Panbo

Iridium's GO! satellite WiFi and Globalstar's mysterious SatFi

... written for Panbo by Ben Ellison and posted on Feb 12, 2014

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Wow! With a bounty of significant cruising electronics news on my desk, the new Iridium GO! may rank #1. Think of it as the Iridium Extreme -- arguably the most versatile, rugged, and expensive sat phone available -- with the phone interface replaced by a WiFi radio able to handle five smartphones or tablets. The GO can install semi-permanently with an external antenna, or sit on deck while you make a quiet call below, or go in your pack when you hike in Tierra del Fuego. You'll still be able to make and take phone calls anywhere, but they will be easier, less expensive, and purportedly better sounding. Plus there's global email, tracking, and so much more...

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My review of the Extreme and its AxcessPoint WiFi accessory in 2012 was somewhat lukewarm. It wasn't the service so much as the complicated jumble of components, cables, and chargers involved, plus a phone interface that seemed clunky in this iPhone/Android age. But I wasn't smart enough to visualize how it could all be simplified into the 4.5 by 3.25 inch GO with benefits added (and I doubt that Iridium's competition was either, as explained below).

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The key to GO is that you use your own phone or tablet (or PC eventually) to access the full speed Iridium 9523 modem that's normally in their sat phone. It's "like having your own global cell tower" Iridium likes to say. It's also something like Google Voice which let's me make voice calls and texts whlle roaming foreign cell lands just by finding a WiFi Internet connection and tapping a setting on my Android phone.

But that analogy is only half true because even a dicey WiFi hotspot has a lot more bandwidth than a full speed Iridium circuit switching modem. So GO users can not just use their phone's normal software for email, calls, or anything else. Special apps must be developed to bridge cell/wifi broadband expectations with Iridium narrow-band realities...

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But before discussing all the app possibilities, known and unknown, note the water-protected ports on the GO. The ubiquitous mini USB is used to charge the device's Lithium battery -- a nice change from prior Iridium charge systems -- and possibly for firmware updates. The red button, also protected from accidental finger pushes, is of course a quick way to send a distress alert. Since GO has internal GPS it can be left on to provide tracking, be ready for an emergency, and/or keep an ear out for incoming messages.

If all that sounds like a DeLorme inReach, well, it is, except that the inReach's SBD (short burst data) modem can't also handle calls, slim email, weather files and even limited Web browsing. In fact DeLorme is listed as one of partners developing apps and extra services for the GO in Iridium's press release and I hope to wheetle some detail out of them here in Miami. OCENS weather too.

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So no surprise that the Iridium GO app that will be available when the device ships in a few months looks similar to the Earhmate apps for the inReach (except without all the mapping DeLorme throws in). Settings, tracking, messaging, and a second way to call for distress (with two-way texting) are all there. This app is also where you make satellite phone calls, apparently with access to your regular contact list. Tim Johnson, Iridium's Director of Mobile Business, told me that attendees at last week's Partner's Conference were smiling about how their smartphone audio technology improved the quality of calls over the Iridium network.

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There will also be an Iridium Mail & Web app that works with the GO, and I was glad to learn that it is a version of the software that Luis Soltero of Global Marine Networks developed for the Iridium AccessPoint. That means offline email editing, batch transmissions with compression, filtering of large attachments and many other nuances that are critical to narrowband communictions. Soltero has been testing a GO and terms it "all in all a sexy product priced very reasonably with a growing community of mobile apps."

So what about the costs? Iridium won't put hard numbers on anything because they don't sell direct, but Tim Johnson expects the GO hardware to retail at $800 to $900 and he confirmed Soltero's news that GO will get special low-priced service plans, like "$130 to $150" per month for unlimited data. I asked Johnson to repeat that, as it sounds ideal for certain cruising situations, especially if available in "seasonal" increments. DeLorme's new "Freedom Plan" makes me hopeful, but we'll have to wait.

