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Satellite Phones

Altai Expedition Life

Satellite phones, or ‘satphones’, are simply phones that send and receive signals to and from satellites rather than through cables or via phone masts. They are useful on expeditions and for remote travel because, with the right satphone, you can make and take calls from anywhere in the world.

Below is a brief introduction to satellite phones including what they can do (such as sending emails and receiving text messages), how much they cost to buy, hire and call with, and a comparison of different providers of satellite phones and networks (Iridium, Thuraya and Inmarsat).

Satphone Facilities – Calls, Texts & Data

Although the method varies between models and providers, most phones are capable of  the following:

  • Making and receiving phone calls to landlines, mobile phones and other satphones;
  • Sending text messages to mobile phones, email addresses and other satellite phones;
  • Receiving text messages from other satellite phones and sent free through the provider’s website;
  • Sending and receiving small amounts of data when linked to a computer (e.g. emails and small attachments).

Buying & Hiring Satphones

If you want to take a satphone on an expedition with you then you can either buy or hire one. Handsets cost around £500-£1000 and upwards. Call rates, usually billed in US dollars, are typically around £1/minute or so though do vary.

You can find sat phones for hire and sale easily through Google but here is a brief overview from a few minutes of my own Googling:

  • Global TeleSat: £250-500 deposit, £5/day, £1.50/minute (cheaper if you pre-pay).
  • Mobell: No deposit, £8-11/day, £1.39-1.79/minute. Iridium only.
  • Cellhire: Deposit £150-500, £149-199/month, £0.85-1.90/minute. Also hire Inmarsat BGANs.
  • Satphone.co.uk: £500 deposit, £10-20/day including some minutes, £1.40-1.60/minute. They also rent Iridium Pagers and Inmarsat BGANs.

Iridium

Iridium are the longest running provider of satellite phones and network. They have “truly global coverage” and are the only provider that covers the Arctic, Antarctica and both poles.

They rely on a large number of ‘low earth orbit’ satellites which means that tall buildings, trees and mountains can block signal. The satellites are also not geostationary which means that signal can vary even whilst you’re standing still and calls can quite frequently cut out. Voices through the Iridium network tend to sound a bit robotic.

Models: Iridium 9505A, Iridium 9555, Iridium Extreme (view comparison table)

Inmarsat

A recent competitor to Iridium, Inmarsat covers most of the globe except for the top and bottom i.e. Arctic and Antarctica. Unlike Iridium, they use just a couple of geostationary satellites with a much higher orbit which means calls are dropped less often and less subject to being blocked by tall objects.

Models: Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro(view comparison table)

(Shortly after Inmarsat enter the marked, both Inmarsat and Iridium commissioned their own “independent” reports comparing their own satphone to the competitors. Needless to say, they each found opposite results. You can view the PDFs online: Inmarsat’s TelAstra report and Iridium’s Frost & Sullivan)

Thuraya

Thuraya have a similar geostationary network set up to Inmarsat. Thuraya phones tend to be smaller, lighter and with more features like colour screens, the ability to use normal GSM SIM cards, multi-page text messaging and faster data transfer. Their satellite coverage is regional however so you should check whether it covers where you want to go.

There is a useful collection of satellite coverage maps at Global Telesat.

Models: Thuraya XT, Thuraya SG2520 (view comparison table)

Other Satellite Networks

Globalstar, who make the Spot trackers, also offer a satellite network and handsets, and Orbcomm have a network too.

Other Satellite Technologies

Communication via satellite is used in some other technologies beyond satphones including the following:

  • Pagers: Operates exactly as a normal pager only using satellites for signal. We used these very effectively on large scale expeditions for BSES.
  • Broadband terminals: It is possible to get broadband speed internet connections via satellite through Inmarsat BGANThuraya IP and Iridium OpenPort. The units are chunky and it can be expensive to run.
  • Trackers: Some GPS trackers, such as Yellow Brick and Spot, also use satellite networks to communicate.



Laura and Tim Moss are currently cycling 10,000 miles around the world. They are raising money for JDRF Diabetes Research and proudly supported by Lyon Equipment.

About The Author

Tim has supported over 100 expeditions across all seven continents. He has climbed new mountains, crossed a desert and is currently cycling around the world. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society London and a Guinness World Record. He aims to encourage more people to live adventurously.

Number of Entries : 587

Comments (2)

  • Henry

    I currently own an iSatPhone Pro and it’s been a wonderful purchase. It has come through for me when I’m in some remote areas with no cellular service, rendering my smartphone useless. It has a lot of features and the thing I love most is the 8-hour talk time. Should you want to check the specs, you can check http://www.issi-us.net/products/isatphone-pro/

    Reply
  • Rob

    I bought an Iridium in August 2013 for my disabled mother in Sydney, incase of an emergency. It was faulty out of the box. Iridium refused to help, I even contacted their CEO Matt Desch about the problem – ignored it, and did everything possible to make us go away.

    Then in October 2013 a bushfire struck my mothers town. Destroying 210+ houses, and damaging many hundreds more. Mobile and landline infrastructure was damaged, and she was unable to call for help as the Iridium sat there faulty. She tried to escape when she realised it was getting too dangerous, as the back part of the house had caught fire. She fell from her wheelchair in the panic, and – thankfully – just outside the door.

    A fire crew saw her on the ground and pulled her out safely.

    When contacted AFTER this happened, Iridium and their CEO were just as unhelpful. Even going so far as to blame my mother!

    An Iridium executive has made jokes on Twitter about people being set on fire, since this all happened.

    AVOID IRIDIUM LIKE THE PLAGUE

    Reply

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