Finally, a phone made in the year 2013 that Zack Morris can approve of. All kidding aside, Spot's aptly titled Global Phone isn't the most -- shall we say, svelte -- of handsets, but it's capable of communicating in places that your iPhone could only dream of. Spot is actually a subsidiary of satellite communications giant Globalstar, who is no stranger to providing satellite-based service to argonauts the world over. The Global Phone is one of the company's first consumer-facing phones, taking the intrigue and mystery out of procuring one of those fancy sat phones -- you know, the ones that can seemingly only be acquired by James Bond's nemeses.
The target market for this handset is obvious: if you're an avid hiker, explorer, boater or adventurer, there's a high likelihood that you'll end up in a locale where traditional cell networks provide no coverage. In fact, it's shockingly easy to find dead zones these days -- just head to your nearest national park and stroll up a marked trail for a bit. At $499 for the device itself and month-to-month plans starting at $25, it's actually a reasonably priced addition to one's off-the-grid arsenal. (Have you seen the prices on subzero sleeping bags these days?)
But, is it a worthwhile addition? I recently traversed 1,600 miles of mostly desolate territory in the US Southwest in order to find out, and the answer lies just after the break.
Spot Global Phone used in really, really remote placesSee all photos
Let's face it: satellite phones have never been sexy. But in reality, the Global Phone is a heck of a lot more attractive than those that have come before it. It measures 5.3 x 2.2 x 1.5 inches, weighs just 7.1 ounces and can withstand just about any temperature that the user can. The token extendable antenna is here in full force, and when fully erect, the length of the phone nearly triples. The device itself is barely a burden in the grand scheme of things; in fact, it's easy to misplace in larger packs. The four-line display is remarkably spartan, but it provides the essential information that you need -- remember, this thing is built to talk to someone in a pinch. It's not a phone designed for leisure or pleasure use.
The keys are solid enough, and beyond that, there's not much to say in regard to hardware. In my testing, it proved fairly rugged, but I'd be careful about dropping the (predominantly plastic) shell from too high a perch. On the rear, there's a compartment for a battery that's good for four hours of talking or 36 hours on standby. During my week in the wilderness, I actually squeezed out closer to 50 hours on standby, but obviously, those heading into the wild won't want to press their luck.
Spot Global Phone in the wildSee all photos
Speaking of that, there are only two ways to charge this unit: an optional car kit, and the included AC adapter -- one of those inline brick contraptions. To me, this is the most puzzling part of the equation. Why design a (comparatively) bantam sat phone without also designing a slim charger? I look at it this way: 36 hours of standby is decent, but if I were going on a fortnight-long excursion, it'd be great if the phone could be recharged via USB. Or, via a less bulky charger. I realize that many who purchase this will also be traveling with solar-powered battery packs to keep their accessories juiced, but seriously, the charger takes almost as much room in one's pack as the phone. That's just... awkward.
What's it like to use a satellite phone?
Spot (and by extension, Globalstar) has gone to great lengths in order to make the calling experience as normal as possible. Each Global Phone includes a standard US phone number, but any outbound calls will display as "Unknown" to those on the receiving end. That's an unfortunate byproduct, for sure, as an increasing amount of folks ignore anything coming from a number that isn't in their address book. I'd recommend giving any relatives that you may end up calling a heads-up; if they're expecting emergency calls from you as "Unknown," you're more likely to get through.
Dialing out is a pretty simple process. Just turn the phone on, spin the rear antenna around and extend it out.
Dialing out is a pretty simple process. Just turn the phone on, spin the rear antenna around and extend it out -- trying to latch onto a signal without it fully extended will lead to plenty of tears... particularly if you're being chased by some sort of venomous creature. From there, you dial a number and press the call button. (Tough stuff, we know.) The display will show signal strength and a message onscreen informing you if the call is going through. Once it does, the process is just like talking on any other phone. It's important to note, however, that you won't be receiving any calls if the antenna isn't rotated and extended. In other words, if you've got the handset folded up, you might as well turn it off to conserve battery power.
Call quality, and the quirks of texting / data use
I placed and received calls from a variety of remote locales: deep within the San Bernardino National Forest, Joshua Tree National Park, Mohave National Preserve, Zion National Park, uninhabited canyons outside of Page, Ariz. and Mesa Verde National Park. It's worth noting that each call I made was in a spot where neither AT&T nor Verizon Wireless provided any service whatsoever.
It's worth noting that each call I made was in a spot where neither AT&T nor Verizon Wireless provided any service whatsoever.
