Backcountry Safety: Satellite phones in Alaska. Iridium vs. Globalstar.….
This article was published in the Backcountry Safety Column of the "Hunt Alaska" Magazine, Winter 2016.
Story by Jon Hunt.
Satellite phones work everywhere…. True or False? If you guessed “false,” then you are correct. Despite their ever increasing popularity, most people still have limited knowledge about how satellite phones work, especially in Alaska. In fact, many of the widespread beliefs about satellite phones even today are untrue, or at the very least distorted. In this article, we hope to provide clarity to some popular misconceptions, and verify several facts that are often debated.
There are in fact 4 satellite operators that provide service in Alaska. In making the best choice to suit your specific needs, there are many factors to consider. Coverage, services required (email/SMS/web), price of the service plan & phone, service reliability and geographical location are all significant factors.
Inmarsat & Light Squared (MSAT) have been providing service in Alaska for decades. Their high power fixed-based terminals are ideal for the marine market, but would mostly be impractical for outdoor recreation where their size would be impractical. Globalstar & Iridium provide satellite phone service via small handheld phones & Wi-Fi enabled devices. Both services provide a nearly unnoticeable delay. The “omni-directional antennas” on their phones do not require the users to know where their satellites are in the sky. Simply point the antenna up towards the sky, and the phones will acquire the satellite signal.
Because of their widespread adoption among outdoor enthusiasts in Alaska, Globalstar & Iridium are the focal points of this article. Both companies build, own, and operate their own constellation of Low Earth Orbiting (LEO’s) Satellites, and both have local network facilities here in Alaska. Iridium operates one of its four Telemetry, Tracking and Command & Control (TTAC) stations in Fairbanks. Globalstar has a full commercial gateway (ground station) in Wasilla, which connects Globalstar satellite constellation directly into the long distance telephone networks in Alaska. The local tie-in to GCI’s fiber optic telephone network enables Globalstar subscribers to have a genuine 907 based phone number assigned to their satellite phones.
The Globalstar constellation of 32 satellites (soon to be 24) orbit around the Earth at an altitude of about 900 miles. Iridium’s fleet of 66 orbits are slotted about half as high up, 450 miles above the Earth. At those low altitudes, the “spacecraft” of both systems orbit continuously around the globe, traveling at speeds of over 12,000 mph. In fact, in takes only about 2 hours for an individual LEO satellite to circumnavigate the Earth.
The common debate is, “Which system provides the best coverage, and why?” I’ve heard it said on numerous occasions, “Iridium has 66 satellites, Globalstar has fewer birds, so that’s why Iridium has better coverage up here”. Though there may be some truth to the answer of which network has broader coverage, the reasoning is more often than not, incorrect. Coverage is the end-product of several parameters: the satellites’ altitude, inclination and functionality.
The altitude of a satellite defines how big its footprint is. The higher satellite’s altitude, the larger its footprint, and generally speaking fewer satellites are needed for coverage. So, in terms of the satellite footprint’s size, Globalstar has the edge because their satellites orbit at 900 miles, Iridium’s are at 450 miles. By contrast, Inmarsat satellites are 22,000 miles away from Earth in their geosynchronous orbit, and thus require only 4 birds to blanket most of the earth.
The inclination defines the tilt of the satellites relative to the equatorial plane of the earth. Inclination is measured in degrees. Globalstar satellites are inclined at a 52º angle relative to the equator, which was chosen to provide service up to the 70th parallel, near Prudhoe Bay. With foot traffic & flight paths relatively light from Prudhoe to the North Pole, Globalstar decided against the extraordinary additional cost required to cover pole to pole.
As for functionality, If you were to flatten out the Earth and watch the Globalstar satellites orbit, they would produce an image of a sine wave, with the crest rising as far north as about Ketchikan. The view from 1,000 mile up in outer space however is vast, and Globalstar’s broad satellite beams shadow the entire state of Alaska as they pass by overhead. The only requirement? Ketchikan is always to the south, so wherever you are in Alaska you need a good view to the south when using Globalstar.
How does Iridium provide telephone service at the South Pole, the North Pole and everywhere in between? Tilt the satellites at a 90º relative to the Equator, and create a mesh network that routes the calls through the chain of satellites until you get back on dry, warm land. In Iridium’s case, Tempe, AZ.
“My Iridium did not work in the Canyons of Misty Fjords”, or “Globalstar doesn’t have service in the Alaska range”. Ever heard that before? Well, consider this. Since the “base stations” on both systems are rapidly orbiting across the sky, any dropped call, gap, or “outage” is often more “time specific” than “location specific”. Representatives from both companies have told me, if you drop a call on our system, at some point, service will be restored in that exact same area because the orbital rotation around the Earth. More accurately one might say, “my satellite phone didn’t work at the time intervals where I was.” If you got service there once, you should to get service there again.
Iridium’s satellite network was conceived by Motorola engineers in 1985, the goal was to build a worldwide phone network that ensured ubiquitous coverage, anywhere on Earth. However, providing coverage all over the globe, polar caps included, would be no easy, nor inexpensive task. “One World, One Phone, One Number,” was Iridium’s motto at the time.
Jointly with Lockheed Martin, Motorola built the world’s first ever cross-linked based satellite system, & pulled off what many thought was unthinkable. It was hard enough for many to fathom that the “cell” towers are zipping by overhead at 12,000 mph, more mind blowing, that most all the system’s intelligence is up in the sky.
In the end, $7 Billion was the final price tag of Iridium network. An international consortium of investors including, Mitsubishi, Sony, Sprint, Khrunichev, Raytheon, and even Hasan (Osama’s brother) bin Laden helped fund a local gateway and began Iridium’s operations in the Middle East from Saudi Arabia.
