Sat-Fi: your personal satellite connected WiFi hotspot

*Steve Makris is a technology expert who does a weekly Tech Talk segment during Edmonton’s Sunday Morning News. You can watch the segment above. 

I had my doubts when Globalstar sent me a review model of its new satellite-based Sat-Fi, touting it as “the world’s most powerful hotspot.”

I have used satellite products before, mostly phones, including Globalstar’s. My attempts to go beyond basic calling, like cabling to a laptop, have been complicated and disappointing.

Globalstar’s popular pocket-sized Spot five-button emergency SOS locator/personal tracker/friendly sender has been a hit. The new, smaller Spot Trace, GPS motion-sensitive device tracks whatever it’s attached to and sends locations on a phone or computer via Google Maps.

The Sat-Fi, available in Canada for $1,099, lets you use your smartphones, tablets and laptops to send and receive emails, make phone calls, chat, post on Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook (with photo attachments) and browse the web. It does this by sending and receiving data to its own modern satellite network from a small portable box, sporting a WiFi antenna and an outlet for car/boat charger. It works far away from cellular networks almost anywhere in the world, especially in data mode, on which the Sat-Fi is designed to run, including phone calls.

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The traditional GPS SOS service is also available with the Sat-Fi.

Globalstar Sat-Fi is light and portable for use outside, in cars and recreatioanl boats
Globalstar Sat-Fi is light and portable for use outside, in cars and recreatioanl boats. Steve Makris

Imagine being far away from any cellular connection. Imagine being able to use a combination of up to eight Android tablet or phone, iPhone or iPad, Windows and Mac laptops to send and receive email or phone calls via satellite. You get your own globalstarmail email account and a unique phone number. This way, folks can call you or leave a voice message.

Now, your normally phone-less tablet or laptop can dial out and chat using IP Satellite hybrid technology. It can also access your off-the-grid contact list and keep a history of numbers you’ve dialed.

Would you like to post a message on your social sites?  Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook with photo attachments work great. You are now connecting with the whole world from anywhere in the world! The social sites require an additional set-up through your desktop PC – to allow you the equivalent of a mobile connection – but the help guide is thorough, as is the live phone help.

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Although calls and chats are instant, emailing and social networking require a two-step process. The first gets your message ready and the second transmits it to the satellite, minimizing your billable live connected time.

The start-up monthly service cost, after the $50 activation fee, is $39.99 for 40 minutes. This is similar to cellphone voice and data, but with a lot less talking and data. That would get you 40 minutes of phone use or under 100 email/chat/social activities. The more you pay, the cheaper it gets. For $99.99 a month, you get 200 minutes. For $149.99 a month, you receive unlimited data. Annual plans – from $480 for 480 minutes – cost the same. However, you won’t have to worry about losing your unused minutes from monthly plans.

Sharing the cost of the Sat-Fi between co-workers and friends makes sense with huge wireless connectivity. Keep in mind you only get one unique number and Globalstar email with the deal. All eight WiFi-connected devices can be on, and all can ring on an incoming call with any one being the first to take the call.

Globalstar Sat-Fi is light and portable for use outside, in cars and recreational boats
Globalstar Sat-Fi is light and portable for use outside, in cars and recreational boats.

Competitors with similar pricing offer less at slower speeds as you wait much longer to send and receive messages and experience lower quality phone calls. But some have wider coverage for voice connections compared to Globalstar’s. The Sat-Fi’s data-only comes closer to competitors with older technology.

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So how does one select between different satellite technologies?

“It’s really based on the individual users needs and where and how they are going to use this technology,” said Fintan Robb, senior director of Canadian Marketing.

Does Sat-Fi walk the walk as the world’s most powerful hotspot? Mostly yes, but not the way other common Hotspots deliver.

It’s painfully slow compared to common Internet connections at home or hotspots. With a satellite industry 9.6 kbps connection it’s slower by a factor of 1,000, compared to mbps are used to today. It takes about 45 minutes to send the equivalent of an MP3 song or average quality digital image, compared to seconds at traditional public Hotspots. At about $1 a minute, that becomes a costly consumer experience.

Chatting is not instantaneous, but fast enough. It takes less than 30 seconds to get a short sentence across. Emails also take minutes to come across, as does a Tweet. A Facebook post will take several minutes to upload with a lower thumbnail-sized photo attachment.

And forget about browsing. It is low resolution, with clickable links off your screen device and takes forever. Since you are charged by the time connected, compared to smaller and faster text or email message, browsing becomes pricey.

Globalstar’s $1 billion second generation satellite constellation is more upgradable for sophisticated applications. A speedier 256 kbps connection is in the works, but still a couple of years away according to Robb.

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Globalstar’s satellite network is suborbital, about 100 miles, compared to the much higher orbits of fixed position satellites. This means that if you are in an area that has buildings or trees nearby you will get intermittent periods of lower or no connections.

In a 20-minute period, slowly moving Globalstar satellites would either improve or degrade my connection quality, understandably, in my backyard.  But when I took a drive out of town in a more realistic scenario, I had a constantly good connection and was able to carry a clear phone conversation while driving 100 km/h on a flat highway using the speakerphone in my car on a Samsung Note 3.

A few days ago I tried the Sat-Fi at the base of Whistler, BC and I had to go out of my way to find a clear area between buildings and trees. I maximized my Facebook picture size so my posting was slow – more than five minutes.

Although consumers expect hotspots to deliver fast enough connectivity to browse quickly, watch YouTube and post quality photos online, the incremental improvements in satellite-based technology are promising. Sat-Fi delivers to folks wanting to use their own devices for a fraction of traditional means.

“It works in most of our provinces because of the oceans and lakes we generally support,” said Robb. “Installing data capability in boats with traditional technology can cost up to $15,000…Sat-Fi is affordable for recreational marine users.”

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One disadvantage of the Sat-Fi is its power requirement. I suppose a charged up car battery would do the trick!

To the countless “must be connected” sailors, explorers and outdoor enthusiasts in Canada, the Sat-Fi hotspot may not be powerful, it’s priceless.