Will the SPOT satphone blow everyone else out of the water? by Lou Dawson June 19, 2013 written by Lou Dawson June 19, 2013 SPOT satphone Check out our detailed comparison of SPOT and Iridium phones. Okaaaaayyyyyy…. any of you guys pick one of these badboys up yet? More here. Theyr’e claiming it as the smallest handset and most affordable satphone. This could be a solution for many of us — depends on total yearly cost. 37 comments 0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail previous post Friends Hut, Colorado — Informal Reunion next post Guess That Wildflower 2013 37 comments Taylor B June 19, 2013 - 12:21 pm Wow what a great price!!! The bush pilots in Alaska loved the original Spot because it just sent a text message instead of some climbers/skiers being able to interrupt dinner with a phone call of crying about the weather and a pick up, LOL! cam June 19, 2013 - 12:53 pm I’ve had some pretty terrible experience with the globalstar network (both with spot, and sat phones). Have they improved it? it was not dependable as little as 4 years ago. tc June 19, 2013 - 3:36 pm No, Globalstar hasn’t improved for high latitudes Everyone I know who works up there uses Iridium phones. The poor constellation means that you may have dropped calls or have to wait half an hour to try to connect. So a globalstar phone will still work… but you have to be patient. It should work ok at lower latitudes of course. The Globalstar problems are more of an issue with a normal Spot when you can’t tell if the message transmits successfully. Friends who are experienced with using Spots were on a 3 week ski traverse near Juneau and only 3 of 20 Spot update messages got out! And that was letting the unit transmit for at least 20 minutes and many times for more then 35 minutes…. Not good enough. At least with a satphone (or a Delorme inReach) they would have known that their messages weren’t getting out. tc June 19, 2013 - 3:39 pm Slight correction: I said ‘a globalstar phone will still work [at high latitudes]. That should have been moderately high latitudes. If you go far enough north/south, it won’t have any coverage at all – they provide some optimistic coverage maps if you are interested. Lou Dawson June 19, 2013 - 4:32 pm Tc, thanks, important point. The SPOT website has a coverage map that’s pretty clear, though I think a bit optimistic as it’s obviously biased to a level horizon. Easy to infer that the Globalstar coverage might not work at all if you were down in a deep valley. That said, the guys that used SPOT units during our Denali trip a few years ago had success with the tracking function, though that’s a forgiving part of the package (you’ll hardly notice if one of the waypoints doesn’t get logged). Trying to do voice on a satphone will tell the tale, and I’ll guarantee it’ll be frustrating. Even my Iridium phone only has a few minutes when I’m in a valley here in Colorado. I just used it the other day, and it took me two different calls and a total wait-for-connection time of about 10 minutes to get them done. What SPOT should do is zone their map by how long a person might have to wait for a connection, and have another map that assumes, say, a 20 degree horizon. That would be honest. I still like SPOT as a company, but anyone can improve. Perhaps some competition will do everyone some good. Lou tc June 19, 2013 - 4:46 pm Yes, the tracking feature is definitely more reliable once it locks in (I’m not sure if it continuously locks onto the satellites?). To extend the same recent example of Globalstar problems in the northern BC/SE Alaska area, , I know that people in northern BC (RCMP, SAR personel) use the Spots in a tracking sense with success. But they have told me that the same units can take well over 20 minutes (30, 45, even more…) to do a single manual successful send. Of course, running tracking isn’t an option on a long trip (unless you are constantly charging batteries). It would be great if satphone prices (and call prices) decrease – since a phone is the ultimate tool. Hopefully this Spot Satphone is a move in that direction. Bar Barrique June 19, 2013 - 8:14 pm This is pretty exciting in the sense that sat phone providers are finally trying to expand their customer base with competitive pricing. I know two folks who use spot’s up here in north west BC, and, they take a long time to upload. I don’t plan on being a “beta” tester, but I am interested if this sat phone proves workable. Lou Dawson June 19, 2013 - 8:18 pm Bar, the best thing about this might be that it creates some competition for Iridium and brings their ridiculous prices down a bit. But, we’ll have to see what kind of yearly budget it takes to keep the SPOT phone available in your backpack… Bar Barrique June 19, 2013 - 9:58 pm Yeah; a guy I sometimes ski with has an Iridium phone, but he writes it off on his summer guiding business. The key thing is; are these guys seriously going after the consumer market? Billy June 20, 2013 - 12:18 am Just a bit of info on Globalstar as a