Features May 15, 2004 Issue

Globalstar Satellite Phone—Round One

A 'learning round' with Globalstar last year will, we hope, prepare us for a 'playing' round this coming summer.

While off cruising, sometimes you want to pretend that no one else exists except those in the private little universe on your boat. While offshore we often like to think that we're the only folks within the 30-square-mile "bubble" around our boat. Sometimes, though, we need to stay in touch with the the world outside the bubble. 

Contributing Editor Scott Rosenthal attempts to send and retrieve e-mail in the far-flung Bahamas. The Globalstar phone leans against the cockpit coaming with antenna up. Data transmission was never as easy as voice communications.

There are many options. Radios, such as single-sideband (SSB), work well enough if the ionosphere cooperates. In the past, we've also reported on e-mail through SSB, PocketMail, and Orbcomm.

Iridium promised voice communications anywhere on the planet. However, the cost was beyond most of our pockets. Globalstar also promised voice communication in many places with the convenience of a cell phone. Last summer we got a chance to try a Globalstar phone while cruising to the Bahamas' Family Islands.

The Globalstar GSP-1600 phone is made by Qualcomm and looks like one of the older portable cell phones. The unit is approximately 8" x 2.25" x 1.75" and weighs a hefty 13 ounces with the battery. The phone works with both regular land-based cell phone towers and also with the Low Earth-Orbiting (LEO) satellites making up the Globalstar network. The phone has two different antennas—a standard cellular phone-type antenna and a rotating telescoping antenna (7" extended) for satellite communication. The phone has a built-in modem, which allows Internet connectivity at 9,600 bits per second.

The Globalstar satellites don't cover the entire planet. The satellite constellation covers most of the continents (except Antarctica and parts of Africa), plus offshore areas within a couple hundred miles of the coast. Actual coverage information is available on the Globalstar website.

The Globalstar phone uses the LEO satellites to act as a link (or mirror) between itself and an earth station (a gateway). As long as a satellite can see your phone and a gateway, the connection goes through. More on this later.

We purchased our phone from Atlantic RadioTelephone, Inc., in Miami, FL. We bought it used after seeing an advertisement on eBay. Purchased new, the phone would have cost $495. We purchased it used for $390 and were pleased with the phone condition when we received it. Additional costs included $69.99 for the data cable and software, and $23.15 for overnight shipping.

We evaluated the phone only with satellite communications, both with voice and e-mail, while sailing offshore and while spending time in the Family Islands.

The phone is just as easy to use as a regular cell phone. However, we found that the call clarity was superb—much better than a cell phone and more equal to a landline. We noticed no time lags in the voices, as you expect with geosynchronous satellite communications.

With the way that we used the phone—voice and e-mail—we had two very different experiences.

For satellite communications, the telescopic antenna must be rotated out, away from the phone. The phone will alert you if it is on and the antenna is still retracted—nice touch. The manual says to make sure that the antenna is facing straight up and away from all obstructions. We were concerned about all the grounded rigging interfering with the signals, but that never seemed to be a problem. Likewise, the antenna orientation wasn't very sensitive, either.

There's nothing quite so startling as settling down for night watches, 200 miles from land, and hearing a phone ring. The first time our family called to check our position, we were tempted to order a pizza.

Our first stop was San Salvador, approximately 400 miles ESE of Miami, FL. We were able to check out the phone both on the boat with the rigging and on deserted beaches with a totally clear view of the sky. Again, it worked well and we noticed no difference between the two locations.

We didn't measure actual battery usage, but our experience showed that the battery life was probably close to the manufacturer's specs of 3.75 hours talk time and 19 hours standby. The unit comes with an AC charger and we were able to recharge using a small 150-watt Wal-Mart inverter. There's also an optional 12V cigarette lighter (when's this name ever going to change?) charger for $49.95 that we did not purchase.

The voice communications were generally excellent. We were able to gloat at our editor in his rainy Connecticut office while we sat in Paradise. We were also able to arrange flights for crewmembers, and even to order a replacement alternator from Memphis for delivery to our sister-in-law, flying in, to hand-carry to us.

Unlike our smooth experience with voice communications, e-mail was extremely frustrating and problematic. Not listening to our own admonitions to try everything out before going, we left without ever trying the e-mail connection. Basically, that item fell through the cracks.

We eventually got e-mail communications, though never reliably. The first problem we ran into was that the instructions were totally inadequate for data communications. We thought that we had to dial into an ISP just as you would do at home. The day before leaving Charleston, SC we finally tried the e-mail system—and it was not like dialing from home.

Any time you need customer service, all you do is dial #611. We were always quickly connected and the person on the other end was always very helpful. They were able to tell us that we needed to call #777 from our computer to set the phone into packet data communication mode.

After many, many tries, we were able to receive an occasional e-mail, but we couldn't send any. In fact, our attempts to send e-mails caused the communications with our e-mail provider to lock us out for a number of minutes with each attempt.

While at sea we found out that Globalstar actually has a different company that handles data communication issues. We talked with Joe Crowley at Globalstar, and he informed us that many SMTP servers have problems with the Globalstar system. He gave us a different SMTP address for sending our e-mails and this made it work—better.

