Have satellite, will travel: Iridium, Globalstar target their Earth-spanning networks at consumers

You can pick up a mobile hotspot from any mobile carrier and get a decent mobile data connection in any city or town or the U.S., but that connection will disappear if on the top of mountain, a few miles into coastal waters or even in a cornfield in rural Kansas. What if you could buy a modem that worked anywhere?

Satellite communications providers Iridium(s irdm) and Globalstar(s gsat) are betting there is a consumer market for just such a mobile hotspot service. And by anywhere, I mean anywhere. Both have constellation of dozens of satellites that barrel through their orbits just above the Earth’s atmosphere. If coverage is what you’re looking for, you can get a Globalstar connection in the middle of the Pacific or an Iridium link at the North Pole.

The trade off is connection speed. Forget about 4G or even 3G speeds; Data links to low-Earth orbit satellites are measured in the single kilobits — slower than dial-up — and both satellite providers use some intense compression technology to ensure they can squeeze simple email and low-rez images through their narrow pipes.

Matt Desch
Matt Desch

You won’t be doing any video streaming or even much web surfing on a satellite hotspot, Iridium CEO Matt Desch readily admitted when we talked on the phone last week. But that’s really not the point: The idea is to provide bare-bones connectivity to the vast majority of the world’s service not covered by cellular networks, Desch said. That’s a service not every consumer would pay for, but a certain subset of consumers will, he added.

“We want to expand our market,” Desch said. “Our goal is to move beyond the emergency responder and people working in the field overseas. … We can attract more consumers with a need for [always available] connectivity and maybe even some business users.”

Bridging the gap between polar trekkers and weekend hikers

Today Iridium’s network is the definition of a specialty service. You’re likely to find an Iridium phone on the belt of a U.S. Defense Department contractor in Afghanistan or packed into a dog sled racing in the Iditarod. But Desch is hoping Iridium’s new hotspot will appeal to the hunter wanting to upload a photo of his trophy from deep in the woods, the trekker tweeting her progress from up a mountain or the yachtsman keeping in touch with the office from the middle of the Atlantic.

The Iridium Next satellite constellation
The Iridium Next satellite constellation

Unlike Iridium’s traditional service, which requires specialty phones, its Go hotspot will connect to any smartphone or laptop via Wi-Fi so customers can continue to use their regular devices, phone numbers and apps. It will even route phone calls and text messages over Iridium’s networks, though it will run it through software installed on the phone to compress their data rates. Iridium is even launching a software developer’s program to encourage app makers to use its compression technology when connected to the network. Facebook(s fb) might not “Iridium optimize” its app, but developers that specialize in outdoor navigation apps might.

The hotspot won’t be cheap, priced at around $800, and as for data pricing Desch was a bit cagey. Ultimately Iridium’s resellers will set their own rates, but he said standard plans might include metered options for $35 a month and even an unlimited voice and data option for $115 a month. Even when pressed Desch wouldn’t reveal what kind of data bucket you would get, though he said it would likely translate into specific services based on the amount of airtime they used on the network. For instance, $35 could get you 150 emails, 15 voice minutes and a preset amount of weather updates and picture uploads.

Iridium Go

That likely translates into just a handful of megabytes. While the unlimited plan might sound appealing to some, keep in mind you’re not going to be running up any multigigabyte tallies on a 25 kbps link (and that’s after full compression). Globalstar, which plans to launch its Sat-Fi service in the second quarter, hasn’t yet revealed its pricing either.

Look Ma, I climbed Kilimanjaro

Ultimately this is a big trade-off of coverage for capacity. Mobile satellite links aren’t just slow, they’re also expensive. You’re never going to get the same data bucket you’d get from a terrestrial mobile operator.

But both Globalstar and Iridium are launching next generation satellite constellations into space. Once active those birds won’t be able to deliver the mobile broadband speeds we’re accustomed to on the ground, but they’ll get closer. Globalstar’s new network will support up to 250 kbps, while Iridium’s will hit the 1 Mbps mark.

Your typical consumer isn’t going to be interested in a regular subscription to an Iridium or Globalstar plan. But I can imagine a situation in which almost every consumer might want to access such a hotspot on a temporary basis. Desch said he expects Go to highly popular in the rental market. For instance, outfitters might rent out hotspots to trekkers before they set out on their expeditions.

The view from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, where a satellite hotspot would have been handy
The view from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, where a satellite hotspot would have been handy

For our honeymoon, my wife and I insanely decided to disregard our couch potato tendencies and climb Mount Kilimanjaro (in case you’re wondering, we got to the crater rim where I freaked out from altitude sickness and never made it to the final summit). Spending seven days on a mountain without any form of digital communication might sound refreshing to some, but being who I am, I wanted to blog, tweet and email my way up that rock. $35 doesn’t sound like much of price to pay to be able a tweet a selfie from Uhuru Peak.