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 brief case around with you, and they’re definitely way better at getting a signal than Sam Neill’s brick in Jurassic Park 3.
Sam's not happy with his coverage...
Satellite phone technology has advanced across multiple frontiers over the past few years, from the design of the handsets, to the integration of data and Wi-Fi, and the satellite networks themselves.
But just because the technology is getting more advanced and has never been easier to use, that doesn’t make choosing the right satellite phone any easier.
In this buyer's guide, we are going to answer some common questions about sat phone technologies and the networks themselves, and suggest some products to help you narrow down your search for the right sat phone for your Aussie adventures.
How does a satellite phone work?
You’ve probably gotten used to the sight of flashing signal bars if you spend much time in the great outdoors. Terrestrial networks do their best to provide the widest signal range possible, but unfortunately it’s pretty difficult (and very expensive) to construct cell towers in the middle of the ocean, at the top of a mountain, or deep in the heart of the desert.
You might even cherish these moments of anonymity when you can truly say you are disconnected from the rest of the world. And while that’s reasonable if you are only a short distance away from coverage, if you are spending extended periods of time in remote areas with no way of contacting the outside world, you need a sat phone.
So how do sat phones work?
Satellite phones don’t use terrestrial 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.
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.
Global Satellite Communications Networks in Australia
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.
Geosynchronous satellites rotate at the same rate as Earth’s orbit locked to a point above the Earth. One satellite is capable of servicing many countries from this position. To maintain this orbit they are kept at a much higher altitude than LEO satellites. Unfortunately this can negatively impact the signal strength and makes line-of-sight a powerful determining factor of signal strength.
Low Earth orbit satellites (LEO) are not locked to a particular point above the Earth. Instead they travel around the Earth at much lower altitudes than geosynchronous satellites. LEO satellites work together to provide a signal to sat phone users on the ground. The Iridium network, for example, has 66 satellites whizzing around the Earth in low orbit providing coverage to sat phone users worldwide, making it the most extensive sat phone network available.
Image: SatPhone Shop.
There are four satellite communications networks providing access in Australia: Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya, and Globalstar.
Iridium, as we mentioned before, uses a large network of LEO satellites providing voice, data, and SMS coverage across Australia. Their moving satellites provide consistent coverage in Australia: if one zooms out of range, another is just around the curvature of the Earth.
Inmarsat is a global satellite communications network using geosynchronous satellites providing services predominately to the military, industrial, and business sectors worldwide. Their IsatPhone models are some of the most affordable on the market and their I-4 satellite provides coverage to Australia.
Thuraya also uses geosynchronous satellites to provide coverage to 70% of the world with access in 140 countries. As with all geosynchronous networks, signal strength in Australia relies greatly on clear line of sight to their satellite positioned above the Earth.
Globalstar uses LEO satellites like the Iridium network to provide coverage across Australia. Users make experience gaps in service depending on their location in Australia. Network availability is more consistent the further south you travel in AUS.
What type of sat phone is right for me?
There is a huge range of sat phone solutions out there on the market today. This can make it quite intimidating when looking into your options. There are at least four things you should consider when choosing a sat phone: its intended applications, how long you are likely to need access to a satellite network, and the types of information you want to send and receive.
Image courtesy of SatPhone Shop.
Portable 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. Sat phone handsets like the Iridium Extreme 9575 are designed to handle the knocks of outdoor life.
If you are a passionate 4WD explorer, you might consider some of the vehicle based options. If you are planning an extended, such as a drive across the Simpson Desert, a sat phone and radio / GPS combo is a necessity. DriveDOCK Extreme bundle provides everything you need to operate an Iridium Extreme 9575 handset in a vehicle, with hands-free voice, Bluetooth and tracking.
And then there are marine applications. Boaties know the importance of making regular trip reports when they depart and return. Make sure you have the ability to contact land based services by having a sat phone installed on your boat.
The latest in sat phone technologies use Wi-Fi to connect you to the outside world from the wilderness. Products like the Iridium GO! create a Wi-Fi hotspot right there in the middle of the outdoors. Once you’ve installed the app on your smartphone or device, the Iridium GO! connects up to five devices, allowing you to use mobile data services, make calls and send texts.
Photo: SatPhone Shop.
What about plans for other products and networks?
A number of communications companies provide air time packages for sat phone models that link in to the Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya, or Globalstar networks. Typically, handset providers and satellite communication specialists like SatPhone Shop can offer you a range of plans and solutions to suit your needs.
SatPhone Shop offers Iridium prepaid air time plans and Telstra post-paid plans that work with Iridium products. Prepaid plans can be customised starting at $150 depending on the amount of time you expect to need access to the network.
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 in to trouble, and they can let you know if you need to come home. It’s true you might not ever need to use your sat phone, but remember, if you choose to save some money and you end up in situation where you need to make a very important call, those dollars in your pocket might not seem so important.
Headline image: SatPhone Shop.