If you're thinking Globalstar, I've got simple advice: don't do it. Do not waste your time and your sanity with a Globalstar phone, at least not for the Bahamas.
As I type this, I'm sitting in the cockpit near Staniel Cay with my trusty Globalstar phone in its customary place in the pedestal. It's been over twenty minutes now, and the phone has yet to find a satellite. Fortunately, I'm used to waiting. Once in Bimini I waited over an hour and never got the phone to work.
I can't help thinking: what if this were an emergency? What if the winds and seas were howling and the Globalstar phone was our best hope for rescue? If that were the case, I'm convinced we would die.
About four years ago, Practical Sailor reviewed the Globalstar system when one of its editors took a cruise through the Bahamas. He reported great frustration, but by learning the timing of the satellites passing overhead was eventually able to get some use out of it. When I purchased our phone in the fall of 2005, I read that the situation should have improved--as one would think, given two years to work on it--with a new ground station in Puerto Rico. When I asked the sales rep at Outfitter Satellite how the system should work in the Bahamas, she assured me that it would be fine--if the signal was weak, she said, there's an object in the way and you just need to move a few feet to restore the signal. I don't think she was deliberately try to mislead, but obviously she had never used a Globalstar phone in the Bahamas. The expectation, which the Globalstar website and sales materials do nothing to dispel, is that your satellite phone will work just like a cell phone. It doesn't. Actually, it's more like using your cell phone while you're driving through an endless series of long tunnels.
Ah, after twenty five minutes of waiting, I've gotten a connection. I'll try making a data call to check my e-mail. Nope, we lost the service after less than minute. Ah, here it is again. Nope, lost it after twenty seconds. Ah, got it back, so I'll try again. This time it lasts long enough to start up e-mail, but I'm disconnected after 30 seconds--at 9600 baud, not long enough to receive even the first message. Now we're back to "looking for service."
It worked better last year. Basically, the issue is that unlike other systems which have geostationary satellites, Globalstar relies on low-orbit satellites which move constantly across the sky. In theory, as one satellite moves out of range, your call is handed off to another one which has come over the horizon. The reality, at least in the Bahamas, is that the satellites don't seem to overlap at all. When you lose a satellite, you will have no service for as long as it takes for another one to come into view. Last year, you could generally get a signal within a ten minute wait, and typically you could hold that signal for five to ten minutes. This year, as this morning's experience demonstrates, you might wait half an hour for a weak signal that comes and goes every minute or so. Ah, hold on, I just got another connection...let's try checking e-mail again! Nope, lost service after twenty seconds. Oops, here it comes again. This time I stayed connected for a minute and ten seconds, almost long enough to download some mail. Try again--wow! A four minute connection before I got bumped off. Now the phone's back to connecting for a minute, disconnecting, and then looking for service. There are times of the day when things are worse, but generally this morning is typical. We've tried moving the phone around the boat, having one person try to "track" the satellite while the other uses the computer, everything short of climbing the mast--nothing really seems to help. Globalstar will sell you a marine kit with an external antenna for a thousand bucks or so, which couldn't hurt, but I've gotten several reports that it didn't improve things, either.
In George Town last year someone announced on the morning radio net that they would share some hints they'd gotten from a Globalstar technician to improve service. I jumped to respond, but I was just one of about 18 people who were having problems with Globalstar. In fact, the most frequent comment about Globalstar phones I heard last year was that their owners wanted to throw them into the ocean. As one told me, "It's really neat technology, but they haven't been able to keep it running." Unfortunately, none of the hints offered during that morning session seemed to help. When the satellites or the ground stations aren't functioning, fiddling around with your phone isn't going to make a difference.
I'm told that the situation in the Bahamas should improve by sometime in March or April. Apparently one or more satellites are currently out of service, leaving a hole in this area. So maybe things will improve..until the next thing breaks. I wouldn't count on anything dramatic. Globalstar has had more than seven years to get their act together, and if they haven't built a redundant system by now, they probably never will. And in the meantime Globalstar keeps advertising, pulling in new customers who then get so angry they want to throw that expensive phone overboard. Frankly, I would be surprised if Globalstar, at least in its current configuration, is still in business for more than another year or two. No company can survive when so many of its customers are just plain angry. Anybody in the market for a whole bunch of low-orbiting satellites?
