Ocean Navigator Communications Newsletter #30
Big LEOs: Iridium and Globalstar
The past couple of months has seen a surge in interest in Globalstar phones. It started with a snowmobiler this past winter who was frustrated at the lack of cellular coverage in the north woods of Maine and the Quebec countryside. Since then, we've seen almost continuous demand for these phones. One reason could be that the $500 street price puts the phone in reach of a whole new audience. The per minute rates are also now quite low at $0.99 per minute or lower. In addition to the abovementioned snowmobiler, we've also worked with sailors in the Marion-Bermuda race (a popular forum for phone rentals), folks sailing north from the Caribbean, and most recently a non-profit organization's schooner.
Of course, we can't leave out the Iridium customers who travel beyond Globalstar's footprint. This includes a number of trans-Atlantic sailors, a west-coast boater bound for Hawaii, and an American who's taking his boat from Norway up to Svalbard (which makes Maine seem like the tropics in comparison).
Globalstar initially got off to a rocky start, losing 12 satellites during a 1998 launch. They recovered quickly, and by February 2000, they had all 52 satellites (48 operational plus 4 spares) whizzing around the planet. Shortly after reaching this milestone, commercial service was made available.
Consider this against the backdrop of the sensational launching of Iridium service in November 1998, the subsequent decomissioning of service in March 2000, and then the rebirth of service in March 2001. The original $5 billion system was intended to serve a million customers, but went into chapter 11 bankruptcy after signing on only 55,000 subscribers who were willing to pay over $3000 for a phone and $2 to $7 per minute for calls. Iridium was bailed out of bankruptcy by a last minute $25 million bid - quite a bargain. Since 2001, they seem to be in sound shape - especially with a lucrative defense contract for $72 million that was recently renewed.
Globalstar, too, has seen its share of financial trouble with a long-anticipated bankruptcy filing in February 2002, and a $55 million bailout by Craig McCaw's ICO pending as I write. With 80,000 subscribers, there's lots of promise and no sign of any shutdown.
What makes these two phone systems different?
Iridium offers truly global coverage with their $1500 phone at $1.50 for all outbound calls to any land-based phone in the world.
Calls to an Iridium phone are billed at the whim of your long distance company. You'll need to dial an "international" number to reach an Iridium phone. The caller pays for the call. Alternatively, the call can be routed through an Arizona-based gateway and billed to the Iridium subscriber.
Iridium handles data at a raw speed of 2400 bps. Compression is available.
Both systems use a network of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, with each satellite taking about 15 minutes to travel from horizon to horizon.
Both systems require a direct line of sight to the satellite. Handheld units need to be used outdoors with few obstructions. Fixed-mount or remote-antenna units can be used below decks provided the antenna is well positioned and uses low-loss cable.
Both systems offer sailors a huge opportunity at a relatively small price (compared with satellite systems of yesteryear).
Keep in touch.