL, the government's Department of Telecommunications and its wireless planning and co-ordination wing.

The billing will be done by VSNL and the revenue shared by DoT, VSNL and Inmarsat. VSNL, which holds a small stake in the ICO project, functions as the gateway for the satellite services in India and all calls made from Satphones will first touch VSNL's earth station and then get routed to the subscriber.

ICO, which launched the mini-M phones last month, is awaiting DoT's permission to market Satphone services.

The government has permitted a select few politicians, including Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, to use the mini-M, but has refused permission to others on security grounds. The government is yet to formulate a policy on satellites and satellite-based phone services.

So far, the distributor, Mekaster, has sold 25 briefcases in India but hopes to have over 1,000 subscribers for the mini-M within the next two years, if government permission comes through.

The government is jittery about clearing the mini-M proposal as it feels calls made through satellites cannot be traced or identified. However, according to Sanjay Chandra of the Mekaster group, it is technically possible for VSNL or DoT to trace the calls and even locate the caller.

"We are hoping that the government will permit this service within the next few weeks," says Chandra. "The Andhra Pradesh chief minister is using this and it is an indication that it will finally be approved," he says.

ICO's four satellites, launched for the M phone, cover the entire globe, making the communicator completely mobile.

The mini-M, however, is serviced by a different set of satellites. The only country that is out of the mini-M's reach is New Zealand. The company plans to launch more satellites to correct that problem.

ICO, a consortium of 78 countries and their national communications carriers, has been the first to launch Satphone in India. Several other consortia, including Iridium, Teleglobal, Odyssey and Teledesic, are still launching their satellites and are expected hit the market by 1999.

The mini-M includes a handset, a data communication device and can be connected to a fax machine or a laptop computer.

The company is targeting business users and government agencies for the M and mini-M phones. Several sets have been sold to the Special Protection Group and weathermen. The mini-M could also be targeted at business houses and travelling sales persons.

The mini-M is expected to make uplinking faster and make calls cheaper. The mini-M weighs only 2.5 kgs and is easy to carry.

ICO's next project is the global handset targeted at the individual customer. That product will be in direct competition to the other satellite consortia, all of whom will launch phones aimed at the individual users.

Most companies are planning to provide dual-mode handsets to subscribers so that they can switch between the cellular and satellite modes.

Satellite phone companies and cellular phone companies will then enter into an agreement to share subscribers and demarcate cellular and satellite territories.

- Compiled from the Indian media

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