A new paradigm of connectivity for travelers
By Jeff Cobb, Photography by Jeff Cobb
Just think how different history and everyday life would have been if devices like the SPOT Satellite Messenger had existed, even in the past hundred years.
Just for starters, where Amelia Earhart crashed might never have been a mystery. The ‘60s TV show Gilligan’s Island might never have been produced because it would have been rejected as an unlikely scenario. And perhaps more relevantly: that time your motorcycle broke down in the middle of nowhere and you had no means to communicate might never have become the epic – or harrowing – adventure it was.
What is the SPOT Satellite Messenger? In a nutshell, it’s a lightweight, water-resistant, reasonably tough transponder of sorts. It communicates via global communications satellite and a low earth orbiting satellite network – not to show you where you are, but the opposite: it lets others know where you are when you press a button to tell them.
Does it work? Most of the time, and the times it doesn’t get through couldn’t be called a product defect, but we’ll get to that.
Is it worth it? That depends. When traveling, what’s your level of risk tolerance? Would it be of value to you to let others know where you are when on the road or trail? Would you like someone to be able to come find you if you have a problem in a remote place that you can’t rescue yourself from?
Many would say “yes,” but if your answer is, “no,” extra features bundled in might still make it worthwhile if you’re a tech-savvy sociable type. In addition to rescue-enabling capabilities, the SPOT could open a whole world of journey-chronicling activities. To facilitate this, its manufacturer, SPOT LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Globalstar Inc., operates its own social networking site for adventurers great and small. This site can be linked with videos, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, other websites, you name it.
The 5.2 oz, hand-held, $169.99 SPOT Satellite Messenger offers up to five core functions, based on the level of subscription service you pay for – plus a few others we’ll briefly mention at the end.
A basic subscription of $99.99 per year ($199.98 for two years) enables four features. These are two ways to ask for someone to rescue you, a third feature is called “Check-in/OK,” and the fourth feature is similar, called “Custom Message.”
As seen in the image, the “SOS” button is the key rescue feature – that you never want to touch unless you really need to (we were admonished not to, lest we be accused of crying wolf, and possibly fined). We’ll assume SOS works because all the other buttons work.
In short, SOS notifies GEOS Alliance, a third party emergency rescue coordination center that you have a big problem and need help. When you press the button (shielded to present accidental notification), your GPS location is pinpointed, and someone at the Houston-based 24/7/365 response center notifies appropriate authorities. This is the next best thing to calling 9-1-1, and possibly the only solution, when out of cell phone reach. SPOT says it will get through in 20 minutes or less 96-99% of the time in most areas of the world, and our testing of other features leads us to believe the signal gets through much quicker than that, at least in our part of the world.
Factors that could interfere with signal transmission involve anything that adversely affects a clear line of sight to the sky, including a roof overhead, forest cover, and more – although we found the device may get through anyway, just not as reliably.
The other rescue mode – “Help/SPOT Assist” – is a personal message you set up with your SPOT account to send a brief e-mail to someone you trust to come get you, or send help.
So, say for example, you’re in the Utah desert, or some such remote place, and your bike goes down and there you are crashed 80 miles from the nearest small town. You could alternately press “Help/SPOT Assist” (also a shielded button to prevent accidental notification) or the “SOS” feature.
If you choose the Help/Spot assist, it will send an e-mail and/or SMS text message that you’d already written to your trusted family member or friend. Obviously, a smart phone can also receive this message, so it could be quite timely. The message could be something like, “Help! I cannot call you, but am in trouble. These are my GPS coordinates. Please send help ASAP!”
You get the idea. It’s another bail out when all else fails, but short of notifying emergency services to begin a potentially costly rescue.
As for the “Check-in/OK” button, and “Custom Message” button, these can be pressed as often as you like. These buttons are both variations on the same idea, and give two ways to reassure someone that you are alright.
These functions, like the ”Help/SPOT Assist” function, send pre-written, customizable messages. You could say something like, “Hi, just checking in. Every thing’s fine.” Or again, it could be any message you want.
According to SPOT’s manufacturer, Globalstar, the company has an exclusive market for the time being, and this device is now the second generation with better receptivity.
Repeated tests where no cell phone service was available showed corresponding e-mails in our account that we’d designated. Usually, the lag time from the time the button was pressed to the time an e-mail showed up was one to five minutes.
The social side of things
All you gadget-loving techies – you know who you are – here’s where things get more interesting. For a price.
An additional $49.99 per year provides a fifth function called “Tracking.” This button lets you plot a course as you go with greater ease than it would be downloading data from a GPS. The Tracking feature marks your waypoints on a Google map, and is accessible via your account on FindMeSpot.com.
Naturally, social connectivity is already possible with the Check-in/OK” and “Custom Message” features as well. Any or all of these can be used to your creative heart’s desire to share your trip to family, friends, or publicly on a website, or SPOT’s own website.
According to Derek Moore, public relations manager for SPOT LLC, the social side of things has been a big hit. It has turned the SPOT into more than disaster relief, and a way to reach out and touch someone with a positive message as well.
“Having the ability to share your outdoor adventures from remote areas is fun and provides peace of mind for loved ones back home,” Moore says, “since the inception of the SPOT product in Nov. 2007, Globalstar has received orders to ship more than 252,000 SPOT retail devices to over 10,000 SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger points of distribution in North America, Europe, Latin America, Australia, and Southeast Asia.”
If you want your travels to be known by family, friends and a growing coterie of fans and well wishers – or you want a growing coterie of fans and well wishers – step right up, get yourself a SPOT account. If you’re really good, we might be hearing about you on CNN. Hopefully it will be a good report.
Since it requires an annual subscription fee, the SPOT Satellite Messenger is both a product and service. Unlike a navigational GPS that you buy and have free use of, if you discontinue the annual SPOT service, the device can not do anything.
While we were not able to test it worldwide, or even country-wide, from what we can ascertain, if you keep the subscription active, the SPOT Satellite Messenger will do what it’s supposed to.
Additional annual subscription services not tested in this review are also available. These include $17.99 insurance if you lose the device, $10-$159 insurance for salt and freshwater boaters in the U.S. and Canada, and $12.95 insurance to cover the cost of the aforementioned potentially costly emergency rescue services coming to get you. This latter service gets you up to two rescues per year, and pays up to $50,000 per search and rescue you might initiate if you miscalculate in your excursions toward fame and fun.
All told, it is possible to spend up to $339.92 annually in subscription costs if all options are selected, with $99.99 being the minimum.
To be frank, at first we thought the entire idea looked like one more way to spend money for potential “what-if” scenarios that thus far we’ve been fine without. Some of you may still think that, and we could see why.
But to be fair, we increased respect for its utility in testing it “off the grid” in remote regions of California. So far, trusting our luck has been okay for the most part, but we soon realized this thing could be of real value.
According to SPOT, most of the world’s land surfaces are covered. Offshore uses are limited however. While there’s no reason why a satellite in space can’t see you in the ocean any less than the land, SPOT can make fewer-to-no guarantees at sea because of the lack of a surface-based transmitter network, as there is on land.
So coming back to the original question, is it worth it? If you do not travel out of reach much, it seems like a rather costly item to consider “just in case.” If you do travel remotely – not just by motorcycle, but in any manner – or are planning to travel remotely, then, yes, we’d recommend it. It’s insurance that could pay for itself.