What will you do if there is an emergency—perhaps a tornado, flood, or hurricane—and the local telecommunications infrastructure goes down? It doesn’t take much for a cell tower to go out of commission, and if it does, your standard cell phone is not going to work. But during an emergency is when you need your phone most. The solution? Consider purchasing a satellite phone. This phone can function as a reliable backup if the local cell tower goes down, and you will be able to stay in touch with family, friends, and emergency workers.
Thinking of buying a satellite phone, but not sure what you need? Check out the comparison chart below to view features and prices for highly-rated models.
|Iridium Extreme 9575|
|Inmarsat IsatPhone 2|
|Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro|
Looking to learn more about satellite phones before you buy your own? Read on to learn everything you need to know to shop for the right phone.
What is a Satellite Phone?
With a satellite phone, you can usually communicate even if you are in the middle of nowhere. Most of them work globally with almost total coverage. Traditionally, satellite phones (which look a lot like cell phones) have been used by emergency and government workers, but now they are available to the general public to purchase and use as well.
How They Work
Satellites do not receive or send their signals from cell phone towers. As their name indicates, satellite phones communicate through a network of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or which are fixed in geostationary orbit above the equator. Because the satellite network is located 500-1,000 miles above the planet’s surface, they are generally safe even from harsh weather.
Questions to Ask When Shopping for a Satellite Phone
Why use a satellite phone?
Do you really need one? Not everyone necessary needs a satellite phone, but you might if you live in an area which is prone to natural disasters. If the cell phone tower goes down, you will still be able to call others, which may be essential for your survival. A satellite phone is also a great purchase if you regularly travel or live off the grid. For those who do a lot of hiking in the backcountry for example, a satellite phone offers a means to stay in touch and also stay safe.
What is your budget for airtime?
You can either get on a monthly service contract for airtime on your satellite phone or you can buy it through prepaid cards. Airtime for satellite phones is generally significantly less expensive than cell phone roaming charges. Keep in mind that airtime is still quite pricey compared to standard cell charges, so you definitely will want to use your satellite phone for emergencies.
Where will you use the phone?
This is important to consider for reasons of selecting a phone which offers you the right coverage. You should also check the operating temperature range for the phone you are considering if you are going to be using it in an area with a harsh climate (i.e. Antarctica).
Iridium vs. Inmarsat?
These are two of the major brands for satellite phones. Read more about both below.
Coverage on Iridium is a mixed bag; sometimes it is not reliable, but there are also locations where an Iridium phone works where another brand would not (like inside a canyon). This has to do with the way that the satellite network is structured. If you need North or South Pole coverage, Iridium is the only network you can use. An Iridium phone may be more costly than one from another provider, but it may also include extra features like panic alerts, GPS, and tracking.
Inmarsat has been operating for around three decades. The satellites are geostationary around the equator, so the connection is reliable after you establish it. If you are on a budget, Inmarsat is a great choice, with some of the least expensive satellite phones on the market. These phones may not be as feature-rich as Iridium phones, but they are often easier to use.
Features and Add-Ons to Look For When Shopping for a Satellite Phone
If you need a feature-rich satellite phone (like those developed by Iridium), by all means, buy one. But if this is going to be your first satellite phone, you may want to consider an Inmarsat phone or another which offers you superior ease-of-use. Remember, you may be using your phone in emergencies. You could be dealing with harsh weather conditions, darkness, and even injury or illness. If that is the case, the last thing you want to do is struggle just to send a simple text message or call.
This comes back to the discussion about Iridium vs. Inmarsat. Iridium’s network of satellites is in motion, while Iridium’s are in geostationary orbit. This is why coverage with Iridium may sometimes be less reliable—when for example the satellite you are using moves out of range. But it is also why Iridium’s satellites are sometimes able to provide coverage in canyons or behind mountain ranges where Inmarsat’s fixed satellites cannot reach. You need to ask yourself where you will be using the phone, and then pick a network which offers you the flexible and reliable coverage you need.
This is a standard feature in most satellite phones, but there are many voicemail features which may vary. How long can your messages be? Are you able to easily navigate through your messages to replay, save, delete, or skip as needed?
Text and email messaging
Most satellite phones allow you to send text and email messages, not just voice calls, just as cell phones do. While you are shopping around for a phone, also be sure to check airtime plans to see how these messages are charged.
Emergency assistance button
This is an especially important feature if you are going to be backpacking in the wilderness with your phone. With a satellite phone equipped with onboard GPS, you can push a button and transmit your location instantly to emergency workers. No matter where you are in the world and no matter where they are, they will be able to come and find you.
There may well be times when you need to talk on your satellite phone, but cannot use your hands. In these situations, hands-free operation can be a lifesaver. Check to see whether the phone you are thinking of purchasing includes a headset for this mode of operation.
This is arguably an essential feature for any quality satellite phone. Think about the circumstances where you are likely to use the phone. If a storm knocks out your local cell phone tower and you need to place a call, the last thing you need is for your phone to be damaged by the same storm!
Or imagine you are buying the phone to stay in contact with family and friends while you are mountain climbing, backpacking, or working a season in a remote environment. Your phone may be exposed not only to extreme temperatures, but also to rain, snow and dust. A phone which lacks robust weatherproofing is not going to offer you a reliable connection with the rest of the world.
You now know some of the most important features to look for when you are shopping for a satellite phone, and understand some of the key distinctions between Iridium and Inmarsat, two of the most popular and well-established networks. Scroll back up to the top of the page and take a look at our comparison chart to select the satellite phone which is right for you!