Satellite cell phones are not for the everyday user. They’re clunky, they’re rugged, and look more than a little outdated. However, satellite network provider Thuraya seeks to change this with its SatSleeve-- a case turns your iPhone into a satellite phone via Bluetooth.
The SatSleeve operates on Thuraya’s satellite network, which covers parts of Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. It’s only available for the iPhone 4 and 4S, but Thuraya sells a cradle attachment for the iPhone 5. The SatSleeve provides a voice and SMS service in remote areas that aren’t covered by cellular networks—which means that whether you’re climbing Mount Everest or sailing deep into the Atlantic, you’ll be able to stay in touch.
The SatSleeve comes with a 2,400 mAh Lithium ion battery that boasts up to 48 hours of battery on standby and three hours of battery while talking. The app comes in 12 different languages, including English, Chinese, Italian, German, Arabic, Russian and Bahasa Indonesian among others. Measuring at 5.4 x 2.7 x 1.2 inches and weighing 3.5 ounces it’ll certainly add some bulk to your iPhone.
The sleeve fits around your iPhone just like a standard case would, but comes with its own SIM card, earpiece and microphone to act as a standalone phone in emergency situations. A single button is located on the device that can be preset to one specific number in case your phone runs out of battery, and it uses a free app to bond its own SIM card to the one in your iPhone.
Thuraya plans to launch the first generation text and voice only version of the SatSleeve this month, but will release a version that includes data in August. This second-generation configuration will connect to your iPhone using Wi-Fi rather than Bluetooth, T. Sanford Jewett, Thuraya’s vice president of marketing said on Thursday. The suggested retail price for this voice and text only model is $499, and Jewett said the next-generation data model could land in the $600-$800 range.
Thuraya hasn't specified how much its data plan would cost, but airtime costs start at $0.75 per minute. Other satellite phone service providers, such as Iridium, charge $1.49 per minute.
Since the device operates on a satellite network, it doesn’t boast the fastest Internet speeds. Users will be able to use social media, retrieve email messages, and upload photos comfortably, but streaming video could prove troublesome, Jewett said.
“This is going to be one of our challenges going forward,” Jewett said. “It’s going to be an engineering challenge to build a small handheld device with a small antenna. But eventually, we think we can double [the SatSleeve’s] data speed.”
For the foreseeable future, the SatSleeve will only be available for the iPhone. However, Thuraya is planning to eventually launch an Android model.
“There’s a very good chance for that,” Jewett said. “The tricky thing about Android is that there are so many different models. We would start with one model to standardize, probably a Samsung smartphone.”
Thuraya didn’t mention which country would be first to get the SatSleeve, but the company has recently partnered with Japanese Internet provider Softbank.
The SatSleeve is the first device to actually integrate with your smartphone to provide satellite connectivity. Other solutions, such as the Spot Connect, act as external hotspots that connect handsets to a satellite signal.