SPOT is (as far as I can tell) a company that maintains it’s own satellite capability in order to provide a sort of enhanced emergency locator transmitter capacity for hikers and other regular folks. It has the basic functionality of the kind of ELT that planes and arctic canoeists carry — push the big red button and a signal goes out to emergency responders with your gps location. Unlike an ELT it’s designed to be always or often in contact with the satellite network. This enables some somewhat gimmicky tricks: “messaging” (I think there’s actually a button that sends a canned ‘I’m OK’ signal to your parents), and pushing your location to Google Earth, so people can follow your progress on your big trip.
I’m not salivating about the gimmicks, but if you ever do get a long way from people, having access to emergency services is a legitimate consideration. Canada and the US in particular are huge countries, with genuinely vast zones that are a) prime wilderness travel areas and b) totally outside of cell range. Having an ELT is probably overkill if you’re going up to Metcalf Rock on the Bruce Trail, and stepping over all the picnickers along the way. But if you’re contemplating a longer or more remote excursion, especially solo, it could matter. (And I’ve found myself thinking vaguely about the Pacific Crest Trail lately. Not sure where that’s coming from.)
I haven’t gone shopping for an ELT lately, so I don’t know what the costs of the units or the service charges are, but $170 plus $10/month for one of the SPOT devices is probably substantially cheaper. One prime question for either service: where does the emergency signal go? ELTs traditionally broadcast directly to some governmental dispatch headquarters, usually military. They probably didn’t contemplate every weekend warrior having a line in to their little room, so it isn’t surprising that the SPOT does not communicate to the government. Rather they maintain a contract with the pseudo-official “GEOS International Emergency Response Center“. The employees there will decide who is the most appropriate agency to respond to your situation and get in touch with them. That could be a feature or a bug, depending on the quality of said employees and who is willing to pick up the phone when they call. It’s sort of an On-Star service for the crippled and mortally injured. Cross your fingers they don’t go out of business while you’re out.
One thing that SPOT (and GEOS) can do that, as far as know, a standard ELT cannot: sell you $100 000 worth of extraction insurance for $7.95, via Lloyds of London. Or, strangely, $150 if you wait until after initial activation to make the purchase. Rescue cost liability is a very big deal in the remote outdoors scene these days. If that really is the deal it appears to be, that could be a very good deal. If only Lloyds sold lawsuit-liability insurance at those rates, maybe commercial wilderness guides wouldn’t be suffering the way they are.
So does it actually work, mechanically speaking? GPS magazine says they’re well built (!) but lack in gps sensitivity. I’m not sure if that is a deal-breaker, I guess it depends how far you’ve fallen down the box canyon when you break your leg on that Utah overland hike.
update: the consensus of the commenters at GPS Magazine, who have actually used the service, seems to be not recommended. If you think you seriously need an ELT, get yourself a serious ELT I guess. Maybe future iterations will be superior.