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Globalstar Is Putting Satphones on the Spot

Star of the Day

Nothing like a little healthy competition to break open the satphone market.

SPOT Global Phone

The SPOT Global Phone is a rebranded Globalstar GSP-1700, made by Qualcomm and measuring 5.3 by 2.2 by 1.5 inches (antenna retracted). It weighs about 7 ounces.

Sometimes underway at sea or in a remote anchorage far from city lights I will lie back on deck and gaze into the galaxy. When the air is crisp, it feels like floating through space with stars and planets ablaze. Passing much closer overhead are man-made LEOs—those are communications satellites, and their nickname stands for low-earth orbit.

As I write this, the last in a new family of LEOs is coming online, signaling the resurrection of Globalstar as a provider of satellite voice communications and the beginning of what may well be the normalization of satellite telephony. 

Once a major competitor in the satellite-handset market, Globalstar had burned out by 2007—almost literally. A component in Globalstar satellites had degraded to the point of failure, likely because of exposure to a radiation belt along their orbit at an altitude of 876 miles above the earth. The degradation of their S-Band amplifiers meant the satellites could no longer relay signals downward to handset customers, turning Globalstar’s 48-satellite network into a simplex (one-way) rather than duplex system. Consequently, Globalstar lost many of its voice customers.

Dealt cosmic lemons, Globastar made lemonade by introducing the highly successful SPOT personal messenger system, which worked by using the satellite’s still-functioning L-Band uplink, part of its simplex system.

On February 26, Globastar launched the last six of 32 second-generation satellites, more robust and powerful than the preceding generation. By the time you read this the network will be working once again at full capability, the last satellite having been activated and put to work in late August.

Globalstar satellite

One of the last satellites is readied for deployment to join
Globalstar’s second-generation low-earth-orbit constellation.

Imagine yourself in one of those remote anchorages far from city lights. Let’s say it’s Mayaguana, a Bahamian Out Island where I once hunkered down for six days while a savage cold front whipped up the seas all around me. We were bored and uncomfortable at the same time, but two questions arose as the days wore on: First, when would the weather let us continue  our voyage? And, second, how was I going to make that mortage payment soon due back home?

Globalstar competes directly with Iridium Communications and Inmarsat worldwide (and with Thuraya in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa). Globalstar phones prior to 2007 always had, and once again have today, voice quality nearly as good as our cellphones, which means it’s at least as good as, and usually better than, any of its satellite competitors.

But on Mayaguana, our concern was not so much about voice but data. Globalstar handsets can be connected with a PC to achieve data transfer rates of 9600 baud. Prehistoric as that may seem, it compares favorably to the somewhat usable 2400 baud of Iridium phones and the barely usable at the claimed 2000 baud of Inmarsat handsets. 

Companies called OCENS and Global Marine Networks support all three U.S. satphone enterprises with “crash and compression” software for downloading weather forecasts, exchanging e-mail, and web browsing. Starting with a “naked” 9600 baud, compression effectively accelerates download rates tenfold, or what Globalstar Southeast Sales Manager Rich Galasso called “AOL on a bad day,” a reference to dial-up web browsing back in the early 1990s.

As slow as it may have been, I was indeed able to download forecasts from OCENS that gave us the confidence to leave Mayaguana despite the approach of yet another cold front. I used the National Weather Service offshore forecast for the Southwest North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea and weather router Chris Parker’s forecast for the Southern Bahamas. Parker is an expert in Bahamas and Caribbean weather and one of hundreds of forecast resources distributed through OCENS.

The Globalstar phone I used in my most recent test in the Jacksonville, Florida, area was a GSP-1700 branded as a SPOT Global Phone (more about that nomenclature in a moment); I downloaded seven weather files relevant to Florida and the Bahamas, including Parker’s. The download took about 2 minutes and 20 seconds and cost $3.04.

Now about that mortgage payment: The process eight years ago was glacial but successful. I transferred funds from one account to another using my bank’s online service. I decided to reenact that transfer in my recent test and was aided by the fact that nowadays many institutions—news media as well as financial organizations—have stripped-down mobile websites specifically designed to be viewed on smartphones, and thus use smaller data transfers. In a test, I transferred $100 from one account to another in three minutes flat.

SPOT Global Phone handsets cost $499.95 and one of several options is an unlimited voice and data plan for $150 a month. To get the most from your SPOT or Globalstar phone, however, you should purchase add-on software services from a satcom add-on provider such as OCENS or Global Marine Networks (GMN). OCENS sells its WeatherNet software for $99, plus a small fee for each forecast file downloaded (the forecasts I used cruising the Bahamas cost less than $2 a day). Mail programs from OCENS and GMN cost $59 to activate and $240 a year. And XWeb data-compression service for accessing the Internet costs $30 to activate and $96 a year. Looking it at it another way, initial costs for a SPOT (or Globalstar) handset and OCENS software total around $688, with recurring annual costs of $486 a year. By the way, the OCENS products will work with the Internet access you happen to be using at the time, whether it’s a cellular connection or one of the commercial Wi-Fi hot spots established in popular harbors down island.

Voice and Data

Speed stats are important because airtime is money, so the faster the data exchange the less it costs, all things being equal. But all things are not. Currently there are Globalstar data subscriptions that begin at $25 a month: That’s for an “emergency plan” with just 10 minutes of calling. Plans range up to $150 for unlimited voice and data. (See “Voice and Data” on right.) This is what I meant earlier about the “normalization” of satcom with the cheapest handset at $499.95 ($600 for Inmarsat and $1,200 for Iridium) and service plans that begin to resemble cellular contracts in their pricing.

Ocean-crossing cruisers or circumnavigators should probably choose Inmarsat or Iridium to make the most of their worldwide coverage footprints, particularly that of Iridium. Globalstar’s footprint is limited to North American and Caribbean waters, reaching offshore as far as Bermuda. Another Globalstar limitation is the fact that it can receive short text messages but cannot not send them. So if texting is an important part of your immediate communications plan, look elsewhere. 

But Globalstar’s Galasso says there will be two-way texting.

Having launched its new constellation of satellites, the company is now beginning to replace its six North American ground stations with new advanced “gateways.” This will enable the introduction of the next generation of handsets. Galasso says this new phone will continue to offer the same voice clarity but will incorporate—and you are reading it here first—the tracking and emergency notification features of a true SPOT product plus the ability to pair wirelessly with smartphones and tablets for worldwide texting.

Time will tell if Globastar can deliver on all of this promise.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.