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Turn Your Smart Phone Into a Satellite Phone

Connect Four (or More)

‘GO’ almost anywhere you want—this satellite device from Iridium will allow multiple users to stay in touch beyond the reach of cellular and Wi-Fi.

Remember when you first saw a cellular phone? The technology was prohibitively expensive early on, but it eventually evolved into the useful, ubiquitous devices we see today. Now Iridium is looking to bring about a similar evolution to its satellite system, largely by using the substantial computing power of smartphones we already find so familiar.

Iridium GO

“Basically what we’ve got is a mobile satellite hot spot—a very small device, a little bigger than a pack of playing cards—to enable your smartphone or tablet to make voice calls, to let people do social media … well outside the reach of cellular providers,” says Tim Johnson, director of land mobile business for Iridium.

Called Iridium GO, the unit is a black box that measures 4 ½ by 3 ¼ by 1 ¼ inches with a flip-up antenna, and it’s built to military specification for ruggedness (MIL-STD-810F, which outlines performance standards in high and low temperatures, vibration, shock, and many more; the U.S. military currently uses the next-generation MIL-STD-810G) and IP65 for ingress protection (total dust protection and protection from low-pressure water jets from any direction). The device connects to your smartphone via Wi-Fi to a range of up to 100 feet. “There’s probably some variability when you’re talking about boats because the materials that boats are made of may impact that Wi-Fi connectivity,” Johnson says.

Iridium GO is designed to allow connectivity with a smartphone or tablet through an app installed on the device. It can be powered by wire but also has an internal battery that offers 18 hours of standby time or four hours of talk time. If it works, this could be a terrific product for people who cruise the Bahamas or anywhere outside the coastal limits of the United States—depending on the price. 

“The pricing is going to be right in the neighborhood of $800 at retail, and there’ll probably be some variability on that depending on where in the world it’s being sold and by which partner,” Johnson says. “And the service itself is pretty variable based on the size of the bundles people want to take. At the low end, it’s comparable to what people are paying for Iridium service, in terms of the standard monthly fee. What I will say is that we have created some really aggressively priced bundles. … It will probably be fully 50 percent lower than what it has been in the past. You will probably have a range that begins at $30 a month at the low end to super-heavy users who expect to make a lot of voice calls. For them it easily could be over $100 a month.” Pricing we’ve seen so far has started at $849.99 and plans start at $49.99 per month.

Globalstar Sat-Fi

Globalstar Sat-Fi

As with every game, things get more interesting when there’s more than one player: Here comes Globalstar with Sat-Fi, an antenna and router that provides satellite connectivity to multiple users (up to eight) through their app-enabled mobile devices. Available with a marine-grade antenna, Sat-Fi starts at $999 with plans ranging from $35 to $150 per month. Best advice: Compare coverage areas of the various services to see which one will work best for you.

Iridium has been serving the sailing community for a long time, and many value-added developers have created solutions that take into account the pay-as-you-go cost-consciousness of that market. “Especially things like e-mail applications that use as little data as possible, SOS applications, Web applications,” Johnson says. “There’s a whole suite of these applications that can be easily ported over to GO, including those from Android and the iOS platforms.”

Iridium has also been paying attention to the market and how people use their smartphones and tablets, and one aspect of that is they like to use their own smartphones and tablets. GO is equipped to deal with a multi-user environment. “GO is actually set up for multiple connections—three, four, five people onboard,” Johnson says. “You could have three Android devices, two iOS devices onboard. You could have a tablet and an iPhone. While you can’t all use it simultaneously, in that you only have one voice or data channel, everybody can access it. I can easily see a use where you have somebody up on deck texting, somebody down below ready to pull a weather GRIB file down, somebody with an iPad sending out position reports every five or 10 minutes. The Wi-Fi is really useful in a multi-user environment.”

And some available plans also take into account what your monthly cell-phone plan actually looks like. “There will be some neat twists we haven’t offered before in some plans, like unlimited text messaging,” Johnson says. “We know there’s a large number of users in the handheld community that like using text messaging as a way of keeping up. You’ll also see location-based services with position reports at regular intervals.”

Location-based services could be a key feature for boaters since it adds another layer of safety at the satellite level. “When we rolled out the Iridium Extreme a couple of years ago that was the first thing we made that had location-based services built in,” Johnson says. “So there are partners who work with us who have developed portals that will do things like show locations on a map, enable people to communicate back through the Web to the handset with the same technology as the Iridium Extreme. It also has an SOS button that links back to the GEOS, the emergency response service.”

GO allows users to customize its canned SOS messages, and also change the destination of the SOS message so it’s directed to a particular local Coast Guard number or a certain search-and-rescue center relevant to your area. It will send an e-mail or a text or it will make a voice call. Under battery power, “it’s going to put you somewhere between the four hours and the 18 hours, less than the 18 hours depending on the rate at which you are sending SOS calls,” Johnson says.

Like smartphones, GO also may see new uses as app developers get in on the act. “We went with an open architecture and a tool kit that allows partners to develop application needs of their customers,” Johnson says. 

One thing the Iridium GO does not do: Retain your smartphone telephone number while you’re making calls through the satellite connection. “You’re going to be using an Iridium app that’s installed on your device dialing with the number for the Iridium GO,” Johnson says. “Unfortunately it’s technically a very challenging thing to allow you to have your own phone number.”

In light of recent developments, we’re fairly sure someone will figure it out eventually.

Iridium, 866-947-4348;

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.