The Iridium LEO constellation currently has 66 operational satellites and several spares that create a network providing worldwide voice and data communication. It has 6 different orbit inclinations spaced 30 degrees apart. 11 satellites are in each plane, plus spares. The network uses microwave cross-link technology to relay from one satellite to another allowing global coverage relayed through several active Iridium Earth Stations.
Generation 1 Iridium satellites are already in their 18th year of a 15 year expected operational life. Iridium recently announced that its satellite manufacturer (Thales in France) was beset with yet another round of manufacturing problems related to critical electronic components on its Gen2 “NEXT” satellites.
What’s the future hold for Iridium?
The company’s 1st launch of Gen2 Satellites, according to Iridium officials, has been delayed to August 2016. According to the covenants of its insurance policy, Iridium must wait a minimum of 4 months from the launch of 2 test satellites before it can set free the Falcon 9 rockets, courtesy of Space X, which will carry 10 Iridium satellites into space.
Iridium’s service degradation has reached new levels, many suspect this this trend may continue. Extremely low fuel and diminished power levels may affect the quality of service as the Gen1 satellites continue to operate on borrowed time.
Pie in the Sky, or on the ground?
Despite its engineering brilliance, a popular misconception about the Iridium system is the widespread thought of 2 Iridium phones being able to communicate point to point, without an operational gateway. While the voice path in a ISU (Iridium Subscriber Unit) to ISU call reroutes from phone to phone, the Iridium gateway must be functioning to set up the and support the call. Sim card authentication, call detail creation, proper billing, and most importantly Federal US wiretapping laws require the Tempe, AZ gateway be operational for all calling scenarios. Unfortunately, unless you are serving in the armed forces, if the Iridium gateway in Arizona fails, the entire network and all calls on it fails. Thankfully, until recently, Iridium has not had the slightest of issues, other than some periods of network overload following hurricane Katrina.
Globalstar Inc., a private corporation founded in 2000, is a constellation of LEO’s satellites that offer simple, dependable communications using portable devices (fixed options are also available) that require only a clear view of the sky (to the South in Alaska). In 2013 their 2nd generation satellites came online.
The 2nd generation satellites are the first of three system upgrades before it can deliver to users bona fide “Gen. 2” satellite services. Network upgrades at the gateways are ongoing, and expected to be completed by the end of 2015. In early 2016, users will leverage the power of Globalstar’s Gen. 2 system (estimated cost of $1 Billion in network upgrades), including new products that will feature:
Globalstar’s business model is based on providing coverage in select regions of the world to ensure cost containment, maximum quality of service for both voice & data services via Qualcomm’s CDMA-based technology. The continental US & Alaska are covered by the Globalstar network, Hawaii is not. Due to Globalstar’s 24 satellite architecture, satellite visibility is best up to about 64º (equal to Fairbanks). Travel further north, and your outages increase, and call times may be restricted due to the low-horizon satellite passes.
How it works:
Placing a call on a Globalstar phone is almost identical to calling from a cell phone (albeit, you have to be outside, or have an external antenna). Simply power the phone on, rotate & extend the telescopic antenna so that it points straight up at a 90 degree angle relative to the ground. Maximize your line of sight to the South, (because of Globalstar’s lower inclination), wait for red house icon (1700 model), then simply dial 1-area code-xxx-xxxx. In Alaska, the phone will connect with up to three satellites simultaneously (usually only 1 or 2), this signal then ricochets’ to the Earth Stations (the closest ones to Alaska are in Wasilla and Calgary, Canada).
When calling from a Globalstar phone to another Globalstar phone, the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) is bypassed altogether. Operating on a closed network, this call is only dependent on the Globalstar gateway servicing the 2 phones. For emergency preparedness situations, Globalstar to Globalstar calling is ideal. Otherwise, calls from a Globalstar phone to a home, cellular, or different satellite phone system are routed through the PSTN network, just like any other landline call, thus more susceptible to outages.
What’s the future hold for Globalstar?
Inside sources say that as many as 4 new devices will be released. The second Generation equipment is expected in the middle of 2016 and will provide increased data speeds.
Both Globalstar and Iridium have a roller coaster ride of innovation, technological challenges, revolutionary services, and even bankruptcy. Both companies now appear stable and boast of their new technologies that will soon be unveiled. Based on current data it is fair to say that Globalstar is far more economical option, and much faster at transmitting data.
I have traditionally been a strong supporter of the Iridium system, however, have also recently had multiple frustrating experiences this year with both product and service failure when using my InReach (Iridium hand-held 2-way communicator).
My personal experience in using the Globalstar phone in Alaska is occasionally frustrating. None-the-less, I understand the limitations of the product:
As long as the customer understands that Globalstar has these limitations, and doesn’t mind operating within these parameters, then the product is a great option. Especially true for those that don’t want the increased expense on an Iridium phone and calling plan.
To answer the original question, “Do satellite phones work everywhere?” Globalstar is not designed to work everywhere, so the answer is clearly a “NO.” Iridium phones can theoretically work anywhere on the globe where they can get a clear view to the sky, but are not allowed to be used in some countries such as: North Korea, Poland, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Syria, Angola, Yugoslavia, and Hungary.
For the record, Frontier Safety and Supply is a Globalstar Satellite phone dealer (we also rent phones $75 / week with unlimited talk time). When potential customers call for information on Satellite phones, we help them to understand the pros and cons of each product in order to make an informed decision.
We hope this helps you better understand satellite phone communication and help you make an informed choice. Safe hunting!