Cellphone for a biker on the backroads?
May 29, 2009 9:13 PM   Subscribe

Every year my DH hits the back roads on his bike, most of the time alone. I've been bugging him to get a phone to take with him since he dumped the bike a couple of years ago while riding alone. He hit a road that was covered in sand and couldn't pull up before he hit the ditch. The bike was not too bad, but he separated his shoulder and had to wait for someone to help him get it out of the ditch as he couldn't call roadside assistance. Of course, he wants me to find the phone and I haven't a clue. So what's the best for him?

This is what he wants:
- will work in the US and Canada (we're in Toronto)
- won't involve signing a contract
- costs virtually nothing
- used from April to October, approximately, then not used until the following year
- works everywhere, from the Blue Ridge to maybe Montana if he gets that far this year and/or New England. He's not sure where he's going this year, but he's going somewhere for 2 or 3 weeks or more.

Any suggestions other than for me to stop fussing about it?
posted by x46 to Technology (17 answers total)
Consider an personal locator beacon, or perhaps one of these newer gadgets. You could also get a pay as you go phone, but almost no service is reliable in national park areas.
posted by bigmusic at 9:22 PM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

How back is "back roads"? Not every area has phone coverage. If you want comprehensive service, you need a satellite phone, but those ain't cheap. (They're also big and heavy by comparison to normal phones.)

My suggestion? He needs a riding partner, on another bike.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:35 PM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you go to a discount store like Big Lots or something you can buy a prepaid cell for under $10. I don;t know how much the minutes cost, but I was shocked at how low the price was. Service depends on how backwoods you are I guess.
posted by sanka at 9:37 PM on May 29, 2009

What about a Skype satellite phone? He'll most likely have coverage with a satellite phone, from what I understand.
posted by metalheart at 9:51 PM on May 29, 2009

You probably want some sort of pay-as-you-go phone— I'd check coverage maps for GSM networks vs. CDMA networks in the areas he goes, and then get a cheap phone with whichever technology has better coverage. Some providers have plans specifically for emergency phones that don't get much use. Beware of plans whose minutes evaporate if you don't use them in a year or whatever.

I agree with Chocolate Pickle that the best solution is a riding partner, though.
posted by hattifattener at 10:01 PM on May 29, 2009

I was going to recommend one of those SPOT GPS deals (the "newer gadgets" link from bigmusic), but it's not as expensive to rent a satellite phone as it was last time I looked.

I think you're out of luck with all of those requirements though. You're probably going to have to choose between "costs virtually nothing" and "works everywhere", unless you go with the riding partner idea.
posted by hades at 10:08 PM on May 29, 2009

They're kind of nerdy but if you're that concerned I'd also look at something like Road ID. I mean, the last major crash I had was in the middle of SF, and they still didn't find my wallet with ID and insurance in the saddlebag I had on the bike. I was in the ER as a John Doe until my girlfriend could come spell my name for me - the hole in my lower jaw and missing front teeth made it hard to talk :).

Riding partners are a preference thing. I really don't care to ride with others, since I use the time for recharging and contemplation.
posted by kcm at 10:15 PM on May 29, 2009

What about a Skype satellite phone?

This doesn't exist.

Skype is a Voice Over IP service, which sends full-duplex voice information (a "phone call") over the internet. The only thing that "skype satellite phone" might mean is a small, crippled, embedded computer that looks like a cordless phone and connects to your wifi for an internet connection. It's a "satellite phone" in that it's a secondary, physically separate interface (i.e. not your computer) to the Skype system--not that it makes a connection with artificial satellites in Earth orbit.

(This is ignoring the possibility of completing a Skype connection over a satellite data link. But, this is so far from what the OP wants that I'm not even going to get into that.)

He'll most likely have coverage with a satellite phone, from what I understand.

