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Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

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Postby rightstar76 » Fri Aug 03, 2007 6:43 pm

Phil R, did you actually get to talk on the phone? When I rented Globalstar, it was a disaster. I had about 10-15 seconds before the satellite went over the horizon and I lost connection. It was practically worthless. How long were you able to talk when you placed a call? That would be a factor in my choice to rent one. By the way, is it bulky when placed into a pack? The Globalstar fit nicely into a side pocket and there was still room for me to put other stuff in. Is it the same with the Iridium?



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Re: Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby fishmonger » Sat Feb 28, 2009 9:08 am

old thread, I know, but is there anyone with recent Iridum experiences in the Sierras?

I brought a cell phone last summer, but for emergencies, it's a joke. Other than at Donohue Pass and down at Reds Meadows, Tuolumne Meadows and 2000 feet below Taboose Pass, there never was a signal. If your'e in real trouble, you can't just jog up to the nearest peak overlooking Owens Valley and you may still not get any signal because the nearest tower is too far for you to make outgoing calls. There was no cell signal between Reds Meadows and Taboose Pass, anywhere (roaming with US Cellular - I'd guess it would have picked up whatever was available)

I've heard too much negative stuff about the SPOT and figure that a regular sat phone would be much more useful, especially for non-emergency logistics, etc. Cost is steep, but I'd just pay for a prepaid sim card to use in emergencies, resell the phone on ebay in fall. I'm planning on a Muir rail Yo-Yo with my kids this summer. I'm the only adult on the team and we are planning on some off trail alternates that may be a bit risky, so having a way to get in contact with emergency services is important, even at a place like Potluck Pass... I've been considering a PLB but those you really only iuse in life and death situtations, which somewhat misses the point for our needs.

So, is it worth hauling a pound of Iridium sat phone if you must have a signal within a 1/2 mile of where you are at all times? What if you're in trouble in a place like Le Conte Canyon?
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Re: Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby rlown » Sat Feb 28, 2009 3:21 pm

fishmonger wrote:I've heard too much negative stuff about the SPOT and figure that a regular sat phone would be much more useful, especially for non-emergency logistics, etc.


Has anyone on this forum had a good experience with SPOT? I think oldranger carries one. I for one don't really want calls from home when i'm "out." But, if i have an emergency, spot seems cheaper than a Sat phone. I don't own a SPOT, nor a Sat phone. Just curious.

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Re: Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby The Other Tom » Sat Feb 28, 2009 4:18 pm

rlown wrote:
fishmonger wrote:I've heard too much negative stuff about the SPOT and figure that a regular sat phone would be much more useful, especially for non-emergency logistics, etc.


Has anyone on this forum had a good experience with SPOT? I think oldranger carries one. I for one don't really want calls from home when i'm "out." But, if i have an emergency, spot seems cheaper than a Sat phone. I don't own a SPOT, nor a Sat phone. Just curious.

Russ


I have a SPOT and thankfully have not had to use it in an emergency. It takes about 15-20 min. to link up with the satellite, but it works well(sends "ok" messages to my contacts). I think the confusion comes because there's a "help" button (which doesn't go to SAR) and a 911 button, which does go to SAR. Apparently some people have hit the help button thinking SAR would come....they won't unless your "help" contacts call them and relay the info.
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Re: Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby oldranger » Sat Feb 28, 2009 6:01 pm

OK, I was very suspicious about the reliability of SPOT because it uses the Globalstar system (I have used a globalstar sat phone and it sucks--spent 20 minutes to get a 1 minute phonecall). That is the reason SPOT says to send your "OK" message for 20 minutes. I have grabbed mine and crawled into my tent after 5 minutes and the signal was transmitted other times not but it always gets out within 20 minutes. In a pretty dense forest the lat long reading can be 100 feet off if it is wide open it is spot on (pun intended).

Now as to how it works in an emergency is not just a function of the satellite signal, but also a function of the private dispatch service and the 911 center they contact.

I have a friend whose son and 2 buddies went to Mexico to Climb a couple of volcanoes. One of the young men got a serious case of altitude sickness and the experienced climbers using the same shelter convinced them to use the spot 911 function.