We got the phone last year for a reasonable cost. We bought a used phone with 1500 minutes left on its pre-paid calling plan for around $1,000, which worked out to around 30 cents/minute including the cost of the phone. With patience, I was able to keep up with e-mail, update our website, and even make a few phone calls. Reactivating the phone this year cost us $650 for 900 minutes, so our cost jumped to almost 72 cents/minute. Of course, we waste four out of five of those minutes on disconnected calls, so our true cost is more $3.50/minute. In fairness, the sales rep this time made no claims about the system working well in the Bahamas. I told him it worked well enough for me last year. "It's gotten worse," he said. Maybe we could live with the frustrations if the system were cheaper. The cheapest plan available, Globalstar's "emergency only" plan, is still $450/year. If I had it to do over, I would bite the bullet and pay the extra cost for an Iridium phone. Better to spend more and get something that works than to throw money away with Globalstar.
When we get back to the states, I will probably try to get some kind of refund out of Globalstar. Yes, the contract states that refunds won't be given for service outages, but our experience this year has been so outrageously poor that it is well below any reasonable expectation. I'd call them and complain, but I can't get the phone to stay connected long enough.
Globalstar is selling something--safety, convenience, basic communications--that they clearly are not providing. Whether or not you consider that to be a case of outright fraud may depend on your own circumstances.
Update, February 20, 2007: This morning in George Town a group of disgruntled Globalstar customers got together over the radio to compare frustrations much as we did last year. Two people with external antennas reported being able to connect for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time, once or twice an hour, while another external antenna user was having no such luck. No one was happy (I doubt there is a happy Globalstar customer within five hundred miles of the Bahamas). One user compared Globalstar to buying a car that could only be driven for two minutes every hour. Several people reported some success in getting concessions out of Globalstar to compensate for the poor service, ranging from additional minutes to complete refunds. One customer reported he had been able to convert his annual plan to a monthly plan that could be cancelled when he returned to the states. As a measure of the frustration present, there was widespread interest in pursuing legal action, including a class action lawsuit. They suggested contacting Globalstar directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-452-5782 (toll free) or 905-712-7197 (toll). There were reports of waits of up to 45 minutes on the phone lines, another bad sign.
A couple of days later, Chris Parker was in G-town doing a weather seminar and was asked about the status of Globalstar. Chris is a former Globalstar reseller and seemed to have a good handle on the situation. Apparently there were 48 satellites in the original Globalstar "constellation" launched about ten years ago, of which half are now dead. Many of the remaining two dozen are functioning at reduced capacity. They have seven spare satellites which will be launched before summer to fill some of the "holes" that now exist. However, the real fix is not expected until 2009 or 2010 when an entirely new "constellation" of satellites is to be launched. I seriously doubt that Globalstar will still in business by then.
Update, June 12, 2007: I had e-mailed email@example.com several times over many weeks asking for some kind of reimbursement for the incredible lack of service during our cruise and never received a single response. I am now convinced that our decision to buy another Globalstar service plan for our last trip to the Bahamas was the single worst decision we made on the entire cruise...it was $650 thrown into the wind!
See Barrons Online for a summary of the "incredible" SEC statement in which Globalstar itself predicts total failure of their existing satellites by 2008!
Update, July 26, 2007: About a week after submitting a complaint online via the Globalstar website, I received an e-mail from customer service advising that I had been sending to the wrong address...it should have been firstname.lastname@example.org. They said they had never received my earlier messages (that's strange, since the mail never bounced back, which is what normally happens if it is undeliverable). That much established, they said they couldn't help me and referred me to the reseller in Florida who sold us the annual package last January.
I called the reseller and was told they are no longer selling Globalstar since the system is not viable. I was asked when I had terminated the service and told them I actually hadn't yet--there was still six months left on my contract. Within a couple of days I sent them a fax asking them to terminate my contract and send a refund for the unused months. Keep your fingers crossed--we'll see what happens.
Update, August 30, 2007: We did indeed receive a credit for $230 on the unused portion of our annual plan, so I am in much better mood when it comes to Globalstar these days. I only wish I had called and tried to get the credit earlier. Getting anything back gives me a little more confidence that Globalstar may be around long enough to regain it's customer base when (and if) they get a new constellation of satellites in orbit.