Gear Review: SPOT Global Phone

When satellite phones first came out, their costs were so high as to prevent use by anyone outside military and government circles (and perhaps drug lords). Since then, they have gradually become more and more available to average consumers. I have been a satellite phone user for a number of years, and followed news of SPOT’s satellite phone with interest. It’s called the “Global Phone,” and SPOT claims it is “the ultimate easy to use, lightweight handheld satellite phone.”

globalphone1s

It’s 5.3″x2.2″x1.5″ with a weight of 7.1 ounces.

Knowing my affinity for technology and past history with various satellite phones, TFB editors asked if I wanted to review the Global Phone. I said yes, and a few weeks later SPOT sent an example for me to test. I’ve been using the phone for several months – here’s what I think.

Satellite Phone Options

There are four major companies which provide satellite phone coverage to consumers – Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya, and Globalstar. Thuraya only covers the Middle East, while the others offer more or less global coverage. For the purposes of this article only, Thuraya is nonexistent. The SPOT Global Phone operates on the Globalstar network.

Iridium, developed by Motorola, is widely used by the US military and government and uses approximately 60 satellites in a low earth orbit (approximately 485 miles) to provide coverage anywhere on the planet. Inmarsat was originally a not-for-profit venture as part of the International Maritime Organization, itself part of the UN, but is now a private corporation utilizing 10 geosynchronous (stationary relative to the surface of the earth) satellites at an orbit of 22,240 miles above the surface of the earth, and covers almost the whole planet, with the exception of the polar regions. Globalstar was a venture between Qualcomm and Loral which is now a privately held corporation. Like Iridium, Globalstar uses dozens of low-earth-orbit (876 mile) satellites. Unlike Iridium, the Globalstar network does not cover the entire planet.

What do these differences mean?

Inmarsat

With the geosynchronous (stationary) orbit of the Inmarsat satellites, which are positioned around the Equator, if you can “see” the satellite, you can talk as long as your wallet can stand. I own an Inmarsat phone and have used it numerous times over the last few years, and have been very happy with the service quality. I have never experienced a dropped call. On the other hand, if you can’t see the satellite, you can’t make a call.

In my experience, however, it is relatively easy to get service on the Inmarsat network – though most of my travels and use of the Inmarsat have been not too far from the Equator. I should also mention that the very high altitude of the Inmarsat network can be a blessing in some situations: in my experience it is easier for the Inmarsat satellites to “look down” over high terrain or other obscuration such as canyons than satellites at lower altitudes. Although it’s not especially relevant to a lone traveler, Inmarsat has the ability to direct “beams” of higher coverage in areas seen by its satellites. This is relevant during, say, a natural disaster, when lots of people might be using satphones in the area.

Iridium

With the many fast-moving Iridium satellites orbiting around the planet at various latitudes, if you can’t currently “see” a satellite, one may very well come into view rather quickly. Therefore, if you can’t move, you might soon be able to make a call. On the other hand, there are only two Earth-based gateways which calls must be routed through, and even if you had an ideal view of the sky, you’re being handed off from satellite to satellite every 9-10 minutes. By the way, a gateway basically takes the call from the satellite realm and connects it to existing landline systems.

The hand-off from satellite to satellite isn’t always perfect, and as a result dropped calls are more frequent. Call quality is also not great, with long pauses between the time sounds are transmitted and received. I have the most time using Iridium phones, and I have experienced countless dropped calls. Overall, though, I was quite satisfied with my ability to talk to people on the other side of the planet. Plus, as mentioned previously, Iridium offers truly global coverage.

Globalstar

With the (somewhat fewer than Iridium) fast-moving Globalstar satellites, you do not have the geosynchronous advantage of a single satellite watching over you from 22,000 miles overhead, but you do have multiple satellites passing overhead frequently at a lower altitude. In addition, the Globalstar network uses over 20 regional gateways to connect satellite phone calls to landline and cell phone networks.

The SPOT Global Phone is thus not truly global.