The SPOT dispatchers first called my friend to confirm that the people with the SPOT were likely to be the authorized user and that they were in fact in Mexico. When the response was affirmative. The dispatcher contacted the Mexican Navy (apparently the responsible agency) and an evacuation was set up and conducted successfully. Note the dispatch center had a Spanish speaking staff member on duty. My friend was on the phone with one dispatcher as the other was contacting the Navy. She was most impressed by their knowledge and professionalism. I asked what would have happened if the dispatch center had not successfully contacted her. She didn't know and said she would check.

The dispatcher also said that the system doesn't work well in Canada--not because of the satellite system but because the Canadian Authorities are not as responsive.

In short- Effective use of SPOT is dependent upon the user using it properly, the satellite system working properly, the SPOT dispatcher working effectively, and 911 working effectively. SPOT does have the advantage over a SAT phone in that it provides a pretty accurate location--If you die before the rescuers get there they won't have to spend a lot of time looking for you! Of course if you carry a gps receiver then you've got that covered. But the SPOT is all I carry in terms of electronic gadgets and that is the price I have to pay to go wandering around in the mountains solo.

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Re: Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby maverick » Sat Feb 28, 2009 9:44 pm

Thanks Mike for the story about the non-effectiveness of SPOT, I've been considering
purchasing on since I was having problems with my Globalstar service/account
which I cancelled a while back, though I will say I got pretty reliable reception
from very remote parts of SEKI.
I guess there really is just nothing out there that is really 100% reliable, yet.
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Re: Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby BSquared » Sun Mar 01, 2009 3:08 pm

Personally, I'm sold on SPOT, and my buddy and I plan to take one with us on our JMT hike this summer.

-B²
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Re: Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby oldranger » Sun Mar 01, 2009 3:20 pm

My friend got back to me last night after I posted. She said the SPOT dispatcher said that if she hadn't answered their call they would have initiated the process anyway. Also her son kept the 911 active as he helped his friend down to a lower elevation. They met up with the SAR folks partway down the mountain. The dispatcher did follow their progress down and periodically lost contact for short periods as they apparently entered thickly forested areas.

By the way eastern Oregon probably has the worst cell phone coverage anywhere in the west. So the SPOT becomes an important safety backup even when tooling around in our 4 Runner. My friend, who works for the BLM purchased a SPOT locator for her John Day River Ranger. He carries a SAT phone but because the BLM (in this district at least) will only purchase the Globalstar version the contact time at the bottom of the river canyon can be quite short and very fickle. Radios are pretty ineffective as well. So when he sets up camp in the evening he can punch the OK button and forget about it for 20 minutes rather than having to focus on the radio for the full 20 minutes or more to make telephone contact. Several other supervisors are purchasing SPOT locators for their employees and some employees are purchasing them for themselves. Remember, though, this is a private company that could go out of business at any time. But it certainly is cheaper then a SAT phone or an International locator beacon and more flexible than the locator--it can send an OK message.

Finally, though accidents and illness can happen to anyone, I would never choose to do something just because if things go wrong I can call for help. The reason I carry one is that so my wife will grant me permission to do what I love to do. It is kind of hard to believe that anyone would care about me that much.

Happy and Safe Hiking,

Mike
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Re: Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby tim » Tue Mar 03, 2009 4:18 pm

I've tested both satellite phones and SPOT as part of my job. SPOT being only one-way is not affected by the problems Globalstar is having with its (two-way) satellite voice service. It is reliable in terms of getting a message through except if you're under trees (where you can often get GPS service but no outbound messages). If you can see more than 50% sky then you should get the message through within about 3 tries. Obviously the human factor of whether someone comes to rescue you is not as definitive - there are procedures for dealing with PLB alerts, but things are still evolving with SPOT since its not a government run service. In the US you should be OK (though there might be regional differences - I've heard a few interesting stories) but internationally it may be hit and miss. I found the SPOT service really very useful in the Desolation Wilderness last summer (my wife was keeping an eye on us since I had taken the kids away on my own and she called within 5 minutes of us getting back in cellphone coverage at Echo Chalet).

