At Sea Communication: Common satellite phone systems head to head

Frequently, in my career with Marine Computer Systems, Inc., I have helped end user after end user with their questions and troubles with the ins and outs of Globalstar and Iridium. What’s best option for where they’re going, costs and connectivity? I have been on the ground floor for customers switching between Globalstar and Iridium after a poorly informed decision to go with one rather than the one that best suits their needs. Additionally, there seems to be a lack of coaching when it comes to end users using their system correctly. So here it is, the ins and outs to Globalstar and Iridium.

First, let us talk about the technology. Satellite communication is very cool and can keep you safe and connected on your voyages. Both Globalstar and Iridium systems use non-geosynchronous satellites zipping overhead at around 16,000 mph.

The Iridium satellite system allows your signals to be transferred from one satellite to another before reaching the ground station in which your call or data signal is routed to your destination. This means that you can be really far away from land or civilization in general and still make voice and data calls.
Globalstar on the other hand uses a different technology. The voice and data calls being sent and received from your handset are traveling to one of the many orbiting satellites and then directly back down to a land station. These stations are spread out around the world and the technology allows Globalstar to provide a faster and clearer signal. The down side is that Globalstar’s coverage is not worldwide.

The break down

Iridium handheld and fixed-mounted units
The Iridium System has become a well-known workhorse of a wide variety of users, notably in government and marine applications. Its coverage (for all practical purposes) can be relied upon anywhere in the world. Initial cost for the handheld unit is about $1,500, which includes all the pieces you’ll need to get up and running with voice communication. An additional data kit will get you to the Internet where you will unfortunately find that you will never use this system for everyday web browsing as it is just too slow to load and surf Web pages, even when used in conjunction with its compression software. Non-Iridium brand docking kits are available for the handsets and give the portable unit better signal strength and a more permanently installed feel.

Service is estimated at about $2.00 per minute but will vary depending on how you want to be billed. Customers choose from pre-paid or post-paid plans, buying a chunk of minutes up front or accumulating charges as they go.

Globalstar handheld and fixed-mounted systems
This popular system has lost ground recently due to satellite connectivity issues, but when working it is an excellent option for the coastal sailor. Globalstar’s coverage area stretches (give or take) about 200 to 300 nautical miles offshore. The Globalstar system works with one satellite at a time. This is one reason for the limited coverage in remote areas during their satellite connectivity problems. When working the operation is short and sweet, your signal travails from your phone to one of the satellites and then directly to a land station. This allows Globalstar to provide a faster data connection than Iridium, and comes close to tolerable Web browsing speeds if you are patient enough. Handheld units start around $750 to $900 and come with a charger and a manual; you will need to add a data kit or docking station to allow for Internet access or any type of data communication.
    Rates are currently available to get you unlimited access for as low as $20/month. With Globalstar’s connectivity issues, I have noticed a decline in customers wanting the global system on board their vessel. Plans to replenish the missing satellites and bring the system back up to par are under way and I look forward to being able to recommend them to my coastal customers again.

Utilization of satellite equipment
As high-speed Internet becomes the new standard in home connectivity, satellite phone users need to remember that the always-on data connection they have at home is not the recommended situation for satellite communication at sea (or for your wallet). In every computer there are programs running, added to by users or by Internet-based programs without the user’s knowledge that request Internet updates and data sharing. Be wary of these types of applications running in the background of your computer, as they will slow your data connection down dramatically when you’re trying to quickly use a satellite phone for a data call. Things like Windows automatic updates and updates to programs need to be controlled or turned off.

Additionally, the data connections themselves can be adjusted in your computer. These settings should be set to turn off your connection after a predetermined idle time interval and also set to not automatically reconnect if the connection is lost. What you don’t want happening is for your computer to be able to connect automatically and download something over the Internet one evening, using 360 minutes at $2.00 a minute. It will quickly become an expensive burden.

There are many service providers and great people in the industry to help you figure out what you need and train you on how to use it correctly. Don’t settle for walking away with just a box of equipment, get people in the industry behind you that you can trust and make an educated choice in your next satellite phone purchase or upgrade.

About the Author
Noah Hoagland is the owner of Marine Computer Systems in Harpswell, Maine, which specializes in marine electronics, communications and computer systems for  sailboats and power voyaging vessels. Contact Noah at:

By Ocean Navigator