Globalstar Mobile Satellite Phone Service

Qualcomm GSP 1600 tri-mode phone (satellite, analog, and CDMA digital)

  • Approximately 13 ounces (370g)
  • 7" (177mm) tall 2.25" x (57mm) wide x 1.92" (48mm) deep
  • 2.5 to 4.5 hour talk time
  • 9 to 14 hour standby time
  • 99 entry phonebook (32 chars each)
  • Key features: call waiting, caller ID, call history, message pickup, phone lock, built-in 9600 baud fax modem circuitry
  • US$1500 suggested retail (advertised for as little as US$699 or US$24.95 a month)

US readers: Globalstar USA

I stand on the lower rim of a canyon just outside Capital Reef National Park watching a spectacular sunset. At my back is a 100-foot cliff of unclimbable rock. In front of me is a deep, open bowl I've spent the day scrambling up. While analog cellular service extends to this remote section of Southern Utah, it isn't very reliable, and, where I currently stand, not accessible at all. And forget about digital cellular in this maze of canyons and rocks. Despite my remoteness and all the obstructions around me, I am talking on a phone. The Qualcomm GSP 1600 phone using Globalstar Mobile Satellite Phone Service, to be exact.

With the demise of Iridium, the number of phone options available to dedicated backcountry afficionados is down to a handful. Of these, the most high profile is Globalstar (NASDAQ symbol: GSTRF). Globalstar uses 48 low-earth-orbitting (LEO) satellites, each of which orbits the globe every 113 minutes, to blanket the non-polar regions of the world with phone coverage. With the exception of the upper regions of Baffin Island and the western half of Alaska, a Globalstar-capable phone can be used virtually anywhere in North America. (Globalstar estimates that 45% of the US is currently without comprehensive wireless coverage.)

Three phones are currently available that utilize the Globalstar network of satellites and ground stations (more on that in a bit):

The latter two phones are marketed primarily in Europe, while the Qualcomm I used is what most American users purchase.

If you've used a cellular phone before, you'll find the Qualcomm pretty familiar. Except, of course, for the fact that it has two antennas (the fat one at the odd angle is the satellite antenna; it's at that unusual angle so that it gets the best possible coverage position when you're holding the phone up to talk). The satellite antenna performs a trick as you rotate it into position: it automatically extends itself to full position. When you fold it back against the phone body, the antenna automatically collapses. Significantly bigger than my Nokia 5160, the Qualcomm nevertheless fits in the hand just fine. The backlit display was readable in bright sun as well as in my tent at night, and the user interface well enough designed so that I didn't even bother reading the manual before I set off into the wilds.

Talk quality via satellite was quite clear and noisefree, less so via analog cellular (again, in Southern Utah, analog cellular is a hit or miss proposition, and often quite noisy). Because Globalstar uses LEO birds, signal latency is not a problem (in laymen terms: no gap between talking and hearing a response, just like regular cellular). I tried the phone in a number of locations, several where I did not expect to get a signal (e.g., deep in a creek wash), but always managed to make a connection (many of you are by now wondering why needed to make phone calls while hiking in Southern Utah; check out the next US edition of T3 Magazine for the answer). Given the position and movement of the satellites, I'm sure there are places where you'd either not get a signal or would lose it, but I didn't find any on my travels.

You may wonder about cost. Yes, the phone is expensive, and you won't find any "free phone with signup" deals from Globalstar. In the US, the basic satellite service costs US$29.95 a month, plus US$1.69 for each minute used. International long distance charges are extra (e.g., calls between countries). If you use more than 100 minutes a month, there are alternative plans that reduce the per-minute costs (but you'd better be sure you're going to use the "bundled" minutes, as you're charged a monthly fee based upon a US$1.69/minute rate for the bundled minutes; e.g., for a 100-minute plan you pay US$169.99 a month, plus US$1.49 for each additional minute above 100). Note that if you want to use the tri-mode function of the Qualcomm phone, you also need to have a regular wireless provider and pay the fees associated with that. Globalstar plans to offer "unified" satellite and cellular plans in the future.

You're probably wondering why Globalstar doesn't offer sat/cell combinations from the get-go. This is partly due to the way Globalstar set up its system. Globalstar uses what is known as a "bent pipe" transmission. Your call is handled by one or more of the LEO satellites and immediately bounced back to an earth-based facility, where it is then carried by traditional landlines or networks. To accomplish this, Globalstar has to negotiate "gateway" partners in virtually every country where they want to provide service. Some of the gaps in Globalstar's worldwide coverage are due to not having ground partners in place. In the fragmented US telecom market, the Globalstar satellite network is handled by a subsidiary of Vodaphone, while the primary cellular partner is AirTouch. Caribbean coverage, for example, was technically possible long before Globalstar established the necessary ground partner.

