Today, satellite phones are cheaper, lighter and more powerful than ever before. They offer reliable communications virtually anywhere on the planet and, coupled with affordable airtime rates, have become an essential item for communication when your iPhone’s reception gets sketchy.
However, choosing the right satellite phone handset and network can be a bit more of a headache than buying a new mobile phone. You need good advice from someone whose main job is not to sell you something but providing accurate, helpful advice. After all, in an emergency your sat phone might be your ticket to safety.
Darren Maggs, our Outdorian communications expert, has served with the Australian Army’s Elite Special Forces and was part of a specialist unit dealing with confidential signals and information. He has spent time in the harshest environments using everything from cutting-edge military equipment to WWI Morse code machines.
He’s also spent time as an officer with Victoria Police, using police and emergency services communications in a range of environments, and is now CEO of MGLSAT satellite systems. Suffice to say, if you’re looking for advice on satellite communications – Darren Maggs is your guy.
How does a satellite phone work?
Unlike mobile phones, satellite phones don’t use land-based cell towers to send and receive signals, as the name suggests, they use satellites. Satellite communications companies launch satellites into Earth’s orbit creating global networks for communication on the ground. Your satellite phone sends a signal up to a satellite which sends it down to the person you are trying to call. If the person you are calling is using a regular mobile device, the signal will be patched into a local network by a station on the ground.
Types of Satellite Networks
There are two types of satellite systems that are used by communications companies to provide coverage to either a specific targeted area, or the whole planet.
Geostationary satellites rotate at the same speed as the Earth’s orbit, as they are locked to a point roughly 37,000kms above the equator. This means that one satellite is capable of servicing many countries from this position.
Once connected to a satellite, a sat phone is highly unlikely to lose signal to a geostationary network. Sat phones using this network are more likely to receive a signal when in a gully or canyon compared to an LEO (see below) sat phone too. Unfortunately, at this stage, the satellite’s coverage can’t reach the north or south poles due to the positioning of the satellites.
Low Earth Orbit satellites (LEO) are not locked to a particular point above the Earth. Instead, they orbit around a few hundred kilometres above the surface, which allows them to do a full rotation every 90 minutes or so. LEO satellites work together to provide a signal to sat phone users on the ground and are made up of a much larger network than geostationary satellites. Since their orbits cover the entire earth, they are able to receive signals in remote locations like the north and south pole, but have more trouble the closer the signal is to the equator.
So, which network is best?
“The answer is really based on your intended usage, not the number, location or how much the handset is worth. There are multiple satellite networks offering voice communications, but here are the world’s top three in order of size, fiscal and time in market,” says Darren.
- Inmarsat (30+ Years, Market capitalisation 2.64Bil USD)
- Iridium (Launched 1998 Bankrupt & relaunched 2001, Market cap 478Mil USD)
- Thuraya (Launched 2001, Market Cap 19.9Mil USD)
“Inmarsat’s F-Series Constellation has three Geostationary High satellites (fixed orbit location approx 37,000 kms into space) worldwide coverage (except poles) whereas Iridium offers 66 LEO (Low Earth Orbiting) satellites and Thuraya is regional only.
“Look at the terrain you’re travelling into or where you will be using the handset, and make your selection based on the antenna technology used by each handset, not the network, as both will give you predominantly global coverage, (however Inmarsat satellites can’t see the very north or south poles). Obviously, there is also the consideration of call charges and airtime plans if applicable, be careful to research these before selecting any handset or network,” says Darren.
Which sat phone is right for me?
Unlike mobile phones, you can’t just switch your Telstra SIM to an Optus one to change companies. Instead, satellite handsets are coded for the satellite service and non-transferable between satellite networks. When looking at sat phones, Darren explains that there are at least four things you should consider: its intended applications, how long you are likely to need access to a satellite network, where you will be using your sat phone and the types of information you want to send and receive.
The time you plan on spending on the satellite network will also determine which handset and carrier you need. If you are going to be in ‘sight’ of a geostationary satellite and need to be constantly connected to the network, Inmarsat is the better option. If you just want to keep the outside world updated every now and again, Iridium may serve you best.
Always keep in mind how close to the north or south pole you’ll be when selecting a sat phone, as it will narrow down which communication providers you’ll be able to work successfully connect with
Sending and receiving
At a minimum, most networks allow users to send and receive calls and SMS messages from their phone.
If you are looking to receive information from the web such as social media updates, weather reports, news and emails, you’ll need a more specific satellite device to fulfil these requirements (which we talk about further on).
“Iridium, Thuraya and Inmarsat all utilise semi-deployed antennas to allow the satellites to effectively see their handsets even when the handset antenna is not open or ‘deployed’.
“Battery life is depleted more rapidly on the Iridium and Thuraya handsets that utilise a semi-deployed antenna arrangement as they are constantly powered up and making themselves available for the satellite to prompt them into life.
“However, the Inmarsat doesn’t seem to, with the longest standby of 160 hours (6.6 days). Again, choose carefully which one suits your requirements, and how often you’ll be able to recharge your device.”
Plans from the Networks
Once you have chosen your sat phone and network, the next decision is what plan you’ll be using. Much like your mobile phone, different carriers offer different plans to go with their phones, each with different charges for international calls, sat phone to sat phone calls and cost per minute. Telstra is partnered with Iridium in Australia, while Optus partners with Thuraya. Inmarsat plans can be arranged through third-party businesses such as MGLSAT.
