Technology

Satellite SMS: Help from above

No cellphone coverage? No problem. A new satellite tracking system is making outdoor work easier.

Out in northeastern British Columbia, EnCana’s workers face two big risks as they tend to natural gas wells. One is muskeg, which bogs down their four-wheel all-terrain vehicles during the warmer months; the other is black bears. EnCana’s safety procedures mandate anyone working alone in the field to check in every two hours. But mobile phone network coverage is spotty in the area, and calling in on a satellite handset is expensive and cumbersome.

Now, a new satellite tracking system originally designed for leisure adventures is making daily work easier. When a lone worker presses the OK button on a small orange device called the SPOT messenger, it sends a signal to a low-orbit satellite that triggers e-mail or text messages to be sent to a predetermined list of recipients; each message includes a link to the worker’s location on a Google map. If he presses Help, the main camp is notified to send out a crew; if he presses 911, emergency services are dispatched. (In one test, first responders reached the site in 20 minutes.) The worker’s location can also be found every 10 minutes by GPS.

Developed by satellite company Globalstar Inc. (Nasdaq: GSAT) and launched in November 2007, the SPOT has only one other button: On/Off. That simplicity, as well as its $160 price tag (plus $100/year satellite service), has attracted Canadian natural resource companies seeking to comply with provincial “lone worker” safety regulations. As many as 25% of Globalstar’s subscribers in Canada use it professionally. Acadian Timber, for one, can’t cover all of its 1.4 million acres in New Brunswick with radio. “If an employee is in the boonies, there are spots where radio doesn’t operate well due to topography,” says Blair DeGrace, HR superintendent for Plaster Rock-based Acadian. “We have those grey areas that have always made it tough to keep in good communication with employees. So this closes a gap for us.”

For Globalstar, based in Milpitas, Calif., it’s a high-margin niche. The smallest of four dominant mobile satellite operators in the world, Globalstar is the only one that offers the service directly to consumers. (Other companies let resellers develop proprietary systems, mostly for corporate markets; Winnipeg-based Solara Remote Data Delivery Inc., for example, has developed Field Tracker 2000, based on Iridium’s network.) Analysts estimate Globalstar has sold 70,000 to 100,000 SPOT devices globally — in an industry that, by comparison, typically sells only 50,000 to 75,000 satellite phones a year, notes Claude Rousseau, a Strasbourg-based analyst with Northern Sky Research. “This is like mobile phone’s SMS text message for the satellite industry,” he adds. “It’s so simple, I don’t know why others in the industry hadn’t thought about this a long time ago.”

The success of SPOT may be the only thing keeping Globalstar afloat. It emerged from bankruptcy protection five years ago, but only eight of its 40 functioning satellites are fully operational, hampering its other service offerings. And SPOT still might not be enough for Globalstar, says Tim Farrar, a satellite industry analyst based in Menlo Park, Calif. “If no one else goes into the market, they could get to a million-plus [SPOT] users in maybe five to eight years,” says Farrar. “The challenge is, it just doesn’t generate enough revenue to justify a billion-plus-dollar satellite system on its own.” To continue competing on traditional mobile services, Globalstar needs to launch new satellites starting this September — and raise upwards of US$150 million to do so.

Regardless of what happens to Globalstar, SPOT or a service like it will persist — it’s becoming a lifeline for thousands of remote workers in the resources sector. If only Globalstar could get help at the press of a button, too.