system. I’m not an expert in communication satellites specifically but I do have a fair bit of experience designing GPS receivers. Based on some quick facts about the system that I looked at, here are some things to note: – Don’t expect to have great reception on the north-face of any large mountain if you in the mid-high latitudes (35+ degrees) in the northern hemisphere. Same goes with south-faces in mid-high latitudes (less than -35 degrees) in the southern hemisphere for the following reason. The satellites are inclined at a 52 degree orbit which means that if you’re sitting at 52 degrees latitude (i.e. Banff), you’ll never get a satellite that goes to the north of you, the highest the satellite will ever be is directly above. You can generally expect reasonable coverage on south faces in the northern hemisphere, but if you’re on the north face, good luck. Likewise, it won’t work well in mid-high latitudes if you’re in a valley/canyon etc.. – The Global Star constellation consists of about 40 satellites but the first generation satellites had some major issues with their power amplifier for two-way communication. It led to reduced lifespans of the satellites. As a result, some older satellites is still usable for one-way communication (i.e. SPOT messenger) but not for stuff like voice and data. For this reason, just because you have good coverage on the SPOT messenger, this is not necessarily the case with the SPOT phone. Moreover, Globalstar has since launched 24 second generation satellites which do not have the same problems (presumably) as the first generation satellites. They have a designed service life of about 15 years but that still means that 16 of the current 40 satellites are the older first generation with the power amplifier problems. This works great for SPOT messengers but may problematic for the SPOT phone still. – Based on what I can gleam off of the Globalstar constellation information, given that there are only 24 satellites and their orbits are all inclined at 52 degrees from the equator, you can expect roughly 4-7 satellites in view at any given time if you’re in the mid-low latitudes. With that in mind, for open sky (without mountains or other obstructions) you can generally expect a reasonably good coverage at mid-low latitudes. However with obstructions in the way and/or operating at high latitudes, it quite likely that most of the satellites will be to the South (if you’re in the northern hemisphere) and at low elevation relative to the horizon (which is more easily blocked by mountains and terrain). To contrast this with the Iridium network, the Iridium constellation has 66 satellites on 6 orbital planes (just like GPS) but is inclined at 86.5 degrees from the equator. This means that the satellites are essentially travelling in polar orbits and can provide global coverage anywhere on earth. Even if you were at the north/south poles, you can get coverage. Moreover, there are almost 3x as many usable satellites for voice/data so your ability to get a good data link is much higher, no matter where you are on earth. There’s a really good reason for why the Iridium network is much more robust. The US military actually uses a fair bit of the Iridium network’s bandwidth for their own communications. This is actually because the military consumes so much bandwidth that they simply cannot launch satellites fast enough. Moreover, there’s a limit to how much RF spectrum you can use both from a licensing standpoint as well as from a physical standpoint. Low frequency signals (UHF and below) cannot penetrate the ionosphere whereas higher frequencies (>2GHz) tend to get scattered. This leaves roughly 1 GHz of usable spectrum and even within this space, most of the spectrum is already allotted or reserved for things like navigation and radio astronomy. With all this in mind, the US military actually has a lot of incentive to ensure that the Iridium network performs as best as possible and remain robust and reliable everywhere on earth. Billy June 20, 2013 - 12:24 am One last thing. Not sure if anyone has noticed yet but the SPOT phone is just a rebranded version of the Globalstar GSP-1700. John June 20, 2013 - 2:01 am Billy, thanks for the details, I tried to summarize some of this in an earlier post. I did not realize the limitation of Globalstar at low angles. I was recently offered to test one of the new Globalstar phones, but I declined. Hopefully this will create competition and drive down prices. John May 7th, 2013 9:25 am Lou, The Spot uses Globalstar, which is rebuilding it’s sattelite constelation. The Spot helped Globalstar recover economically after their previous generation sattelites had a failure affecting the voice side. Globalstar does not cover the entire planet, just most continents, but not the poles. Iridium covers the entire planet. Their voice bandwidth is narrower then some other companies, making the voice quality poor. But Iridium is the only choice for full maritime and pole coverage. Lou Dawson June 20, 2013 - 6:43 