The SPOT Global Phone is thus not truly global.

Unlike the 2 Iridium gateways, the Globalstar gateways do not provide global coverage. What they do provide is reduced transmission times and somewhat improved call quality. With the Iridium system, a call is bounced between several satellites and a gateway which might be on the other side of the planet. On Inmarsat, the call goes directly from the satellite to a nearby gateway.

In order to get service on the Globalstar network, you must have a view of a satellite which has a view of a nearby gateway. That said, in several months of semi-frequent use, I did not have any dropped calls with the SPOT Global Phone.

I should point out that whenever I discuss satellite phones with other people who have used them for a while, they look down their noses at Globalstar. This is due to problems encountered in the mid-2000s. Basically, some of their satellites started dying out sooner than expected, and many problems resulted. Globalstar has since launched several dozen more satellites, which they claim has improved service times and qualities. These launches took place from 2009 into the early part of this year, and appear to have fixed most of the problems that people complain about – as far as I could tell from my use of the phone.

“I Saw Gravity, I Know Satellites Die Or Run Into Stuff”

It’s important to note that both Inmarsat and Globalstar are currently or have been launching new satellites on a regular, if not extremely frequent, basis. If you spend time researching satphones, you are bound to run across articles touting one network over another from 5 or 10 years ago. Many references still live on the Web say Inmarsat has three or four satellites, and thus many terrain shadows; they now have ten (including the I-3 and I-4 series), with correspondingly fewer terrain shadows. Similarly, people complaining about Globalstar in 2007 were using different satellites than someone using Globalstar today would use. Iridium’s 66 active and dozen or so spare satellites were launched prior to 2002, but the company is planning to launch new satellites as of 2015, with the goal of replacing every satellite in their network by 2017.

Enough Already, Tell Me About The Phone

The SPOT Global Phone is indeed the smallest and lightest satellite phone I have ever used. While my Inmarsat iSatPhone Pro does fit in most of my front pants pockets, the SPOT Global Phone does so without looking ridiculous.

Next to my Samsung Galaxy Note 2, the Global Phone looks rather diminutive from the front.

Next to my Samsung Galaxy Note 2, the Global Phone looks rather diminutive from the front.

It was also pretty easy to set up, although I had the advantage of using a phone which had already been activated. I took it out of the box, charged the battery, and went outside to use the phone. Initially it couldn’t find a signal, but after turning it off and on, it found a signal within ten seconds. This happened most of the time when I pulled the phone out and attempted to use it, but not always. While all satphones are somewhat sensitive to antenna position (otherwise they wouldn’t have them), the Global Phone really needs the antenna to be as close to vertical as possible in order to acquire service.

The closest I came to using the Global Phone in an “emergency” was while flying a light aircraft over a remote portion of Southern Utah. There was a minor electrical fire under the instrument panel, and I elected to land at a small airport which just happened to be located directly beneath my airplane. After an inspection of the aircraft, I decided to continue on without the electrical system, planning to use the Global Phone to make periodic position reports to family at home.

Unfortunately, the Global Phone couldn’t find a signal, and I decided to stop trying after a few minutes, as I needed to focus on flying and navigating. I was able to occasionally find a signal with my cell phone, with which I sent text messages. Once I landed the plane at home and took time to work with the phone, I was able to get a signal with the Global Phone. It’s possible that I could have done so in air, but there were more important things to focus on.

"My, what a large antenna you have" "All the better to hear you with, my dear"

“My, what a large antenna you have”
“All the better to hear you with, my dear”

During the several months I had this phone, I spent a decent amount of time using it to talk to people while on the ground. Call quality wasn’t as perfect as advertised, but it was good. It didn’t exactly sound like a cell phone, but I could understand the person on the other end and they could understand me. Over time, as I used the phone in remote areas and even while in moving vehicles, I encountered this same relatively good level of call quality. One notable exception was when some electronic voodoo apparently changed my voice into something that a friend described as “really creepy” and “a mix of Christian Bale’s Batman and a dead person.”

