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Most of the time, being out of phone contact is either a brief inconvenience, or possibly even a desirable bonus.

But if you absolutely must be able to reach the rest of the world, or be reached by them, no matter where you are, there's only one solution - a satellite based phone service.

This article introduces and explains how satellite phone services work.

 
 
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All About Satellite Phone Service

The ultimate in go-everywhere phone service
 

Constellations of communication satellites can provide wireless phone service no matter where in the world you are.

The image on the left shows the 66 satellite Iridium constellation.

Part 1 of a 2 part series on satellite phone service, and part 8 of an 8 part series on international cell phone servicepart two reviews the Iridium satellite phone service

 

 

Only a couple of decades ago, we understood and accepted that for 'ordinary people', phone service required a physical phone line and was therefore limited to obvious places like home, office, and payphones.

Now with the explosive growth of cell phones, we realize that phone service is not restricted to where there's a phone wire.  But there's still a lot of the planet - 85% - that isn't conveniently close to a mobile phone transmitting tower and so there's no regular phone signal.

Satellite phones can provide the ultimate in global coverage.  But there are trade-offs.  Satellite phones are bulkier than regular cell phones, and while in theory their coverage might be close to universal, they usually don't work inside buildings or anywhere that has an obscured view of the sky.

Satellite phones are also considerably more expensive to purchase, and their airtime rates are also higher.

But, if you absolutely need a convenient and portable way of keeping in contact, they are the only option available.

How is Satellite Phone Service different to normal cell phone service?

Wireless phone services have much in common, whether they are using satellites or transmitting towers.

They are both using radio waves rather than land lines to send their signal.  But because satellite phones have less bandwidth than regular cell phones, you may notice a bit poorer quality sound, and because they are designed to use the absolute minimum amount of satellite time, they lack some of the convenience we've come to expect of regular cell phones.

For sure, no-one would ever prefer to use a satellite phone instead of a modern cell phone, but equally for sure, when you're out of regular cell phone service, a satellite phone suddenly becomes a very good alternative.

Surprisingly (perhaps) there are already a fairly broad range of different satellite phone services available, some of which date back 25 years or more.

Differences between Satellite Phone Services

There are several different types of satellite phone service, with one of the more important differences being whether the satellite phone service uses 'low earth orbit' (LEO) satellites or geosynchronous (also called geostationary) satellites.

Geosynchronous

Geosynchronous satellites are at a fixed height of about 22,300 miles above the earth's surface.  At this height, the satellite rotates freely around the earth at the same speed as the earth is rotating, so the satellite appears to stay fixed in the same spot in the sky.

Geosynchronous satellites are located directly above the equator, and - in theory if not in practice - one satellite can cover just over one third of the earth's surface.  However, it is common for such satellites to have directional antennas, limiting the areas they provide service to, and saving precious satellite power in the process.

Low Earth Orbit (LEO)

LEO satellites are in lower orbits.  This means they don't appear as stationary, but instead are moving relative to the earth's surface.  The height of a LEO satellite can be pretty much anything - the International Space Station is a mere 215 miles up, Iridium satellites are at about 485 miles, Globalstar satellites are at about 880 miles, and GPS satellites are at about 11,000 miles altitude.

Although there's no exact point where the atmosphere stops and space starts, by convention, 'space' is considered to start at a 100 km (62 mile) altitude.

LEO orbits can be polar - with the satellites circling around each pole (as in the illustration above) or any other type of orbit.  Polar orbiting satellites clearly fly over the entire world over time, whereas non-polar orbiting satellites don't reach to the very highest and lowest reaches of the earth (the Arctic and Antarctic regions).

The lower orbit a satellite has, the less of the earth's surface it covers, and so the more satellites that are needed to provide global coverage.

Which is best?

Whether the phone service is based on geosynchronous or LEO satellites has two important implications for users.

The first is the annoying phenomenon of satellite echo or delay.  Although radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,282 miles per second), it still takes almost exactly second for a signal to bounce up to a geosynchronous satellite and back down again.  Add in the other various delays in processing the call, and this gives rise to the annoying satellite echo and delay that we all hate so much.

However, the time for a roundtrip to a LEO satellite is a mere 0.005 seconds, which is unnoticeable.

The closer distance to a LEO satellite also means that the phones can have weaker transmitters and smaller antennas - they don't need to send or receive their signal nearly as far.  This not only allows for greater portability, but also means the phones don't need to use as much battery power.

From a user point of view, LEO based services are vastly superior, but only so long as there is an assurance of one of the LEO satellites being visible in the sky.  Which points to the disadvantage of LEO satellite service, as it applies to the operator of the service.  They require vastly more satellites than do geosynchronous satellite based services.