am Billy, nice job on that comment, THANKS! Also, shucks, another rebranded! product being pawned off on us by PR people. Very disappointing. Billy, are the Globalstar satellites geostationary, as opposed to the Iridium constellation that’s whipping around overhead like a bunch of fireflys? At least with Iridium, you’ll always _eventually_ get a connection. I got taken. Was thinking SPOT had built a cool little phone and perhaps had improved the Globalstar system to a greater degree. SPOT sometimes appears to over-promise and under-deliver. Still, we’ll test this phone. When used in the appropriate geographical areas it could be useful. But again, judging from how even my Iridium has problems when used without a level horizon, my expectations are not high. If it texts and costs less than Iridium, then perhaps… To be fair: If the SPOT/Globalstar phone at least waits to send a text once it gets a connection that’ll be superior to Iridium. With my Iridium phone, you get a text ready to go, but while doing so the phone doesn’t show you the connection bars! If you try sending the text with no connection, you get a FAIL and have to dig up your text out of storage with multiple key clicks, then try sending it again, and again, and again. The phone will NOT send the text automatically once it gets a connection. Incredibly, unbelievably lame. This is the same firmware that didn’t even have a question mark in the texting symbols till a firmware update some time ago. All in a phone that cost more than $1,000. If the Globalstar can do just one thing: fire off a text once it gets a connection, I’d rather be using it than my Iridium (provided I’m in a geographic area where it’ll get a connection in reasonable time.) On top of that, to pair Iridium with a smartphone you have to buy a fiddly dedicated “hotspot” and connect your phone via wireless instead of just a simple connection with USB cable from smartphone to Iridium phone. Lou Dawson June 20, 2013 - 9:38 am If anyone is curious for phone details: http://www.globalstar.com/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=39 Lou Njord Rota June 20, 2013 - 10:41 pm Interestingly enough, we found our GlobalStar phone to be worthless in Alaska (Chugach Range) yet the SPOT worked fine. Go figure. Njord http://www.majesticheliski.com Lou Dawson June 21, 2013 - 7:51 am Njord, as Billy says above, SPOT uses some of the Gstar sats that don’t work for 2-way phone. I have no reason to doubt his take. Also, Wiki says the sats don’t pass off comm to each other as Iridium does, but rather have to have a ground station available, which is another reason they don’t always work in certain areas. Wiki has a pretty good description of the whole deal. It sounds like best use for the Globalstar/SPOT phone would be in a specific region where you knew coverage was ok. It’s not the kind of phone you’d just carry all over the world like you would an Iridium. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globalstar Njord June 22, 2013 - 2:07 pm Lou, You are correct… We thought we would be “G2G” with GlobalStar in the Thompson Pass area since there is a ground station in South Central AK, but found out the hard way that it’s not all its cracked up to be. Now going with Iridium, but still using SPOT for general Situational Awareness reasons. Njord http://www.majesticheliski.com tc June 22, 2013 - 3:36 pm Njord – out of curiosity – has your success in using a Spot in Alaska been doing the tracking for your groups each day? Or has it been single-send ‘manual’ OK transmissions? [As I said earlier, I’ve talked with friends in northern BC/southern Yukon that have success with the Spot tracking feature – but find that manual sends take 30 -45 minutes (or more) for successful transmission.] Billy June 26, 2013 - 12:46 pm Lou, Regarding the Globalstar satellites, they are not geostationary. The satellites are in low-earth orbits with an orbital period of roughly 100 minutes. This means that they will travel across the sky from horizon to horizon in under 40-50 minutes. Lou Dawson June 26, 2013 - 1:22 pm Billy, if that’s the case, why the issue with northern latitudes and all the low or no service areas? Are there just too few? Thanks for any more info. Lou DT June 26, 2013 - 1:36 pm Lou, Globalstar sats are in low earth orbit, but they are also in a moderate inclination (about 52 degrees), which means that they don’t get too far overhead at high latitudes. Lou Dawson June 26, 2013 - 5:14 pm DT, it sounds like the main problem (as I think I mentioned above) is that for the phone to work the Globalstar sat has to be able to hit a ground station, otherwise it’s an expensive orbiting brick. Thus, in regions without ground stations service is less pervasive, but hopefully for areas such as common backcountry regions in the U.S., the phones will work. Am planning on testing soon, should be fun. Lou Billy June 26, 2013 - 10:56 pm Lou, The best way to explain why this is a problem with northern latitude is to use a skyplot: