Satphones making sense

In 1998, while outfitting our 30-foot ketch for world voyaging, we debated communications systems. In favor of a satellite phone, we decided we could handle the fixed upfront equipment costs, but the ongoing cost of satellite airtime was too much for our budget. Most consumers made the same decision, and both Globalstar and Iridium struggled in their early years.

Both satellite providers misjudged the marketplace. There was no price point at which they could attract enough users and pay the bills, which included huge debts. Globalstar and Iridium each went through bankruptcy reorganizations, where they were absolved of huge debts, and received small amounts of additional financing. While going through this process, both demonstrated they could increase revenues by lowering airtime rates and attracting customers.

Although SSB/ham radio is here to stay, satphones are often an economical way to communicate from remote places. Today’s reality is with airtime as low as 17 cents per minute, it is reasonable to place phone calls, conduct business, email and even do some light Web surfing from the comfort of your boat.

How the systems differ

While the two systems are similar in many ways, there are a few differences. Iridium uses more advanced satellites in a much more complex array, keeping things on the ground simple. If your phone can see a satellite, you can place a call. Your call is handed off from satellite to satellite (a satellite can see several adjacent satellites) until the satellite carrying the call has a land station, or “gateway,” in sight. From there, the call can be routed over conventional land lines to its destination in the most economical way. For instance, if you are calling New York from Fiji, you will connect to a satellite passing over Fiji. Your traffic will pass from satellite to satellite until it can be routed to New York via land line in an efficient manner, and you never pay additional long-distance charges.

Globalstar, on the other hand, employs a “bent-pipe” method of routing calls. Satellites perform a simple function, with most of the call-routing complexity occurring on the ground. In order to handle your call, a satellite must see both your phone and a gateway. All calls are routed to the most appropriate gateway in view of the satellite. From there, your traffic is routed over land lines along with other local and international phone calls. One benefit is the satellite technology employed is much simpler. Unfortunately, the cost of calls varies in much the same way it does for cell phones. You have a bundle of minutes you pay for each month in your home calling area. When you place calls from outside your home area, roaming fees apply instead of plan minutes, and these roaming fees vary by countr y. Coverage is also limited to areas within about 1,500 miles of a gateway, as a satellite must see you and the gateway to complete the call.

Both networks’ satellites will hand off your traffic to the next satellite or gateway as needed, in much the same fashion as your cellular phone call is handed off to different cell phone towers as you travel down the road. Both phones work best with an unobstructed view of the sky from the phone to the satellite(s), and performance is severely degraded by any metal structures (including buildings and metal cabin tops).

On a boat, this often means using the unit in the cockpit and putting it away when you’re done. You won’t receive calls when the phone is put away. If you need to receive calls, you will want to install a cradle down below and an external antenna with a clear view of the sky (see hardware sidebars on pages 43 and 44).

Choice rests with destination

Where will you use the phone? If you plan on using the phone primarily from the continental United States (lower 48) to the Bahamas and eastern Caribbean as far as Trinidad and Tobago, you will be in Globalstar’s home calling area for U.S. activations. In this case, Globalstar might be a good choice, because the hardware costs 50 percent less, usage costs 85 percent less, and data is four times as fast. Read on for a note about Bahamas and Caribbean coverage.

If you’ll travel outside of Globalstar’s coverage area, Iridium is the answer, given that Iridium has truly global coverage.

When roaming, you will probably find Globalstar’s per-minute costs are similar to Iridium’s (Globalstar’s roaming rates are somewhat higher than Iridium’s rates, but if your calls are a mix of voice and data, Globalstar’s faster data speed will make the effective cost similar). If you’ll use the phone exclusively for voice, Iridium is the answer. But if you’re doing a significant amount of data, Globalstar’s faster data rate will save you money.

Another factor is seasonal use. Iridium phones can generally be used seasonally with no penalty, while most Globalstar plans are annual contracts.

A big part of deciding which phone is right for you revolves around the coverage question. Iridium has no issue here. Its satellites hand off your traffic until it reaches an appropriate gateway, and coverage is 100 percent worldwide. Globalstar has coverage near major landmasses, but generally not in areas like the South Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, where populations are sparse. Before you buy a Globalstar phone, consider carefully if it will provide coverage where you’ll be using it, and whether this will be roaming or home coverage.

Globalstar does have a coverage issue in the Bahamas. With the nearest gateways in Puerto Rico and Texas, patience is sometimes required to make a call. Coverage is generally better in the southern Bahamas (nearer the Puerto Rico gateway) than in the Abacos. Globalstar is aware of this issue and has taken two steps to improve coverage. First, because of system capacity issues, Globalstar invested in a fourth dish at their gateway in Las Palmas, Puerto Rico. This came online in May 2004, and has increased capacity in the region. Second, Globalstar is investing millions of dollars to construct an entirely new gateway in south Florida, which they expect to be operational in early 2005. Frustrated Globalstar users in the Bahamas will notice a huge improvement.

Since many readers may be interested in current Bahamas coverage, I can report based on extensive experience of my own and others that if you rely on the antenna on the phone handset, you will have a signal about 80 percent of the time in most of the Bahamas, maybe a bit less in the Abacos. If you install an external antenna, you will have a signal about 90 percent of the time. In other words, during a typical hour, with the phone’s antenna, you will have coverage for about 45 to 50 minutes. You will sometimes have to wait a couple minutes to place a call, and you will often be disconnected after five to 10 minutes, though I have completed 30-minute calls without a drop. With an external antenna, you will typically have coverage for 55 minutes each hour, and you can expect to complete most 15-minute calls without a drop. Again, this is a temporary situation. When the south Florida Gateway is online, Globalstar users can expect over 99 percent up-time in the Bahamas, just like Iridium users.

Unfortunately, Globalstar has experienced sporadic problems with southern and western Caribbean coverage. At press time, Globalstar’s Venezuelan gateway was not operational, and Globalstar suggested customers in that area contact Globalstar for assistance. The Nicaraguan gateway that was down is now operational, and Globalstar anticipates roaming service will be restored in Nicaragua by the time you read this.

What’s local, and what’s long distance?

Globalstar gives you a U.S.-based phone number with a 254 area code. If you place a call from your boat in Guadeloupe to a U.S. number, you will not be charged long distance, as domestic long distance is free. If you place a call from your boat in Guadeloupe to a local number in Guadeloupe, you will be charged 26 cents per minute in long distance (in addition to your airtime minutes). People who call you will be charged as if they were dialing any other U.S. phone number with a 254 area code.

Iridium gives you an international phone number with an 881 country code, and bills calls much like cellular carriers in some foreign countries. Incoming calls are free to you, but the caller pays a hefty fee for making an international call. Alternatively, there is a two-step dialing procedure that allows the caller to dial a U.S. number in Arizona 480-768-2500, then your Iridium phone number. The caller is charged for a call to a U.S. number, and you pay for your airtime.

Ask lots of questions, do your own research, and buy the phone from a dealer you trust. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve spoken to who bought this equipment without knowing the truth about coverage, rates or other details. I find most user dissatisfaction is due to unrealistic expectations. The systems operate exactly as I expect 99 percent of the time. After reading this article, you should know what questions to ask about your specific situation, so you get the right gear from the right dealer.

By Ocean Navigator