Which GPS Data Connection Type? Deciding Between 3G and Satellite Connected Devices

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There are a handful of technologies applicable to GPS tracking devices that can cause confusion at first glance. Here we are making distinctions between devices not based on how they primarily assess their geolocation—in both cases that is by global positioning via satellite systems—but rather by how they communicate their GPS position to their home applications or third parties to facilitate locating the devices and their owners from a distance.

On one side, we have GPS + Satellite Communication devices like for example the 'Spot' brand trackers which ascertain their location with GPS and then can transmit their location back out through the satellite networks. This includes EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) and PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) devices which transmit to satellites initially but also to rescue operators directly when they get in range.

On the other side we have GPS + Telecom Communication devices like for example Turtler's own 3G WCDMA GPS devices which communicate via the mobile phone networks. Cheaper but less powerful 2G GSM devices also exist, but these are quickly becoming obsolete with the deprecation of 2G networks worldwide most recently for example by AT&T in the US and by all telecom carriers in Australia.

There are also semi-related, lower power options like devices connecting via Bluetooth, devices connecting via RFID, and  Indoor Positioning Systems (IPS) that triangulate positions via radio waves, magnetic fields, acoustic signals and more. We are focusing on tracking at outside distances however rather than these near-range scenarios.

The Use Cases

The pros and cons and the best choices among different GPS types depend on the situation in which they will be used.  There are many use case categories for GPS tracking, here are a few:


  • Asset tracking of valuable items and shipments
  • Inventory and logistics information and management
  • Fleet management of vehicles
  • Employee location tracking
  • Employee timesheet hours
  • Location sharing with customers
  • Aid to navigation
  • Rescue and Recovery
  • Data and trends analysis


  • Child emergency situation locating
  • Security for adventure and outdoor sports away from urban civilization
  • Family time management
  • Monitoring elderly
  • Friend and groups locator for meetups
  • Bookmarking and sharing favorite locations

GPS + Satellite Communication Devices

This category contains the devices that can go farthest 'off of the grid' and still connect back to their systems and report their locations. They stay in touch with the broadest coverage on the earth's surface because their communication links are via satellites.

Globalstar Coverage for Simplex Data Communication
GlobalStar Coverage for Simplex Data Communication - credit GlobalStar
Globalstar Voice and Complex Data Communication Area
GlobalStar Voice and Complex Data Communication Area - credit GlobalStar

Pictured above is the Globalstar network with 52 satellites. Another network is Iridium which actually achieves 100% global coverage with 77 satellites


  • Can communicate their location from the broadest range of areas worldwide, nearly anywhere depending on the satellite network


  • Anything beyond the bare simplest of communication is very expensive
  • Most devices cannot communicate more than pre-saved messages
  • Some devices have low sending power, so their ability to reliably send their location data to others is diminished
  • Higher power devices are more expensive
  • Requires satellite data plan


GPS + Satellite communication devices are preferred for those going beyond mobile coverage zones such as backpackers, hunters, outdoorsmen or those that go offshore like sailors and fisherman.  It is also relevant for asset tracking, which can suffice often with only sharing its location information.

Important to remember though is that the ability to communicate for most entry level devices is only for sharing the location without any other messages included. If there is more detailed messaging then it is only one-way communication, and is limited to pre-saved messages. For two-way communication the devices' prices and the data contracts get much more expensive very quickly up into the satellite phone range.

If you are considering a GPS device for use in the backcountry beyond the mobile phone networks - which with increasing coverage becomes less and less - that communicates via satellite we recommend exploring further via this article reviewing personal locator beacons (PLBs). 

GPS + Telecom Communication Devices

These devices communicate their GPS locations via the same networks used by mobile phones.  The robustness and ubiquity of the telecom networks means that communication prices can be lower and more content can be communicated. Their ability to communicate their location is therefore dependent on being within telecom range, however. For most people within miles of populated areas it is a non-issue; but for adventurers or sailors going offshore for example it is an important concern.

Critically, 3G devices have an added bonus in that they can also triangulate with the mobile phone towers themselves to significantly boost the speed and accuracy of determining their locations. This Assisted GPS (A-GPS) helps especially in urban areas where satellite signals can be disrupted by building and power structures. Not all devices take advantage of this, but some like the Turtler Shell do use this to help greatly improve the data accuracy of the device.

How GPS plus Assisted GPS works in devices such as Turtler Shell
How GPS plus Assisted GPS works in devices such as Turtler Shell


  • Cheaper, more flexible communication options
  • More robust and complex communication possibilities such as 2 way calling and text messaging
  • Faster and more accurate geolocation assisted by telecom tower triangulation (A-GPS)


  • Limited to populated areas with telecom networks
  • Requires telecom data plan


Verizon Data Coverage USA
Verizon's data coverage in the US shows that coverage is widespread but not complete - credit Verizon
AT&T Data Coverage USA
AT&T's data coverage in the US is similarly widespread - credit AT&T
AT&T Global Data and Voice Coverage
AT&T's global roaming voice and data partnerships map gives some sense of global voice and data coverage - credit AT&T


At Turtler, we weighed our options and direction for hardware closely to choose the best product fit for our niche. Both types receive the same GPS information, the remaining question is how to forward that information onward.

We are focused on use cases in predominantly populated areas with a heavy focus on family usage where 2 way communication is a big advantage. For families and most companies the 3G connection is also cheaper on an ongoing basis so it should help the user to keep using the device without prohibitive monthly fees.

In the majority of use cases – which include people using GPS in their daily lives in relatively populated areas – a 3G connected GPS device can offer more advanced and relevant features, faster and more accurate performance, more stable and broad connections to the network and lower average costs.

Stephen Schroeder is the founder of Turtler and loves using the app to lessen his wife’s stress when he’s bicycling as far as he’s allowed to go.

Stephen Schroeder is the founder of Turtler and loves using the app to lessen his wife’s stress when he’s bicycling as far as he’s allowed to go.