Because nothing will bring you more frustration than having to waste precious time searching in vain for a phone signal when you need to place an important call, it’s time to get serious and invest in a satellite phone !
When much younger, back in the days when mobile phones weren’t yet “smart”, but at least finally small enough to be carried around in a pocket, my mother insisted on buying me one so I could bring it along whenever I was going out. “It’s just for safety reasons”, she used to say. “Just in case something happens you can call me.” (Something you could translate as: “Please, just call me every five minutes to let me know everything is ok, so I don’t worry for no reasons.”)
Turned out, the day I did actually need to call for help, there was no signal around to place that call. In my mother’s mind it could only be my fault. I hadn’t learned how to use the device properly. Unlike those people in the commercials having no issues calling their own mothers regardless how isolated they were !!
Still today, nearly twenty years later, a standard mobile phone won’t do the trick as those shiny happy people in the TV ads pretend it does. How many times I had to climb back up from a perfect camp site in a valley just to give my wife my position for the night ? How many times I had to walk helplessly around desert dunes just to find signal for a simple text to be send ?
There are no two ways to go about this. If you are serious about outdoor travel and need to stay in touch with others, get a real phone. That phone ain’t called “smart”, it’s called a satellite phone.
Yes, they are still pricey, no denying it. But as far as I’m concerned it remains one of the best investments you’ll ever make.
Here is how it works and how to choose the best one for your needs.
As implied in the name, a satellite phone gets signals from satellites. Low Earth Orbiting satellites to be precise. As opposed to a standard phone using land relays, or cells. If there is no land relay near you, then you don’t have access to the required signal to transmit. Following the same logic, if there is no satellite above your head when you want to call someone, that call won’t go through either. Which is why it is very important to choose a provider that offers coverage in the geographical zone you plan on visiting, if not globally.
In other words, it’s all about the network. Just like for regular phones you have several providers to consider. The three main options available to you are Iridium, Inmarsat, and Globalstar. I consider them “main” because they tend to have global or near global coverages. Iridium offers 100% , Inmarsat the entire globe but the two poles, while Globalstar, when teamed up with its partner Spot, is getting closer to overall coverage, but still suffers from gaps here and there, particularly at sea.
Following those three you have other local providers such as Thuraya, a company based in the Middle East, which covers the world but North and South America, Terrestar which works only in America, or AceS covering most of Asia.
Other geographical restriction may be due to political regulations. For example, in order to get a license in America, a company like Iridium has to follow US bans on specific countries. As such you won’t be able to use a satellite phone with that network in Iran, Cuba, Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria or Sudan (Yemen should sadly also be on that list but I couldn’t get confirmation).
You also have individual countries putting their own restrictions on satellite phones. As an example India only allows Inmarsat phones, while in Russia you’ll be required, as a non Russian visiting the country, to register your phone for a permit valid 6 months. It could be said that those countries like to be able to listen to what you may say while there ! Other countries not to keen on seeing you there with a Satellite phone: Democracy champions like China, Cuba, North Korea, or Burma. Make sure to check the rules of your destination before you go to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Is the phone expensive ?
Well yes ! Remember you have to pay for those satellites after all, and since satphones are not as popular as GPS devices, a smaller pool of clients are there to split the bill ! Also, based on logic, the broader the coverage you get, the more satellites you need, the more expansive it gets. Which is why a Iridium phone will be far more expansive than one from Thuraya.
For reference an Iridium Extreme will go for 1.000 € plus local taxes. While the Thuraya XT pro was rougly 400 € in Dubai.
Are the call expansive ?
If you use this phone as a safety beacon and only call or text when absolutely necessary, no. If you use it as a smart phone to share data and surf on the net while at base camp, then F..k yes ! But if you really can’t quit the world madness while exploring nature’s beauty, then maybe, just maybe, you’re still confused about what it means to explore !!
More to the point it depends on your provider. On average, to give you an idea, a call will cost you between 0.10 € to 1.80 € per minute if you call another phone from the same network, a bit less if you call a land line. Calling another satellite network will raise the bill as high as 12 € per minute depending on the networks at play. And someone having to call you from a mobile phone or a land line will try to keep the conversation short, some of those calls being charged up to 12 € per minute as well. Now the worst is trying to get on the net where the bill can rise up super fast.
The way it works: You simply buy a pre-paid card for the amount you want and the time limit for its validity. I’m still on my pre-paid card bought in Dubai two years ago after having only used my phone a few times.
You get a dedicated phone number with the international code of the country you bought it in. Dubai +971 for example for mine. International or “long distance” rates do no apply when placing a call from that number even if you’re no longer in the country you bought the phone in.
Does it work ?
Yes. Yes, but… As noted above there are geographical and political restrictions. There is also the network performance factor. It goes without saying that your signal will be best in a desert under a clear sky than in a Jungle with a heavy canopy deep in a valley under a very cloudy day. Simple logic and common sense here. The more the connection between your antenna and the satellite is obstructed, the less efficient your connection becomes. There is also movement to consider. If you’re having a long conversation while driving fast, there will be time when you may loose the satellite coverage as you reach a new zone. Those are called gaps. Some networks are better off-setting that problem than other. Iridium for instance allows you to move along well.
Does it offer more than just phone and text ?
Yes, as an example here are the features of an Iridium Extreme:
– Up to (4) hours of talk time, (30) hours of standby.
– Enhanced SMS and email messaging capability.
– GPS-enabled location-based services.
– Supports online tracking and Google Mapping services.
– Accessories to provide global voice calling and text messaging solutions for your smartphone, everywhere.
In the end what should you really be using it for ?
Emergency calls. In the middle of nowhere, far from land transmitter, this phone will allow you to place a call.
In case of a natural disaster, when land phone “lines” are saturated by other callers or land relays have been destroyed, satellite phones will allow you to place that important call.
Here are the links to the major network providers. Have a look, do your research and get what works best for you.
Cover photo by Iridium.