It's for You

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1997

It's for You

Worldwide phone service is almost upon us. Will it be worth the costs?
By Doug Fine

You're toting an expensive laptop past a 14-year-old militiaman in Kigali, Rwanda, searching for a place to plug in your modem. You need to make a phone call to a server somewhere in Belgium so you can send E-mail to your mom in Duluth: "Africa is pretty. Send antibiotics." You find no phone jacks. The soldier follows you, displaying disturbing interest. You're beginning to recognize the value of worldwide wireless.

Since the early 1990s, the world's telecommunications giants have been promising that travelers would soon be able to make and receive calls from anywhere on earth, without benefit of phone lines and without changing phone numbers. Your number would "roam" with you, your voice or digital messages beaming instantaneously to and from private satellites encircling the globe. Should your Land Rover's engine die in the Sahara, you could dial for assistance. Should you grow cold and weary during a Patagonian glacier trek, you could E-mail a request that the nearest hostel fire up the hot tub.

But this capability, tantalizing as it seems, remains frustratingly conjectural. Remote phone service isn't even available in all of the United States. You can take a call on the top of Mount Hood, but you can't get a dial tone in the depths of New Mexico's Gila Wilderness. This is because the current state-of-the-art service, so-called land-based cellular, relies on cellular antennae, which are rarely mounted in areas with small populations. No nearby antenna, no service (although altitude helps, meaning you can sometimes make a call from a peak when you can't from a neighboring canyon).

Several service providers claim, however, that by this time next year we'll see the full rollout of the world's first space-based global wireless service. No wandering out of service range: Your call will simply be bounced to the next closest satellite — all for a price, in the providers' estimates, of about $1 to $3 per minute. Of course, you'll also have to buy a compatible telephone, which will probably cost $750 to $2,000. Will global wireless service really be worth such an outlay? Will it even arrive this time as promised? And when it comes down to it, do you want it to?

The Technology

There are two basic — but widely disparate — models of worldwide wireless. The simplest is narrow-band, low-earth-orbit (LEO) based. It utilizes small satellites that circle the earth at an altitude of up to 1,200 miles. Signals reach these devices much faster than those sent to the huge, high-orbit, stationary satellites used for such things as broadcasting and military spying. Most of the companies in the global wireless race will be offering narrow-band, LEO service.

Broad-band service, which allows for transmission of large-scale data files, such as video, will also be offered globally. It won't be practical for most travelers — it'll require an 18-inch satellite dish, not an accoutrement suited to backpacking. But it may be perfect for those setting up remote camps.

The Players

Globalstar of San Jose, California, claims to be the most advanced. It expects to have 56 LEO satellites in place by late 1998 — enough, it says, to provide total worldwide telephone coverage. It faces formidable competition, however. Iridium, a venture partially funded by Motorola, was the first company to announce plans for worldwide wireless in 1990 and originally planned to offer service this year. But with only 29 of its required 66 LEO satellites aloft — the cost of launching these dishes is in the billions of dollars — it has moved its rollout to the end of next year.

As for broad-band service, Teledesic, a partnership between the ubiquitous Bill Gates and Craig McCaw, founder of McCaw Cellular, is the main player. Its service is targeted primarily at phone users in rural areas that have no service at all. But it'll be available to anyone willing to buy and mount the required dish. Service should start in 2002.

The Problems

Number one: cost. Many travelers may continue with cellular service, despite its tendency to fade in and out, because it will cost perhaps a tenth as much as satellite service. That's why the satellite companies will probably partner with local cellular providers; your calls will go to the cellular antenna first, jumping to the more expensive satellites only when necessary. Another problem: "Global" wireless may never be global at all. Nations can forbid the service within their borders, especially if they prefer that the outside world stay out. No one expects wireless service in, say, Burma soon.

Finally, ask yourself: Do you really want to be reachable anywhere on earth? For many, part of the pleasure of travel is being inaccessible to the folks back at the office. Just as perniciously, constant connection makes some travelers foolhardy: Mountain search-and-rescue squads claim their work has been increased by lackadaisical trekkers who don't bother with a map but never forget their cell phone.

Illustration by David Plunkert

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