Have you ever found yourself out in the middle of nowhere, just wishing you had an Internet connection to the outside world? Well, if you’re at all normal, the answer is probably no, but if you’re like me then the prospect of being out of touch for any length of time is actually quite terrifying (Yes, I know. I have a problem). Recently I found myself planning for a camping trip in the mountains of British Columbia, one which would likely take me off grid for a length of time. While a lot of people might relish the thought of being disconnected for a while, I found myself planning how to gain some form of connectivity, even while in the most remote environment
Satellite Modems – So much to learn
Heading into this project I knew I would need a satellite system of some sort, but exactly what type of system, and with what capabilities was beyond me. More research into the subject was clearly needed.
Traditional satellite TV and Internet systems use satellites in what is called a geostationary orbit. This means that the satellite is orbiting the Earth at the same speed the Earth is rotating, so they always have a fixed position in the sky. These satellites are 35,000km above the ground, which means they typically need larger antennas with more gain to receive a usable signal. Larger antennas are cumbersome, and often require precision to aim; not the best choice for camping. Geostationary satellites also have the disadvantage of orbiting the Earth over the equator, which is great when you have a clear view of the Southern sky, but when you’re as far North as BC, not to mention being in the mountains a clear Southern view becomes more of a challenge. Enter the world of Low Earth Orbit satellites.
Satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), orbit the Earth at a much shorter distance; around 2000km. This distance means much smaller antennas can be used, however, the trade off is that the satellites orbit the earth at a much faster speed, so relative to the ground they are constantly moving in the sky. To overcome this, LEO satellites need to operate in constellations of dozens or hundreds, to ensure that at least one satellite is visible at all times. LEO satellites are also typically higher in the sky then their geostationary counterparts, so in theory it should be easier to get a signal up in the mountains. All that remained now was to choose a network and figure out how much it would cost.
Choosing a Provider
My research indicated there were two main LEO satellite providers; Globalstar and Iridium. Both offered satellite Internet plans and both used similar client devices. Globalstar’s network was built in 1997, and consists of 24 satellites covering most of the Earth. While coverage maps indicated that Globalstar’s network should cover may area of interest, I was concerned that the smaller number of satellites might mean coverage in the mountains would be difficult.
The Iridium network was first launched 1987 and consists of 66 satellites and it covers literally the entire Earth. Anecdotal evidence from various online sources led me to believe that the coverage should be superior to that of Globalstar so it was the focus of the next phase of my research.
Choosing a Plan
While the Iridium network was originally launched to provide voice services, it has been upgraded over the years to support SMS and data. Data speeds over the network are reported to be very slow, only around 2.4kbps, but I figured it should be sufficient for plain text email and an SSH terminal connection, should I need to remotely connect to a server.
While most of Iridium’s handsets are for voice or SMS only, they recently launched product called the Iridium GO which is a data optimized device. The unit itself creates a WiFi hotspot which you can connect to from a smartphone allowing you to utilize some data features via an app. While the smartphone app looked pretty interesting, I did want something which would support arbitrary data – after all I doubted the app would have the functionality to connect to a server via SSH! A bit of research later, and I found a 2014 blog post which indicated you could indeed start a data call and connect a laptop for server administration goodness. I was satisfied and went ahead with the order of the GO and an airtime plan which provided unlimited data options.
The unit shipped quickly and, within a week, it had arrived at my door. My first impression was just how small this device was – While I had read about how it was designed for hiking and to fit in a backpack, I was still amazed that an entire satellite modem could fit in a 2.5×4.5″ package – almost the same size as an SSD!
I was also impressed with the build quality of the device. It was defiantly designed to take a bit of a beating, and the rubber exterior and o-ring around the battery compartment left me feeling confident that a sudden rainstorm wouldn’t leave the unit inoperable.
Initial setup was extremely easy; anyone capable of setting up a smart phone should be able to figure it out. Inside the package was my included SIM card – After activating the card through the web-portal indicated by my vendor, I removed the battery from the Go and installed the SIM into the appropriate slot. I powered up the Go by raising the antenna, placed it outside on my balcony and within minutes it was showing as being registered on the satellite network! Pretty slick – no putzing around with finicky aiming or trying to ensure horizon to horizon line of sight.
I made a couple of critical changes – such as changing the default SSID, password and administration credentials; all of which were done through the Iridium app on my smartphone.
Making a Connection
The first thing I wanted to verify was basic functionality, and since the Iridium network was optimized for voice I figured a voice call was a good place to start. Unlike conventional satellite phones which are all in one units, on the GO all communications are initiated from the Iridium app on your smartphone. I can see why taking this unit hiking is less then ideal, as you’re now dependent on carrying a potentially fragile smart phone, but in my situation it was not a problem.
