Comparison of One and Two-Way Satellite Messengers to PLBs

Given the choice between one-way or two-way satellite messaging, the choice is simple if the options are similarly priced and if the alternatives are equally reliable. But they are not equally priced and while they may be equally reliable (or unreliable as the case may be), you will never know this unless you have two-way communication provided by Delorme.

This is the second in a series of four related posts on comparing PLBs and satellite messengers.  To follow the entire discussion, this post is a continuation of the original question:

Are Satellite Messengers a Good Alternative for PLBs?

plbs and sendsTo complicate the answer, ACR’s 406Link service also provides one-way messaging ability for Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), even if it is limited and the service is not cheap. The table below compares basic costs and capabilities of a Basic PLB, an ACR PLB with 406Link service and Spot and Delorme satellite messenger services. To see more detailed descriptions of the capabilities of each option, see the previous post.

Since a major portion of the cost of a PLB is the battery, to make reasonable comparisons, it is necessary to spread the cost of each option out over five years. PLB batteries are designed to last about 6 years, but we are cautioned to assume a five year battery life since we don’t know how long the PLB has set on the shelf before we bought it.

Comparison of Basic PLB, ACR PLB +406Link, Spot and Delorme

Basic PLB ACR PLB + 406Link Spot Messenger & Gen3 Delorme InReach SE
Type U.S. Gov. & International Regulated SOS International SOS – Private Messaging Private Private
Satellite Network COSPAS-SARSAT COSPAS-SARSAT Global Star Iridium
Initial Cost $248 – $252 $252 – $499 $ 75 – $147 $299
Service Fee No Fee SOS Free, email/text = $39.95 – $59.95 (Annual Fee) $9.99+ – $14.99+ (Monthly Fee) $11.95 -$79.95 (Monthly Fee)
SOS Reliability Best, but not confirmed Best, no communication when sending SOS Good, but not confirmed Good and can be confirmed
Messaging None Preset text/email to 1-5 contacts (one-way) Preset text/email (one way) 3 different 41 char. messages Two-way 160 char. and preset messages
Tracking None Limited to 12 – 60 pings to save battery for emergencies 2½ – 60 minutes intervals 2 min – 4 hr intervals
Battery life 5 years – Never turned except testing or sending SOS 5 years – limited to 220 – 440 messages to save battery for emergencies 7 – 45 days with 10 min tracking & 100% view of sky 100 hours with 10 min tracking & 100% view of sky
5 Year Maximum Total Cost $252 $799 $1046 $5096
5 Year Minimum Total Cost $248 $674 $674 $1016

The “5-year Maximum Cost” in the table is the cost for the high end model and the most expensive monthly service plan. The “5-year Minimum Cost” is the cost for the low end model and the least expensive monthly service plan if applicable. Currently, simple PLBs cost about $250 and that will be your total 5 year cost. An ACR PLB with the 406Link Service ranges from $674 to $799 over five years ($11.23 – $13.31 per month for 60 months). Spot offers one-way messaging ranges from $674 – $1,046 ($11.23 – $17.43 monthly) and Delorme offers two-way messaging for between $1,016 – $5,096 total cost over 5 years ($16.93 -$84.93 monthly).

Most Reliable SOS

It should be fairly obvious the least expensive way to guarantee reliable emergency SOS service is to buy a simple PLB for about $250. No additional service subscription or extra fees are needed. The batteries in the PLB will last for at least 5 years, so the total $250 cost spread out over 60 months is only $4.17 per month. If you decide to keep your old PLB after 5 years, installing a new battery will costs about $150, but then it will last another 5 or 6 years. Electronics may be so advanced in the next 5 years, we will probably want to upgrade anyway. Just make sure to register your PLB, which is also free.

ACR Personal Locator Beacon and 406Link Service

What about an ACR PLB with the 406Link service? Is it the best of both worlds? For over a year, I assumed the 406link Service was a monthly fee until someone finally corrected the error. That makes a huge difference. The error was originally made because the ACR website was unclear. The ACR website is still overwhelming with so much information and choices and basic information about service costs is still hard to find.  You actually have to go to the ACR406link website to clearly see the service fee is annual and not monthly.

Is it worth paying $39.95 a year to be able to send 220 messages to one contact? The $59.95 plan allows up to 440 messages to five contacts. The limited number of messages with the least expensive plan seems to be plenty.

As much as I would like to spend more time in the back country, I am really in places without cell service only about 60 days per year. I would not need to send a message home every time, so I could send one or two messages every trip without using up the allotted number. I could get by with sending messages to only one email and my wife could notify anyone else if needed. The problem is, I could only send one message.

To make that one message work, I could only send the “I’m OK” message meaning I will not be home tonight as planned. No message would mean I would be home as planned. I could also send the message with a GPS location meaning that is where she and/or friends should come to help with an elk or any other non-emergency problem I might have. and a limited The other problem is with ACR, you can only send a limited number of GPS locations (12) because battery power needs to be saved for real emergencies. I assume more GPS locations could be sent but you would have to replaced the PLB battery.

The service doesn’t allow a lot of flexibility, but it does allow basic communication that is not available with a PLB by itself. You can’t ask for help in any detailed way from your local contacts, but at least you still have the PLB which is the most reliable way to send an SOS.

The ACR PLBs offer peace of mind that you can call for help anytime and anywhere and the 406Link service offers a limited ability to communicate at a reasonable price.

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Read More

This is the second in a series of four related posts on comparing PLBs and satellite messengers. To follow the entire discussion read the following articles:

Read more about PLBs:

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  1. One additional consideration is what if a solo person carrying a PLB or messenger is knocked out or disabled in a rockfall, avalanche, fall, etc? This is where the active tracking becomes useful. If that backcountry traveler has a loved one watching them and notices the person’s position hasn’t changed in awhile (potentially after sunset), that could mean bad news. Thinking a step ahead, a SAR team isn’t likely to go in that night, but the backcountry traveler might have a loved one watching who is willing to go in with emergency supplies in the dark (which is the case for my fiance and I).

  2. We have a combination of EPERBs/PLB’s both up in the Arctic and down in Antarctica. Many people like to have the texting abilities of the Inreach However, the Inreach is not considered a true “Life Safety Device”. That is the difference between a tracker and a EPERB/PLB. The PLB is if all else fails / Last line of help. The tracker is always a good thing to have but never a replacement for a true EPERB/PLB. WE also have true satellite tracking such as the Iridium 9602 on every snow vehicle.

Comments, Opinions, Questions?