Friday, June 29, 2018

Satellite Communicators

Communication in the backcountry is becoming a huge business, that is effecting huge businesses. Garmin (The GPS company) purchased Delorme (the map company) just to get their hands on the Delorme inreach satellite communicators. That should be an indicator of the growth of this market.

When I was a NOLS sea kayaking instructor we carried satellite phones for communications during an emergency. This would be the mid to late 2000's. To be polite about it, I would say this, they sucked. The audio quality wasn't great. They dropped calls all the time, they were heavy and expensive. But at the time they were the only game in town. For a lot of companies this is still the first choice for emergency communication in the backcountry.

Another company, ACR (now ACR Artex) was a long time maker of EPIRB's. (Emergency position indicating radio beacons) These were most usually found on aircraft and ships at sea. Generally a bit bigger than a coffee can, they were one time use devices that you could either trigger manually or they would trigger automatically when they hit the water. They send a signal on 406 megahertz which is a frequency specifically used for world wide search and rescue. In the 1970's a group of major nations joined to gather and split the cost of putting satellites in orbit, solely for search and rescue. They would listen for signals on 406 mhz and transfer that signal back to earth, for the coordination of a rescue. These kinds of EPIRB devices would get rescuers within about a mile of you. Then they would have to use the Mark 1 eyeball to pinpoint your location. In the Early 2000's you only had two options, an EPIRB or a Sat phone, and for the casual outdoors person they were both horrible options.

Then a little company released a new device. The SPOT. The SPOT device was inexpensive ($150) and you would have to pay for a service contract, also about $150 a year, but it was small, lightweight  and powered by a pair of AA batteries. It was easy to use and a little irreverent, which sat phone companies and epirb companies certainly weren't. The box that the spot came in, said on it "by opening this box you guarantee you don't come home in one." Besides irreverence what made the SPOT different was it offered more options than what I call the "get me the hell out of here" button. It offered three options for communication. First, it offered an SOS feature that would send info via satellite to SPOT headquarters. It would show them where you are, and that you needed help and they would hand off your location and personal info to the appropriate authorities. Which is essentially what the ACR EPIRB's do, but SPOT doesn't use 406 mhz. They use a different system that is lower in power. But the Spot offered two other options. You could hit the OKAY button. Which would send an email or a text message to people on a preconfigured list. It would say something like, "this is where I am, everything is okay" and it would also send along a link to google maps showing your location. Finally there was a "help" option. This would send a message to a different preconfigured list of people, and it would say something like "Hey, I need help" and with the link to your location on google maps. But it doesn't notify the authorities. I think of this button as the "Hey, my car won't start button." In fact on the current device this has been renamed the SOV or Save our Vehicle button. SPOT was a huge step up in terms of cost and usability. But this opened the flood gates for this market space. Which bring us to where we are today.

The current crop of satellite communicators has four competitors.

The first is the only one way communicator, the SPOT Gen3. ($149) plus a user subscription that starts at $149 a year, and you have to buy a year, you can't just buy a month of service for your big trip. It works like the device described above with a  few more feature options around tacking your movements. Not that different than the original but smaller, lighter and more reliable.

Next is the Garmin InReach Explorer+ 2 way satellite communicator. ($400), plus a user subscription that starts at $11.95 a month (but really gets usable at the next level which is $24.95 a month) It does everything the spot does, but when paired with a smart phone you can send custom text messages via satellite. You can receive weather reports via satellite, there are tracking features and it works as a full featured GPS for navigation. With this one you can purchase service by the month (but on the monthly "Freedom" plan, the costs are higher.

But Garmin didn't rest on its laurels, they just released the InReach Mini ($350). It shares similar plans as its big brother and does everything its big brother does but in a much smaller package. It will also pair with Garmins high end watches like the Fenix 5.

Spot didn't want to get left out in the cold, so it just released something new. The SPOT X 2 way satellite messenger. ($249.95) A bit bigger than the Spot Gen3 it has a built in keyboard that looks like an old school Blackberry. This gives you the ability to send custom text messages via satellite without having to pair it with another device like a smartphone or tablet. It too has a service plan that starts at $150.

So which of these devices would I choose to take on my next adventure? The answer is obvious. None of them. I don't really need the two way communication. I have used a number of SPOT products and they work well enough. I know people that love their InReaches. But I don't really want that kind of contact in the backcountry. I go to the backcountry to avoid that kind of contact. But I do like the idea of the emergency rescue features. If the poo really hits the fan, I think it is a good idea to have an option. I would choose this.

This option is a little different. It uses the 406 mhz signal of the older EPIRBS but adds a secondary signal at 121.5 mhz which brings rescuers right to you. It also provides a strobe so you can be found at night. More waterproof, and impact resistant than any of the other options we have discussed. The device is about $250 but doesn't have a user subscription. It also doesn't offer any communication other than the 'get me the hell out of here button.' No text messages, no okay messages, no my car won't start. Just call the cavalry, and get me out of here. But if that is the kind of device you are looking for there is no better. And that is what I would want.

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