While I didn’t attempt to use up the claimed 4 hours of talk time per battery charge all at once, I was impressed with how much use I was able to get out of the phone over a period of several weeks without a charge. That said, I use satphones pretty sparingly – if the phone is on, it’s because I need to make a call or am expecting one. I also tend to keep satphone calls relatively short, due in part to how expensive airtime can be.

globalphone2s

A brick, a brick, and a smartphone.

One complaint about the Global Phone would be that the power supply connector is not a standard or easily found item. I managed to keep track of the one I was sent, which is a minor miracle. However, had I misplaced it, I could not have used any other charger in my possession. In this regard, I much prefer my Intelsat phone, which uses a standard mini-USB cable to charge – this also allows me to charge the Inmarsat phone from a laptop battery if necessary, unlike the Global Phone, which requires a power outlet. It struck me as odd that a new phone would use a relatively old charging method.

While the Global Phone does use a standard US telephone number, which is handy and easier for Americans to remember, all my calls came through as “unavailable” with no associated number, which might keep a family member or friend from answering if I needed to get in touch with them. The Global Phone also does not offer a two-way texting feature, which is offered by my Inmarsat. Also, the Inmarsat will tell me my exact position at any time, and allow me to text that info to anyone, while the Global Phone only tells you your location while you are in a call.

The screen brightness and design reminded me of a ten-year-old cell phone.

The screen brightness and design reminded me of a ten-year-old cell phone. The screen backlight is on in this photo.

The screen is fairly small and not exceptionally easy to read in bright sunlight, especially due to its secondary purpose as a signal mirror. However, it seems adequately durable, as does the rest of the phone. I tossed it in an Arc’teryx Drypack 70 during the Arc’teryx/Nemo Equipment Red Rock Challenge along with a bunch of other outdoor gear – not in a case, just the phone by itself. It survived with full functionality (perhaps due to the fact that it was in a very, very expensive pack) and only a few light scratches.

Service is available in a variety of quantities from the 10 minute/$25 per month “HALP LEGS CHEWED OFF BY BEAR SEND HELICOPTER” plan to the unlimited, $150 per month “I run my cartel’s daily operations from various jungle locations” plan. If you go over these amounts, except of course for the unlimited plan, you’ll pay per minute, between $1 and $2 depending on the plan. Although there are monthly and yearly plans, a 12 month contract is required, and the minutes/dollars per month really don’t change whether you pay up front or per month. One more thing to note is that for new activations until the end of this year, there is a “double minutes” bonus available for the first year on all plans, at the same price.

One significant benefit of the Global Phone over the Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro is that the cheapest, emergency-only SPOT plan (good anywhere SPOT has service, see above) costs about half as much as what you’re likely to find a North America-inclusive Inmarsat plan for.

I found myself thinking that the Global Phone seemed a lot like the cell phones I used ten years ago, albeit slightly larger and with a big antenna. I pulled the battery (which was labeled Globalstar, not SPOT) and saw that the model number was GSP-1700. I Googled “GSP-1700” and found that this model was announced in 2006. It’s not terribly surprising, then, that it struck me as similar to a ten-year-old cell phone.

globalphone5s

Behold, the Globalstar GSP-1700.

It would appear that the Global Phone is a repackaged GSP-1700, which is still sold by Globalstar under that model number for approximately the same price. The original list price for the GSP-1700 appears to have been $999. If my interpretation of the label inside the battery compartment is correct, my particular phone was made in July of 2009. It is therefore a bit of a stretch for SPOT to have introduced the Global Phone in May of this year as “new.”

That much is as factual as I can get; what follows is a bit of fact and a bit of supposition. Globalstar introduced a new phone at the end of 2006; their satellite network essentially falls apart around the same time. Presumably, they have a lot of phones sitting around unsold. Globalstar then launches a new satellite network from 2010 to 2013. Three months after the last satellite is launched, which coincides with that last satellite coming online, SPOT (a Globalstar subsidiary) announces the “new” Global Phone, which appears to be just a relabeled version of the phones they must have had sitting around for years. I guess they didn’t have much choice from a business perspective, but their claim that the GSP-1700/Global Phone is new (and price it relatively high) just rubs me the wrong way.