In terms of satellite phones, remember that the Iridium satellites go behind the mountains - they go down as low as 10 degrees elevation angle and move over from south to north or vice versa in about 8 minutes. The satellites follow on another on a north-south path (6 planes of 11 satellites) and then as the earth rotates, you move under the satellite plane and on to the next one every two hours. So if you are in a mountain basin ideally you want a clear north and south horizon to avoid calls dropping regularly. If this is the case and the calls keep dropping you aren't directly under the satellite plane so wait 20-30 mins and try again. If you can see the satellites then you should connect about 95% or more of the time and less than 10% of calls will drop (usually during the handoffs every 8 minutes or so). Otherwise keep your calls short to avoid them dropping at the horizon, and wait about 1-2 minutes after a drop rather than immediately redialling.

There's been lots of news about the Iridium collision last month - that's caused temporary impairments but they shouldn't last more than another week or two. Also note that Iridium has just launched a new much smaller phone (9555) - its expensive but a lot lighter. Next year there'll be other competing services available and prices should go down (to less than $1000 for new phones).
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Re: Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby fishmonger » Wed Mar 04, 2009 12:13 pm

tim wrote:In terms of satellite phones, remember that the Iridium satellites go behind the mountains - they go down as low as 10 degrees elevation angle and move over from south to north or vice versa in about 8 minutes. The satellites follow on another on a north-south path (6 planes of 11 satellites) and then as the earth rotates, you move under the satellite plane and on to the next one every two hours. So if you are in a mountain basin ideally you want a clear north and south horizon to avoid calls dropping regularly. If this is the case and the calls keep dropping you aren't directly under the satellite plane so wait 20-30 mins and try again. If you can see the satellites then you should connect about 95% or more of the time and less than 10% of calls will drop (usually during the handoffs every 8 minutes or so). Otherwise keep your calls short to avoid them dropping at the horizon, and wait about 1-2 minutes after a drop rather than immediately redialling.

There's been lots of news about the Iridium collision last month - that's caused temporary impairments but they shouldn't last more than another week or two. Also note that Iridium has just launched a new much smaller phone (9555) - its expensive but a lot lighter. Next year there'll be other competing services available and prices should go down (to less than $1000 for new phones).


good info on the drop issues - totally acceptable for the 1 minute "check in calls" I have in mind, or, the emergency call I hope not to have to make.

9555 handset is too expensive - I'd rather carry a few more ounces and get a used 9505a for sub $500 on ebay. Kyocera handsets go for even less, and they are smaller than the 9555, however, I cannot find any reliable review of their performance compared to Motorola's units.

I'm not going to call home much, but I want a phone that works when it has to work, even if I have to wait 20 mins to wait for the next satellite to pass over.

I'm pretty decided to bring an Iridium phoen this summer, and I'll report back how they worked for me on the JMT.
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Re: Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby tim » Wed Mar 04, 2009 3:39 pm

fishmonger wrote:9555 handset is too expensive - I'd rather carry a few more ounces and get a used 9505a for sub $500 on ebay. Kyocera handsets go for even less, and they are smaller than the 9555, however, I cannot find any reliable review of their performance compared to Motorola's units.


The Kyocera performance numbers would be a few percent worse than the average I gave, but not dramatically so. One fact to be aware of is that there are two versions of the phone: the very oldest one (from 1999) had a antenna that pulls out from the body (a bit like the 9555 design) but this proved to have poor performance so they started issuing them with "rotate and extend" antennas like the 9505. Make sure you get the rotate and extend version if you opt for a Kyocera handset. None were made after 2000 so they will all be old and therefore possibly a bit flaky (e.g. ability to hold a battery charge, though you may still be able to get replacement batteries - not sure on that) though I have a 1999 vintage Motorola 9500 in my drawer and that still works (admittedly its not been on any backpacking trips). Since the 9505A's are at most ~3 years old, they will probably be less prone to problems of old age (before that they were the Motorola-built 9505). Note that the Kyocera is quite a bit bigger than the 9555, in fact pretty comparable in size and weight to the 9505A (if you go for equivalent batteries).
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Re: Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby oldranger » Wed Mar 04, 2009 4:14 pm

Fishmonger,

Maybe I missed something but as I understand it you also have the option of renting rather than purchasing a sat phone. Before I decided on the SPOT I had looked into it.

One thing to think about if you are relying on the SAT phone if for some reason your call gets dropped and there is some ambiguity you may actually increase the anxiety of the people you are trying to reassure. The SPOT at least leave an unambiguous message.

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