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Messages From the Wilderness, via Satellite
AH, wilderness. The great outdoors, the fresh air — and the spotty cellphone coverage. But hikers, adventurers and others in remote places who want to send messages now have a new alternative when the signal vanishes: they can send texts using a satellite network instead.
You can’t send your version of “War and Peace” — the limits of the messages are typically 41 to 120 characters — but you can send dispatches from the woods announcing: “Chain on bike broke, will be late” or “Pick me up. I’m not having fun.” And you can make specific requests for emergency help if necessary.
For the last several years, people heading to remote areas have been able to buy an device from a company called Spot that sends requests for help via satellite. The device also allows people to add a preprogrammed message, but it cannot send an original text.
Now, new hand-held devices from Spot allow people in the wild to compose and beam short, original text messages via satellite, and even send e-mail, Twitter feeds and Facebook updates. Other companies, too, have introduced text messengers that work via satellite.
And while it has been possible for some time to make voice calls in remote areas with satellite telephones, their use has been limited because of their high cost.
The new message technology provides a more economical alternative. It offers an additional layer of security in the wilderness so long as you use it properly, said Jason Stevenson of Lancaster, Pa., author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Backpacking and Hiking.”
“The problem with cellphones is reliability in back country, miles from the road,” Mr. Stevenson said. “That’s why these new satellite devices are so helpful. They work just about everywhere so long as you have a clear line of sight to the sky,” and no narrow canyon wall or dense foliage that blocks the satellite links required for a connection.
But before setting out with the new gadgets, users should take time to understand the technology and its limits. “The mechanics of using a satellite-connected device in the woods are not as simple as whipping out your cellphone and calling,” he said.
To send messages, users key the text into a GPS unit or a smartphone linked to a transmitter, which sends the message skyward to the satellite system. A GPS receiver from DeLorme, the Earthmate PN-60w, sold as a pair with the Spot Satellite Communicator, costs $549.95 at L.L. Bean. Users must also pay for satellite service ($99.99 for a year) and the sending of original messages ($50 for 500), said Derek Moore, a spokesman for Spot, which is a subsidiary of Globalstar, a satellite network company in Covington, La. The system is one-way; users can send texts but not receive them.
In February, Spot will introduce a free smartphone application to be paired with another Spot transmitter called the Spot Connect ($150). Users type their text messages on Android-based phones linked wirelessly by Bluetooth to the Spot Connect device, Mr. Moore said. An app for iPhones will be arriving shortly, he said. The basic service charge will be $99.99 a year.
Before they head for the forest, users must go to the Spot Web site and set up contact information for the people they may want to reach, said Tim Flight, editor of GPSReview.net in Carrabassett Valley, Me. Once on the trail, the DeLorme GPS unit shows the contacts’ names. “You pick the people and key in your message,” he said.
For an additional $50 a year, Spot will track users’ routes, reporting their locations every 10 minutes on Google maps on the Web site, Mr. Moore said.
Michael Bramel, a volunteer overseer for the Appalachian Trail who lives in Gettysburg, Pa., likes the service.
“My wife can go to the Web site and see how far I’ve gotten,” he said. His mother likes it, too. On his way to visit her over the holidays, he put the Spot into the car, and “she could click on the Web site and see how close I was,” he said.
Messages sent by the new satellite systems fill an unusual niche, said Jonathan Dorn, editor of Backpacker magazine, who has been testing the Spot-DeLorme pair.
“Hikers love to tell stories,” he said. “Historically, we have to wait until we get home.” Now some of those stories can be told in real time. “It’s wonderful to be able to communicate spontaneously this way with a device that fits in the palm of your hand,” he said.
GeoPro of Mississauga, Ontario, offers a satellite-based device that allows users not only to send texts but also to receive them, said Morris Shawn, the company’s president. The cost varies from $600 to $700 for the device, he said, with monthly fees for service through Iridium’s satellite network typically $35 to $50.
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