Overall, I was somewhat satisfied with the performance of the SPOT Global phone; however, I did not pay for it, and SPOT is asking $499 for the phone, plus service. If the price was under $250, perhaps I could see buying a SPOT Global Phone. However, considering that I paid essentially the same price ($550) for the Inmarsat iSatPhone Pro (introduced in 2011), which offers a greater coverage area, a more flexible charging system, and two-way texting – I really cannot see myself buying a SPOT Global Phone at the current price.





Andrew Tuohy

Andrew Tuohy was a Navy Corpsman with the 5th Marine Regiment. He makes a living by producing written and visual content within the firearm industry, and he also teaches carbine courses. He prefers elegant weapons for a more civilized age, and regularly posts at Vuurwapen Blog.


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  • JT

    So in 2013 I’m going to be getting text messages from a Nigerian Prince asking me to pass some money for him

  • flyingburgers

    You can pick up a larger, used GSP-1600 on eBay for somewhere around $150. Got one during their outages a few years ago for $50.

    • Steve (TFB Editor)

      That is interesting. Not to turn this into a political debate, but given the news over the past couple of months, I think its a given that all sat phone calls are recorded.

      • They are, and all of them are tracked geographically with a GPS coordinate, that is in turn put into a database that is accessible by none other than the US government. I used to deal in this type of stuff quite a bit.

        • Steve (TFB Editor)

          Interesting. I always assumed they were.

        • Swifty

          Gaddafi was using a SAT phone while he was held up in Sirte. I’m almost certain the SAT phone was what they used to triangulate his position for the drone strike. This is another reason why no one should talk on the phone and drive at the same time.

  • wetcorps

    I don’t plan to buy a satellite phone anytime soon, but learning how they work was interesting. Thanks!

    • Andrew Tuohy

      You are most welcome. I’m glad you found that part interesting.

  • Julio

    Great review, Andrew – I learned lots, and laughed plenty (in the right places!) Thanks!

    • Andrew Tuohy

      Thanks, Julio.

  • Not the kind of article I expect on TFB, but a damn enjoyable one! Sat-phones are on the list of gear that makes me go “ooo” right next to thermals and lasers. Back when I was selling outdoor products behind a counter we made more “spotty” jokes about the Spot line than was really necessary. This sounds like a cut above their normal offerings, but that coverage map makes me sad.

  • wtfTFB

    the FIREARM blog… satellite phones.

    What’s next? Motor oil? Coffee?

    • There no reason not to use your real username. It is against the rules to use a fake username.
      Not unless it has something to do with outdoor activities and keeping you safe. If I went into the backcountry hunting I’d like to have one with me.

      • Hunter57dor

        actually seeing some cool survival gear and the like would be cool. keep the articles flowing guys! 😀

    • Steve (TFB Editor)

      why not? I personally asked Phil to arrange this product review and andrew to write the review.

      Many of us hunt or shoot in isolated areas. I low cost sat phone is a great safety tool.

    • nadnerbus

      Not all of us are fortunate enough to have a thousand yard range in their neighborhood. To get to really good, remote shooting locations, my friend and I have gone out into the desert butthole of California, a long way away from civilization. All it takes is a busted transmission and trouble can brew quickly. A sat phone is a very logical piece of gear for the serious shooter.

    • Andrew Tuohy

      How’d you know I was working on a coffee review for TFB?

  • Hunter57dor

    so im gonna pay 500 bucks, AND a monthly service charge for a laughably low amount of minutes, for a phone that MIGHT work.

    or i can just use an amateur radio, which always works if you have half a brain.

    and you can get those for like 50 bucks at a swap meet.