http://www.kowoma.de/gps/gpsmonitor2/skyplot.png The example skyplot above is for GPS but it is very similar as what you’d expect for Globalstar. The skyplot represents the satellites location at a given point in time (circles with numbers) and the paths that each satellite take (thick purple/black lines). Where you see the black lines or red numbered circles, it means that the satellite is obscured by a nearby object (i.e. buildings, mountains, trees, etc…). Each ring around the circle represents a given elevation angle and the horizontal axis represents the east/west direction (left/right) while the vertical axis represents the north/south direction (up/down) with the middle of the circle being directly up (zenith) at your location on earth. This skyplot in particular is from a location in the northern hemisphere in mid-high latitude (Germany) and as you can see, there’s a big empty hole that satellites do not travel through. This is due to the inclination of GPS orbits and the same applies to globalstar satellites. Because of this, now matter how fast the satellites can zip around the earth, if your view of the southern sky is highly obstructed (i.e. you’re on the north face or in a valley), you’ll have very little chance of seeing satellites. In such scenario, the purple tracks to the south and probably southeast and southwest would be coloured black, meaning that you will not have line of sight with those satellites even though they may be high in the sky. I hope this illustration helps to explain why you’re less likely to have adequate service in high latitudes. Lou Dawson June 27, 2013 - 8:33 am Combine that with the need for a ground station for each satellite, and the situation becomes obvious. Thanks. tc June 27, 2013 - 4:07 pm From a Forrest McCarthy blog post, I learned that another player in the 2-way communicator market is http://www.yellowbrick-tracking.com Seems similar to the Delorme. It appears from the advertising that the yellowbrick is common in the sailing community. Iridium. 2-way communication. And the costs look much better than Spot or Delorme… It appears that there is no ‘Emergency centre’ involved. The ‘call the cavalry!” button just sends a preset emergency message to your contacts. If that is correct, then that may explain the lower cost. All looks pretty good to me at first glance! Does anyone have more information about these units? John July 2, 2013 - 4:25 pm GlobalStar had 32 Satellites. They are only replacing 24. So less coverage. Spot could communicate thru the previous satellites because the data side survived in the failure prior in satellite constellation, and voice communications were lost. As has been pointed out, GS needs to hit a satellite then ground station. They cannot relay between satellites like Iridium. I wonder if Spot users will see degradation with .75% satellite coverage under the new satellite constellation? Lou Dawson July 2, 2013 - 7:03 pm Just got our evaluation Spot/Globalstar phone. Here in central Colorado is seems to do just about as well as our Iridium, without a level horizon (sky view about 120 degrees as opposed to level horizon of 180, due to mountains and trees around our house). Full reviews coming, but biggie is you can not text from it, you have to do voice comm. Very strange, must be a technical limitation. John, the limitation appears at least in part to be ground stations, not satellites. For example, northern Alaska is marginal or no-go for Globalstar. I’m assuming it has Globalstar satellites passing overhead, but they have no ground station to relay your comm through. Ditto for 3rd World countries, where trying to operate a ground station could involve fighting pitched battles with “rebels” seeking to loot you — and getting employees might be tough. Just guessing. Lou John July 2, 2013 - 7:52 pm Lou, The voice bandwidth is wider with GlobalStar then Iridium, so voice quality should be better. They have been offering a free test phone to me for the year. Was offered one again today. Maybe I should try one out:) Iridium’s window in a deep valley is about 10 minutes as their satellites pass approximately every 20 minutes. Like you say, hope fully competition will drive prices down. Iridium just keeps raising theirs. I don’t keep a yearly contract with Iridium any more because of their contract expiration policy, and price. I just keep a handful of pre-paid sims for over-the-phone activation when needed. I think the movies portray Sat phones as having really robust communications abilities, when in reality it takes time to establish a link which may not last long. Aiming a BGAN WiFi Sat router is even harder, particularly in Antartica. Darn Mountains! Rob July 6, 2013 - 1:02 pm Lou, Your July 2nd post states that the “new” SPOT/Globalstar phone does not send texts…is this correct? The ads and brochures all indicate the phone itself is SMS capable although with a 35-character “limitation”. This may be a technical limitation but the skeptic in me says it’s marketing…similar to terrestrial cell phones…they