This is true. Satellite phones do tend to provide service just everywhere that you have an open view of the sky. They work perfectly at sea, great in the desert and plains, okay in the forest, and really, really shitty in valleys. On the other hand, the smallest one I've ever seen in person is the size and damn-near the weight of a regular building brick. It cost the dude something like $1500(US) for the hardware, and ran him more than $1(US) a minute--I have no idea what his recurring service fee was like. I also don't know that it would have survived dumping a bike--my buddy kept it carefully packed in a foam-lined Pelican case.

Anyway, as for a cellphone that fulfills all of the OPs wishes... that's kind of a pisscutter.

All of the financial and contractual requirements are easily met by any crappy 7-11 pay-as-you-go phone. You'd charge it up with 60 minutes of talk time at the beginning of the season, he'd carry it on rides, put it away for the winter, the minutes would expire, and you'd do the same thing next year. Minutes are cheap.

The real problem is this: Cellphones do not work well in rural areas, and not at all in true backwoods areas. Especially modern digital phones with inexpensive radios--exactly the sort of thing you get as a $10 pay-as-you-go phone. My T-Mobile service, for instance, didn't exist on some of the Interstate in Montana last week--I can't imagine what it would be like on the backroads there. Back home in Missouri, it didn't work if I left settlements too far behind. I've never had it work inside any nationally-designated wilderness region--wilderness status specifically precludes development like cell towers. Hell, my cellphone only works about 50% of the time in my own house, and I live in a "rural" but moderately populated area--I can literally see the cell tower to which my phone won't connect from the street in front of my house.

Now, T-Mobile doesn't have the best coverage in the world... but, the basic fact remains that cellphones are not lifelines for emergencies in remote locales; they're a convenience for planning Friday night without going home to check your answering machine.

So, I think your hubby should get a pay-as-you-go cellphone. But, you should consider this "works everywhere, from the Blue Ridge to maybe Montana if he gets that far this year and/or New England" as a physical impossibility. Just about every phone you get will work in both Bozeman and Boston, but I'll bet that just about no phone will work halfway between Francis and Maudlow, Montanna. There just aren't cellphone towers everywhere, and they concentrate them where people live.

If you really mean for him to have the capability to dial for help at any time, you've gotta go for a cell phone plus a satellite phone plus a GPS emergency transponder. No one technology has the sort of coverage you want.

Actually, since you don't want the ability to call and demand progress reports at every rest stop (thanks, honey), but only emergency response, the more I think about it, the more I think a handheld UHF or shortwave radio (transmitter) might be a good match. It costs nothing at all after he's licensed (now with less morse code!), the emergency channels are monitored by the FAA in the US, and at the very least, there's some chance that he'll get a HAM operator in Florida who can google the number of the sheriff in Bumblefuck, SD and call some help.

(Incidentally, what kind of luddite is your husband not to already own a cell phone? It sounds as crazy to me as not having a phone at all. I don't think I've called anybody but my parents on their landline in years.)
posted by Netzapper at 10:34 PM on May 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have no idea about service or providers, but I just bought a tough phone (the Samsung Rugby) to replace yet another phone destroyed while having fun outdoors. I left it flipped open under a flowing faucet for several minutes today because I just had to see for myself, and it was fine. If you're willing to substitute "highly survivable" for "incredibly cheap and therefor easily replaced," consider a tough phone. Samsung makes a candy bar style tough phone that looks a lot more punishable than my clam shell style Rugby and costs a lot less. It's the M110, and it costs about $100 if you can find it in stock somewhere (I couldn't).

