Subscribe to our newsletter

Electronics

Hanging on the Telephone

Companies like Iridium and Globalstar utilize only Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites.

By last fall my brother Chip and I were ready to toss our satphone into the water and make it a marlin teaser. For the last year we'd managed to get just one phone call out on our Globalstar handset, and like the many users who've encountered this problem, I was less than thrilled about the situation. Our crew spends a lot of days 100-plus miles offshore, and the satphone had been one of our key pieces of equipment, especially as a safety measure. Not being able to dial out (and still paying the bill every month) was just not fun.

Our satphone relationship wasn't always like this. In fact, the first few years were downright blissful. Back in 2003 my team was competing in a tournament when we caught a fish we knew had a shot at placing in the top five. We broke out the phone and called our families and friends to tell them to meet us at the docks to see it. By the time we got to the weigh-in, everyone was waiting for us. The fish was weighed, we won some money, and an impromptu celebration ensued. Thank you, satphone.

So what happened to the operator in the sky? And is it going to befall other satphone companies offering similar products and services? I decided to go to the providers and find out.

While Iridium provides satellite phone service, the actual phone comes from third-party providers.

As you may have guessed, my first call was to Globalstar. The company's spokesperson, Dean Hirasawa, was quite candid about the state of the company's satellites, its service, and what has caused the connectivity issues over the last year.

Globalstar launched its first-generation Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites back in 1998. These satellites, which circle about 878 miles above the Earth, were expected to have a lifespan of around seven and a half years before being taken out of service and placed into a "debris orbit," where they would burn up.

But, according to Hirasawa, the company's LEOs degraded more quickly than Globalstar had anticipated. As this happened, the performance of the S-band amplifier, which provides the downlink from satellite to the satphone (no downlink, no call), started to fail. The exact cause of the S-band amplifier failure is still unknown, but Globalstar believes it is a result of irradiation of the satellites in orbit. It should be noted that the company's one-way communication services, like the new SPOT messenger, which uses a different amplifier band called the L-band, is operating at 99 percent.

The resulting loss in working satellites—Globalstar has 40 of them—has made two-way services like the satphone spotty at best. The company launched eight spare satellites in 2007 to try to keep phone service stable. They should settle into their projected orbit this year and improve service.

With this information, I then tried to see if service was any better than it was last fall. At presstime (early spring) Chip and I took out our phone and turned it on at the marina. Over the course of six hours, we managed to get an actual signal (an improvement) three out of four times. But what's going to happen 100 miles at sea? Hopefully the service will continue to get better after Globalstar builds an additional 48 satellites. They are expected to start launching in late 2009, and the full upgrades should be in place around spring 2010.

However, while we had some success that day at the marina, Hirasawa admitted that his company's products and services may not fit everyone's needs at this time. To help with its satphone connectivity, Globalstar has put an "optimum satellite availability tool" on its Web site. To access it, click on the logo for the tool on the bottom left of the screen and input your lat/lon. The optimum time for satellite service at those coordinates should be displayed. It's a good stop-gap measure (if you know where your lat/lon will be at a particular time) until the new satellites are up and should help ease the frustrations of boaters who can't seem to find a signal.

The OpenPort system offers transmit rates between 9.6 and 128 kbps.

So what about other providers like Iridium and Inmarsat? After all, no company's satellites can orbit forever. According to Iridum, recurring problems, like the inability to acquire a signal and get a call out, are unlikely. Why? Because of the difference in how its satellite system operates. While Iridium uses LEO satellites like Globalstar, Iridium's LEOs transfer signals from satellite to satellite. (Globalstar uses ground stations to help move signals between satellites, where you're calling, and your phone.) Iridium's satellites pass from pole to pole in 100 minutes, so if you were making a call in the Sahara to your friend in New York, the signal would never touch the ground. It takes a section out of the connectivity chain (no terresterial link to pass through), which Iridium says makes it quite reliable.

Iridium also has more satellites in the sky than its peers. Sixty-six were in operation at presstime. Iridium additionally has nine spares and says that it expects its current satellite system to be in good working order until 2013 or 2014. However, because satellites don't last forever, it's losing about one per year, hence the spares. And to prevent any loss in service, Iridium is currently working on its second-generation satellites, called Next. These will start launching in 2012, a year before the old ones are expected to fail in earnest, which should ensure seamless service throughout the transition period, according to Iridium.

The company is also expanding what's possible with its satellite communication system. For instance, Iridium was recently challenged when some explorers, who were headed way north (nearly north-pole north), wanted to share a YouTube-like video they shot via satphone. Since the standard LEO satphone bandwidth is limited, the group banded together six to eight phones to concentrate the signal and upload the video via satellite.

Another new feature is OpenPort, which makes IP data and voice service more affordable at sea. Its radome, about the size of a 4-kW radar's, increases onboard satcom bandwidth, making tasks like uploading and downloading large image, video, and other files quicker. Data packages (pricing to be determined) for OpenPort will range between 9.6 and 128 kpbs.

Inmarsat offers services like Iridium and Globalstar but utilizes Geostationary (GEO) satellites. A GEO is much larger than an LEO and sits in a fixed position about 22,240 miles above the Earth. It's the kind of satellite that would typically be used for high-bandwith applications such as TV transmissions. A GEO—Inmarsat currently has ten—can cover about 40 percent of the planet. (I told you they were big.)

Connectivity has come a long way from two cups and a string.

To help prepare for its Satellite Phone Service (SPS), in 2005 Inmarsat launched two new GEO satellites called I-4, which are 60 times more powerful than previous generations. Together these two GEOs provide coverage to around 85 percent of the world's landmass and 98 percent of its population. A third I-4 satellite, which was set to launch this year, has been postponed due to issues concerning its delivery rocket. However, once the bugs are ironed out and the new I-4 is in place, Inmarsat will provide global coverage for SPS.

GEOs require land-based gateways to transfer phone signals. At the moment Inmarsat has one gateway in Subic Bay, Philippines, for its SPS. Since this service works over the I-4 satellites, the company will add two more gateways, one in Hawaii and the other in Fucino, Italy. While this coverage area is comprehensive, if you fall out of a GEO's signal footprint, you can still lose connectivity.

Inmarsat's satphone hardware, called Isat, is available for land-based users but not for maritime use yet. Until it is available boaters can use Inmarsat's Fleetphone product, but again, availability is currently limited to East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The company says it will soon be able to provide mobile broadband coverage to most of the planet, except for the extreme polar regions. And it will also be launching a new Fleetphone product to help support mariners with voice, data, fax services, and more.

Technology is an exercise in extremes. When something's working right, it's smiles all around. But when unexpected hurdles hit the system, thumbs immediately get turned down. It's good to see Globalstar making corrections to its current setup, with an eye set on improving its service quality. And it's also nice to know that depending on your needs, there are other communication options available. One thing I learned about satphone service: There's a whole lot of hardware floating above this big blue marble. Someone has to answer the phone eventually, right?

Check out our editors' blog this fall, when the author will provide a final update on his satphone's call rate.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

Related Features