SPOT reveals satellite phone for wilderness emergencies
By C.C. Weiss
May 22, 2013
Emergency rescue beacons from SPOT have been slowly but surely moving toward a satellite device that provides seamless real-time communication around the world – in other words, a satellite phone. The company has moved from pre-written messaging to custom type-and-send messaging, and with the new SPOT Global Phone, it now adds capabilities for real-time voice. The phone keeps you connected with friends, family and rescue agents even when you're standing in the middle of a roadless, fly-in wilderness in Alaska.
One of the last updates from SPOT, the SPOT Connect, partnered with a smartphone to provide text messaging and email sending for general and emergency use. It essentially added satellite text/email-sending capabilities to a cellular phone, vastly increasing the effective coverage area.
That solution was a little clunky, requiring two separate devices to realize its full potential. Those that considered purchasing one might have thought, "Why not just buy a satellite phone?"
Well, it would appear that SPOT was thinking that way, too. The manufacturer, whose owner Globalstar has satellite phones of its own, is answering the question with the Global Phone. The Global Phone works in places where the bars on your cell phone wither and vanish. Using Globalstar's satellite network, the phone delivers communications even in remote, isolated areas where the nearest cell tower is hundreds of miles away.
The Global Phone relies on Qualcomm-based CDMA technology for what SPOT calls "crystal-clear voice quality" and includes guaranteed data speeds of up to 9.6 kbps. It lacks the one-button emergency calling of other SPOT devices, but it does allow the user to connect with the same GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center by pressing 9-1-1.
The Global Phone can receive text messages of up to 35 characters and has an available voice mail system. An optional US$19.95 data kit essentially turns it into a satellite access point so that you can browse the internet and send and receive emails with a connected phone or computer. The battery provides up to four hours of talk time and 36 hours of standby. The Global Phone isn't as small as the latest smartphones, but at 7 ounces (200 g) and 5.3 x 2.2 x 1.5 inches (13.5 x 5.6 x 3.8 cm), it's not exactly cumbersome, either.
Unlike other satellite phones, which are marketed at demographics like boaters and oil field operators, the Global Phone is marketed squarely at SPOT's existing outdoor demographic, advertised as a means for keeping in touch with family, friends and emergency rescue services.
Of course, any satellite phone could provide that type of advantage, including existing Globalstar models. SPOT claims that the Global Phone offers better voice quality with no lag time when compared to competitor satellite phones. It's worth noting that SPOT's coverage map gets pretty spotty when you travel too far north or south on the globe. Regions like North America and Europe have full coverage, but large parts of southern Africa and Asia are outside the coverage area, as are the poles.
Global Phone users will have to order a subscription plan. SPOT offers a number of monthly and annual packages that range between the $24.99 10-minute monthly plan and the $1,800 unlimited annual plan with included voicemail and data compression.
The availability of a monthly option is a nice addition for SPOT, whose other products offer only annual subscription plans. My own SPOT subscription just auto-renewed, leading me to realize that I've used it – as in carried it with me in case of emergency – maybe once or twice a year since first activating it in 2010. Unless you're a world-class adventurer that travels the Earth in search of one first-ever challenge after another, you probably don't need a satellite rescue beacon every month of the year. A monthly subscription option means you can activate the Global Phone when you need it for a given excursion and not pay any subscription fees when it's sitting in your closet.
The Global Phone is available now for a retail price of US$499, and SPOT claims it is the first satellite phone offered through major retailers like West Marine, REI and Cabela's. The price is well over the cost of other emergency rescue beacons from SPOT and competitors, but considering the monthly subscription option and enhanced, voice-based capabilities, it could well earn its keep for the right buyer.