Indeed, the Iridium service was so named because it was initially planned to comprise 77 satellites, and the 77th element is Iridium.  As a budget move, Iridium subsequently increased the altitude of its satellites, thereby enabling it to operate with 'only' 66 instead of 77 satellites.  It kept the name Iridium, however (the 66th element is Dysprosium, which doesn't sound nearly as nice).

Data as well as Voice

Most satellite services permit data as well as voice to be sent and received.  However, all such services have very slow data bandwidths, typically in the realm of about 2400 baud (ten to twenty times slower than a regular dialup modem, and 50+ times slower than broadband).

Add the slow data transfer rate to the reasonably high cost per minute of airtime, and you won't want to use your satellite phone to access the internet for casual web surfing!

Most of the satellite services allow for faxing as well as data transfer.

Four Different Providers of Satellite Phone Service

Surprisingly (perhaps) there are already a fairly broad range of different satellite phone services available, some of which date back 25 years or more.

But few of the services offer truly portable handsets, and affordable pricing.  The following are the four major contenders :

Inmarsat Satellite Phone Service

Inmarsat is the grand-daddy of satellite phone service.  It started operations in 1979, and now has over ten different types of voice and data service.  Coverage is very good, being provided from a network of geosynchronous satellites, but doesn't extend all the way to the north or south poles, and varies depending on which of their different services you might subscribe to.

However, most of these services are for commercial users, and require large sized ground receivers.  The most portable is the Inmarsat Mini-M satellite service, which uses a briefcase sized receiver unit weighing about 5.5lbs, and priced around $3000.  Airtime rates appear to be in the order of about $2/minute or more.  The phones have their own unique country code, in a range from 870 through 874.

Inmarsat service is acceptable for mariners and other people who can accept a fixed mount 'base station' type installation, but it is probably too bulky for people seeking a convenient portable solution.  And because it uses the high-altitude geosynchronous satellites, conversations have the annoying satellite delay/echo in them.

Thuraya Satellite Phone Service

The Thuraya satellite phone service, which started operating in 2001, provides the most limited coverage of the three different services.   Thuraya satellite phone service covers Europe, most of Africa (but not southern Africa), the Middle East and most of Asia (but no further east than Cambodia, very little of western China, and none of eastern China or Japan.

This tends to limit its usefulness.

Thuraya uses geosynchronous satellites, meaning calls are subject to delays as the signals travel up and down a 50,000 mile journey.

Thuraya phones have a country code of 88216, and cost about half the price of an Iridium phone.  Incoming calls are free (but the person calling you will be paying a hefty sum), outgoing calls range in price depending on where in the world you are, from a low of below 60 up to a high of $2.50.

In particular because of its limited geographical coverage, there is little to recommend Thuraya service to US users.

Globalstar Satellite Phone Service

This service rolled out in late 1999 and is now available in much of the world.

Globalstar has good coverage in most major countries, but if you're traveling outside the 120 countries they provide coverage in, your phone becomes useless.

Globalstar phones are about half the price of Iridium phones (and sometimes even less).  Call rates are lower for calls within the US but similar to or sometimes even more than Iridium when roaming outside the US.

Globalstar uses LEO satellites, similar to Iridium, but slightly higher up (about 880 miles above the earth) so needs fewer satellites (44) to give coverage.  Because the satellites are arrayed in a Walker type constellation, they do not provide full pole to pole coverage, but this is of relevance only to polar explorers.

This Walker type constellation has one advantage over Iridium - it provides equal satellite coverage all around the globe (apart from above/below 68 degrees N/S), whereas the polar orbits of the Iridium satellites (see image at top of page) means their satellites get bunched up towards the top and bottom of the globe, and are spread most thinly around the equator.

A benefit of Globalstar is that you can get a US phone number for your satellite phone.  Unfortunately, a disadvantage is that you pay for incoming calls as well as outgoing calls.

Globalstar offers data as well as voice service.  The data service is charged the same as voice - you pay their standard rate per minute you're connected.  The data transfer rate is a very slow 9600 baud, although they do have some data compression that can speed things up, depending on the type of data being transferred to your phone.

Like Iridium, Globalstar also went through a bankruptcy after its initial projections proved to be wildly optimistic.

Update June 2007 :  Field reports from readers suggest a massive decline in the reliability of Globalstar service, and an independent analysis by Frost & Sullivan earlier in the year confirms this.  Testing showed that while Iridium service offered a 95% - 98% success rate on making 3 minute calls, Globalstar service failed two calls out of every three.

This is a colossal discrepancy in service standards, and if it continues (we believe that problems with Globalstar's satellites may be an underlying issue) then few people would choose Globalstar service due to its unreliability.

