Lately I’ve spent quite a lot of time trying to get a hold of all the different satellite communication options available for outdoor adventurers and I though it would be nice to share my findings with you. This is a sort of state of the market report limited to the devices that may interest outdoor adventurers. The post is not based on my personal experience with all these devices and technologies but mostly on information from the manufacturers or from secondary sources.
As the technology is new and experiences on these devices are just starting to accumulate I will be writing updates to this post in the future.
– The first update Satellite communication: Follow-up 1 with three new devices and couple of hands-on review links is online.
Basics of communication satellite networks
Somewhere there in the night sky is a big bunch of communication satellites...
Satellite phones, messaging devices and modems work with the same principle than your typical cellphone but instead of base station masts the signals are transmitted via specialized communication satellites. And just like there are different cellphone networks by different operators there are also different satellite networks with differing covera. These can be divided into two main types of networks:
Some satellites are geosynchronous (GEO) i.e. they appear stationary when observed from the surface of the Earth. This means that each satellite covers a fixed area and to make contact trough the satellite you must have somewhat unobscured line-of-sight from your communication device to the satellite. The advantage of a GEO satellite network is that they can reach near global coverage with only a few satellites meaning that they are relatively cheap to build. In addition these satellites can offer relatively high band widths for data services. The disadvantage is naturally encapsulated in the word near meaning that these systems don’t have a true global coverage and even some local obstacles like dense vegetation, buildings or hills can prevent the use of a such network. Maybe the most well-known networks using GEO satellites are the ones by Inmarsat (11 satellites covering everything between latitudes -82 to +82 but not the polar regions) and Thuraya (three satellites, see coverage). Inmarsat is widely used in ships and aircrafts but nowadays offers also handsets for consumers. Thuraya offers compact cell phone like handsets that are for example widely used by climbers in Himalaya region.
Then there are Low-Earth-Orbiting (LEO) satellites. These satellites orbit the Earth on relatively low orbits (around 1000km or so while GEO satellites are about 35000km away) and on high-speed. This means that a contact from communication device to a certain satellite exists only for some minutes and several satellites are needed to keep up an continuous coverage. This enables true global coverage with not much problems caused by local obstacles but it requires a lot of satellites and is thus very expensive to set up. There are only two commercial communication systems based on LEO satellites and both went bankrupt while launching but are now operational. The systems are Globalstar and Iridium. Globalstar network uses 52 satellites but the coverage is limited because the satellites also need a line-of-sight to a ground station to transmit the signal. In addition Globalstar doesn’t cover the polar regions. Iridium network consists of 66 satellites and offers the only commercial true global coverage from pole to pole.
Satellite phones are starting to become everyday tools of outdoor adventurers. They are more of a rule than exception on travels to distant places and things like the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic require the participants to carry a sat phone as a safety device. I won’t go into details of different satellite phone models and their use in this post but I think that they are worth a few words.
When there is coverage (see the chapter above for differences in satellite network coverages) sat phones work much like your cell phone: you can make calls, receive calls and often also send and receive short messages. Some models also enable sending and receiving e-mail and even surfing the web (with a low-speed though). The voice quality is likely a bit worse than on your cell phone and the use might be a bit more complicated but not much. Sat phones can also be used as modems for laptops and tablets to send and receive e-mail or update expedition websites (but for example with Iridium phone the data rate is around 2,4 kbit/s so you can forget uploading HD video on the go or watching Youtube in the tent…)
Janne trying to get a laptop & Iririum 9555 combination working at Helsinki-Vantaa airport before leaving to Svalbard.
The basic problem with sat phones is that they are expensive and often even more expensive to use. You can get an old used model for a few hundred euros/dollars but many new phones cost well over 1000 euros/dollars and for casual use it’s almost always best idea to rent one.
And as said, using the phone is often even more expensive than buying one. For example the monthly fee of a post-paid Iridium plan is around 50USD and a 500 minutes pre-paid voucher, good for one year, costs around 650 USD. Thuraya and Inmarsat offer cheaper options for those who don’t need the global coverage of Iridium network. Thuraya sat phones can be even used with Finnish Elisa GSM Sim-card. Used this way the price per minute is quite high but fixed monthly costs can be really low and with some phone models you can also use the cheaper GSM network when available. Another problem with sat phones is that they require quite a lot of power if used to send regular updates. This means that spare batteries, solar panels, chargers or similar heavyish things soon enter the scene on longer trips.
Getting power for sat phone, laptop and bunch of other gadgets in Svalbard.
I’ve used Iridium sat phones and plan to do so also in the future when the situation requires taking one with me. But often satellite phones are unnecessarily expensive for casual outdoor adventurer and a cheaper and simpler device would be sufficient. Luckily, there is an increasing amount of other satellite based options available.
In Finland satellitephones are available for example from Hansa Baltic and Savantum (a terrible website but a lot of good stuff).
