Satellite wi-fi product offerings are all the buzz these days…

Most of us are familiar with, and used, My-Fi hotspots, tethered cell phones, and the like while at home or traveling around. It seems like it is about time that the satellite companies have come around and made this technology available for us to use offshore… and at prices that are more inline with our cellular plans… right?

GREAT NEWS! Iridium, Inmarsat, and Globalstar all now have Wi-Fi enabled devices that work with your smartphone and/or computer to give you nearly global phone service… and in most cases data as well! What… “in most cases”? As you might expect, that new satellite Wi-Fi device just may be too good to be true. While these new devices sound great in theory, and in marketing – we need to take a closer look at what these really are and what they are really capable of.

Let’s start with the Iridium GO! This is a nice, very compact and portable, device. There is very little to the unit itself. It has a small antenna that rotates up, doing double duty as the power switch. It has inputs for an optional auxiliary antenna and a mini USB port for power only, and an SOS button to quickly send a position report to emergency contacts. There is a small screen for viewing the terminals status such as signal strength, battery strength, and call status but it does have a rather cumbersome menu system and only two buttons for navigating that interface.

The primary control is done via the Iridium GO! app that you must have installed on your iOS or Android device. This app is required for making voice calls or sending SMS messages. Connection between the Iridium GO device and your smart phone is done via Wi-Fi, but just because this connection is Wi-Fi, it does not mean that you are also getting a open data connection for your device to use.

You will need dedicated apps and services for such things as email or weather. These 3rd party apps are required to have been approved by Iridium to support the functionality of the GO, have the coding to start and stop the data calls and ideally provide managed data services to make the most of the still only 2400 baud data connection. Now I know the marketing says that “Now you can now use your Smartphone anywhere in the world.” While that is technically true… The Iridium network is only capable of data speeds up to 2400 baud (or 17 KBpm – another way to look at this is one 17KB file will take 1 minute to download). This is not fast enough for you to connect your smartphone and be able to do what you normally do or fast enough to use the standard apps or other services that you most likely have on your phone.

Next up is the Globalstar Sat-Fi. This is very similar to the Iridium GO in overall functionality and limitations but is ever so slightly different. First, the hardware is not as compact. You have a box that is inside the vessel, antenna cables and a remote antenna that you have to mount outside. The unit requires a 12vdc power hookup as it does not have an internal battery. The only user interface on the device is a single round power button with an LED indicator. Like the other device, you must have the Sat-Fi app installed on your smartphone for making calls and sendning SMS. You also will need additional apps and services for things like email and weather.

What really sets the Globalstar device apart from the Iridium is that the Globalstar network supports data speeds up to 9600 baud (or about 50KB per minute). This is quite an improvement over the other network but still not enough to brows the web or use the standard apps on your device.

Lastly, Inmarsat has a new terminal out called the IsatHub. This is a small, portable device, about the size of a mini laptop, that you would set up on a table outside and point at the closest Inmarsat satellite. This also has apps that you will need to have installed for making calls like the others but with this service you can get data speeds up to 240kbps! Not quite what you have at home with your cable modem but faster that dialup and fast enough to actually use your full device and its native apps. You do however need to keep in mind that you are paying per megabyte for your data via the Inmarsat network and the IsatHub rates run around $6 per megabyte depending on the exact plan you go with.

This is by no means an exhaustive comparison of these new devices but hopefully will give you a more realistic starting point of how these devices might fit into your overall communications plan.


Jeff Thomassen

22608 Marine View Dr. S., #300
Des Moines WA 98198

Satellite Systems And Service
Weather, Email, Voice & Data Solutions
Inmarsat, Iridium, Globalstar, KVH, VSAT
Office: 206.878.8270 : Cell: 206.769.8270 : Fax: 206.878.8314

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