A satellite phone is an invaluable piece of communications kit for remote-area travellers and workers. image credit: Ironman 4x4
No matter how near or far your off-road adventures may take you – whether you’re only heading into a national park 50km from your house, or you’re tackling a two-week expedition across the Simpson Desert – you always need several levels of reliable communication.
A fully-charged / chargeable smartphone is a good start, but it’s far from the be-all-and-end-all of comms, especially the further you travel from consistent phone-signal range.
If you’re ranging away from civilisation, for instance heading off on some remote-area travel, then you’ll also need car-to-car / outback comms in the form of a HF (high frequency), UHF (ultra high frequency) or CB (citizens’ band) radio, if you’re in a convoy of vehicles, and, as a last resort, an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) or PLB (Personal Locator Beacon).
But a satellite phone – highly portable and durable – is regarded as a more reliable lifeline than any other form of comms.
A selection of some of the most popular sat phones in Australia. Bonus: there's even a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) in the shot. (image credit: Sat Phone Sales)
A sat phone is a portable handset which works as if it were a mobile phone on steroids. But while a mobile phone relies on ground-based infrastructure, i.e mobile phone towers, for a sometimes unreliable signal in order to communicate with other phones, a sat phone works by sending and receiving signals to a satellite or satellites which are orbiting the earth.
One of the sat phone’s greatest strengths and most appealing characteristics is its ability to be used in remote areas – or land or at sea – where there is minimal or no signal coverage for mainstream mobile phones.
A sat phone gives its user the ability to make calls and transfer data via a satellite connection and people who live, work or travel in remote areas rely on their sat phone as a lifeline.
Sat phones come in slightly different shapes, styles and sizes, but most of them adhere to a conventional mobile-phone-type style, just a bit blockier and more substantial looking.
Generally, a sat phone works best when the handset aerial or wired-in remote aerial has an unobstructed view of the sky.
The biggest difference between sat phone handsets is the initial purchase cost, the call plan you use and the satellite network on which they rely.
Satellite phone networks
Long-time comms and IT professional Kevin White’s work resume includes several stints as communications and technical officer on the World Herritage-listed Macquarie Island, an oceanic island about half-way between Australia and the Antarctic continent.
Kevin is a sat phone expert and told CarsGuide that there are four networks for Australian coverage – Iridium, Globalstar, Thuraya and Inmarsat.
Satellite phones are crucial for remote-area travellers and workers. (image credit: Iridium)
He describes Iridium as “a truly global network”, including the polar regions, and it operates via a constellation of 66 satellites revolving around the earth. The handsets are small and robust, the plans are good value for frequent users and GPS is built into newer handsets. Downsides include potential interruptions to calls when made close to the equator (for example, if you’re located in Cape York or Gulf Country); casual plans are more expensive than other networks; low data speeds 2.4 Kbps; and lower voice quality during calls.
Kevin reckons Globalstar is “similar to Iridium” in that it uses a constellation of satellites revolving around the earth. It uses fewer satellites than Iridium – it instead uses satellite-to-terrestrial-gateways. There may be interruptions to service if you’re nearer to the equator, so expect 80 percent service availability if you’re in the Cape York region, reduced availability north of Broome / Townsville. But handsets are inexpensive (when available), and Globalstar offers “excellent value casual plans”, Kevin reckons, as well as inexpensive car kits, 38.4 Kbps data with optional kit, and “excellent voice quality”. Downsides are that aforementioned service interruption in far north (southern hemisphere), no SMS facility, bulkier handsets, and no GPS.
Sat phones are very easy to operate and a lot more affordable than they used to be. (image credit: Sat Phone Sales)
The Thuraya network works off two geostationary satellites, which cover more than 140 countries.
It’s a geostationary satellite, Kevin says, so if you can see the region of the sky where the satellite is located you can make and receive calls. In Australia you need a view from west north-west to north and about 25 to 50 degrees above the virtual horizon, depending on your location.
A paging-type function on the handsets (and Thuraya SatSleeves*) provides limited alerts to incoming calls while you’re indoors with the antenna stowed. (*A SatSleeve is a compact adaptor that allows a smartphone user to turn the phone into a sat phone, once the free SatSleeve app has been downloaded pre-trip. There are two variants: a SatSleeve Plus or Universal, which has a cradle to fit your Smart Phone, or a SatSleeve Hotspot, which has a kick-stand so you place it somewhere and then use your smartphone within range of the built-in wifi hotspot.)
