Satellite hotspot brings Internet to new places

Inmarsat’s IsatHub hotspot pulls Internet from satellites using a paperback-book sized device that you pair with your smartphone. It works almost anywhere.

isathub lead image
Credit: Satellitephonestore.com

Working without geographic boundaries is one of the supposed advantages of modern society.

Instant communications technology, such as e-mail and web, coupled with mobile networks should allow entrepreneurs to work wherever they want—from hotel room to client site. Or at least it’s supposed to.

There’s a slight problem: mobile networks aren’t ubiquitous—as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to get on to the Internet in some remote, rural areas.

Mobile Network Operators, or MNOs aren’t particularly altruistic. They generally only provide service where there are people to pay for it.

And there aren’t people many places.

Satellite hotspot

But there’s a way around this issue.

Inmarsat’s new IsatHub is a satellite-driven hotspot for smartphones. It doesn’t bother with MNOs and simply pulls its signal from satellites using the same niche technology as maritime, or oil and gas verticals use to communicate from remote areas.

I had a chance to try one out recently hiking the Carrizo Plain, an enclosed 50 mile-long grassland plain a hundred miles from Los Angeles. The wild area is notable for lack of data service.

What is it?

Inmarsat’s 7 x 6.5 x 1-inch paperback-book-sized hotspot provides a satellite data link for existing smartphones and other Wi-Fi enabled devices. Global service includes IP data at up to 240 kbps send, and 384 kbps receive, and the device can be used for VoIP calls too.

Battery life, in-use, is about two-and-a-half hours and eight hours standby. Weight is a little over one-and-three-quarter pounds.

Outside

I whipped out the backpack-residing IsatHub on the Carrizo hike to check e-mails. It did work. I got the e-mails and was able to browse the web.

Pairing with a smartphone was simple via Wi-Fi. However, pointing the terminal is tricky. You need to be outside for one thing, and you also can’t locate yourself in the shade because the device needs a line-of-sight view of the sky to be able to see one of Inmarsat’s satellites.

Pointing

A set of illuminated pointing-assistance arrows on the case is supposed to tell you when you’ve tilted the device correctly.

You then turn the device to the left or right in the direction of flashing lights to get an accurate line-of-sight signal.

Visibility

Unfortunately, it was pretty much impossible to see the LEDs in the bright, mid-day California sun, and it became plainly obvious that the thing was designed on a gloomy, grey day in London where the lights would have appeared brighter. Inmarsat is a UK-based company.

They’re going to need to sort that issue out.

Speeds obtained

Anyway, a good guess at the satellite’s location while I was perched out there on some baking rocks, and with a prompt from the app, I connected with a 61 percent signal obtaining 30-70 kbps.

Later, and in a different location (pool-side back in Los Angeles actually) I got 150 kbps.

Now, that may not sound like a lot, but it’s more than the 2.4 kbps I’m told by Inmarsat that I would obtain on a normal satellite phone, like the Isatphone Pro, if I tried it for data.

Portability

The device worked. I got my e-mails. Bear in mind that there was no MNO data service of any kind out there, and taking into account the portability of the paperback-sized device, and Inmarsat, as one would expect from the 11 satellite $304.8M revenue company, are onto something.

I had slow, web-brows-able Internet out there on that digitally-barren, rock-studded grassland.

Pricing

I wrote about the service launch, late in 2014, in the Disrupter blog: “Stock smartphone-to-satellite kit provides anywhere internet.”

Pricing for the Inmarsat IsatHub device, formally called the Wideye iSavi IsatHub ranges from about $1,325 to $1,350. Example service plans include 100 MB for $199, but shop around. Prices vary wildly.

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