The Road Wirer
by Mark Sedenquist
The other day I received e-mail from an English tourist who berated me for failing to deliver the simple answer he was sure existed. How was he was going to connect to the Internet using a laptop computer while he was parked in a campground in Yellowstone National Park? He was quite incensed that nobody, including the Road Wirer would give him a guaranteed way to check his investment portfolio as he traveled around the country. Well, after nearly seven years of daily attempts to connect to the Internet in wireless dashboarding mode, I can say only this with confidence-- we are getting closer.
In recent Road Wirer columns I have mentioned some of the pending systems that will be using existing Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellite constellations. GEO satellites present two primary problems for use by dashboarders. First, the distance of approximately 22,000 miles from earth requires a fairly powerful phone, and the distance that the RF signal must travel causes a noticeable delay for voice communication. Second, there are problems aligning the mobile receiver with sufficient accuracy to enable the system to work properly. Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) systems are much closer at around 6,200 miles, but it is the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations that are likely to offer the best solution to dashboarders. Globalstar is a 48 LEO satellite constellation that operates about 913 miles above the earth. Globalstar is not the final solution that dashboarders have been waiting for, but within two months it should be ready to give you sufficient service to download your e-mail and perform limited web surfing from just about anyplace in North America.
Last May, Laura Malter from Qualcomm provided us with the use of a GSP-1600 Portable Tri-Mode Satellite phone for five weeks of field tests. Our testing regimen was designed to demonstrate how the Globalstar system can be used by dashboarders working on the road. The first test evoked near euphoria. I reached the RoadTrip America website in a canyon near Julian, California, a remote spot not far from an abandoned gold mine.
The GSP-1600 is designed to look for the availability of CDMA digital signals (IS-95) first, move to analog AMPS (IS-41) and then to Globalstar (G*) to secure the required connection. For the most part I used the GSP-1600 in satellite mode only during the test trials, since I was primarily interested in the system's capability to send two-way data. At the time of the trials, I did not use the bandwidth meter that I now employ when I review hardware. The indicator I used was the time required to send files representative of the type and size that many dashboarders hope to send on a daily basis from the road. These files included a 273K JPG file and a 13K text file. I also used AOL and the AOL FTP program and sent both sets of files via analog (AT&T) and Globalstar. Due to a hardware problem, we used the Pentium 75 laptop instead of using the faster processing speed of the 466MHz IBM laptop. The antenna connection was the standard G* external mount and a high-gain cellular for the analog tests.
Generally, the log-on sequence (15 to 45 seconds) and the transmission of the smaller text file (13 to 28 seconds) was nearly three times faster when we used the G* network. But a near-magical difference was observed while sending the larger JPG file. Analog transmission averaged about 25 minutes and the G* was about 6 minutes. As many of you know, managing to remain connected for a full 25 minutes of analog time is a darned hard thing to accomplish in most areas of the country. Plus the added benefit of being able to use the packet transfer protocol allowed the system to pick-up the data stream in the appropriate segments when the connection was momentarily lost.
GlobalStar is quoting real-time thru-put of 7.7K to 9.6K, which seems pretty consistent with our own findings. These transmission rates, although faster than analog, are considerably slower than the 64K speed currently available from Immarsat, and much slower than the 400 K up-leg and 1.5M down-stream rates that are being quoted by other satellite contenders. I wish I could write, "It works today," but… it isn't quite ready for prime time use. The best estimate is that packet data service should be ready for rollout by November. Costs of the airtime use and the equipment are another issue that has yet to be fully resolved. It is probable that the car kit version of the Tri-Mode GSP-1600 should be available for approximately $1700. This figure includes a $500 rebate on the transceiver and the commitment of a 24-month service plan.
Pricing air-time use is very problematic now, since each of the service providers linked by the G* network will set their own rates. It is likely that a minute of packet data usage will be similar to minutes currently charged for voice service. For the Road Wirer, a typical month of 1000 minutes should cost around $1 per minute. Since we have paid as much as $3.50 a minute in analog roaming situations, G* is definitely going to be a vital and appreciated part of the connection solution that we have been seeking. I will provide an update on the pricing information when the G* packet data service is launched in a few weeks.
The Globalstar system that I tested did not work 100% of the time, but it did allow me to update pages on the RoadTrip America website in very scenic off-road locations with a minimum of tinkering. When it worked, it worked flawlessly, which means we are all several important steps closer to our dashboarding grail. Those in the know can appreciate the progress being made by companies like GlobalStar. In the meantime, it won't be long before I receive another strident message from someone who's sure such connections have been available for decades!
Las Vegas, Nevada
August 21, 2000