Globalstar makes a number of claims for their service (and phones), so I'll wrap up by giving you my take on each:

Easy to use (as easy as standard cellular) I agree. The phone seamlessly switches between services, and the Qualcomm phone itself is intuitive and easy to use.
Convenient I mostly agree. The phone itself is bulky, though, and those of us who backpack would really prefer a smaller, lighter option. This is not a phone you stick in your pocket or strap on your belt.
Reliable (comparable to terrestial wireless) Absolutely, at least in my limited testing (CA, PA, UT). I'd actually say that in backcountry it was more reliable than analog cellular, and more reliable than I expected.
High Call Completion Ratio 100% in my testing, despite a number of substantive obstacles.
Clear Calls, no voice delay Without looking at the display, I'd defy you to distinguish between when the phone is in analog and satellite modes. I have heard slightly clearer digital connections, however.
Pricing flexibility Sorry, but I can't agree with this contention. First, you can't couple your current cellular and satellite phone accounts. Second, there are only three plans, and the two "bundled minute" plans only offer a discount if you can guarantee that you'll go over the minimum amount every month. While the pricing is simple, it is not flexible.
Trusted manufacturer Ericsson and Qualcomm both have excellent reputations as manufacturers of mobile equipment.
Seamless Roaming Yes. Without a doubt. In default modes, the phone automatically passes calls to the cellular options to keep you satellite usage to a minimum.
Functional talk time and battery life A tad bit on the low side, I'd say, and certainly lower than current state-of-the-art digital cellular phones. My experience, albeit in cold weather, was less than the reported minimums, though still respectible (I'd estimate battery life at 2 hours talk, 8 hours standby, somewhat less if you use the backlit display all the time).
Additional functionality

Globalstar's documentation suggests that short messaging service (160-characters), position location service, fax modem, and data modem (9600 baud) service will be available in "late 2000." None were when I used the phone in early November. So "additional functionality" should really read "promised functionality."

Universal coverage Claims: 98 percent of the world's populated areas with coverage from 70 degrees South to 70 degrees North. Well, I can't verify either of those two claims without someone giving me an extensive traveling budget. I was impressed by the coverage in the Continental US where I tested, though. With one caveat, I'd accept Globalstar's claims based on my limited experience. The caveat? Check to make sure that Globalstar has a ground-based partner in the region/country where you intend to use the phone. No partner = no coverage.

In short, the Qualcomm GPS 1600 and the Globalstar satellite service worked quite well for me. Surprisingly well. If you have a real need to communicate in areas not serviced by standard cellular and aren't scared off by high per-minute charges, take a look at the Globalstar service and the Qualcomm tri-mode phone.

Dec 7, 2000: The November 27, 2000 issue of Fortune included an article titled "Globalstar Is Falling Back To Earth--Fast" (page 64). The gist was that Globalstar has only 21,000 current customers when they had hoped to have the 500,000 or so necessary to break even. This, of course, means that they also will report only US$2.5 million in revenues instead of the expected US$500 million. Given that billions have been invested in the company, the failure of generating a large customer base means trouble. But I can't agree with Fortune's conclusion: "Even if Globalstar can hang on over the next few months, it will have trouble competing against the next generation of terrestrial cellular services."

I don't believe that Globalstar sees itself as merely a cellular surrogate for folks who travel (e.g., Europe uses GSM standards, the US uses TDMA and CDMA standards, meaning that you need a multi-mode phone if you travel between countries). The biggest threat to Globalstar (and any other satellite phone provider) is whether or not the actual customer base is large enough for them to continue to fly the orbitting birds and maintain the ground stations. Globalstar's latest ad campaigns finally speak directly to their target audience ("You work where cellular doesn't"), but how many of us are there, and how many of us are willing to pay premium per-minute rates to stay connected? If, for instance, Globalstar charged $20/month, included 25 free minutes, and the two cellular modes of the phone could be attached to my current wireless provider contract, they'd have me signed up in seconds. Throw in data access, and I might even give up the free minutes. At the present costs (and my current income level), I can't justify the cost/benefit ratio of staying absolutely connected while out photographing in the wilds. That's bad news for Globalstar, as I'm an early adopter, heavy into technical gear, have a need to stay in communication with editors and art directors while working, and regularly travel to places not served by any cellular carrier, let alone my usual one. If they can't convince me to sign up, something's wrong with their offering.

Globalstar faces the typical new technology conundrum: how do you price your product to best balance the recovery of startup costs versus the maximization of customer adoption? It's a gamble going either way, but I rarely see the cost recovery scenario work. If I were Globalstar, I'd be pushing the envelope on the customer adoption side. The only way to do that is to get traditional cellular users like me to cross over. And the only way to do that is via aggressive pricing. Instead, Globalstar is playing heavy on the advertising side. Net result? They'll spend a lot of money getting plenty of people to kick the tires, but they won't make the sale. Too bad, because ultimately we'll all be using multi-mode phones and I'd love to see them working off satellites instead of erecting cellular towers every 10 feet.

Dec 16, 2000: Iridium is back! A group of investors have purchased this bankrupt venture at fire-sale prices. While it will be awhile before the full plans are disclosed, in the press release accompanying the purchase, the investors promised low-cost air plans, specifically mentioning fees of US$1 a minute.