Iridium Satellite Phone Service

Iridium has a fascinating history.

The concept that was to become Iridium was first mooted in the mid 1980s and the concept formalized in 1987, then developed during the 1990s.

To start with, the idea of a global satellite based phone service seemed gold-plated.  It was backed by Motorola, had good management, and had conducted solid market research to confirm its concept.

But - in a scenario very similar to the Edsel some decades earlier, the market changed between when Iridium was first conceived, in the 1980s, and when it was finally launched in 1998.  Iridium was designed as a 'world phone' for the traveling business executive.  Back in the late 1980s, there was very little cell phone service and even less international roaming.  But by the late 1990s,  good quality cell phone service was much more prevalent than Iridium had anticipated; cell phone technology had marvelously evolved, and international roaming and compatibility - mainly as a result of GSM technology, first introduced in 1991 - was a reality.  The corporate executives Iridium were hoping would buy Iridium's service no longer needed it - their regular cell phone already worked satisfactorily well.

Service commenced on 1 November 1998, with the first call being placed by then Vice President Al Gore.  Unfortunately, handsets were ridiculously expensive ($3000) and airtime similarly over-priced ($3-8/minute), and the company had marketing and equipment problems.

The service failed to win much support, with only 10,000 subscribers by April of 1999 and less than 20,000 by August.  On the other hand, the company had a monthly interest bill on its borrowings of $40 million, as well as all the other operating expenses, with almost no income to offset it.

To contrast the 20,000 subscribers in August 99, only one year earlier, Iridium's CEO had predicted they would have 500,000 subscribers by the end of 1999.  Plainly the company's business plan was completely off the rails.

Bankruptcy followed very quickly, on 13 August, 1999, and its filing made it one of the 20 largest US bankruptcies up to that time.  This is an excellent article covering the way Iridium evolved from high-flying Wall St darling to Wall St disgrace.

For a while it was feared the entire constellation of satellites would be de-orbited (ie crashed into the ocean) and the system would be discontinued.  However, the network was bought at a bargain basement price of $25 million - $6.5 million in cash and the balance on an unsecured note - and service was continued, with the new company starting operations in 2001.

A new Iridium rose from the ashes of the earlier Iridium.  The new company had improved satellite phones that weren't as bulky or as expensive as before, much lower rates for service, and a more realistic marketing plan.  It still hasn't reached the half million subscribers that were originally projected for 1999, but its numbers continue to slowly climb :

By 31 Dec 2003 it had 93,100 subscribers.

By 31 Dec 2004 it had 114,500 subscribers.

By 31 Dec 2005 it had 142,000 subscribers, and says this gave it four profitable quarters in a row.  Iridium is a private company and so doesn't need to provide full financial data.

The current satellites are projected to remain operational at least through 2014, with the new Iridium hoping to be able to finance replacements out of ongoing revenues when they come due for replacement.  Even if this proves not possible, there would seem to be a reasonable assurance of ongoing service at least through 2014.

Iridium satellite service is theoretically available everywhere on the planet.  For political reasons, it is restricted in North Korea and North Sri Lanka.

Disaster Service

Some people choose to keep a satellite phone as part of their disaster preparedness kit.  An earthquake, hurricane, terrorist attack, or many other things can disrupt both regular landline phone and wireless cell phone service.  But - in theory - satellite phone service should be able to survive all such disasters, because the satellites are safely distant, somewhere way up in the sky.

However, satellite phone service also has an Achilles Heel.  That is the point at which a phone call is routed from the satellite that received your signal to the ultimate person you're calling.  In the case of most services, your call is routed from the satellite and immediately to its closest ground station, and then it goes from the ground station, as best it can, to its final destination.  If its final destination is another satellite phone, it travels back up to another satellite and down to the phone, wherever it may be.

This means, for most satellite phone services, there remain ground based vulnerabilities.  However, Iridium is the notable exception to this.  If you are calling to another Iridium phone, your call goes directly from your phone to the closest available satellite, then is routed among the satellites until reaching a satellite that can then beam the call down to the recipient.

This capability makes Iridium the most robust network for handling ground based disasters.

In theory a single Iridium satellite can handle up to about 1100 calls simultaneously, and the total Iridium network something less than 66 times this number.  These are not very large numbers, but neither is the total installed based of Iridium users very large, so one would expect that, in some form of regional emergency, the Iridium network could handle its users' needs without appreciable congestion.

A good example of this was with Hurricane Katrina.  The hurricane knocked out over 3 million landline circuits and over 1000 cell sites.  Three weeks later, only 60% of the cell phone networks were operational and two million calls were still failing.  On the other hand, Iridium's network was completely unaffected, and for the first 72 hours of Katrina, Iridium traffic in the Gulf region increased more than 3000%.  The number of subscribers in affected areas grew 500%.