Each time, I was able to connect to someone on the other end within around 20 seconds -- oftentimes much more quickly. I called folks on a variety of cellular networks as well as conventional landlines, and by and large, no one had any issues hearing me. Indeed, it sounded as if I were on a typical cellphone call most of the time.
Still, the handset doesn't do a good job masking wind noise, as told to me on numerous occasions while attempting to have a conversation atop some sort of mountain or mesa, and performance seemed to suffer when moving or when used between canyon walls. I started a call with a clear view of the sky in Zion National Park, and attempted to walk down a trail that placed me between mountainsides; the deeper I went, the harder it was to hear the person on the other side. Unfortunately, the Global Phone -- much like a DirecTV satellite -- really needs a clear view of the sky to operate properly. This means that I wasn't able to make a call while standing 128 feet below the surface in Upper Antelope Canyon, and perhaps more seriously, it means that you couldn't either if you happened to fall down there while canyoneering. (127 Hours, anyone?)
I did drop several calls after the three-minute mark, though one held on closer to five minutes. In practice, I highly doubt users of the Global Phone would ever need to make a call that lasted any longer than that. Again, you aren't buying this phone to chitchat while toasting marshmallows at the base of Mt. Fuji. You're buying this phone as a safety net -- as a means to communicate a status change or emergency in an area where typical cell networks are of no use.
In an interesting twist, Spot has discontinued the support of two-way SMS (texting) as of June 2013.
In an interesting twist, Spot has discontinued the support of two-way SMS (texting) as of June 2013. Previously, these phones could send and receive 35-character messages like any other mobile phone, but I was told by a company representative that the cost for these transmissions was so high that support was abandoned. I'm also guessing it simply wasn't used very often. As it stands, you can alert your loved ones prior to leaving that they can visit this website in order to send a text to your number. That's a free service that anyone can use, but be aware that this is a one-way communication platform. Even if you receive a text through this method, you can't text back. For what it's worth, I tested a web-based text transmission, and the handset received it within a few seconds.
As for data? For those who absolutely can't stand to be without email while in the bush, an optional data kit is available for around $20. Essentially, this enables you to tether the Global Phone to your laptop, where you can then access the internet. You'll only see speeds of up to 28 kbps, though, so you'll need to be exceedingly desperate to even think about trying it. Though, to be fair, we've considered even more extreme measures to ensure we're online to secure a pre-order of Tickle Me Elmo.
Here's something that'll probably surprise you: the Global Phone won't work everywhere. One of the most widely misunderstood components of using a satellite phone is that it supports calling on every square inch of our planet. In truth, there's a huge portion of it where even this handset won't help you connect. The entirety of the United States and Central America, as well as a huge portion of the oceans surrounding 'em, are covered. But travel too far north in Canada or Greenland, and you'll be out of range. There are also substantial portions of Africa, India and Asia that have no coverage, as well as the oceans surrounding them. The map here does an excellent job of explaining where the Global Phone works, so be sure to ogle it with discretion before assuming it'll function where you're headed.
Considering that a proper mountaineering outfit, backpack, sleeping bag, stove and water purification system are apt to run you well north of a grand, budgeting $499 for a device that could very well save your life isn't all that outrageous. Best of all, Spot offers month-to-month plans with no strings attached; just pay the $50 activation fee and select the one that best suits your needs before you head out on your next escapade. For $40, you can get 80 minutes (each additional minute is $0.99), free data compression and the peace of mind that can only be acquired by having something like this within reach.
For those looking to cut costs further, there's a $25 plan that offers 10 calling minutes, with each additional minute priced at $1.99. Frankly, those rates are completely understandable from the perspective of someone who has suddenly found themselves injured or hopelessly lost in the wilderness. In fact, I'm guessing that someone fearing imminent death in the wild would pay a whole lot more for just 60 seconds of talk time with 911. Naturally, those who need coverage on an annual basis have options as well, with a $300 / year plan providing 120 minutes. (The full rate schedule can be found here.)
My only major gripes with the Global Phone are these: the charging situation is unfortunate, as the sheer size of the charging brick makes it a hassle to carry around. An option for USB charging really should've been included. Secondly, the recent disappearance of SMS support is a real bummer. Sure, you can still phone your significant other once a night for a bit to tell them you've hit your next waypoint, but being able to shoot off a succinct text to accomplish the same would've been preferred. Particularly for those leading up group hikes -- Philmont, I'm looking at you -- having one of these around is a no-brainer. The $499 price tag will feel completely insubstantial the very first time you actually need to use it.