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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Need E-mail in the Wilderness? Here's the Gadget for You

Iridium, the satellite phone company, is branching out. With the company’s new device, now you can even check e-mail on your smartphone from the remotest corners of the globe.

  • September 9, 2011

It’s a commonplace to observe of our modern era that we’re “connected wherever we go.” But what if you go to the wilds of the Serengeti, or the remotest corners of the Australian Outback? What if you go to the top of K2, or the middle of Indian Ocean? If you’re one of those curious characters who likes to turn your back on civilization while still remaining tethered to it, then Iridium, a “personal mobile satellite communications” company based out of McLean, Virginia, has you covered.

Iridium has been in the satellite phone business for a while, but their latest model, the Iridium Extreme, is particularly impressive. It’s ruggedized to such a degree that it can withstand powerful jets of water, a duststorm, or many other manners of beating. (More precisely, it was engineered to meet a U.S. Department of Defense durability standard, 810F.) It has what Iridium asserts is “the first dedicated, two-way emergency SOS button on a satellite phone.” And the handset is smaller than ever, which admittedly isn’t saying a whole lot; compared to less heavy-duty phones, this one still looks like one of those circa-1990 ear-bricks. It’s costly, at about $1,200.

More intriguing than its latest phone, though, is another new product that Iridium announced this week: a product suggesting a pivot in their business and the acknowledgment that personal smart phones are becoming ubiquitous. Announcing that it wants to “extend beyond satellite phones,” Iridium is planning to introduce something it calls the Iridium AxcessPoint: essentially, a satellite-powered Wi-Fi hotspot that will let you push data to the smart phone you already own and love. The AxcessPoint (expected to retail by the end of 2011 for $200 or so), will work with iOS devices, once an app in question is approved; for Android or BlackBerry devices, no app is needed.

Naturally, the connection is slow as molasses, 2.4 kilobits per second. “This isn’t broadband,” CEO Matt Desch told CNET. “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.”

So if you’re just dying to catch up on “Parks and Recreation” episodes while you’re preparing to dive into the Marianas Trench, too bad. This technology isn’t for you, and maybe you should consider a new job, while you’re at it. But if you want to know how your sister fared on her LSATs or how your uncle’s operation went, you can definitely check your e-mail, which is no small feat. Using data via satellite runs about a buck a minute, which seems a reasonable rate to pay while connecting to the Internet from, say, atop an iceberg.

What’s interesting, though, is how even manufacturers of the toughest, baddest phone in the world ultimately have to pay tribute, in a way, to the smartphone revolution that has taken over the world. The Extreme kowtows to the iPhone; design and familiarity reign even in the jungle, or on the steppe. As Desch conceded, “The smart phone is often the best tool for the job.”

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