Alex Hibbert: The reality of communication from the polar regions | Guest Blog
After a winter on the ice, Polar Expedition Leader Alex Hibbert gives an honest evaluation of the Iridium equipment which he and his team rely on to communicate in some of the most remote regions of the world.
"The internet has been around for a while. We're no longer hearing the circa Year-2000 line of "now we have the web, it's all changed..." As such, the opportunities to communicate to a global audience instantly are hardly breaking news, even for people like me who often work hundreds of miles from the nearest conventional WiFi Hotspot. For a time, this created pressure and even anxiety in the remote travel community. We were being left behind by our limited ability to share stories and photos in real time. On my 2008 Long Haul expedition, I was limited to SMS-length text-only updates and many of these didn't upload properly. Now, 2008 may be a decade ago, but we did have the iPhone, broadband landline internet and HD film then. Expedition technology was a long way behind.
Iridium released the AxcessPoint satellite data hotspot a number of years later in a reaction to new possibilities from other satellite networks and custom made devices running on the global Iridium constellation of satellites. Whilst we await the long-delayed next generation of high bandwidth satellites that work in the Arctic and Antarctic, we made do and I used a couple of AxcessPoints as part of my arsenal of tech. The results weren't stellar, as is often the case with the first-of-a-kind product from a company. It was clumsy in how it connected to a phone handset, the software was archaic and confusing, and the most exciting feature - image uploading - timed-out so often that I usually gave up. What we did occasionally manage was a tiny file - pixelated due to heavy compression and low resolution. Still, we could send a photo live from the ice, from anywhere on Earth. Sometimes.
When Iridium released the GO!, a mobile satellite WiFi terminal without the need to tether to a phone, we all took notice. The only 'polar alternative' currently is the 15kg+ Openport/Pilot which is designed to be mounted on boats. Was this the real deal? A reliable method of emailing and sending useable images, if not video content yet, from our tent on an icecap or atop the Arctic Ocean?
I'm not loyal to any particular brand of satellite network or devices, and I think it would be a game-changer for another global provider to enter the market and add pressure to innovate faster (even though you can buy the innards of Iridium electronics to make your own devices, as YB Tracking and DeLorme/Garmin etc. do). However, I was immediately in talks with the team at GTC to see how I could make best use of the GO! and how it could impact my journeys.
Despite having a GO! on the......go......for a few short and lowkey expeditions since its appearance on the market, this winter past gave me occasion to really give it a workout. We'd use it as our main device - for daily updates to social media, to liaise with the home team, to speak to family, and to send and post photos that people could actually see properly. Our satellite phone (I actually now use the venerable 9505A, two generations old, since I like its build, battery and that it lacks the daft charger attachment of the 9575) would be a backup and for calls during the working day when our 'tech box' wasn't opened up. To make a satellite phone a mere backup is a major change to comms procedure.
To summarise what I found with the GO! over seven weeks and with daily use in -30 to -42 degrees under tough humidity isn't difficult. It's a major step up, although not short of notable gaps in thinking and R&D firepower.
The unit itself is in a different world to the flimsy AxcessPoint that was really at home on a desk top, not in the field. It's tough and almost feels armoured. The battery is a serious slab of power and the controls are simple and they work. The software on the iPhone or Android device is improving too, with less emphasis on impenetrable menus and connection procedures that often just gave up without explanation, as used to be the case. They need to streamline this though as we now have the Mail & Web app and the GO! app. There's no need for this - just merge and consolidate please, Iridium. We had a problem with tweeting (it kept chopping them up into pieces, which clearly narked sometimes-fickle Twitter followers). To their credit, Iridium investigated this promptly and blamed a Twitter API update, giving me a workaround on my iPhone. They appeared to have no appetite to fix the issue their end.
Uploading photos (essentially an 'attachment to an email' method) is a big step up, in that you can actually do it now. What I've noticed is that even if you choose an ambitious resolution for a photo stored on your phone or tablet and lower compression than might be sensible, say 600 pixels across and 75% quality, it'll get sent through eventually. The connection with the GO! seems less fragile than it used to be in the AxcessPoint days, where dropping out of connection occurred so often you considered using your Iridium device as a dead-weight weapon against large predatory animals instead of switching it back on and trying again. The progress bar now plods along until it's done, and if connection does lapse, it'll carry on from where it left off once you've reconnected. The files received at the other end are fine. You can choose small and lightweight if speed is of the essence, or larger if you need to worry about demanding Instagram followers who'd launch a hashtag campaign against you if they detected any compression artefacts on your photo.
Things are on the move in the satellite tech world, from reliable basic comms to tracking, and in particular in the quality of media we can beam back. GTC have been keeping me in the loop with what to expect next and are on hand to problem-solve when the need arises - a vital human resource with technology that both benefits, and suffers, from being on the cutting edge."
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