Satellite phone crosses the dead zone

Satellite phone crosses the dead zone

By John Breeden II

GCN Staff

The world may be mostly wired, but there are still plenty of unwired frontiers left.

GCN Lab reviewers were intrigued by Globalstar Mobile Satellite Services' claim that it can provide wireless telephone coverage anywhere in the continental United States and a good portion of Mexico, Canada and Latin America. So, on a trip to the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas last month, we decided to test that claim on a phone from Qualcomm Inc. of San Diego equipped with the Globalstar service. We took along several other wireless phones to compare service levels.

The Qualcomm GSP 1600, a large, four-pound unit, arrived with two antennas, one for standard service and an extended one for satellite service. It's definitely not the phone to tote around in well-covered urban areas. A car mount is optional for hands-free communication.

Our planned test site in the Mojave Desert had no roads for cars. We could reach the Valley of Fire State Park only by all-terrain vehicle.

Reviewer John Breeden II took a four-wheel-drive vehicle to a cellular dead zone in the Mojave Desert and found he could make crystal-clear Globalstar satellite calls.

A guide at ATV Action Tours assured us there were areas in the mountainous desert region that no cellular signal could reach. We smiled and told him to take us there.

About halfway into our four-hour expedition to the cellular dead zone, reviewer Carlos A. Soto's four-wheeler blew a tire on jagged rocks. While our guide fixed the tire, we conducted our first test.

We extended the Qualcomm satellite antenna to the sky. It had two positions for a line of sight to one of Globalstar's 48 low-Earth-orbiting satellites. The phone had also worked indoors, but we found the satellite signal was not as robust as a cellular signal and could not penetrate walls or ceilings very well. It worked best near a window.

Smoke signals?

In the wasteland, however, the satellite signal was strong. I called someone in Washington, and we talked for several minutes before I revealed I was talking via satellite. The connection was crystal-clear, according to the other party.

Meanwhile, a few of our cellular phones also eked out a signal. We made several scratchy, often-disconnected calls.

Box Score

Qualcomm GSP 1600 phone with Globalstar Satellite Service

Dual cellular and satellite phone

Globalstar USA; Walnut Creek, Calif.;

tel. 877-728-7466

Price: $1,500 for phone; about $30 a month for service plus about $1 per minute for satellite calls

+ Worked as advertised in remote area

+ Crystal-clear connections

- Satellite signals weak indoors

- Bulky and costly

After the tire was fixed, we kept our speed down until we knew the tire patch would hold.

About an hour later we arrived in a dry canyon surrounded by Native American drawings dating back 2,000 years'the guide's fabled dead zone. He told us he had even climbed to the top of one of the surrounding hills and gotten no cellular signal at all. We were, after all, four hours' hard ride from civilization.

None of the cell phones now detected even a hint of a signal. Pulling out the GSP 1600 from my sandy pocket, I stood next to the ancient drawings and tried to communicate in 21st-century mode. As soon as the antenna went up, I saw a full set of signal bars. I again called Washington and had a clearly audible conversation.

Fully charged, the Qualcomm phone supplies 10 hours of standby power and about four hours of continuous use. An optional data port extension works with portable and handheld computers for checking e-mail or browsing the Web.

The phone worked like a standard cell phone in either digital or analog mode. It switched to satellite mode only when the special antenna was raised and the unit could not reach standard cellular service.

Globalstar service is available through the Federal Technology Services' Wireless Store, at

Small price to pay had we gotten stuck in the dead zone with an unfixable flat tire.


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