January 1, 2019:
Thuraya, a UAE (United Arab Emirates) company has introduced another innovative satellite phone design; an Android phone that operates as a satellite phone and a standard GSM smartphone. Although the Thuraya communications satellites only cover Eurasia (including Australia) and most of Africa that coverage includes over four billion people. The GSM roaming arrangements provide worldwide use of ground-based cell phone networks. Most satellite phone users are content with the inexpensive local cell phones in addition to relatively cheap basic sat phones (about $600 with call time at about a dollar a minute). But for those who spend a lot of time working in remote undeveloped areas, being able to carry just one phone for everything is worth having. That’s what Thuraya customers reported, especially after having used the Thuraya Satsleeve (that turns a cell phone into a sat-phone).
Thuraya is part of the UAE effort to diversify the oil-based economy common in most Arab Gulf states. This takes advantage of the fact that the smaller Gulf States have been surviving for centuries through trading and deal-making. Much of that oil wealth went into a sovereign wealth fund and the UAE has been the most successful at using the fund money to enable joint ventures with tech firms (from construction and automotive to computers, satellite construction and launching) to create UAE based firms that develop and sell world class products. The UAE firms put the manufacturing and other labor-intensive operations in Middle Eastern countries with more people than oil money and reinforce the image of these firms as Arab firms. This is a big deal with the Arab world which was late to get into the Industrial Revolution. Thuraya phones are made in South Korea because no nations in the Middle East, except Israel, can provide an electronics manufacturing capability. Until 2017 it was inconceivable that an Arab nation would do business with Israel but that has changed and the UAE being able to openly do business with Israel provides more opportunities to establish high-tech manufacturing capabilities in other Middle Eastern nations besides Israel.
Thuraya was founded in 1997 and initially worked to establish itself as a regional telecommunications company. After a decade of that Thuraya began introducing new products and services that were pioneering as well as well suited to the special needs many of its users had. Thuraya introduced smaller, rugged satellite phones that looked more like the new iPhones. By 2011 Thuraya introduced a unique satellite phone accessory, a special portable router that enabled a satellite phone to establish a wi-fi hotspot. Three years later Thuraya introduced a $600 “satsleeve” that turned an iPhone or Android phone into a satellite phone. Then in early 2018 came the satellite phone (the X5-Touch) that was actually dual purpose (satellite or GSM). These phones, costing about $1,200, were cheaper than most of the cellphones using the sleeve and a lot more compact and convenient to use. The phones are typical of earlier Thuraya sat phones. The X5-Touch has a 5.2 inch 1080p IPS touchscreen, a Snapdragon CPU, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of expandable storage, an 8 MP rear camera and a 2 MP front camera. It weighs 262g (9 ounces) and is water and dust resistant as well as being able to withstand extreme conditions. The X5-Touch has NFC on board and it supports navigation through GPS, BeiDou, and GLONASS.
One of the items that inspired the X5, aside from the satsleeve, was the Thuraya hotspot router. This really caught the attention of a lot of people who needed Internet service in a hurry in remote locations. By 2012 military and civilian users found they could set up an Internet hot spot (for wi-fi devices) anywhere on the planet, within minutes, using two devices that can be carried in your pockets. This is part of a trend that has been accelerating since the 1991 Gulf War, where suitcase size satellite dish gear allowed one to quickly establish a connection with anyone anywhere. Such equipment was popular with journalists and military personnel who had to stay in touch with editors, commanders, or suppliers back in the United States. Soon (1995) the Internet (as we know it) was introduced on a wide scale and that made instant access more useful, and important, than ever.
After 2000 it became increasingly easy to get Internet access anywhere. This was largely a military innovation driven by the need for troops to get connected while in combat zones. Until recently the "instant Internet" could be enabled within hours, providing local and international communications. Using a combination of satellite, cell phone, and wi-fi technology troops or relief workers can quickly have desperately needed local and international communications over a wide area. This kind of "instant Internet" kit can be delivered in a shipping container, ready to be quickly deployed. By 2012 Thuraya was selling devices that enabled you to establish a very local Internet hotspot within minutes.
Equipment for doing this has been getting more and more portable and inexpensive year by year since 1991. The Thuraya hotspot was as simple as it was innovative; a satellite phone and a separate mini-router device that allowed you to quickly establish a wi-fi hotspot (within 30 meters of the “Hotspot” router). At the time, Thuraya sold a satellite phone (for about $800) and a router (for $300) that made this happen. Data rates were not cheap, costing $3-$4 per megabyte but those rates were coming down. Thuraya satellites, then as now, only cover Eurasia and most of Africa. The Hotspot device only provides 60 kbps, so smartphones, tablets and laptops connecting via this hotspot have to stick to email, texting, and small data file transfers. But when you are faced with having that or no Internet connection at all, reverting to 1980s Internet speeds are not so bad. This Thuraya setup is particularly popular with special operations troops and relief organizations when they first arrive at a disaster situation. Six years later this is still a popular product, and data rates are cheaper.
The U.S. military is using a similar approach to provide troops with multiple battlefield hot spots, which can connect with each other and automatically create and sustain a larger “mesh” network. Military and commercial products in other nations are also developing and selling this mesh technology but it is most important for situations where the local telecommunications is primitive or non-existent because of a natural disaster or lack of investment.