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Iridium is marketing GO as an improvement on the Thuraya SatSleeve  design and even created a Go! to SatSleeve comparison PDF. There's not much comparison, in my view, except maybe that the SatSleeve is slightly more portable. What seems odd, though, is that Iridium left out the new Globalstar SatFi. But maybe not so odd as it seems quite possible -- no photos, no specs, no rumors -- that Globalstar heard about GO and just pulled SatFi out of a hat, or somewhere. Heck, I've even seen email showing that people working at Globalstar didn't know about SatFi before its late January announcement. And if it is vaporware, it worked at least a bit as when Engadget's GO coverage begins with "Globalstar's Sat-Fi won't be the only game in town for satellite hotspots."

I think that Globalstar did a great thing for boaters with their SPOT tracker messengers, and I hear that the phone/data service is getting better. I also think that it would be great to have competition over this new satellite WiFi hotspot platform. But a vauge just-started product that may not be real until November (according to a knowledgable sounding investor) seems like poor sportsmanship and possibly confusing to consumers.

I can close with something much more positive. I'd hoped that a company like Raymarine might use the Bluetooth in their MFDs to integrate with the DeLorme inReach. Wouldn't it be neat to get important message notifications on your bright, waterproof nav screen and be able to type a reply? Not to mention distress communications, weather alerts, etc. But actually the new Iridium GO with its greater data capacity and more common WiFi interface makes more sense. For instance, how hard would it be for Furuno to make the NavNet TZT weather via WiFi feature to work directly through GO if Iridium cooperates? Tim Johnson's answer to my query about such possibilities was "absolutely yes!" 

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Comments

Just what I was waiting for in Satellite Comms... Easy to install, easy to use, hopefully combined with a reasonable data plan... on top of Iridium's super benefit of reliability and 90N to 90S global coverage.

If they get the plans right this will blow all existing solutions away. Dedicated satellite phones with their 1990s style interface all seem very old fashioned suddenly.

Posted by: Kees at February 12, 2014 1:19 PM | Reply

Sat-Fi, trademarked 2 years ago by Globalstar.

Posted by: Anonymous at February 12, 2014 4:32 PM | Reply

Sat-Fi, trademarked two weeks ago by Globalstar:

http://tess2.uspto.gov/bin/showfield?f=doc&state=4809:p1pe4t.2.1

Posted by: Anonymous in reply to Anonymous at February 14, 2014 10:45 AM | Reply

GMN/RedPort Global here, with a few comments.

For land-based users and weekend boaters, the Go! is undoubtedly a great product, and we're thrilled to see the industry embrace the concept we introduced with the RedPort Optimizer Wi-Fi router in 2011. For those not familiar, the Optimizer connects to any satellite phone or terminal to create Wi-Fi hotspot that works with your smartphone, tablet or computer. http://www.globalmarinenet.com/satellite-phone-data-optimizer.php

While we love the Go! for casual usage on a boat, we believe that for fixed maritime and in-building installations the RedPort Aurora is a better product.

Why? Like the Go!, the Aurora is an Iridium-based terminal that uses apps for voice and data connectivity. However, to permanently install the Go! on a boat, you need to use an external antenna and LMR antenna cable, an connect a power source to it (or charge the battery frequently), which makes for a trickier installation, and adds cost to the Go!. Plus, the Go! does not have an Ethernet connection to create a local network if you'd like to use that instead of the Wi-Fi.

The Aurora is a single dome designed for fixed installation with a standard maritime mount. There are no below-deck units to install, just a single Ethernet cable that can be used used for power, or to connect to an existing vessel network. The Ethernet cable is vastly easier to run than LMR cable.

Additionally, both the Go! and the Aurora work with both XGate satellite email software and Iridum Mail & Web, giving customers options for their email/web/weather/social media service. Both are excellent products.

For more details, see: http://www.redportglobal.com/marine-satellite-internet-firewall-routers/aurora-iridium-marine-terminal/

The Aurora is available for sale today: http://www.globalmarinenet.com/catalog/aurora-iridium-wifi-terminal-p-2865.html

Posted by: John Dark at February 15, 2014 12:12 PM | Reply

John, any idea what the Aurora draws at 12V? I like the approach, and the features look very nice - how much power does it need?