Getting service in remote areas is really the kicker, though... Sites like this do not return encouraging results for remote areas, or many areas near civilization for that matter. The emergency transponder or similar device suggestions make a lot of sense.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 11:23 PM on May 29, 2009

I'm not sure how it works in Canada, but in the U.S. every cellular telephone can reach 911, even if it isn't 'activated' with a service provider - so a $10 prepaid cellular phone, without doing any actual pre-paying, will still reach emergency services if necessary, so the cost can be kept very low, just the cost of the phone. As for access in very remote areas: there's a lot of empty space in those back-roadsy and mountainous areas...but most people familiar with those areas don't recommend going alone, for that very reason. It may take a long, long time for people to find you if you end up in trouble, once they figure out you're in trouble. Have him find a friend who's willing to go with, or hire a guide; if he wants to go alone, have him stick to places within a few miles of civilization.
posted by AzraelBrown at 5:00 AM on May 30, 2009

I used to live and work in Montana. Nthing the advice that cellphone coverage sucks ass once you get out of the "major" "cities". Hell, I live in suburban Chicago and there are dead spots on my commute to work.

I also had a biking accident in Montana - though not as severe. I was alone, and I really recommend a riding buddy as my bike was barely operable and had to be walked/dragged down a mountain. If I'd have broken a bone, I would have been FUCKED. He'll also have to worry about bears and cougars in Montana, and having someone to talk to will reduce the risk of attack.

At the very least, he should tell someone where he's going and when he expects to be back, so that person can alert the authorities if he's missing for a long time.
posted by desjardins at 7:02 AM on May 30, 2009

Oh, and if you're talking about road biking in Montana vs. mountain biking (for some reason I assumed the latter), don't count on passers-by. I've driven on the Interstate for hours in broad daylight without passing another car. If the first person who sees him doesn't stop, he may be there all day.
posted by desjardins at 7:05 AM on May 30, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice. I'm going to check everything and run it by him. Or just buy him something and see that he packs it. Beacon, satellite phone, sound like my best bet. He chooses his route based on how twisty the road is, whether he's been there before, and how far away it is from cities.

I know he needs something, and, no, I don't expect him to call every day, but he's my guy and needs some backup. He's not a complete Luddite, he's a guy who's worked in a major computer centre for 30 years and has been on call forever. To him, holiday = tossing the pager. He won't carry a work cellphone because he gets called several times a day, every day, even on hols, for trivia. The guy he's been riding with since they were 16 or 17 got married, has been working contracts for the past couple of years and can't get away as often as he used to. He's yet to find anyone else he wants to ride with for a couple of weeks at a time. So, there's my guy, the one who did a month long solo round trip across NA, including crossing some desert in the SW, going it alone again. Given the number of riders who've been killed on the highways around here the past couple of years, I worry, but I can't stop him from going and I'm not going to make him miserable nagging. I'm just going to stitch a beacon to his bod.
posted by x46 at 8:07 AM on May 30, 2009

Look at the phones guaranteed to work with the service offered by instamapper.com. If you find one that can work in Canada, that might be an option for you. The (free) instamapper service uses the GPS capability of the phone to update a Google map on their site and you can see his location in real time. You can turn the service on or off with the phone, and the prepaid plans through Boost Mobile (with data) are affordable.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:49 AM on May 30, 2009

My friend's dad got her one of these (unfortunately the company website is down for me right now) for a solo hike through the Sierras she took over the summer. It was great because she could check in when she set up camp for the night and friends and family could track her progress online. If she failed to check in, they'd know there was a problem. There's also a help function that will transfer your exact location to emergency responders if you're really stuck.
posted by mikesch at 8:57 AM on May 30, 2009

I'm a soaring pilot, and the SPOT devices have picked up a lot of favor in my sport. A lot of competition pilots carry them, in addition to a PLB. The benefit is the simple interface, ability to summon help with one button, and ability to share your track online if you desire (handy for "spectating" races, which can range of hundreds of kilometers). That said, I think Netzapper's UHF radio might be just as beneficial, and definitely cheaper, if he's willing to complete the licensing requirements.
posted by Alterscape at 9:46 AM on May 30, 2009

yeah ... emergency beacon.

yachties use a device called an EPIRB ... tht might be a good place to start
posted by jannw at 11:50 AM on May 30, 2009

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