Over the past several years, cellular network coverage has continued to improve throughout the United States and many other countries. However, these improvements haven’t been as dramatic as mobile carriers would like you to believe. According to one FCC study, many of the top mobile carriers in the country lie about the coverage they provide. They make exaggerated claims regarding download speeds, for example, and bend the truth when it comes to coverage maps. As a result, many cell phone service subscribers aren’t able to get the kind of performance they require when they need it the most.
If you live in a rural area that doesn’t receive adequate mobile carrier coverage, you may want to consider purchasing a satellite phone. But even if you don’t have any issues with your phone service, it may still make sense to buy one. If a calamity knocks cellphone towers offline, a satellite phone can be used as a backup communication option. For frequent travelers, satellite phones provide a convenient way to stay in touch without having to worry about roaming fees.
The best satellite phone for position tracking
The Iridium Extreme may just be the all-around best satellite phone on the market. It’s rugged enough to resist harsh conditions and it’s reliable because it connects to the Iridium satellite network, which is the largest and most dependable one in the world. What makes it unique compared to other satellite phones is its many position tracking features. We haven’t seen any other satellite phone that offers native support for Google Maps.
- Google Maps compatibility. You can instantly send a text message to anyone in the world that automatically pinpoints your location on Google Maps.
- Schedule recurring check-ins. This feature may come in handy for both wilderness adventuring and managing groups of workers in remote locations.
- Social network integration. You can set up automatic social network updates so that your friends and family always know where you are.
- Can be used as a modem. It comes with a USB cable, which you can connect to a computer when you need to access the internet.
- Reliable service. Iridium bills itself as “the only real mobile, real global satellite communications company in the world.”
- Rugged design. Advertising its IP65 rating and military grade 810F durability, Iridium claims that the Extreme offers “market leading toughness.”
- Built-in SOS button. A push of the SOS buttons sends out an automatic alert to your chosen contact and establishes a two-way communication channel.
- Expensive. The Iridium Extreme is pricey compared to competing satellite phones.
- Limited battery performance. The battery provides only four hours of talk time and 30 hours of standby time. Given the price, one might expect better battery efficiency.
In a nutshell
The Iridium Extreme is one of the only satellite phones you’ll find that integrates with Google Maps. You can set up check-ins that help your friends, family and other contacts stay current with your journey while you’re off the grid. Since it connects to the Iridium satellite network, its coverage is extensive and reliable.
The best portable satellite phone
The Iridium 9555’s main selling point is that it offers Iridium satellite network connectivity in a smaller package compared to typical satellite phones. Most satellite phones are chunky and awkward, but the 9555 weighs only 266 grams and is small enough to fit in an ordinary sized pocket.
- Portable and lightweight. The 9555 only weighs 266 grams. It’s about 5.6 inches tall, 2.1 inches wide and 1.2 inches thick.
- Collapsible antenna. You can extend the antenna when you need it, then collapse it down to save space.
- Call time management. This feature lets you set up customized timers to limit your talk time if you want to make sure that your usage stays below a certain threshold.
- Sends and receives text messages. Instead of making a call, you can send a quick SMS instead.
- High quality network. Iridium was one of the first companies to pioneer satellite networking in the early 2000s and its resources give it an edge over the competition.
- Easy-to-use operating system. The 9555 is simple enough to be picked up and used right away.
- Comes with everything you need to get started. In the box, you’ll find a headset, a charger, international adapters, a leather case and an auxiliary antenna.
- No emergency rescue features. There’s no SOS button or GPS feature. Other satellite phones have more to offer in this department.
- Limited battery performance. The 9555 yields only four hours of talk time and runs out of energy after 30 hours in standby mode.
In a nutshell
You’ll be hard pressed to find a full-featured satellite phone that’s smaller than the Iridium 9555. It can send and receive text messages and it has a mini-USB data port that can connect any PC or laptop to the internet via satellite networking when you venture outside of standard cellphone zones.
The most energy efficient satellite phone
Inmarsat IsatPhone 2
When you consider the extra work that satellite phones have to do to send and receive signals, it’s no surprise that their batteries often run out of energy after about four hours. With Inmarsat’s IsatPhone 2, you get twice as much talk time. In standby mode, one charge will last for up to 160 hours.
