Iridium brings Wi-Fi to remote corners of the world

Satellite communications provider Iridium has introduced a new Wi-Fi hot spot that will allow iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry users to access the Net in the remotest parts of the world.

Need to send some e-mail while trekking in the Australian Outback or dog sledding on the Alaskan tundra? Or maybe you just want to check some game scores while sailing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Satellite phone provider Iridium Communications introduced a new product today that will allow people traveling in remote parts of the world to access basic Internet functionality, such as e-mail and Web surfing, over its satellite communications network. Today, the company announced its AxcessPoint mobile Wi-Fi hot spot, which provides Web access to select smartphones and tablets via Wi-Fi.

The way it works is that the Axcess Point plugs into an Iridium phone and then offers connectivity to BlackBerry, Android, and Apple iOS smartphones and tablets via Wi-Fi. The data connection is very slow: about 2.4 kilobits per second. But Iridium's CEO Matt Desch said that it's just fast enough to send and receive e-mails and to do some light Web surfing.

"This isn't broadband," he said. "It's satellite data service. It's not something that you would use to stream video from Hulu. It's to give people who are traveling in very remote parts of the world where there is no cell phone access the ability to check e-mail and access the Web."

Indeed, the service is not for the average wireless consumer. And the service isn't meant to compete in terms of pricing or speed with existing cell phone data services. Instead, the service is meant to allow people who travel to places where no cell service is available to still use their smartphones to send e-mails and access basic Web sites.

"The smartphone is often the best tool for the job," Desch said. "But until now, when there is no cell service, you couldn't use those devices. Now people can get access anywhere on earth with our satellite service."

Because of the slow network speeds, the AxcessPoint product won't allow connectivity to every Web-based app. The service is limited to e-mail and basic Web browsing, since those services must be compressed. Mapping apps, such as Google Maps and Google Navigation, as well as weather apps that constantly update weather, will be blocked, said Desch.

Iridium plans for the AxcessPoint to work with Apple's iOS, Google Android, and Research In Motion BlackBerry devices. So far it's submitted an app to Apple's iTunes App Store that can be used with the AxcessPoint and will allow satellite data access for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. It will provide an app that is specifically designed for providing access to the iPhone's e-mail client and Web browser. The app compresses the data to ensure that the slow speeds can handle the functionality.

Android and BlackBerry devices do not require an app to work with Iridium.

As for pricing, the AxcessPoint hot spot is relatively inexpensive. Users will be able to purchase one from a satellite service provider for less than $200. They will also be able to download free software onto a Windows laptop to turn that device into a satellite-enabled Wi-Fi hot spot.

The real expense is the Iridium handsets that can range in price from $400 if purchased used to $1,200 for the latest new model. The service can get pricey. But given that people won't likely be doing more than checking e-mail and a few Web sites it seems reasonable. Satellite services that resell Iridium's service cost roughly $1 to $1.20 a minute.

 

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