want you on a voice plan as that’s where they make their money. I cannot seem to find anything on the airtime plans that say anything about the cost of texts (other than that incoming texts are free). Certainly I can see an advantage at times for full-duplex (voice) communications (“I hear the chopper now…I’m in the next gulley to the north”) but given the coverage and technical limitations along with prohibitive cost of satellite phones I’ve decided text-only is the way to go (for me). After experimenting with a DeLorme inReach I plan to invest in the latest SE model. Lou Dawson July 6, 2013 - 4:09 pm I have a test SPOT/Globalstar phone here. You can NOT text from it, only receive (unless you hook it up to a computer with its dedicated data cable, in that case you can send emails etc.). This is a huge problem as texting is the way to go when you have limited connectivity, and are trying to relay things like GPS coords. Nonetheless, the phone is light in weight and so far about the same as Iridium in terms of connections for our locations (not a level horizon, mountains, meaning, talk fast before the next dropout). Yes, inReach SE might be good, but beware, the PR coolaid is incredibly dense on this stuff. Huge problem with Iridium phone is it will NOT auto-send your text once it gets a connection. Be sure the inReach will do that. It’s very important, especially if you’re in a situation where you’re trying to render aid rather than sit there staring at your satphone waiting for bars to appear so you can attempt to send your text message. More coming soon, I want to file a good report and am in a cool position to do a comparo as I own an Iridium phone, and have the SPOT/Globalstar here in my hot little hands. Lou Rob July 6, 2013 - 7:19 pm Yup…I misread the brochure…it says the Globalstar phone will receive 35-character text messages. Verified by the user manual…which says nothing about sending text messages. Given the variable reliability of duplex voice via satphone this alone is a showstopper for me. I can’t imagine why they would not include a text-sending capability with the phone, especially since simplex data is much more robust on the Globalstar constellation (compare their voice and simplex data coverage charts…unless SMS uses S-band, not L-band…I don’t know…anybody???). I do not know precisely how text is mechanized in the inReach SE…however the inReach for Smartphones…once you have a satellite “handshake” (as indicated by a dedicated “visibility” LED) once you select a preselected message to send the rest is automatic until the message is sent. That, however, would be a good thing to verify as I do not know if it is the same for smartphone texts or the inReach SE. Regardless, I look forward to your full review of the SPOT/Globalstar phone. Mike Carr July 10, 2013 - 9:04 am Nice companion review of these tools in the latest Hang/paragliding magazine. I cannot link to it from here but it should be easy to find in Aspen… Green S. September 22, 2013 - 9:18 am This phone is an absolute piece of crap. Globalstar’s satellites again are failing, the service is just getting worse, all over again. Buyer beware – especially of SPOT’s love affair with misleading and lying to customers about its service offerings, prices, coverage etc. Lou Dawson September 22, 2013 - 1:48 pm Green, I’m not sure I’d go so far to call the phone such extreme derogatory. We got our truck stuck today in a zone with no cell service. Called in some help using the Globalstar/Spot phone, it worked just as good as Iridium would have. Though to be clear you can’t text from the Globalstar while you can from Iridium, which in my view is indeed a huge detriment about the Globalstar/Spot. Mainly, Green, if you’re gong to accuse a company of lying to customers, it would make this a much better comment string if you would please back that up with some examples. Our readers have limited choices in terms of these sorts of satcom devices, so solid information rather than rant would be much more helpful. Lou Jonny Haven April 4, 2014 - 8:42 pm John is RIGHT. GlobalStar had 32 Satellites. They are only replacing 24. So less coverage. And the 8 spares that are currently in the constellation are FAILING – that’s why the phone is $499. Look out, you will be duped by Globalstar unless you do your homework. The service is horrible today, and is only getting WORSE by the day. Their satellite constellation is BURNING UP, and Marketing is not even telling you, Ms. Customer…. Lou Dawson April 5, 2014 - 7:17 am Our comparison of SPOT and Iridium, with details: http://www.wildsnow.com/10280/satphone-review-iridium-9555-9575-extreme-globalstar/ Suzy August 23, 2014 - 11:18 am Nice try. The Globalstar satellite constellation was not designed to provide 100% coverage all over the state of Alaska. Having been a subscriber for years in the past, I can assure you that the coverage in in AK is spotty at best. I would not risk my life on it. Calling the “SPOT Global Phone” crap is a compliment. Comments are closed.