Mobile phone coverage spots in remote areas like Western Australia’s Kimberley region are few and far between for Telstra NextG customers, and mostly non-existent for Optus and Vodafone. So the only way you can regularly make contact with family, friends and work colleagues is to use satellite-based communication systems. As luck would have it the relentless technology trend of smaller, cheaper, better devices has worked its magic well in this area of gadgets. The SPOT 2 Satellite GPS Messenger and Inmarsat iSatphone Pro reviewed here work not only in Australia but across large parts of the world at no extra cost.
Location-based services like Foursquare aren’t particularly high on my radar. Anyone who publishes daily Facebook/Twitter status updates like “9am: I’m at work” and “5pm: going home” is swiftly unfollowed and earmarked as the dissemination of boring ‘Captain Obvious’ information. But I spied an opportunity for some real location-based tech testing when I headed to the Kimberley in the north of Western Australia for a photographic expedition.
Could I usefully stay ‘on grid’ in one of the world’s most isolated regions? I turned to satellite technology. But if like me your preconceptions about satellite phones involve large brick-sized communication devices and call costs of several dollars per second, think again. I loaded up with the latest Inmarsat satphone and a more limited but perhaps less intrusive ‘messenger’ device.
I write short articles as well as long feature “explainer” articles on topics including: Google Android Smartphones and Tablets, National Broadband Network (NBN), Space, Civil & Military Aviation, Ebooks and the Publishing Industry, Electric cars, Technology augmenting human capabilities etc for Geare Magazine. The editor of GEARE has kindly permitted me to post articles here after the magazine issue the article was printed in has passed its shelf life. I have added updates where new information is relevant.
SPOT 2 Satellite GPS Messenger ($199 plus satellite and Google Maps subscription fees)
If you’re planning to get away from it all a satellite phone may be the last thing you want – particularly incoming communications so that anyone (such as your boss) can check up on you. I found the Spot 2 to be a near-perfect device in this regard – it provides an excellent balance between keeping friends and family up to date with your location and safety, while keeping you out of their personal loops.
The Spot 2 can be strapped onto your wrist while walking but I found that a rather chunky option for any length of time. Strapping it to cycle/motorbike handlebars or sticking it face up on a vehicle windscreen is much more practical. I tended to just turn it on and place it on a backpack, pointing face-up at the sky, checking in with an OK message and Google Maps location tracking signal. Once turned on, Spot 2 takes five to ten minutes to register with a satellite and send its message based on the button you press. To be certain, it’s best to leave it running for 20 minutes.
So, what can you do with it? The Spot 2 offers five main functions:
- SOS – This immediately alerts emergency services of your location in case of a life-threatening or other critical emergency. The GEOS International Emergency Response Center alerts the appropriate agencies worldwide. The Spot 2 will send this SOS (with your GPS location) at five minute intervals until the batteries die, the company quoting 1350 transmissions (four and a half days) on a fresh battery.
- Help message – For less critical emergencies, this sends a message to friends/family, and could be especially useful if you’re travelling in a group, or with a back-up team. Your GPS location is sent with the help message every five minutes for an hour, or until cancelled, and your contacts can receive either an SMS text message including coordinates, or an email with a link to Google Maps showing your precise location.
- Custom message – Specific alerts, such as “vehicle mechanical problems” can be sent, or even a less urgent “Setting up camp for the night” message.
- OK message – A ‘check-in’ SMS or email is sent to a predetermined list of up to 10 people, again sending your GPS location as an SMS or email link to Google Maps.
- Track Progress – This function sends your current location to Spot, which then pinpoints it on a customised Google Map which connects all your ‘track progress’
check-ins over time to show your path.
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I checked in at 26 major points during the trip, generating the map shown above. Battery life is good – the three lithium-ion batteries which power Spot 2 should last for a three-week trip if it is transmitting eight hours a day.
Could you send an SOS by mistake? Nearly impossible I reckon – the buttons are all recessed and they only work when pressed for two or more seconds. And while there’s no display readout on the Spot, its current task is clearly indicated by flashing buttons and indicators.
I was so impressed with this useful and potentially disaster-averting device that I’d suggest any Australian going on a 4WD or caravan trip through areas without mobile coverage should consider taking a Spot 2 with them for personal safety. Even if no emergency arises, it can provide peace of mind for family and friends, while the optional Track Progress feature is very cool, and provides you with an accurate map trail showing exactly where you’ve been. Spot 2 costs AU$199 inc GST to buy, plus an additional US$115 a year for the basic satellite subscription and a further US$49.95 to enable the Track Progress Google-mapping feature.
Inmarsat iSatphone Pro ($660 + usage fees)
Those preconceptions about giant satellite phones? Forget them. When I took Inmarsat’s latest iSatphone Pro out of its box, it was comparable in size and weight to a cordless phone from a few years ago (rather than the decade I was expecting). Inmarsat told me that the call costs are 75c+GST/minute, so that with the handset at $660 the cost overall compares pretty well to a mid-to-high level smartphone on a prepaid phone plan.
Yet when you’re heading way out of town, if there’s a strong likelihood of weather, or of vehicle difficulties on your holiday drive, or if you’re cursed with the need to be in contact with work at all times, a conventional phone is likely to be completely useless. A satellite phone is the best option, and Inmarsat’s iSatPhonePro leads the pack with its long battery life, rugged construction and affordability. It has an intuitive GSMstyle interface and a high-visibility colour screen, while its relatively large keypad makes for easy dialling even with gloves on.
The iSatphone Pro is also the only global handheld satellite phone to support Bluetooth. You can place the handset on its side, with full manoeuvrability of the antenna for handsfree use.
Those call rates, by the way, are the same regardless of your country or connection. So you’d actually save money using the Inmarsat’s iSatPhonePro service overseas compared to using mobile phone global roaming!
To make a satellite phone call you have to follow a specific procedure. First you turn the phone on and swing out the large antenna. Then stand in a place with a clear view of the sky, and turn around slowly until you find out which direction the satellite is in, by watching the signal strength meter. Once the signal is strong enough the phone will register with the Inmarsat network and be ready to make a call, send an SMS etc.
That network operates over global geostationary satellites that are assured to be operational into the 2020s, so you might expect the phone’s satellite coverage would be, well, everywhere, at least outside. In fact some patience is required. Finding a signal and registering can take several minutes – longer if you have to walk/drive somewhere to find a clearer line of sight to the satellite overhead. Even being beneath a big leafy tree, let alone sitting at the bottom of a gorge or canyon, was enough to restrict line-of-sight communication with the satellite network.
But once registered and connected operation was simple. There was a slight latency on calls to Sydney in the far corner of Australia, the delays inherent in satellite communication meaning that conversations could be a bit disjointed unless you’re calling someone used to satphone or overseas conversations. But call quality was good, with a random bit of digital noise every now and then – comparable with an OK mobile call. Those on the other end such as friends and family in Sydney reported good reception at the other end.
Capabilities: Satellite telephony, voicemail, text and email messaging, GPS location data
Battery life: Longest battery life in its class: up to 8 hours talk time and up to 100 hours standby time.
Robust: Also the most robust handset in its class. It can operate at temperatures from -20°C to +55°C; it’s dust, splash and shock-resistant (IP54), with humidity tolerance from 0-95%.
This article was originally published in GEARE Magazine issue #67. It is “digitally reprinted” here with permission from the editor. I have added updates where new information is relevant.