From the home screen of the app, there is an option to make a phone call. I punched in the 11 digit number of my cell-phone, plus the country code and was pleasantly surprised when my cell began to ring. Call establishment took a little while; it was about 30 seconds before the line started to ring, but the quality was decent, and the satellite delay (about 1.5 seconds) was manageable. Initial verification was a success!
The next thing I wanted to try was a data connection. The Iridium app offers built in tools for sending email, browsing social media, and messaging. These tools are essential when operating over a slow satellite link as they can heavily compress the data being transferred, making for a much more usable experience. In my case, my main interest was in using the connection to access SSH terminals for server administration; something that was already fairly low bandwidth.
In order to bypass the the Iridium smartphone app, you need to initiate a data call from the Go itself. Fortunately, doing so is quit easy from the front panel and described in the manual. Once again, I placed the modem on my balcony and initiated the call, my results this time were less then ideal.
Initially, the call failed despite additional voice calls working as expected. I did notice that the signal strength was less then full, usually hovering around 2-3 out of a possible 5 bars. I was still testing the unit on my balcony, which had a marginal view of the sky, so I figured I’d head out to a place where I had a better overall view of the horizon and try again.
A Successful Data Call
Up until now, I had made a number of successful voice calls, and used the Iridium app to send and receive several SMS messages, but the main reason for getting the device, a slow but stable data connection, was still elusive. Figuring my balcony had only a limited view of the sky, I headed out to a local mountaintop where I was sure to have an unrestricted view, horizon to horizon so I could retry my testing.
Once at the top of the mountain, I connected my laptop to the GO’s hotspot and initiated a data call. My signal strength this time was a full 5 bars, and the connection succeeded within a few seconds. I launched a terminal on my laptop and initiated a ping to 188.8.131.52 which averaged around 150ms, not bad for going to space and back!
Next, I opened an SSH session to one of my servers and was rewarded, after about 30 seconds, with a usable terminal. The connection wasn’t fast, on average I was noticing a 1-5 second delay between typing and my characters appearing on the screen, but it was usable – in an emergency I would be able to connect to a server and run some very basic troubleshooting. I messed around with the unit for about half an hour, losing connection once for around two minutes. Overall though I was pretty satisfied with the performance, and wrapped up my testing for the day.
Use in the Field
Before long I found myself preparing to head out for my camping trip, and I packed the GO along with a number of other modern essentials, such as my ham radio, laptop and extra battery packs (yes, I have an electronics problem). With my initial testing a success, I was confident I’d be ready for just about anything – at least of a technical nature!
Upon arrival at the campsite, we setup our tent and sleeping bags and while my companions were busy chopping wood, building a fire and doing other, normal camping things, I was pulling out my laptop and waving the Iridium GO around trying to capture a signal.
The first thing I noticed was that the signal strength was lower here then at home, while my mountaintop testing yielded 5 bars of strength, here I was limited to the same 2-3 I had observed on my balcony. As before, I started my testing with a voice call back home, to verify connectivity to the network.
My voice call worked. Sort of. While the call established in the usual 30 seconds, communications was more difficult with the audio somewhat garbled and the call did completely cut out a few times. While it would have been possible to convey a message in an emergency, it wouldn’t have been easy and would have necessitated a lot of repeating to get a point across. SMS was a bit better, with most messages I sent being received, though I did notice an interesting glitch where I was receiving multiple copies of the same message.
The next thing I noticed was that the signal strength on the modem was changing rapidly, over the course of a few minutes I was seeing everything from 0 to 5 bars, and the high signal would rarely stay long enough to establish a data call. I theorized that being in the mountains, and at a higher latitude, I was only seeing a few satellites at a time, and as they moved overhead (recall that LEO satellites are constantly moving, relative to the Earth’s surface) I would get a wide fluctuation in signal.
It would turn out that 90% of the places I went on this trip had cellular coverage anyway, so I didn’t need to mess with the GO too much, however, I am not confident at all that I would have been able to get a stable enough data connection to maintain an SSH session – a huge disappointment.
While the Iridium GO is a very cool little unit, and would likely work extremely well on the water or closer to the equator, the higher latitudes of British Columbia and the mountainous terrain I found myself in made it essentially useless for data operations. While the voice side of things was usable in an emergency, if one is purchasing a satellite phone purely for voice, there are better options out there. Overall, I’d have to give my whole experience with the GO a 2 out of 5 – it would have worked when it absolutely had to, but the lack of data options was a real deal breaker. Stay tuned for my next camping adventure as I’ll be sure to try and identify a suitable replacement.