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September 13, 2013

Satellite-Phone Market Expands with Globalstar Resurgence

Company's 24 new satellites improve coverage and voice quality

Space and Time

Many American anglers take their boats to nearby countries such as the Bahamas, Mexico and Canada; a few navigate to fish throughout the Caribbean and Central America. However, significant numbers of anglers can find themselves isolated in areas within their own borders, where cell service is nonexistent and VHF might even falter.

Satellite-phone service bridges those gaps. Depending on which company you talk to, each system has its advantages, and the products differ in their features; some send and receive SMS text messages, for instance, while others only receive texts sent from a dedicated website. According to all three companies, however, satellite systems are now in place to carry users through at least the next decade.

Globalstar’s second-generation satellites have a 15-year design life, Ponder says. And where its first-generation birds suffered from S-band-amplifier degradation due to radiation, the new satellites protect the amplifiers from radiation. The S-band amplifier is the part of the Globalstar satellite that’s responsible for receiving signals from handsets.

Iridium’s director of product management Josh Miner says that company rotates its six spare satellites into and out of service when repairs are needed on any main-constellation satellites. Iridium has scheduled to launch a new constellation, beginning in 2015, he says. “It’s a fully funded, $2 billion plan. The due diligence is already done for continuity of service.”

Inmarsat plans to start enhancing its current I-4 -constellation this year with three new I-5 satellites. The company says the I-5s will power its Ka-band Global Xpress network, offering the first-ever global broadband -connections (download speeds up to 50 mbps) for satellite phones.

Star Gazing

None of the companies would say what developments might happen on the consumer side, beyond their immediate plans. But in researching this column, I heard about the new Thuraya SatSleeve — which can be bought in the United States, but operates on a network available only in certain European, Asian and African markets.

Thuraya says its new product allows a standard iPhone to make and receive calls and texts over the Thuraya Satellite Network. A version planned for later this year is expected to support data over the network.

Users dock their iPhone into the SatSleeve to connect to the satellites. The product is retailing now for $648 online in the United States. At press time, prepaid vouchers started at $27; post-paid service plans started at $28 a month, with a $30 activation fee and additional per-minute add-ons.

Until that functionality happens in this country, though, anglers can start exploring the expanded sat-phone offerings. “Once we have the authority to use additional broadband, that will have tremendous impact on the company,” Ponder says. “We do have one more new product coming. We’ll make sure to let you know as soon as it’s ready.”