Call costs will depend on the carrier but will generally range from $1.15 to $3.50 per minute, with some carriers also charging a flag fall up to $1 for the first 30 seconds. However, this additional flag fall cost is generally put in place by the service provider (Telstra, Optus, etc.) rather than the carrier, so try to find a provider that doesn’t have this fee.
“Available from Inmarsat, Iridium and Thuraya, ranging from $15 – $100’s of dollars per month, these plans provide constant satellite connection ability when you need it. Full accounts are generally provided so check with the satellite airtime carrier you choose, to ensure they provide detailed itemised billing to confirm your use,” says Darren.
Postpaid plans tend to be far better value than prepaid. However, if you aren’t using your sat phone consistently through the contracted time, it may end up becoming a huge waste of money.
“Available on Inmarsat and Iridium, these have become a very popular way to manage satellite handset usage costs and are generally provided in blocks of units which get cheaper the more you buy. Be careful of expiry periods, and bear in mind you will have to manage the airtime credits yourself.”
Prepaid plans are perfect for travellers who aren’t sure if they will be using their sat phone a bunch or don’t want to commit to a single plan. Most carriers only allow their prepaid SIMs to work for a year, after which it will expire and any remaining credit will be forfeited.
Receiving Landline Calls – An Expensive Trap
For your sat phone to work, it needs a connection to the satellite. However, this can come at an expensive price for the uninformed. Telstra and other service providers consider calling a sat phone from a landline (eg. your home or office) a ‘premium service’, and they can charge up to $20 per minute of call time.
So how do you avoid this?
“Each satellite carrier (Inmarsat, Iridium & Thuraya) has a free text service to their respective satellite handset networks. They are available either through the web pages of service providers or directly through the carrier’s own websites. This would then allow free texts from the website to the handset, plus more affordable calls or texts from the handset back to the originator,” says Darren.
Calling 000 from a satellite handset
“Generally speaking the only time people would use a Satellite Handset in a crisis is in an area where no mobile phone coverage is available, in other words, rural, regional or remote areas. For this reason, the Metro-based “000” service is not necessarily the best form of emergency assistance.
“As a former “000” operator in country rural Victoria, I would suggest you are better served to speak directly to the Police, Fire, Ambulance or the Royal Flying Doctors who will centrally coordinate and better understand a remote emergency. The first line asked by all operators will ultimately be, ”What is your nearest cross street?” as they can’t see your tracked details on screen. This is obviously an issue where there may only be a dusty red dirt track, with no identifiable markings to refer to and definitely no street signs!
“Take the initiative to pre-program vital emergency services for the regions you will be travelling, to ensure time is not wasted waiting for an operator to try and figure out your current remote, rural or country location. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority would also be the best first point of emergency contact. Remember, the “000” service was designed for phone boxes in the 1970s to enable a speedier response to accidents and not for satellite communications where the signal is not earth orientated. Also always carry another form of GPS to provide real-time location details while you are on the emergency call,” says Darren.
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Accessing The Internet
You are probably thinking, ‘Can I surf the net while on a satellite handset?’
“The short answer is yes but with caution. Today a number of handsets allow for data and access anywhere on earth. Be aware a caution that comes with this comment. Satellite data on handsets is very slow with speeds in the order of 9.6 – 20kbps per second (remember the old dial up modems at 22 Kbps!). At approx $6-8 per Megabyte, a general email can become slow and costly if not configured properly to a small size. Standard text only emails can be successfully sent at reasonable speeds and for around the 80 cents average mark if done correctly. There is a considerable amount of technical expertise required in setting up your computer/laptop to enable a satellite modem configuration.
“Consider a specific satellite data terminal if emails and web are important. It will be faster, cheaper and less frustrating, however only generally recommended for businesses. Seek the advice of an experienced satellite data technician in setting up your laptop if you go this route,” says Darren.
What Is A Dual SIM Satellite Handset?
“Thuraya produces handsets, which allow both a standard GSM mobile phone SIM card and a satellite service paired off the same handset. Sounds logical and fantastic right? As with all things satellite, the sophistication required to operate the service is not as simple as mobile phone tower technology. These services require you to sign up your airtime services through the provider for both your mobile and your satellite in one, with a change of your mobile number being the immediate result.
“The handsets also decide when they will operate from mobile to satellite and vice versa, so be prepared for some increased operational costs as the fallout of this ability. Finally, would appear that Thuraya has also instigated an inbound caller pay system, meaning you will also pay for all incoming satellite calls also. I like my friends, but not enough to pay for them to call me – be aware of this fact.”
What about the SatSleeve?
“Sounds like another great idea, turn your mobile into a sat phone. Firstly satellite handsets are designed for outdoor use in the elements, mobiles generally are not. You need to be outside to use any satellite device so if you want to keep your mobile working, don’t take the phone/sleeve outside in the elements! “Secondly, and most importantly, it uses the Thuraya network, not so bad in the NT, but try using the service in southern states, South WA, South Australia and Tassie and you will be less than impressed. At around $1000 for the sleeve or its sister hotspot, and having to be on a plan (no prepaid option) I’d suggest, save your money and get a dedicated Satellite Only Handset,” says Darren.
If travelling overseas, be sure to check the restrictions on satellite phones in certain overseas countries. Sat phones are able to bypass local telephone systems, stopping censorship and surveillance measures put into effect by local governments.
Hiring a Sat Phone
If you aren’t ready to commit to buying your own sat phone, why not rent one instead? Some service providers allow you to hire their phones from around as little as ten dollars a day. Renting a sat phone is great for people who only head away from mobile reception a few times a year, but still want that peace of mind a sat phone brings.