Even though we could now send and receive e-mails, the process was always iffy and very time-consuming. There were other issues with e-mail, too. For instance, the supplied cable to the phone is a measly 36" long. Trying to keep the laptop dry in the cabin and running the phone in the clear on deck was impossible. Again, if we had tried the system out ahead of time, we would have purchased an extension cable.

The interface cable has a DB-9 connector for attaching to the computer's RS-232 connector. However, a lot of modern laptops use USB for communications and not RS-232. One can buy a USB to RS-232 adapter, but again, check it out before leaving.

Finally, using the interface cable precludes using the phone charger. In other words, you cannot charge and use e-mail at the same time. However, voice and charging do work together. So, before trying to do an e-mail session (with no idea how long it might take to finally connect) we had to remember to charge the phone in advance. We weren't always successful in remembering to do this.

Where's the Satellite?
One item we weren't planning on was becoming savvy in satellite orbital mechanics. Reading all the literature that came with the phone and also the Globalstar website, we were led to believe that the connection rarely, if ever, dropped. That's not what we found. Our experience last summer was that we had about a 10-minute connection time with the satellite and then about 15 minutes until the next one came into "view." We finally learned this and adjusted our communications accordingly.

We called and asked the folks at #611 about our findings. They said that that was correct in the Bahamas region; they didn't have full-time coverage, and there was a notice to that effect on their website. We later confirmed the notice: "Call completion rates may be reduced in the Bahamas and western Alaska." However, the coverage map on the Globalstar site shows the Bahamas, especially where we were in the eastern Bahamas, to be within the "Primary Globalstar Service Area." Actually, parts of the western Bahamas are in the "Extended Globalstar Service Area."

The constant satellite dropping created many problems both with voice and data communication. For example, here are the editor's notes on the day that we talked: "Called Scott on Tuesday, July 8 at 1012. He picked up on the second ring. Position: Concepción Island near San Salvador in the Bahamas, 23° 51'N, 075° 07' W. The conversation was crystal clear for about one minute. Then it began deteriorating, and it was all over in a minute and a half." (Still, plenty of time to gloat.)

To preserve our tranquility, we didn't leave the phone on. We would turn it on to make calls or at specific times to receive a call. Telling someone to call at 1700 hrs. during happy hour (guaranteed for us to be back at the boat) was frustrating and unreliable for the people trying to reach us. Likewise, when we called someone, we wouldn't know if we were at the beginning or end of a satellite pass.

With data communications, the constant satellite dropping caused problems with mail retrieval if the signal dropped in the middle of a download. We lost some mail and other messages became blocked at the POP3 server. The auto-redial feature in Microsoft Outlook Express also racked up many airtime minutes while the computer attempted to make satellite contact.

One phone quirk we never did figure out was the signal strength meter. Even though the meter had up to four available bars, we would only ever see zero bars or all four bars. We had no warning of the signal strength dropping or of the signal strength coming back.

When we contacted Atlantic Radio Telephone, the quoted cost seemed to us very reasonable for the contact we would have. Four hundred minutes of airtime per month came to $99.95, a cost of about 25¢ per minute, with additional time at 65¢ per minute. However, with the "devil in the details," we found that the actual cost was a lot higher.

In our naiveté, we thought that the monthly contract would start on the first of the month. We had set up the account to automatically bill our credit card. While away, we were not receiving mail, so we had no clue what was happening. Globalstar bills for a month starting on the 16th of the month and ends the billing cycle on the 15th of the month. We had used very few minutes in June. With the approach of the end of June, we decided to use a lot of our prepurchased minutes instead of losing them. Not until we got home and looked at the bill did we realize our mistake!

Another gotcha was the minimum one-minute connection time for each attempt to communicate. As you can see from the table across the page, we wasted 18% of our calls the first month just trying to connect. After learning orbital mechanics and the e-mail quirks, we were able to cut our wastage in half.

When we terminated our service at the end of the trip, we knew we had to pay an early termination fee. What we didn't expect was the required 30 days' notice for termination. After much discussion, we compromised on terminating it at the end of the billing period, which cost us two weeks of service past the end of our trip. Globalstar did prorate for starting service in the middle of their billing cycle, which was helpful.

What We Learned
For the type of trip we took, the Globalstar system worked, but with some frustration and significantly higher cost than what we had expected. Some of it was our fault—we should have been smarter about when to start the service and when to stop it.

Globalstar's financial difficulties (the company filed for Chapter 11 in 2002) have never, as far as we know, affected the generally good quality of its service. On March 11, 2004, the FCC granted the transfer of Globalstar's licenses to Thermo Capital Partners, which bought 81.25% of the company in 2003. According to Globalstar, this should help pave the path out of bankruptcy. We hope it works out, because we're looking forward to field-testing our phone at the far edges of its service area somewhere again this coming summer.

Contact - Globalstar LP; 877/728-7466, www.globalstar.com.


Also With This Article
"Cost Breakdown: Summer Cruise 2003"
"Time Breakdown"

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