Satellite phones, once reserved for use by government, military, or energy personnel, are now becoming more popular within the mainstream community, especially the outdoor adventure set. With some satellite phones still costing upwards of $1000, not to mention hefty service plans, SPOT is hoping to make orbital communication more affordable to the masses with the Global Phone.
I have been using the SPOT Global Phone for most of my summer adventures across both North America and Europe. The Global Phone came in handy to not only call home from a remote mountain top in British Columbia, but also to call from all across Europe as the per minute charge is cheaper than my AT&T cell phone roaming plan.
I even loaned the SPOT Global Phone to my teenage neighbor when she set out on a solo Tahoe Rim Trail backpacking trip earlier this summer. Although thankfully never needed, it was nice for her to have that safety net in case of emergency and the minimal weight and size made no difference to her pack.
While you are out on an adventure, SPOT enables people at home to send you 35 character text messages from a simple web interface. Sadly, you can not respond to these texts but if you sign up for the optional data plan and accessory, you can actually send emails and other data – probably worth the extra cost if you are going to be out on a longer or more remote expedition.
SPOT runs off of the Globalstar network. Although known for their great voice quality, Globalstar is not exactly known for their coverage. After the company went bankrupt in 2002, they lost about half of their first generation satellites and are quickly trying to rebuild with a network of second generation satellites. Service is still limited and not entirely reliable.
Most of the US, southern Canada and all of Europe is covered by Globalstar if that is where you plan to take most of your adventures. There have been some reports of dropped calls and lack of service even within the main coverage zone but I didn't experience many problems apart from a dropped call or two.
However, I was highly disappointed to find the SPOT Global Phone did not work at all on my recent trip up to Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. The region is supposed to fall within Globalstar's extended service region but I was never able to lock onto a satellite. Not great when you are promising people back home at least some indication of your whereabouts and you need to be in contact with Brooks Range Aviation to schedule your pickups. Luckily, one person in our group brought an Iridium satellite phone.
The SPOT Global Phone retails for $499.95, not including the service plan or activation fee. Not a bad price compared to a $1000+ Iridium satellite phone. You can either sign up for a monthly or annual service plan with SPOT. Monthly plans range from $25-$150 and come with 10 minutes to an unlimited amount of talk time included, with additional minutes costing $0.99-$1.99. Annual service plans range from $300-$1800, with 120 minutes to unlimited talk time included.
My recommendation? Know what you are getting into. If you are looking for a satellite phone as a nice to have to stay in touch with friends and family while out on adventures in the main Globalstar coverage areas, then the much cheaper price might offset the known service issues. If you are looking for a critical communications device to be used as part of a more remote or longer adventure, then I would pay the price to buy or rent a phone with truly global coverage such as Iridium or Thuraya.