You probably know that we used a Globalstar satellite phone this past spring when we brought Beowulf back from the Caribbean. The questions of interest to cruisers-what sort of coverage does the phone have, how easy is it to use, and how fast is the data transmission, and what does this all cost?-were foremost on our minds.
We didn’t have much time to play with the phone before we left, and in fact were stuck doing the connection to our computer on our own. Bottom line-it is easy to get the basic phone service up and running, and even the computerphobic can work through the couple of menu selections in Windows to get the phone and computer talking.
As with all satellite direct phones the antenna needs a clear view of the sky to work. At anchor, or at sea in calm conditions, this is not a problem. However, offshore in rough weather you need a system to keep the phone dry. The phone will see through a dodger, or clear window-and aboard Beowulf we were able to point the antenna through our slanted pilot house windows on occasion. However, for long-term usage, a fixed installation, with a marine style antenna will be best. (Note-on a couple of occasions we placed the phone in a plastic bag with the data cable exiting the bottom and shoved it outside where there was a bit of spray).
Quality of voice communications is excellent. Dropped calls, a real problem when we tested a Iridium phone a couple of years ago, does not seem to be an issue with Globalstar. The best part, however, is the data transfer speed. Because Globalstar has their own internet gateway, when you are connected at a baud rate of 9600 it appears almost as fast as a normal 28.8k dialup connection. Click on the computer to start the system and within seconds you are online. E-mails are really fast-you can do 10 or 15 medium-length e-mails in a minute. We were able to connect to the internet, go the Marine Prediction Center web site, and download half a dozen fax charts in about five minutes.
The phones sell for a street price of around $795. Steve Bowden of SeaTech Systems ( www.sea-tech.com ), who helped us get started, sells a package which includes the phone, a waterproof box, data cable (to connect to your PC) and 12V power adapter for $895. For long term use aboard you will want to consider a permanent installation package. This gives you a speaker phone, external antenna, and inboard phone set and adds another $995 to the price. While the total of these two items is a lot, it is still a fraction of the cost and size of a mini-M system ($6000/$7000) and is faster and cheaper to operate. When you are in areas where there is cell phone coverage, the same system can be used to connect via the local cell system, if that is economically advantageous.
Globalstar offers coverage in the Caribbean, coastal US, parts of Mexico, Alaska, all of Europe, and across the route between the East Coast and/or Caribbean and Europe (but not for the return back from Europe in the tropics-until you get close to the Caribbean).
Cost per minute depends on the plan you choose. They have plans starting at $24.95/month for five minutes with additional minutes costing $1.49, and go up to a 250 minute/month plan for $249.00 with additional minutes at 99 cents. These are for calls back to the States. If you are calling other areas, the per minute charges are higher. For more data on the costs and coverage go to www.globalstarusa.com .
Bottom line, for Mexico, the Caribbean, and along the coast where cell phones will not work this is a great system: fast, easy to use, and cost effective. For weather and emergency use alone it is probably worth the basic unit costs. When you begin to move further afield, perhaps to the South Pacific and west, you will want to look at other systems.
This article elicited responses from our readers, which we’ve posted here:
Steve – note your comments on the Globalstar – we bought a ‘new’ Iridium phone for our last trip which worked well, no dropped calls which I saw you mention. We’ll probably get an external aerial to put on the pushpit to make life easy. Calls $1.50 a minute, new phones are data enabled but software needs updating. For incoming calls we can do this thru the UK re-seller AST at $2.00 a minute, you can also send text messages but the phone has to be on to receive them. Phone cost us £450 approx. Gordon M.Steve…re: your Globalstar review – Inmarsat Mini-M systems are below $5000 street price – currently $4400, not $6000/$7000. Since calls are a flat $2.50/minute with no monthly charges, for voice calls, it may not be much, if any, more expensive to operate than Globalstar outside the US Globalstar coverage where the rate structure is different – and confusing!
Considering what we know about the financial health of Inmarsat, and the financial problems of Globalstar – Mini-M might be a safer bet. I sell both-because…I don’t believe there is only one solution for everyone’s needs. Don M
Your case for Globalstar is a good one but you might have pointed out that the company’s financial position is very shaky and it may well go belly up. Also Globalstar’s coverage is far from global – vast areas of ocean are not covered.
Iridium, on the other hand, has been rescued (by the Pentagon) and will be viable for at least three years. It has complete global coverage. The data rate is a quarter that of Globalstar at the moment but Iridium hopes to have it up to Globalstar’s rate by the end of the year.
Costs are comparable. $20 a month and $1.50 a min for Iridium, $24.95 and $1.49 a minute for Globalstar. You can get an old model refurbished Iridium phone for less than $600-the new models are about $1400 I think. Drop-out problems are less with the new phones. Not only do these phones compare more than favourably with Inmarsat, but they also compare favourable with Pinoak et al.
There is a chance I will have to take my Sadler 34 from Boston to Falmouth in September. I will be taking my Iridium with me. Great site. Andrew M.