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Turn your iPhone into a satellite phone with SatSleeve

So, you've got your iPhone with you, but you're stuck in the middle of the Indian Ocean or on top of Everest? [Turns out that you can make iPhone calls from Everest. –Ed.]

Fear no more -- the SatSleeve from Thuraya will magically transform your iPhone into a satellite phone. The sleeve, with an expected price of US$499, piggybacks on an iPhone 4, 4S or 5 to expand calling capabilities far beyond the normal reach of cell service.

Thuraya has years of experience developing and providing satellite phone service, which covers most of the places a conventional/terrestrial phone signal doesn't go (ships, wilderness, mountaintops, disaster areas). The company's two satellites are in geosynchronous orbit within transmission range of its headquarters/downlink site in Dubai, and its satellite coverage footprint encompasses Europe, Asia and much of Africa and the Pacific (but not the Western Hemisphere). Like the company's XT satphone, the SatSleeve is manufactured by another OEM but sold by Thuraya to cell carriers.

With satellite phone service, normally you'd get a standalone satellite phone (or maritime satphone) with its own phone number. For the SatSleeve, however, Thuraya has negotiated GSM roaming agreements with scores of carriers including both AT&T and T-Mobile for the US market. That provides two key advantages: roaming using GSM wherever Thuraya has an agreement, and keeping your own phone number ringing via satellite when you're off in the wilderness.

The SatSleeve was launched in Washington, DC yesterday and in a followup press event in NYC today, where sheepish company execs apologized for leaving their demo prototypes in Washington the night before. Even without hands-on hardware, the concept is simple: imagine a Mophie battery pack with a giant extensible antenna on the back, and you've got the picture. The SatSleeve includes a few features not usually found in satellite phones: high penetration alerts (meaning your phone will ring even if the antenna is down) and full walk-and-talk capability (meaning you don't have to stand in one place with your head at an odd angle to avoid disconnecting your call).

The SatSleeve separates into several parts. The satphone hardware pack contains the satellite radio, GPS, the antenna, a battery pack, a Bluetooth chip to pair with the phone, and an SOS button (complete with its own mic and speaker) to make emergency calls if the mated iPhone is lost or damaged. The phone caddy protects and covers the iPhone, and the dock/Lightning connector base (the iPhone 5 version will be shipping next month) allows the phone to charge from the sleeve's battery or via a USB micro connector. The phone pairs with the sleeve via a configuration app and Bluetooth.

The first edition of the SatSleeve doesn't work with satellite data services -- you can, however, make phone calls or send and receive SMS text messages ("Help, I'm being swallowed by a wh..."). A subsequent voice + data edition is coming later this year, and will offer "satellite broadband" of about 500 Kbps for data. Future plans include a developer kit to allow application authors to access the SatSleeve's connectivity features; you could replicate the "where's Waldo" feature of the Spot Messenger hardware, for instance.

Thuraya's representatives told TUAW that the entire first batch of SatSleeves has been sold through to its carrier partners, who will in turn sell them to customers; half of the preliminary stock was snatched up by Japan's Softbank, which intends to offer them to its customers as part of an earthquake/disaster preparedness kit. (Some Softbank subscribers were without GSM coverage for as much as a year after the 2011 quake and tsunami.)

The service is definitely not cheap -- expect to pay $1.00 to $1.50 per minute for voice service, either prepaid or postpaid. If you do roaming on a GSM network or you're calling another SatSleeve user in the middle of nowhere, your pricing may jump up to $8.00 per minute. Thuraya's satellite coverage is also not available in most of the Western Hemisphere, which makes the SatSleeve a poor option for US/Atlantic operations but a great idea for Americans who primarily need satellite coverage in EMEA like energy company employees, military folk and so forth. Of course, those with a SatSleeve in the US could take advantage of GSM roaming via the service.

Even those rates could be a bargain for people who want the security of knowing that just about anywhere they are, help -- or just a dramatic last farewell after you're bitten by a black mamba -- is just a call away.

Steven Sande contributed reporting on this story.

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