Satellite communications for cruisers

SPOT

While satellite communications Big Daddy Inmarsat was the big story at the Pacific Marine Expo late last year, the recreational market served by the Seattle Boat Show has more examples from a new, upstart competitor in the satellite services market: Globalstar. S3 Maritime, located on the upper concourse at the show, has the full range of Globalstar’s products on display and is happy to talk you through them.

Although Globalstar’s offerings lack some maturity and the globetrotting reliability of Inmarsat’s network and services, it’s managed to pull through a somewhat checkered history to offer some of the lowest cost satcom alternatives on the market today. If it can’t offer quite the coverage that Inmarsat can, it can put remote communications capabilities into the hands of folks who would otherwise never be able to afford them.

The company, rather famously, experienced early degradation of their first generation satellite fleet, resulting in horrendous connectivity and availability problems. The original Globalstar filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2002 and was reorganized under those terms into the current entity in 2003.

According to S3′s Kyle Holloway, those problems are a thing of the past. “It’s a whole new network now,” he says. The company’s second generation fleet began launching in 2010 and was completed in 2013 with the last of 24 new satellites going into orbit. The reliability of the system has improved over that period by all accounts, although the coverage area has shrunk, and the once-touted path-diversity system which allowed satellites to trade off reception of active transmissions for uninterrupted service suffers with the smaller constellation.

The Globalstar system operates on fundamentally different premises than Inmarsat. Instead of high-altitude satellites in geo-stationary orbits, the Globalstar birds whistle around in low-earth orbit, downlinking to ground stations directly. The system provides higher data bandwidths for small hand-held units, a significant consideration for today’s cruiser.

The most exciting thing about Globalstar has been the company’s willingness to use its network for new and innovative applications. The SPOT Messenger was among the first of these, and probably still the one that most cruisers are familiar with. The simple orange puck with GPS and satellite integration allows users to send basic position updates either automatically or with the push of a button, as well as the ability to call for help or send a custom message to a pre-selected set of email addresses.

This bread-and-butter system has provided peace of mind for many a cruiser’s family since it was introduced, and the company has since augmented it with the SPOT Connect, which adds the ability to send and receive text messages via the satellite uplink and a Bluetooth-connected phone. The two-way capability has opened up a whole new world for cruisers on a budget.

The SPOT Gen 3 retains the feature set of the original SPOT, but adds one more pre-configured custom message that can be transmitted (in addition to the “OK”, “Assistance”, and “Help!” messages), and customizable tracking variables which can be set to send tracking pulses at custom intervals or only when the device is in motion.

The limited footprint of the network reduces the utility to world travelers, but for coastal cruisers it’s hard to beat the combination of capability and cost versus the other options.

SPOT is also offering a full-fledged satellite phone option now, essentially a re-branded version of the Globalstar GSP-1700 and using the same network and identical rate plans. Data is billed by the minute rather than by the kilobyte, which at 9600 baud will be near and dear, even using the included compression software. Still, it is faster than the competing Inmarsat IsatPhonePro, which may be a big deal in our increasingly data-driven age.

The company has also branched out in the other direction, providing small, task-specific devices like the SPOT Trace. Trace is essentially a satellite-enabled LoJack device for, well, whatever you want to put it on … boat, kayak, significant other, just about anything. It’s even small enough to stick inside an outboard engine, if you’re worried about your dinghy wandering off. It has long battery life since it only transmits when moved (you’ll receive a text or email, and then updated location information for as long as it keeps moving) but it can also be permanently connected to a battery so you can set it up and forget it … unless something happens.

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