Posted by: Hartley in reply to John Dark at February 16, 2014 1:42 PM | Reply

Hartley, the Aurora draws 1.5 amps when transmitting less than .5 when idle. Because it uses PoE (Power over Ethernet) it can be used with either an Ethernet injector or plugged into a router with a powered Ethernet port.

Posted by: John Dark at February 17, 2014 11:30 AM | Reply

OK - so 18 watts in TX and 6 watts in receive. Is the PoE injector that's included a 12V device?

The reason I ask is that I see PoE is a 37-50 volt service, not 12V, so the injector must be some sort of converter/power supply.

Thanks!

Posted by: Hartley in reply to John Dark at February 17, 2014 1:58 PM | Reply

Aurora is priced at $1999 and requires one of the current Iridium service plans.

The Go! will be $800-900 and have unlimited plans around $130-150.

Will likely take out my old Iridium and upgrade to the Go! and utilize existing cable run/antenna.

As a bonus we get all the great GMN software for free when using Go. Kinda cannibalizes the GMN proposition.

Posted by: Cire at February 17, 2014 7:42 PM | Reply

Hi Cire,

As mentioned, we also think the Go! is right for a lot of people. A couple of comments regarding your post:

Initial indications from actual Iridium providers indicate that the actual SRP will be $895. For someone who doesn't mind putting the Go! on deck and recharging the battery as needed, it's a great product at a great price. Another alternative is to purchase a remotable antenna, LMR cable and mounting it. In this configuration, the only thing missing in the Go! compared to the Aurora is the GPS NMEA repeating.

Iridium has not yet indicated whether they will expand their service pricing to other hardware devices yet.

Both RedPort Aurora and Iridium Go! work with both Iridium Mail & Web and with RedPort XGate (and its variants).

The key difference is that Iridium Mail & Web works only over Iridium airtime, but has no monthly fee for service. XGate works over any network connection (for example, over Marina Wi-Fi or your home network) but generally requires a monthly service fee.

They are different products for different customers, and we're happy for the success of both.

Posted by: John Dark at February 18, 2014 3:46 PM | Reply

The GO! is an inspired solution. Rate plans will be the pivot if it is to become a killer app. For our use, the GO! is a safer install solution than Aurora; smart antennas have the liability that if it gets knocked off the boat, you loose the entire transmitter. Lack of a rj45 on the GO! is an oversight but not a deal killer. PoE would be nice too.

Not to detract from the hard work leading to their products, the advert for redport and GMN seems a little over the top for this forum?

Posted by: emsusa at February 19, 2014 6:31 AM | Reply

I can't wait for this!! I hope it ships with a reasonable rate plan b4 my offshore trip north in May.

I hate running blind on weather. Sandy almost snagged me because i was offshore and blind when it formed. Not great seamanship (not arguing that) but the current options just suck. This looks like it might be really good for saildocs grib files (grib via email for free).

Posted by: sv Haven at March 5, 2014 2:41 AM | Reply

Any word on a shipping date? I need to put together an Iridium package for an offshore race in June. This looks perfect for my needs, but it makes me uncomfortable cutting things so close.

Posted by: BackBeat Sailing at March 21, 2014 6:56 PM | Reply

The SatPhoneStore is taking Iridium GO pre-orders:

http://www.satphonestore.com/iridium-go-global-online-smartphone-access1.html

And I also queried Iridium about the ship date this morning.

Posted by: Ben in reply to BackBeat Sailing at March 22, 2014 11:26 AM | Reply

Iridium reply about GO delivery date: "The expected launch date is still 'Q2' which is best interpreted as late May, early June."

Posted by: Ben in reply to BackBeat Sailing at March 23, 2014 9:56 AM | Reply

With an SSB you don't have to run blind -- and no plan required

Posted by: Michael in reply to sv Haven at March 26, 2014 10:18 PM | Reply

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