Satellite Phones Face Off

Globalstar vs. Iridium: The Great Face-Off.


As we’re getting close to heading back to dry land for a while (yuck!) and we’ve been using Globalstar and Iridium side by side, a few words about the relative merits of each might be in order.

First, the financial issues. At this point Iridium has been through bankruptcy and is now again operating as a private company, with the aid of some large Department of Defense contracts. Globalstar has recently filed for bankruptcy. Word is that the major suppliers will buy the company out of the proceedings. The hardware for both is comparable in price-between $500 and $1500, more or less, depending on what you get. There are various calling plans, and as these are changing all of the time, it is hard to put our finger on exact costs. However, from the Caribbean to the US, if you sign up for a 250 minute/month plan, you can get communication costs down to a dollar per minute. Minimum plans run about $2.50/minute.


Iridium has an auto-style external antenna. With Globalstar you have to buy a fancy permanent install kit which ups the ante considerably. We found that when we were using the Globalstar for data we’d simply put it just outside a hatch, inside a Zip-Lock baggy, which kept any spray from creating problems. You can also use these phones for voice communications inside a baggy.

Both phones are easy to use for voice. Turn them on, then dial 1+area code and the number with Globalstar. Iridium requires that you dial 001+area code+ number. Voice quality with Globalstar is excellent- generally as good as any cell phone at home and better than most. Iridium is a lower quality, and at times you have to strain to hear the other person. There is also a short delay which you need to learn to live with.


Data is our major interest. Both phones offer data, and the Globalstar is easy to install and use. We actually did this ourselves, configuring our Microsoft Outlook Express to use the Globalstar phone as a modem. We were unsuccessful in getting Iridium to work, but since cruising correspondents Bryan and Colleen of Theta Volantis now use Iridium, we know it does work.

The connect speed with Globalstar is nominally 9600 baud. You can speed things up a bit by transmitting in plain text rather than HTML (a setting in the Outlook options). Web connections are sped up by turning off the images. We find that the connection time is almost instantaneous-and that we can send and recieve 15 to 20 short e-mails within a minute. Downloading a complete .grib file for use in SetSail-MaxSea Routing takes two minutes start to finish. We can download six weather fax charts from the Marine Prediction Center website in just under five minutes. Six faxs+ a grib file takes six minutes.

Where Globalstar service is available, it is a surperior product. Connect speeds are faster (9600 baud compared to 2400) and voice is clearer. Also, we experienced fewer dropped calles with Globalstar compared to Iridium.

However, Globalstar does not cover many parts of the world, like the South Pacific, and many areas of ocean, so if you want good communications in these areas, Iridium is the ticket.

Another issue is how you will be using the phone. If data is high on your list, Globalstar’s faster connect speeds are important. If you just want the phone for voice, with occasional data, Iridium’s better coverage is probably the ticket.

Posted by Steve Dashew  (December 15, 2001)

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