- Good battery performance. You can talk for up to eight hours on a single charge, or leave it in standby mode for up to 160 hours.
- GPS support. The phone receives geopositioning data, which you can send to contacts or to Inmarsat’s automated location tracking service.
- Emergency assistance button. You can summon assistance with a press of a button.
- Bluetooth compatible. Wireless earphones and other hands-free wireless accessories can be connected to the IsatPhone 2.
- Tough enough to survive drops and splashes. It has a IK04 impact rating and its ingress protection is rated at IP65.
- Fold-out antenna design. This space-saving feature adds to the IsatPhone 2’s portability.
- Comes with a holster. Other accessories that come in the box include a USB memory drive, a wired headset, a USB cable and a car charger.
- Coverage is spotty in some parts of the world. According to the Inmarsat website, you may run into coverage holes south of 44°S.
- Low bandwidth data transmission. Though the IsatPhone 2 can be used as a modem, the company’s marketing materials don’t even mention this because of the network’s slow (6-8 Kbytes per minute) data transmission rate.
In a nutshell
If battery efficiency is a high priority for you, the IsatPhone 2 might be worth a look. One charge provides eight hours of talk time. That’s double the talk time that you get with most satellite phones. In standby mode, the IsatPhone 2 can last as long as 160 hours.
The toughest satellite phone for extreme weather conditions
Ruggedness is what sets Icom’s IC-SAT100 apart from the competition. Most satellite phones have an IP65 Ingress Protection rating, which means that they can resist water splashes and rain. But with the IC-SAT100, you get a phone that can survive total water immersion. This makes it the perfect emergency communication aid for water rafting and other similar adventures. The phone’s group call features add extra versatility.
- Can survive complete water immersion. Most satellite phones are only splash proof, but the IC-SAT100’s IP67 Ingress Protection rating gives it an edge when it comes to water damage protection.
- Upgradable antenna. You can unscrew the antenna and replace it with a longer one if you require better performance.
- Announcement feature. The IC-SAT100’s one-to-many capabilities make it ideal for project managers and team leaders.
- Preempted communications. This feature lets critical, high priority communications interrupt low-priority calls.
- Bluetooth compatible. The fact that you can use many different kinds of wireless headsets with it adds convenience.
- SOS button. This fully configurable feature lets you establish communications with a rescue service with the press of a button.
- Built-in GPS. The GPS receiver tells you exactly where you are, which is helpful for navigation and emergency rescue.
- High price. The IC-SAT100’s price point will make it unaffordable for some.
- Limited battery performance. The battery only supports seven hours of talk time and 24 hours of standby time.
In a nutshell
For white water rafting, sailing or other similar activities involving water, the IC-SAT100 is a good choice. Not many satellite phones can survive complete water immersion. Icom’s IC-SAT100 can, and that’s its most distinguishing feature. If your boat tips over, you can summon help with a press of the configurable SOS button.
The best satellite phone for internet connectivity
One of the key benefits of satellite phones is that they provide access to the internet. However, the speed of the connection is often so slow that it’s practically unusable. Globestar’s network, however, offers slightly better data performance. The Globalstar GSP-1700 even has a hotspot feature, through which you can connect a laptop, smartphone or any other Wi-Fi compatible device.
- Fast data transfer speeds. The 9.6 Kbps data transfer rate is fast compared to other satellite phones.
- Internet hotspot feature. The hotspot lets you use any Wi-Fi compatible device to access the internet.
- GPS capable. You can view your geopositioning data or send it to your contacts.
- Reasonably priced. The GSP-1700’s price point places it in the middle of the pack. Some phones cost more, others less.
- Clear communications. Globalstar says that its network provides clearer voice calls than the competition.
- Simple but user-friendly interface. The text-based menu system is easy to figure out.
- Deals are available. One of the promotions on the Globestar website lets you get a free GSP-1700 in exchange for signing up for a plan.
- Coverage is not available in some parts of the world. Globalstar’s coverage map doesn’t extend into many parts of Africa, Russia and Asia.
- Carrying case not included. There is a nylon carrying case that you can get, but you have to buy it separately.
