ISatHub promises reliable Internet for multiple users, from space — anywhere on Earth!

Daniel Terdiman,

Imagine you’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean, and you and a couple of others on board have to send some emails or text messages back to the office.

Or picture the same group hiking in a meadow deep in Yosemite National Park, and needing to make urgent phone calls.

Without normal infrastructure nearby, and out of the range of cell carriers’ networks, getting that kind of connectivity would be impossible. Even with standard satellite phones, it wouldn’t be possible to have more than one person online at the same time.

But with Inmarsat’s ISatHub, a $1,300-plus satellite hot-spot from Inmarsat, connectivity for multiple devices — smartphones, tablets, or computers — is available just about anywhere in the world. The basic data service is at a 3G level, meaning it’s mainly for messaging — email or texts — as well as websites with minimal photographs, and no video.

I recently had an opportunity to try out the ISatHub, along with its two associated mobile apps. One of the apps, known as Control App, is meant to manage data connectivity, while the other, called ISatHub Voice, is used to make phone calls. All of the service — data and phone alike — goes over the satellite networks, with pricey per-minute charges, making it, generally speaking, for urgent situations only. Inmarsat, however, says the device lets users “remain productive with a constant line back to the office and [staying] in touch with friends and family wherever you go.”

But if you find yourself needing that connectivity across multiple devices while far from standard networks, this is the way to do it.

Setting up the ISatHub is moderately easy. The trickiest part is probably pointing its antenna in the right direction, given the need to connect to satellites in the southern sky. The device itself is fairly nondescript, and comes with little visual cues that are used to orient the antenna correctly.

Above: The Control app for ISatHub lets you manage up to five devices’ use of the hot spot.

Image Credit: Daniel Terdiman/VentureBeat

For one thing, it’s ideal to point the antenna at a 39-degree angle. The device has a handy set of markers that indicate the current angle. As well, it has a set of LEDs that are meant to help you orient the device so it’s pointing in the right direction. At the same time, the Control App tells you the ideal compass direction to point the device, and the current direction, as well as how strong a signal is being generated.

However, in my experience, the app is slow to recognize the movement of the device, meaning that there is quite a bit of lag between when you move it and when the signal actually changes. I found that a bit frustrating, but with some patience and practice, I found that simply going about it slowly eventually results in finding a strong signal.

Once connected, the device puts out a Wi-Fi signal that’s available to up to five different devices, although there’s a limited amount of bandwidth, meaning it’s not ideal for more than a couple of devices to be using data at any given time.

I tried using it simultaneously with an iPhone, an iPad, and a Mac. On the Control app, I could see that the three devices were connected, and I could see how much data was being used, as well as the signal strength. As noted above, I was able to send and receive emails and text messages, but not with any great speed, and web pages loaded slowly. This is not for everyday Internet, which is good considering that service costs multiple dollars per megabyte.

Using the phone service is also possible across multiple devices using the ISatHub Voice app. With that tool, all that’s required to make a call is to dial the phone number (including the country and area codes). The call quality was great, at least as good, in my experience, as a normal cell phone call.

I tried the ISatHub in a number of different locations, with similar results each time. Except, however, when I tried it the first time in downtown San Francisco. The tall buildings apparently caused interference, which made it hard to connect. Of course, that’s not where you would be using a tool like this anyway, given how many other ways there are to connect and make phone calls in the middle of a city.

But if you’re deep in nature, or in areas where there are no existing networks, and you don’t need fast Internet or the ability to stream or download videos — and you’re willing to pay the cost of satellite service — this is a very interesting option.

There are other tools for getting online via satellite, and other companies — like Iridium — have their own satellite hotspot device. But this is the first one I’ve used. It’s not clear to me how many people will need this service, but for those who do, it’s a good, and ultimately, straightforward choice.