It might surprise you to find out that Satellite phones have evolved a lot over the past few years – gone are the days of carrying a power pack the size of a briefcase around with you. There are so many factors to consider when buying a satellite phone, so we enlisted the help of Darren Maggs from MGLSat to assist us in writing this sat phone buyers guide.
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 beams a signal up to a satellite which beams 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.
As you can see, a sat phone network works similar to a terrestrial phone network
Because you are relying on satellites for your signal, you’ll need to be outside for your sat phone to work effectively. Always make sure that the aerial is pointing straight up, even when it is held to your ear during a call. Climbing to a high point in the terrain where you have a clear view of the sky before making a call will help you get the strongest signal possible.
Types of Satellite Networks
There are two types of satellites 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 sat phone too. Unfortunately, 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.
A comparison how a single geostationary satellite vs. many LEO satellites cover the same area.
What’s the main differences between the two?
Maggs tells us that each type of network has it’s benefits and downfalls depending on the terrain you are in. If terrain such as a mountain range is obstructing your signal, an LEO network allows you to hold position and wait for the next satellite to pass overhead to regain signal. However, once that satellite becomes obstructed again, you will have to wait for the next one to pass over.
If you are located in terrain where access to the sky is restricted, like in dense rainforest, an LEO network will have severely reduced capabilities, as the sat phone would only be able to connect to the network for very short periods of time.
When to use an LEO network: If you know you will be travelling in the north or south pole, will have a wide view of the sky (for example in the outback) or won’t always be able to ‘see’ a fixed satellite all the time.
If in the same scenario, a geostationary satellite will require you to move location away from any obstructions until a ‘line of sight’ connection can be established. This means you may have to spend time shifting location in an emergency to get a signal. However, since you only need to ‘see’ the fixed position of a geostationary satellite, it only takes a small patch of clear sky to get a connection, rather than with an LEO network, where you need a far broader view of the sky. This is useful when travelling through rainforests and jungles where the canopy will likely block out the sky for the majority of the time.
When to use a geostationary network: If you will be in areas where you won’t have full access to the sky, but can easily change location to receive signal, aren’t travelling to the north or south pole or will consistently be able to ‘see’ a fixed satellite (for example sailing in the ocean).
The Four Main Sat Phone Networks
Although there are many satellite communication carriers, Maggs says there are four satellite communications networks providing coverage in Australia: Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya, and Globalstar.
Top left: Iridium, top right: Globalstar, bottom left: Inmarsat, bottom right: Thuraya
It is worth noting that these maps are ‘expectations of coverage’, and do not represent a guarantee of service.
Iridium has the largest network of 66 LEO satellites providing voice, data and SMS coverage across Australia. Their network provides the greatest overall coverage of Earth, however, the signal may be interrupted the closer to the equator to you go. Their handsets are small, rugged and they offer great plans for the frequent user.
Globalstar uses LEO satellites similar to Iridium and offers the best voice quality across the networks. Globalstar is currently in the process of decommissioning many of their old satellites and replacing them with new versions. This makes the service across Australia very patchy right now, especially in the northern quarter of Australia, above Broome and Townsville. Globalstar also does not offer coverage for prepaid plans in Australia currently.
Inmarsat is a global satellite communications network using geosynchronous satellites providing services predominantly to the military, industrial, marine and business sectors worldwide. They have the most extensive coverage of any geostationary network, offer both prepaid and postpaid plans, and have two satellites near Australia dedicated to the wider Pacific region.
Thuraya also uses geosynchronous satellites. They do provide some coverage to Australia, however, they are located in the United Arab Emirates and primarily serve Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Thuraya offers some of the fastest data speeds for WiFi and offer good casual plans and are slowly growing their coverage over Australia. “In Australia the further north you go, the better the coverage gets. The further south you go, the worse it gets,” says Maggs.
This is due to that their geostationary satellite is located above Singapore and not dedicated to covering all of Australia.
Be sure to check the websites of each of the networks, as their coverage is continually being updated and changed as they launch new satellites into their existing constellations.
Which sat phone is right for me?
Portable sat phone handsets are lightweight yet robust, typically resembling something similar to those old Nokia phones that we use to play snake on. You might think that’s big by today’s technological standards, but remember that the key here is durability. It is important to make sure the sat phone is waterproof, dustproof and has a long battery life.
When looking at sat phones, Maggs 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.
Applications and features
Consider what you want your sat phone to do. If the sat phone is just for emergency circumstances, a simple call, SOS, GPS and messaging features should be enough. If you often travel to remote areas for work, you may need a more technologically advanced phone complete with Bluetooth, email messaging, calendar, alarm, maps and social media applications. The more applications and features on the phone, the larger and heavier the handset will be.
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 or Thuraya are the better options. If you just want to keep the outside world updated every now and again, Iridium or Globalstar is going to serve you best.
The Iridium Extreme is one of the most versatile sat phones on the market.