Satellite messaging & tracking devices
SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger
Picture stolen from the SPOT website.
SPOT is probably the first relatively cheap satellite messenger targeted for outdoor adventurers. The latest version is called SPOT 2 (a.k.a SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger) and it is upgraded from the original SPOT (a.k.a SPOT Personal Tracker) device but the two are about the same. SPOT uses Globalstar satellite network meaning that it doesn’t have a true global coverage which starts to show already on the Northern parts of Scandinavia. Another limitation is that the SPOT is only capable of one-way messaging: When you push the button, the device does what it can meaning that it shouts the pre-programmed message out real load and hopes that a satellite pickes up the message. But there is no way knowing if the message went through or not (despite SPOTs marketing material suggesting something else).
SPOT 2 is the lightest of the devices listed here and weights 147 g. It works with 3 AAA batteries and I’ve seen the original SPOT working for at least two weeks in Nordic winter conditions with a single set of batteries. SPOT has a build-in GPS so the device should always know it’s location and send this information with every message. If there is no GPS fix, only SOS message is send. SPOT 2 can send four different pre-programmed messages: OK, custom message, Help and SOS. All the messages are transmitted into pre-chosen e-mails or cell phones. In addition the SOS message is transmitted to the GEOS International Emergency Response Center which then should alert local authorities and rescuers. In addition SPOT can send tracking messages every 10 minutes if the feature is activated.
RRP for SPOT 2 is 179 EUR and one-year plans cost 99 EUR per year including an unlimited amount of messages. This makes SPOT probably the cheapest satellite messaging device.
I’ve seen SPOT working very well on the fells of Sarek National Park in Northern Sweden (around 8 messages per day for two weeks, every message went through) but I’ve also seen it fail miserably in Southern Finland (maybe only every third tracking message came through). I’ve also read about SPOT saving lives but I’ve also read about serious problems with the device and even more problems with SPOT’s customer service. Whether you’d trust the SPOT or not is up to you.
SPOT track from a ski trip in Sarek National Park in March 2010.
There is also a device called SPOT Connect (made by Delorme, by the way) that enables sending 41 character messages from a smart phone via Globalstar satellites. It costs 199 euros and the plans cost the same 99 euros per year. But if you are interested in this kind of product, check the Delorme InReach below.
In Finland SPOT is available from some outdoor shops and online for example from Marinea. And you can also rent one for example from Savantum or from Vaiska.
Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, preset messages, 1-way, cheap, not global coverage, possibly unreliable
Picture stolen from the InReach website.
Delorme InReach is the new kid in the block. As a stand-alone unit it is very similar to SPOT (Remember Delorme making the SPOT Connect devices?) but on the other hand, it’s something completely different. The main differences are:
– InReach uses Iridium satellites enabling a true global coverage.
– InReach is a two-way device, meaning that the user gets confirmation whether message went through or not.
– InReach can pair with Android smart phone (or Delorme Pw-60n GPS device) via Bluetooth thus enabling sending and receiving 160 character messages via the Iridium satellite network to any e-mail address, cell phone or other InReach device in the world.
The InReach is quite rugged (i.e. shock proof, dust proof and water proof at least down to 1 meter for 30 minutes). It is a bit chunkier than SPOT 2 weighting nearly 200 g but it also floats. The InReach works with two AA lithium batteries which I prefer over the AAA batteries. Also the InReach has a build-in GPS and it includes location data to every message. As a stand-alone device it can send pre-programmed text messages and a SOS message that is transmitted into GEOS International Emergency Response Center – just like with the SPOT messenger. But with InReach the user gets to know if the messages went through and get confirmation that GEOS has notified the SOS message. InReach is also capable of tracking with an interval ranging from 10 minutes up to 4 hours. And the best part is that with the help of Android smart phone (or Delorme Pw-60n GPS device) you can use the InReach to send and receive text messages just like using your cell phone but without the limitations of cell phone coverage. This enables also chatting with the GEOS in case of an emergency.
The regular price for InReach is 249 USD (185 EUR) and there are three different plans available starting from 9,95 USD (7,40 EUR) per month. The minimum contract is for one year but during the time you can change from plan to another (though downgrading into cheaper plan costs extra). Sending emergency messages is free as is tracking on the two more expensive plans. The price for each send or received message varies from 1,50 USD to 0,25 USD depending on the plan.
The InReach was just launched few weeks ago so there are no real user experiences yet but I bet there is a lot of reviews and “first looks” writings coming up.
At the moment the InReach is not available in Finland but there is a bunch of resellers shipping worldwide.
Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, works as stand-alone or with Android smart phone, cheapish, rugged enough, global coverage
Picture stolen from the YellowBrick website.
