More than fifteen years ago I worked in the mobile satellite services industry, helping to develop a handheld satellite phone business. ICO Global Communications, the company that I worked for never made it to service launch; but part of my role was competitor intelligence, so I had the opportunity to use an Iridium phone during a holiday in Morocco. Then, the phone was huge and vaguely weapon-like, the service was dreadful even on a beach with a huge sky, and I also found cellular coverage wherever I went – even in the Atlas Mountains.
Still, I was a bit thrilled to have the chance to try out a Globalstar handheld last week. The Pembrokeshire coastal path turns out to be much less well covered by cellular signal in 2014 than the Atlas Mountains were in 1998, and I badly needed to keep in touch with my parents because my father was unwell.
The Globalstar phone, a GSP-1700, was much cuter. It still had the solid, rotatable aerial, but extending it no longer looked like I was deploying a ground-to-air missile. The phone itself was about the size and shape of a mid-1990s cellular phone with a similar monochrome look and feel. It was lighter, though, and with a pleasant hand-feel.
It was really easy to use – I never looked at the manual or documentation – and worked very well once I'd got used to the fact that it did take a little longer to acquire a signal. It didn't work in the shadow of buildings or under wet trees, but other than that it was reliable and straightforward.
And the voice quality was great – clear and with no perceptible delay or echo. Much better than the voice quality that I got when I did occasionally pick up cellular signal, and actually better than much of my experience with cellular even in urban areas. The phone really did help me to 'connect with family even when my adventures took me out of coverage', just like it says in the PR material.
Nice to know that the mobile satellite service industry came right in the end, even without the benefit of my contribution.