Ralph Graf, president of Graf Metallic of America, a textile-machinery company based in Spartanburg, South Carolina, spends seven months a year on the road, often in places without roads or reliable telephones.
That creates a problem: How does he stay in touch with his business partners without losing touch with headquarters? "I could bring my laptop and hook up to the Net," Graf says, "but there aren't many Internet service providers in the boondocks outside Beijing."
Graf's solution: Planet 1, a new personal satellite communications system developed by Comsat and manufactured by NEC. Planet 1 lets users make calls, receive faxes, and check email anywhere in the world, without requiring access to the local phone system. Planet 1 transmits calls up to a constellation of "spot beam" satellites, then down to Comsat stations back on earth, and finally on to conventional telephone networks. To process email or receive faxes, users simply connect Planet 1 to their laptop or portable fax.
Graf, 57, has been using personal satellite equipment since it was introduced four years ago. His first unit, from Magnavox, weighed 38 pounds and cost $32,000. Planet 1 is about the size of a laptop, weighs less than six pounds, and retails for $2,995. Service fees are $25 per month plus a $3 per-minute charge for calls. Graf says his monthly bill runs about $300.
Where's the most far-out spot Graf has used his Planet 1? "I was on the Jungfrau in central Switzerland," he says, "somewhere near 13,000 feet. We got to the top of the mountain, and I decided to make a phone call. People looked at me like I was crazy. But it was no big deal. It's so portable."
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