Smart Sat-Phone: Yes And No

Well, you can’t fault AT&T for offering their clients more products.  Even so, it sure seems like they’re putting out second rate material in the process.  On Tuesday, they released their new smart phone, the TerreStar Genus, which has some satellite phone capabilities.  They’re marketing it under the banner of providing coverage absolutely anywhere in the United States, even where there are no cell towers available for use – doing so with all the capabilities expected of smart phones.

However, there’s a big problem with it as well:  there’s only one satellite on this phone’s network.  That means that anyone trying to use it outside of normal cell coverage has to make sure that they have a direct, unimpeded line of sight between them and that one satellite, even though it’s so far away they’ll never actually see it.  Most likely they plan to launch more satellites in the future; but there’s no mention of that in the article, so it’s anybody’s guess when there will be more of them in the sky.

Setting aside how unreliable the satellite capability is, making a hybrid satellite/smart phone actually is a good idea.  Having limitations on where you can enjoy all the benefits of modern phone technology is a problem that countless people have experienced just by finding themselves outside the range of any cell towers at an inconvenient moment.  It may well be that someday we’ll be using our smart phones exclusively on satellite networks.

However, that raises another issue as well.  At what point will we become so dependent on our smart phones that we’re back to square one in terms of having a digital service watching everything we do and quietly violating our right to privacy?  Or perhaps losing our ability to look up more than just an anecdotal amount of information about anything?  We’ve already run the gauntlet on both of these at least once because of powerful search engines, so what would happen if we could check “anything” from anywhere in the globe rather than have to take the time to actually do some digging of our own?

I’m afraid I don’t have an answer on that one.  Even though Harrisburg University ran its test to see how its students would do for a whole week without social media through any of their computers, that doesn’t even begin to approach the level of change that could be brought about by irrevocably tying your cell phone and the Internet no matter where you are.

It could well be that the benefits will far outweigh any negative aspects that come about as a result.  It could be that this is going to be the event that finally brings about the technological dystopia of which so many Twentieth century authors wrote.  We’ll just have to wait for a service with more satellites in its network in order to find out.

But a question that everyone ought to be asking themselves when they look at buying one, or just any new smart phone, is how much they’re willing to deal with someone watching them while they’re doing their online business with their cell phones.  Once upon a time, everyone would get up in arms over the prospect of a phone call being “recorded for quality assurance”.  Nowadays that’s standard practice in one form or another for just about everything done through communications technology.  If satellite-based smart phones do prove to be the wave of the future, there will be practically no avoiding being recorded and followed by the Big Brothers of the Internet.

Recently both Google and the U.S. government have been accused of spying on people in the name of maintaining some sort of quality control, but perhaps they’re not the only ones who find the line blurry over what’s OK and what isn’t.  The problem with having everything networked together is that we’re all suddenly living in glass houses whether we like it or not, even though we can’t actually see into other people’s lives as easily as some can see into ours.

Ultimately, people need to stop and think about how much access to the rest of the world they need and how much they’re willing to give someone else – maybe someone they’ll never be aware of – access to them.  What would you do with a smart satellite phone?

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