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GlobalStar Satellite Phone - GPS Notes

Posted in Features on May 1, 2001
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It's not a GPS receiver, but it is the ultimate in off-highway communication. It's a cell phone on steroids - the supreme toy. Well, yes, the GlobalStar satellite telephone is all that. And at a minimum of $25 per month for service, you might think this is a gadget you can live without. Until you find yourself in a position where you might, quite literally, not live without it.

Many folks think that cell phone (particularly analog) service is uniformly available here in the United States. It is not. Last year, my wife and I spent a month in Wyoming and Montana and went days without a signal on our truck's cell phone. In this situation, the satellite phone we were evaluating came in very, very handy. Since we were traveling alone, it would have been critically important should we have had an emergency.

The GlobalStar system consists of a constellation of 48 satellites in three different axial planes. This means that there should be a direct line of site from 60 degrees elevation in any position on the globe. So, unlike satellite telephone systems that use geosynchronous satellites, the GlobalStar phone will work in areas where there are surrounding mountains. We used GlobalStar in the Colorado Rockies without any interruption of service.

GlobalStar operates like a cellular telephone but backward. When you use a cell phone, the system switches you from one cell site antenna to another as you travel.With GlobalStar, you stay in one place, relatively speaking, while the cell sites (the satellites) whiz by at several hundred miles an hour. Otherwise, the phone and system are very similar to your wireless phone.

When you make a call, or when someone calls you, the system finds the closest satellite to you. A connection is made between the satellite, your phone, and the closest ground station. The ground station connects to the terrestrial phone system just like cellular.

The GlobalStar phone is a tri-mode unit. It is an analog and digital cellular phone and a satellite phone. The satellite portion of the phone is entirely independent of the cell phone. The unit actually has separate telephone numbers for the cellular and satellite. The satellite portion of the phone will not work indoors. GlobalStar cautions against trying to use the phone in very dense urban environments. My experience is that the sat-phone will work almost anywhere, except in very deep canyons - Mother Nature's or the concrete kind. Frankly, the phone is too bulky to use as your principle wireless phone, but in the backcountry, it's terrific.

The phone we have been using also has a car kit. The setup is very straightforward. The car kit consists of a control box, a speaker, a microphone (or headset adapter), a cradle, and an external high-gain antenna for the satellite portion of the phone. There is also a lead for an external cell phone antenna. This feature does not convert the cell portion of the phone to a 3-watt car phone, such as some auto adapters. The satellite antenna, which I have dubbed the sombrero, changes the whole nature of the sat-phone. With the high-gain sombrero, the sat-phone is as reliable and clear as any cell phone. It almost never breaks contact with the satellite constellation even in fairly open canyons or in tree cover. I have used the phone to download weather and navigational data with GlobalStar's new data service. It worked perfectly.

Now, here's the rub: GlobalStar is having financial troubles. The good news is that GlobalStar USA, which is Vodaphone/AirTouch, offers a service guarantee. If anything goes wrong with the service, they'll buy your equipment back.

The bottom line? If you travel a lot in the backcountry, particularly alone, there is not a better communications lifeline. I have used just about every form of radio communication system from Ham radio to Iridium and Inmarsat phones. My experiences with GlobalStar top them all.

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