YellowBrick is better known as a tracking device for yachts but is has also been used for example in Antarctica. I recall for example Finnish Teemu Lakkasuo (solo attempt to South Pole) having problems with his early YellowBrick unit in 2008 but apparently the problems have been solved and the model has been totally updated – and it looks very, very promising indeed! The YellowBrick is maybe a bit more serious communication device better suited for long trips in remote places than for the casual weekend stroll in the hills but you can decide that yourself.
The New YellowBrick YB3 uses the Iridium network delivering a global coverage and has a build-in GPS, just like the InReach above. The device weights 305 grams and is shock, dust and waterproof (IP67). The YellowBrick has a build-in rechargeable battery that last for 68 days if sending a tracking message every hour and if sending a message only once a day it can last up to whopping 389 days!In addition to tracking it can do a hell lot more. There is a small display and few buttons on the device itself to send preset messaged (you can make a lot of these). Pairing the YB3 with Android smart phone or iPhone via Bluetooth enables sending and receiving customized messages up to 1000 characters. And the device has also a dedicated alert button (hidden under the black cover on top of the unit) for emergencies.
It seems that there is only one YB3 device but it is available in four different variations each having a bit differing features enabled by different software. The price of a single unit ranges from 399 GBP to 599 GBP (466-699 EUR). The monthly fee for a single account is 8 GBP (9,30 EUR) and you have to pay only for the months when you actually use the device. The monthly fee doesn’t include any messages or data traffic. These are paid with credits bought independently. One tracking message costs 1 credit and as does every 50 characters of text. The price per credit hovers around 0,10 GBP (0,12 EUR) depending on the bundle.
Like the InReach the Yellowbrick YB3 has just been released (in November 23rd 2011) and there is not too much real-life information about the device but for example Sarah Outen seems to be using the YB3 on her long way from London to London and I bet the YB3 will be soon seen on polar regions as well.
The YB3 is available at least directly from the company website.
Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, works as stand-alone or with Android smart phone or iPhone, rugged enough, very good battery life, global coverage
Solara (Fieldtracker 2000 and 2100)
Picture stolen from the Solara website.
The Solara Fieldtrackers are quite similar to the YellowBrick YB3 above but they seem to be even more serious pieces of kit – at least judging by specs and price. It is listed here mostly as a curiosity and because I see it possibly as the best available technology in satellite messengers (be it just compactible with Bluetooth devices…)
Also the Solara uses Iridium satellite network enabling global coverage and has a build-in GPS for positioning.The Fieltracker 2100 weights 500 or 400 grams depending on the battery. It starts to be quite a heavy piece of kit but it is also even more rugged than the devices listed above (i.e. it’s very much shock, vibration, dust, water, coldness and altitude proof). Both Fieldtrackers have a build-in rechargeable battery. They also have a build-in keypad and display (that works at least down to -42C!) making them stand-alone devices. The Fieldtrackers have a tracking and emergency message functions and they are also capable of sending and receiving text messages. Messages can be either preset or can be typed with the build-in keypad.
Solara Fieldtrackers are not cheap. They cost around 1500 USD (1120 EUR), activating the unit costs 60 USD, monthly fee is 50 USD (minimum 2,5 months) and includes 1200 messages and basic tracking. Extra messages are available for 4 USD per 100 messages.
Solara Fieldtrackers have been used on polar regions and other foreign areas and seem to be favored by scientific programs and similar government users.
The Solara Fieldtrackers are available from a bunch of resellers.
Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, stand-alone unit, expensive, very rugged, global coverage
PLBs i.e. Distress Beacons
The very small picture stolen from the McMurdo website.
Strictly speaking distress beacons are not satellite communication devices as they can only do one thing: Send an emergency signal when you activate them. But that is something these devices do very well. They are build solely to inform the authorities and rescuers that you are in trouble and to make finding you easier. They send signal on 406MHz frequency that is then picked up by a Cospas-Sarsat network (a specialized network for Search & Rescue use consisting of GEO and LEO satellites and other terminals). In addition some beacons can transmit your location with the help of build-in GPS and they also send locationing signal on 121,5MHz frequency.
If you need only a safety device to help you to get you out from a trouble and have no need for additional communication, a PLB might just be what you are looking for. Typically the weight of such device is around 150-200 grams and they work with internal battery that is good for 5 years or so and has to be then changed by authorized professional.
In Finland PLBs (McMurdo brand in this case) are available for example from Marinea. The beacons need to be registered and in addition to the initial purchase cost owning one in Finland costs about 20 EUR per year.
Summary: GPS in some models, good (the best?) way to alert help, 1-way emergency messaging, reasonable price on the long run, global coverage
As a summary I might say that there are a lot of options for satellite based communication/messaging and there are probably more to come. Most outdoor aficionados don’t need any of these and one should never rely one’s life on an electronic device. But they might be highly useful in many situations and sometimes even save your life.
Do you have experience with any of these satellite messaging devices? Or maybe with something else? If so, please share your insight with me and other readers and leave a comment!