Terrain and intended location
There is a discernible difference in satellite phones if you plan on using one while travelling overseas, compared to just touring Australia. Different carriers have different levels of global coverage.
For example. if you are heading to the north or south pole, you can’t use a network with geostationary satellites, as their current coverage can’t reach there. Using this sat phone while away at sea, instead of on land, will also affect which carrier you can use and the additional accessories you will need. For more information, there is a section below about picking a sat phone for marine use.
Sending and receiving
At a minimum, most networks allow users to send and receive calls and SMS messages from their phone. An SOS transponder is also standard on all phones.
If you are looking to receive information from the web such as social media updates, weather reports, news, you will need a more capable and expensive sat phone to fulfil these requirements. It is worth mentioning that Globalstar currently only lets you receive SMS messages, but not send them.
Plans from the Networks
Once you have chosen your sat phone, the next decision is what plan you will 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 works with Thuraya. Inmarsat and Globalstar plans can be arranged through third party businesses such as [SatPhone Shop] or through the carrier themselves.
All carriers offer postpaid and prepaid plans, except Globalstar which doesn’t offer prepaid SIMS. 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.
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.
Marine Satellite Phones
Choosing a sat phone just for maritime use is another dilemma in itself. All the carriers feature some coverage across all the continents, but when it comes to obtaining a signal in the ocean, you will need to be very selective on the phone and set up you choose.
Inmarsat was has a deep foothold in the marine sat phone industry and with good reason. Their geostationary satellites have great coverage across all the oceans and their signal is rarely obstructed while out at sea. However, as you move from one zone to another, you will have to reconnect with that areas geostationary satellite, which interrupts you connection for a few moments. Iridium is also a popular choice for seafarers due to their expansive network and that as you move positions, it will automatically connect to the next satellite.
Globalstar and Thuraya, on the other hand, are not ideal for marine use. Globalstar has little to no coverage in the southern hemisphere’s oceans and only provides basic coverage for the northern hemisphere. Thuraya has patchy coverage in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, two of the most popular shipping routes.
An Iridium GO! Can be used to access the internet in remote locations.
Best to play it safe and pick up a sat phone from Inmarsat or Iridium for use at sea.
You will also need to consider which accessories to purchase along with the handset. Antennas, marine-grade cables, handset docks and charging stations are just some of the equipment you will need to set up your satellite phone system on your vessel. Although you can just use the stand-alone handset, it is recommended you get properly equipped with the right gear before you leave port.
While out at sea, it is crucial to be able to communicate with the world on dry land. Weather forecasts, tides and email are much-needed resources every captain needs to help plot their way. Units such as the Iridium GO! and Inmarsat IsatHub work as portable wifi connections that operate similar to your router at home. They transmit wifi data between their satellite network and your devices to keep you connected when you need it most.
What about the SatSleeve?
Although the Thuraya SatSleeve is highly durable, your mobile phone inside it is not…
If you have done other research into buying a sat phone, you have probably heard of the latest invention from Thuraya – the SatSleeve. This device is a sort-of hardshell case that transforms your basic iPhone or compatible Android device to a satellite network capable device. If you are someone who heads out beyond mobile phone reception for short periods a few times a year, this accessory may just be for you. That being said, it is still no match for a dedicated satellite phone and it still suffers from Thuraya’s patchy coverage in the south half of Australia.
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 the local government. Countries where at phones are illegal to import or use include: Burma (laws are beginning to relax on sat phones), China, Nigeria (definitely in the state of Borno, potentially rest of country too), Cuba, Chad, Libya (Thuraya definitely banned, not sure on other brands) , North Korea and Sudan.
Russia allows you to use satellite phones but you need to obtain pre-approved permission to use one, while also registering the SIM for your device. India has banned all carriers except Inmarsat and requires a permit to use one.
All other countries in the world allow you to use a sat phone freely, although they are seen as suspicious if not being used in remote areas away from mobile phone towers.
Hiring a Sat Phone
If you aren’t ready to commit to buying your own sat phone yet, why not rent one instead? Many retailers allow you to hire their phones from around as little as ten dollars a day. Prepaid plans and pay-as-you-go plans can also be organised for your rental sat phone, so you can use the phone as much or as little as you want. 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.
Do I really need a satellite phone?
If you’re only going on the occasional weekend trip to your local national park, then no, probably not. There are other things you can do to ensure that you are safe even outside of coverage, such as creating a trip plan, and letting someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. There is always the option of renting a sat phone for the duration of your trip if you don't think you'll need one into the future.
But if you relish the opportunity to get as far from civilisation as possible exploring all that this world has to offer with your phone happily switched off in your pack, it’s a good idea to come prepared – with a sat phone you can let someone know if you get into trouble, and they can let you know if you need to come home.
Big thanks to Darren Maggs from MGLSat for giving us the expert knowledge to write this article and SatPhone Shop for providing some of the images used in the article