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September 13, 2013

Satellite-Phone Market Expands with Globalstar Resurgence

Company's 24 new satellites improve coverage and voice quality

(Be sure to click through all the images in the gallery above.)

Fishermen who navigate to remote areas depend on satellite communication to connect with the outside world and, more important, to summon help. Thanks to a major new infrastructure investment by Globalstar, anglers can shop more options.

Following a final launch in February, Globalstar and its 24 new, second-generation satellites have reinvigorated the company’s presence in the satellite-telephone market. “We have, over the past three years, been placing satellites into operational orbits and turning them on,” says L. Barbee Ponder, Globalstar’s general counsel and vice president of regulatory affairs. “As we do that, our coverage improves and the voice quality improves.”

Starting in 2007, Globalstar had experienced aging issues with its low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites, which disrupted the two-way communication necessary for phone calls. Its handsets continued to work, but service was intermittent. As a result, the company discounted prices and developed tools to assist customers making calls. At the same time, Globalstar sought innovative ideas, creating the seemingly ubiquitous SPOT satellite messenger.

“SPOT has been extremely successful, especially in the maritime community,” Ponder says. “We’ve had in excess of 2,300 rescues since 2007, many of those on the water.”

Handhelds for Anglers

With its announcement, Globalstar has rolled out two new handhelds, the GSP-1700 and SPOT Global Phone (both $499). I tested call quality with the GSP-1700 from the middle of the Gulf of Mexico this summer. Ponder says it’s “land-line quality,” and I agree.

“We have what’s called bent-pipe -architecture,” says Ponder, who explained that eight first--generation satellites launched in 2007 will continue to function and enhance the new coverage. “We have mirrors in the sky — repeaters — that receive and send signals to and from ground stations. That crystal-clear voice quality you hear is due in large part to bent-pipe architecture.”

Competitive companies Iridium and Inmarsat operate differently. Iridium, which also uses LEO satellites, says its 66 birds fly closer to the Earth than Globalstar’s (476 miles compared with about 800), and are interconnected and meshed rather than repeaters.

Iridium offers recreational-use handsets, including the 9555 (about $1,000) and the Extreme ($1,250 to $1,350), which features an IP65 environmental rating (dust tight and protected against water jets but not immersion) and comes with an SOS button.

Inmarsat employs nine geostationary satellites, which are much larger than LEOs and fly about 22,000 miles above the Earth. Inmarsat’s IsatPhone Pro handheld ($700) carries an IP54 environmental rating (dust and splash proof).