    • MattInTheCouv

      i agree they are a good thing to have, but in mountainous country i’ve had radios rated for 25 mile range not work at .25 miles, and in rural idaho, if you don’t have a buddy with you and you’re out in the middle of nowhere, it’s pretty likely the nearest human is a lot more than a 1/4 mile away.

  • Nicks87

    OMG! How ever did we survive before phones? Oh… Wait… We had guns 😉 A map and compass works too for those back country hunting trips. Learn to use your brain and think your way out of emergencies instead of just pushing a button and asking for help. You will feel better for doing it and you will become a valuable member of society instead of just another sheep.

    • MattInTheCouv

      uhhh,,,,what? thinking doesn’t help that much when you fall down a steep embankment, and compound fracture your femur. or when you’re out hunting and some idiot mistakes you for a deer and puts a broadhead in your abdomen. satphones do. if i’m bleeding out, you’re damn straight i’ll try and macguyver a tourniquet, and using your brain can take you pretty far, but just like seatbelts in my car, and smoke detectors in my house, i take advantage of technology whenever it might save my life in an unexpected situation.

      also, this review doesn’t even really tout the product as survival gear, per se. it just has ‘might save you in a survival situation’ implications, because it is capable of doing just that.

      • Anonymoose

        Aerial flares also help, but their range is limited to a few miles, which can be troublesome in the really remote parts of the world.

  • PCTechnologist

    USB Charger for GSP-1700 can be found on Amazon. I’ve had a GSP-1700 for over two years and have the cheap unlimited plan ($39/m). I was looking at InmarSat but my plan is just so cheap I couldn’t make the switch. The service is SO much better than even 9 months ago, you used to need a calculator to know when a call would connect. Another advantage with Global star is the “Fast” data 9600 baud (33.6 with compression), this is faster than basic Inmarsat and Iridium and very helpful when in the field. Just search Amazon for GSP-1700 USB / or GlobalStar charger, I think it’s sold by Iridium Chargers (go figure).

  • Dutch Medic

    Great article, Andrew, especially the background information about the networks. As a former RNL Army medic I used Inmarsat while deployed in former Yugoslavia, so I can confirm the ‘line of sight’ call quality back then. will you review other sat phones too? I’m sure I am not the only one interested in go bag goodies, its close to Christmas after all.

  • TrevorZ

    As someone who has owned sat phones and will again this was a great article that gave me contextual history and a review, thanks Andrew

  • Shoot the ILS

    Andrew great article. I came across it whilst researching the web for anyone with practical usage of the IsatPhone Pro in a light aircraft. Have you had any experience using the Imarsat phone airborne? You wrote about the difficulty in obtaining a signal with the Spot and understandably focusing on aviating. May I ask what was the reason that prevented this and to later realise that it was in fact possible?

  • Nola Arvish

    After much ado I finally got my husband to buy a sat-phone. He is an avid hunter and hiker.
    He had road his 4×4 to the beginning of his hunting route and rolled it. He tried to use the sat-phone but had no service.This was the first time of use. His brother used a small $14.99
    tract phone and was able to get service. On the way home he checked for service again only to find the battery dead after a recent charge. got home tried to charge and battery would not take a charge.Thus the first call to SPOT . He was told to send phone back to SPOT, not the place he had bought it from. SPOT sent a new replacement phone.He again went hunting and got his elk, he tried to call me and low and behold the wonderful SPOT phone again had no service ,brothers cheap tract phone did.By this time I am upset that this expensive phone I had talked him into .failed miserably .Again called SPOT .placed on hold, manager out of town ,hung up on during transfer,you name it he got it for several days. finally after much frustration, he told them he didn’t want the phone and wanted a refund.Then it was more excuses more denial, until finally was able to go to original store of purchase and return phone. even at the original store representative was not wanting my husband to return the phone……long story short I wanted my husband to have a reliable phone for safety and I guess I will buy him a $14.99 tract phone. SPOT PHONE FROM PRODUCT TO REPRESETATION OVER RATED