SPOT Satellite Beacon

What is SPOT?
A relatively new entry into the emergency beacon market is the SPOT Satellite Personal Beacon from GlobalStar. We have to admit that this product is just being introduced as we write this West Advisor, so we’re relying on what we believe is accurate marketing information. The SPOT operates similarly to a GPS-enabled PLB (Personal Locator Beacon), with some important differences:

It uses the GlobalStar satellite network, but doesn’t use the portion of the satellites which have been subject to consistency issues in recent years. We are told that the reliability should be very good with the current generation of satellites, and will remain so with the generation of the satellites over the next few years.

Types of Messages
There are various levels of severity of the SPOT messages. One message is to assure your family and friends that you’re OK, which will send your position and a short message to up to 10 recipients by telephone or email. A second message will request HELP, but only from your contact list. Let’s say you’re riding your bike across country, and you need to summon your sag wagon. This allows you to get help without alerting the world’s rescue services. NOTE: Both of these types of messages are sent by computer, with no operator intervention. A predetermined brief message is sent to everyone on your list.

The most severe level is 911, which is effectively the same as pressing the activation button on an EPIRB or PLB, since it will pass a message to GEOS Alliance, a firm specializing in the security of high-profile people around the world. (See http://www.geosalliance.com.) GEOS Alliance is then responsible for contacting the appropriate Public Service Access Point (like 911 service) that is appropriate for your location, or other rescue services as appropriate. This is entirely separate from the SARSAT Mission Control Center that is the “brains” of the EPRIB network in the U.S., but GEOS Alliance may end up using the same assets (Coast Guard, Air Force Rescue Coordination Center) as appropriate for the nature of the emergency. Incidentally, we’re very comfortable with the people behind GEOS, as they deal with terrorism, kidnapping, and other heavy issues on a daily basis.

SPOT Coverage
The coverage of the SPOT Personal Beacon is very large, but not worldwide. Certain areas are not covered, or have coverage with less certainty based on the satellite orbits and ground stations. In particular, many open ocean areas and much of the Southern Hemisphere are not covered, and if you’re traveling to those places, an EPIRB or PLB might be a better solution. See http://www.geosalliance.com/SPOT_coverage.html for a current coverage map.

Finally, and we don’t yet know how to weigh the pros and cons, there’s the issue of Public vs. Private. The COSPAS/SARSAT system is a result of international cooperation with an established network of satellites, ground stations, rescue agencies, etc. The system works, and has been proven during countless rescues. The SPOT system is currently in its infancy, and while it offers some additional features, you’re also reliant on the companies behind SPOT to continue to be in operation and to uphold their end of the bargain.

Subscription Costs
What about cost? No question, the SPOT option is cheaper at the cash register, with a retail price of about $150 compared to $500 to $600 for a PLB. However the SPOT beacon requires an annual fee of $100 for basic services, and an additional $50 if you want the premium “Tracker” service. Finally, for $7 per year, you can get insurance through GEOS which provides up to $100,000 in extraction coverage, which sounds like an awesome deal to us.

For additional information on the SPOT beacon, Doug Ritter has some thoughts at http://www.equipped.org. For more on Satellite Communications, see the West Advisor on High Seas Communications. For additional info on EPIRBs and Personal Locator Beacons, see the EPIRB West Advisor.

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