In a nutshell
Globestar’s coverage map may not encompass the entire globe, but its satellites do provide above average internet connectivity. That’s where the GSP-1700 fits into the market. When you use the web with it, you can take advantage of Globestar’s 9.6 Kbps data transfer rate. Extra clear voice communication is another key feature.
Buying guide for satellite phones
Satellite coverage map
The first thing that you should do before you purchase a satellite phone is check its network map and compare it to the area where you’ll be off the smartphone service grid. If service is not available in that region or has spotty coverage there, keep shopping.
Most satellite phones provide low bandwidth internet connectivity. If you plan on using the internet extensively on your journey, dig deep into the transmission statistics. The differences among the satellite network providers vary quite dramatically in this category.
Bluetooth is convenient because it lets you use wireless headsets and other Bluetooth-compatible devices with your satellite phone. Wired headsets don’t require batteries like Bluetooth headsets do, but their wires can get in the way or become tangled.
Not all satellite phones are GPS capable. Some can only be used for communication. Moreover, some GPS chips are more accurate than others.
Carrying case and other accessories
Satellite phone manufacturers usually provide some type of carrying case in the box, along with a charger. Some provide a headset (typically wired, not Bluetooth) as well.
There are two main antenna types: screw-off antennas and collapsible antennas. The main advantage of screw-off antennas is that they can be replaced easily if they get damaged. On the other hand, collapsible antennas have the edge when it comes to convenience.
Size and portability
Most satellite phones are chunky compared to ordinary smartphones. One possible reason for this is that more power is needed to send and receive signals to and from space. Slimmer, pocket-sized satellite phones do exist, but they are usually more expensive.
Typical satellite phones can resist rain and sweat, but they’re not made to stand up against complete water immersion. On the other hand, there are some exceptions. IP67-compatible satellite phones can survive water immersion for up to 30 minutes.
Configurable buttons let you customize your satellite phone according to your needs and preferences. For example, if your satellite phone’s SOS button is configurable, you can make it put you in touch with the emergency contact of your choice.
This feature lets you create a virtual trail of your entire journey. You can usually push out location updates as frequently as every ten minutes. However, you may want to lengthen the time between updates if power conservation is a concern.
Limited satellite network coverage is the main handicap of budget satellite phones. They work outside of cellular network zones, but not all over the world. You can get a decent quality non-Iridium network satellite phone for about $400.
The least expensive Iridium network phones cost about $600. Other features that you can find at this price point include slimmer form factors and improved battery life.
Premium satellite phones can do it all, but they are expensive compared to basic and mid-range phones. Bluetooth functionality, accurate GPS tracking, high durability ratings, check-ins and social media integration are some of the features you can expect to find at the $1000+ price point.
Frequently asked questions
Q: What can I do with a satellite phone?
A: Satellite phones can serve as a vital off-the-grid lifeline. Mountain climbers, campers and hikers use them to stay in touch with their families while they’re adventuring. Survivalists and crisis responders use satellite phones as a backup way to communicate, since they can be used in the event of an emergency that takes out cellular towers.
Q: Can I use my satellite phone anywhere in the world?
A: The coverage you get depends on the network that your satellite phone supports. Iridium-compatible satellite phones offer coverage over nearly the entire world. Other satellite phone networks have larger coverage gaps.
Q: Can people with ordinary cellular phones call me on my satellite phone?
A: Yes. Each satellite phone comes with its own unique phone number. Anyone with any type of phone can use it to get in touch with you. However, they may have to pay an extra fee and/or dial a special prefix each time they give you a ring. Read the fine print on your service agreement before you sign up to find out what the fees are.
- Running into connectivity issues? If possible, climb a tree or try to find a clearing that offers a direct view of the sky. Vegetation and even clouds can interfere with satellite phone performance.
- Store your satellite phone in a place where you’ll have easy access to it in the event of a disaster. If the lights and cell service is interrupted and you need to make a satellite network call, you don’t want to be fumbling through your dresser drawers in the dark.
- Before venturing off into the wilderness with your satellite phone, test it out to make sure that it works. You may discover that a missing firmware update or some other technical issue needs to be resolved.