Which is the Best Satellite Phone Service

Evaluating the different satellite services and choosing your personal best requires you to decide which are the most important factors for you as between issues such as coverage areas, and the cost of both equipment and air time.

We feel that Inmarsat will have little appeal, due to its bulky expensive equipment and geosynchronous satellites.

Thuraya has the most limited service area, and isn't really intended as a global phone.  For that reason most readers will rule it out, reducing your choice to either Globalstar or Iridium.

Name notwithstanding, Globalstar does not have global service.  Previously, Globalstar was quite possibly your best choice if you simply want a phone that will work everywhere in the US - something to take with you when you're traveling outside of areas with cell phone service, and when you still want to be able to reach the outside world, either for convenience or in case of emergency.  But recent (2007) deterioration in Globalstar service makes it no longer satisfactorily reliable and no longer a viable option for most people.

And so, if you're seeking truly global coverage - a phone you can take anywhere and know it will always work - and/or want the most disaster proof service that you know you can rely on in an any type of emergency, then Iridium is the best choice.

Why are Satellite Phones so Expensive?

A satellite phone and service is expensive to buy, and for that reason many people who only occasionally need satellite phone service will choose to rent rather than buy the equipment and service, only as and when needed.

Why are satellite phones and service so expensive? Cell phones are usually given away for free when you sign up for new service, and a monthly charge of $30 - $40 usually includes about 1000 free minutes of airtime.

But a satellite phone will cost you $1495 to purchase, and the lowest monthly usage plan costs $30/month with no free airtime included - every minute costs an extra $1.50.

Why the huge difference in price?

There are two reasons for this :

Economies of scale

The larger US cell phone companies have tens of millions of customers.  Iridium currently (Mar 06) has about 150,000 - 100 times smaller than major cell phone companies.  The cost of its 66 satellite network is about $6 billion, and while those are all sunk costs, the satellites will need to be replaced at some stage.

A similar equation applies to the equipment.  Popular cell phone models sell in quantities of many millions, and the underlying technology changes little from model to model, allowing development costs to be split over many many units, and with most efficient high volume production methods.  But the Iridium satellite phones are selling very slowly, and have unique technology in them.

And so, whereas your regular cell phone company can probably make money by giving you a free phone and 1000 minutes of airtime for only $30/month; Iridium absolutely can not.

Lack of competition and price inelasticity

You have plenty of choices when choosing a regular cell phone and service provider.  But there's only one fully global satellite phone provider - Iridium - and only one source of Iridium handsets.

Could Iridium sell its 9505a handset for less than $1500?  Almost certainly - the underlying variable cost per handset sold, to Iridium, is probably $50.  But they doubtless reason there is no need to reduce the handset price, because there are no competitors, and there's not likely to be the necessary three fold increase in sales volume if, eg, handsets sell for $500 not $1500.

Iridium might choose to drop the price of the handset as a way of encouraging more people to sign up for their service, in a similar way to how traditional mobile phone operators give away phones, but to date it has resisted such temptation.

Could Iridium sell its airtime for less than the rates it does?  That is a more complex question; for sure, the variable added cost of accepting one more call onto their network is close to zero, but they have huge fixed costs that need to be covered.  And, much like the handset price, for people who truly need a satellite phone, $1.50 a minute is a bargain.  And for people who don't need a satellite phone, even 50 a minute is probably too much.  Iridium probably feels that for the type of people who need and use its services, its prices are fair.

Future satellite phone price trends

Considering these issues above, we don't predict major drops in either handset or airtime costs occurring with Iridium satellite service in the foreseeable future.

Resources

If you are looking to buy a satellite phone, Telestial sell phones for all the three main services - Thuraya, Globalstar and Iridium.

If you are wishing to rent an Iridium phone, both Mobal and Telestial have rental programs available.  Mobal's rates are less expensive for short rentals, and Telestial's rates become less expensive for longer term rentals.

Other companies also sell and rent satellite phones.  We know both Mobal and Telestial and can confidently recommend both companies as having good quality product and excellent customer service.

Read more in Part 2

In the second part of this series, we review Iridium's satellite phone service.

Summary

Satellite phones are not an alternative to regular cell phones, but are intended as an alternate communication system for when and where cell phones don't work.

Maybe you can happily live your life without always having a working phone beside you.  But if you go traveling or adventuring into out of the way places, you might appreciate the safety benefits of always being able to call for help if something should go wrong, and in turn, always being reachable by friends and family should that be necessary too.

There are several different providers of satellite phone service.  Most (American) readers will probably choose either Globalstar or Iridium.
 

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.

 

Originally published 31 Mar 2006, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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