By Michael Penhall and Martin Anders
Photography Courtesy of Iridium Communications, Inc.
Just because you’re off-grid doesn’t mean you have to be out of touch. Previously we covered using ham radio as an alternative to cell phone and other wireless communication (see OFFGRID Summer 2013) — but there’s another option. Satellite phones will allow you to keep in touch with everyone you need to, and it is as simple to operate as dialing a phone.
Advantages to satellite phones over traditional mobile phones in times of emergency or disaster are obvious. Because they communicate directly with orbiting satellites, satellite-based phones are not dependent on terrestrial cell towers. This means they are completely independent of the power grid and traditional mobile telecommunications infrastructure. As long as you have a charged battery, you can not only make and receive calls, but texts and email as well. With an extra battery and off-grid charging capabilities, outlasting a power outage while staying connected is a viable option. Inclement weather isn’t much of a factor either. Unlike satellite television reception during a storm, satellite phones can even be used in even extreme weather, such as rain, hurricanes, ice storms, and blizzards.
Satellite phones work by connecting to a series of satellites in space. It’s important to know that depending on your location, the satellites’ orientation in the sky, and their relationship to you, you might not always have coverage. In order to use a satellite phone effectively, you must have a clear line of sight from the phone to the satellite. Also, since the carriers themselves maintain the satellites, some carriers have better coverage in different parts of the world than others. Some carriers’ satellites are based around the equator and some cover the entire globe.
The first thing to address is what carrier we are going to use. Different carriers offer their services with different devices. Just like with mobile phones, different carriers offer different levels of coverage, reliability, and pricing. There are three major satellite phone providers: Iridium, Inmarsat, and Globalstar.
Iridium is by far the largest satellite communications provider with a series of 66 satellites that cover the entire globe. Their satellite system orbits at low altitude, with satellites constantly crisscrossing one another and keeping the planet blanketed with their service. Because the satellites are consistently on the move, it means that they come to you — so you are not required to move to a particular location in order to find service. Iridium has a fairly good selection of handsets and devices that are readily available for rent. Yes, that’s right; satellite phones are available for rent — more on that later. Iridium offers prepaid service plans, as well as month-to-month plans. Other device manufacturers such as Garmin rely on the Iridium network for satellite communication.
Above: Iridium Communications Inc.’s global satellite network of 66 low-Earth orbiting cross-linked satellites is the world’s largest commercial constellation.
Inmarsat, which primarily started out in the data market, has three constellations of 10 geostationary satellites orbiting the Earth at very high altitudes. Their satellites orbit over the Equator, which is great if you use their phones around the Earth’s waistband. But the farther you go toward the North or South Poles, the less reliable their service is said to be. At the Equator, Inmarsat’s satellites are orbiting about 22,236 miles above you, giving them broad reach over most oceans and major land masses. But the closer you are to the Poles, the lower in the sky the satellites become in relation to you, thereby giving them a much smaller line-of-sight window. The geostationary satellites don’t move in relation to the planet, which means you will need to bring the phone within line of sight to one of the satellites for optimum service. On a positive note, if you are communicating via a single satellite, your service will be more stable and less likely to experience dropped calls. Inmarsat’s service costs are less expensive than other providers, but they also have a limited selection of handsets available for voice options. They also provide good high-speed data solutions.
Above: Inmarsat’s 10 geostationary satellites provide service over most of the Earth’s major oceans and landmasses.
Adventurers and outdoorsmen may have heard of the SPOT line of personal locator beacons. They are compact satellite communication units that can broadcast your whereabouts to those you choose, including emergency rescuers worldwide. What you may not know is that SPOT’s maker, Globalstar, also offers satellite phone and coverage. While Globalstar has a smaller coverage area compared to the other two providers, they have recently been upgrading and expanding their satellite service. They offer both prepaid and month-to-month plans, but service areas do differ between the two services. For instance, as of the writing of this article, Globalstar’s prepaid plan does not offer coverage in Mexico and large parts of South America, while their month-to-month plan does.
Above: Globalstar’s map of their voice and duplex data service areas.
One thing you have to decide is whether you are going to rent or buy your handset or device. That’s right, there’s no purchase necessary — you can rent satellite phones. There are several companies online that offer a broad selection of rental devices. This is a great option to keep your costs down; for example, if you only need the phone for a limited period of time. If you are driving cross-country or knowingly headed to an area with spotty cellular coverage, such as when camping or hiking, you could consider renting a satellite device for the trip.
While the rental option keeps the budget down, you obviously must know in advance when you’ll need satellite service. This leaves you in the lurch for spontaneous trips or emergency situations. Buying the device will allow you access to different plans as well as being able to activate it when you want or need to. Say for instance you’re going to use it for a trip — you can activate your phone for just that period of time without recurring charges. Your rate per minute will be significantly higher than a month-to-month or annual plan, but in the end it might be the least expensive route. The decision to rent versus buy a satellite device is similar to any other product — estimate your anticipated usage, break out the calculator, and figure out which is a better deal.
Handsets or devices are not usually sold directly by the companies themselves, but rather by distributors. There’s also a large supply of secondhand devices on secondary market websites such as eBay. When looking to buy used, as with pretty much everything else, you’ll want to carefully consider the condition of the phone and its battery prior to purchase. Standby and talk time can be severely limited by an old or out-of-shape battery.
Rental prices for satellite phones vary greatly depending on the device, service provider, and type of service. From what we observed, phone rentals can range from $8 to $20 per day, $30 to $90 weekly, and a little over $300 per month, with longer-term rental agreements available.
If you’re looking to buy a device, new units sell from about $600 all the way up to $1,700 and beyond. Of course, features and the network the phone runs on will affect pricing. As mentioned before, a good option is to look for secondhand units, which can cost drastically less.
Satellite phone service is sold in various manners, including prepaid phone cards that start at $50. For the pay-as-you-go type of service plans, service is sold in units, with a typical unit costing you about $1 to $4 per minute, depending on where you are calling. SMS text messages are about $0.50 each. Other types of plans are similar to your standard mobile phone plans and can include a subscription fee that includes a set number of minutes per month. Those can start at $35 a month for 10 minutes to $65 for 60 minutes. Of course, other charges and options will affect pricing, so do read your fine print.
This is an exciting time for satellite devices and technologies. Companies are starting to make satellite “hotspots” that actually allow you to use your smartphone as a satellite phone. This allows you to keep your email and other data as well as your contacts with you in just one device. For those who need Internet access on a computer or laptop, portable satellite modems provide cell tower-independent Internet access on the go and are a viable option too. With so many methods of communication floating above our heads, it’s easy to forget the many ways we have access to communications.