Our family enjoys overlanding and camping in remote areas and we now carry a satellite phone for emergency use.
Do You Really Need a Satellite Phone?
Satellite phones and airtime plans are much less expensive than they were just a few years ago, butthey're still not cheap. Your first consideration when thinking of purchasing a satellite phone is: "Do I really need this?"
Satellite phones are designed for use in remote areas where there's no cell phone service, and for people who need reliable voice communication with the outside world.
Many outdoor enthusiasts are able to get by just fine with one of the affordable alternatives to a sat phone—such as a satellite messenger—so let's examine those devices first before we look at the options for satellite phone service.
Two Alternatives to Satellite Phones
- Satellite Messenger Devices
If you only want a satellite-based device to use to for emergency calls, an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) is an excellent choice. These typically cost less than a satellite phone, don't require a subscription plan, and allow you to summon emergency aid in a life or death situation, from anywhere on the planet.
These rugged devices are normally fully waterproof and come with batteries that can last up to 10 years. The downside to EPIRBs is that they only work in a "one-way" manner and are only for use in a life-or-death situation.
2. Satellite Messenger Devices
A satellite messenger device allows you to send an SOS message in an emergency, similar to the way you can using an EPIRB. Unlike an EPIRB, which sends your SOS to a worldwide, inter-governmental network of rescue organizations, satellite messenger devices such as SPOT and Garmin InReach are monitored by private companies.
You cannot summon help in an emergency with a satellite messenger if your subscription plan has lapsed, and these devices are typically not as rugged or powerful as an EPIRB.
The big advantage that satellite messenger devices such as SPOT and InReach have over an EPIRB is that you can use them for non-emergency communication, and send either a one-way or two-way text message - depending on the model - to any cell phone, from the most remote places on earth.
We personally own a Garmin InReach, which allows for two-way text messaging using the global coverage of the Iridium satellite network.
Downsides of Satellite Messengers for Communication
The major downside of any satellite messenger device is that text messages are often sent much more slowly than a normal cell phone. Your message may take a few minutes to upload to a passing satellite, then you might have to wait several more minutes to receive a response.
In a life-or-death situation, especially one where you may need real-time help from the outside world, a satellite messenger device often falls short.
Just imagine yourself trying to ask first responders - who still may be hours away -how to treat a major injury, and doing so by text messages that are each delayed by several minutes. Real-time voice communication can help you solve some of the problems that you may encounter in remote areas, which is why satellite phones have such an important role to play.
But can you really afford a satellite phone? Let's look at the three main satellite phone service providers, equipment and plans, and see if any of them might work for you.
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Three Major Satellite Phone Providers
There are currently three satellite phone service providers offering coverage for North America.
All three of these services utilize earth-orbiting satellites, but each has its limitations. Let's look at the pros and cons of each satellite phone service.
Let's start with the pros and cons of the Inmarsat satellite phone service. Inmarsat or IsatPhone, uses a network of three powerful satellites which orbit the earth above the equator. This service is widely used by ships and aircraft for near-worldwide coverage.
Affordability: Inmarsat phones may be found used for less than $500, and monthly plans start at $45/mo with a 12-month contract. You can purchase prepaid Inmarsat plans for as low as $59 for 38 minutes, to use for emergency use when you travel.
Coverage: The downside to Inmarsat satellite phone service is that since the satellites are above the equator, you may have a hard time getting a reliable signal as you travel toward either of the earth's poles.
At higher latitudes, such as in the Northern United States and Canada, the satellites are so low on the horizon that any obstacles such as trees or mountains can block the signal.
Inmarsat or IsatPhone service is still a good choice for boats, which usually have a clear view of the horizon, but may not be ideal for those venturing outdoors in rugged terrain at higher latitudes.
Because of the aforementioned terrain issues, those interested in overlanding, back-country camping, and mountaineering in North America should probably give Inmarsat phones a pass.
Affordability: Monthly service plans for Globalstar satellite phones start at $49 for 50 minutes of airtime, with prepaid plans starting at $65 for 100 minutes, which is a bit cheaper than Inmarsat.
Coverage: Globalstar satellite phones use a network of satellites that cover most of the populated areas of the earth, using spot-beam technology. Globalstar coverage is poor to non-existent on most of the world's oceans, Africa, much of Asia, and the polar regions.
Because of this limited coverage, explorers who venture outside of a very defined coverage area will have no service. Still, Globalstar satellite phone service is a good alternative for those in North America, and you can find new phones for less than $400.
Globalstar satellite phones are less affected by terrain issues in North America than Inmarsat phones—with their equatorial orbiting satellites—and therefore may be a good choice for use in mountainous areas.
We've met other folks in the overlanding and RV community who use Globalstar phones who seemed happy with the coverage they offered, yet we gave them a pass because we're planning to travel to Alaska and Northern Canada, where their service is poor.
If you don't plan on using your satellite phone outside of North America and don't require coverage in northern Canada and Alaska, Globalstar satellite phone service plans may be a good value.
Affordability: Iridium satellite phone plans are available starting at $60/mo for a 12-month plan with 20 minutes of talk time. Rollover minutes are available. Prepaid Iridium plans are available starting at $159 for 75 minutes of talk time. This is more expensive than either Globalstar or Inmarsat, but the trade-off is that you get worldwide coverage.
Coverage: The Iridium satellite network consists of 60 satellites that orbit the entire earth. So far, this network has the best global coverage of any satellite phone service provider. For those wanting reliable, global phone coverage, Iridium is hard to beat. Our personal satellite phone is an Iridium 9555, which can often be found used on eBay for less than $500.
We've used our Iridium phone across much of the western United States, and have had few issues other than some dropped calls. Dropped calls have long been an issue for Iridium satellite service, since unlike Inmarsat, where you stay connected to the same satellite for the duration of your call—your Iridium satellite phone call may be handed off to another orbiting satellite every minute or so.
This can cause the occasional dropped call, but in our experience, it's increasingly rare with the new system upgrades that have been rolled out in the past year.
When we were trying to decide on which satellite phone to choose for overland travel and back-country camping, we weighed the cost of Iridium against Globalstar and almost chose the latter provider because of their lower price plans. In the end, however, we chose Iridium, mainly because we plan to travel to Alaska and parts of Northern Canada in the near future—where Globalstar does not yet offer good coverage.
What to Consider When Looking for a Satellite Phone
If you've finally decided that you really need a satellite phone for your adventure travels, your first step should be to determine which provider offers the most reliable coverage of the areas you'll be visiting. Next, you should decide if you're better off with a prepaid plan, which you activate before your trip, or a monthly plan that offers uninterrupted service year-round.
For our own back-country communications plan, we use a prepaid Iridium plan in tandem with our Garmin InReach satellite messenger. Text messages are cheaper to send with our satellite messenger, and we have the sat phone charged and ready to go in case of an emergency that requires us to talk to the outside world.
Technology Is Always Changing
Satellite phone technology and pricing plans are constantly in flux. At any given time you may find different prices for the same amount of minutes from different resellers. It always pays to shop around before committing to any one service provider, especially when signing a service contract.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Nolen Hart