Thuraya coverage is Australia wide and about two-thirds of the globe, but excludes the Americas, some of Africa and NZ.
Thuraya handsets are small and robust and the network offers “excellent Australian Coverage”, Kevin says, and “extremely good value casual plans”; as well as SMS and fast data (up to 60 Kbps); and GPS built in. Downsides include the fact it is not a global network, and voice quality can be patchy.
The Inmarsat IsatPhone2 is a mid-priced handset offering good global coverage. (image credit: Inmarsat)
Inmarsat relies on geostationary satellites as Thuraya does, but Inmarsat Australia coverage is more extensive than Thuraya’s, Kevin says. The satellite view in Australia is more east of north than Thuraya's west of north position.
Similar to Thuraya, the phone can be used indoors if at a window with a view to the satellite.
Its coverage is considered global, but excludes the polar regions.
It is a mid-price handset, offering good coverage, and flexibility with pre-paid or post-paid plans. Downsides are no coverage in polar-region coverage (I don’t think many of us will be camping there anyway – Crafty), and “very expensive” inbound calls on pre-paid, Kevin says.
He reminds sat phone users that all the networks will operate in all areas of Australia, some of the time. “Terrain (hills, gullies), extreme cloud cover (Thunderstorms), dense foliage and buildings can all limit satellite reception,” he reckons.
How much does a sat phone cost?
Handset cost and call-plan pricing will determine how much you pay for a sat phone package. (image credit: Iridium)
Depends on what handset you buy, what satellite phone plan you use and your frequency of use.
Kevin, whose company SatPhone Sales offers everything from sat phones for sale or hire through to car kits and antenna, and emergency beacons, says Thuraya is cheapest in terms of running costs, followed by Globalstar, Inmarsat, and Iridium.
Handset prices, at time of writing, ranged from $829 for a Thuraya XT-Lite, $1129 for an IsatPhone 2, $1599 for an Iridium 9555, through to $1899 for an Iridium 9575 / Extreme.
Costs per call can range from $1.98 (per two-minute call, Thuraya) to $4.36 (per two-minute call, Iridium), depending on the network you’re on and the call plan you choose.
You can access voice, SMS and data (access to internet, social media apps) with the SatSleeve which effectively turns your smartphone into a sat phone of sorts.
“Data is $5MB up and down and speeds are a bit like the old dial-up.”
Sat phones are available to hire and a Sat Safety Bundle from Sat Phones Sales “will cost about $145 for a week, becoming as inexpensive as $6 a day for longer hires”, Kevin reckons.
For the best satellite phone and cheapest call plan for you, do your research, check out some satellite phone reviews, and deal with only well-respected companies in order to get the right price.
There are big mobs – such as Telstra and Optus – and smaller companies offering sat phones and call plan packages.
The best sat phones for every type of user
Sat phones are a lifeline when you're travelling far away from civilisation. (image credit: Sat Phone Sales)
We asked Kevin White for his opinion on the most suitable sat phone for a variety of people and here are his five responses.
1. The best sat phone for general (casual) use
“The Thuraya XT-Lite, but for very casual usage the IsatPhone 2 on pre-paid voucher system,” Kevin White says. “Think of the voucher as a tank of fuel. The voucher has a validity period, say 30 days (or longer depending on value). This period counts down from the moment you apply it to the handset.
“You have up to a year to apply the voucher. So if you go bush and don’t need it, don’t use it and add to your account through the handset when and as needed (before the voucher expiry date).”
2. The best sat phone for weekend campers/4WDers
“A toss-up between the Thuraya XT-Lite on post-paid and the Isatphone 2 on pre-paid.
“The casual plan on the Thuraya network can be run for as little as one month or as long as you like. Cancel anytime with no penalty.
“Re-connection does cost $25 so it's not worth going off-plan for a one-month break, but definitely worth it if three or more months.”
3. The best sat phone for grey nomads
The Thuraya XT-Lite sat safety bundle might be worth considering. (image credit: Sat Phone Sales)
The Thuraya XT-Lite sat safety bundle. “Absolutely, unbeatable price performance point.
“Especially having a local 04 mobile number, meaning inbound calls are – for the receiver, and for the caller – just the cost of a normal mobile phone call, which is effectively free on unlimited and capped plans.”
4. The best sat phone for remote-area travellers
Yep, the Thuraya XT-Lite again. This is increasingly looking like the closest thing to a market-leading product in anyone’s eyes. Best value is the XT-Lite or Sat Safety Bundle or IsatPhone 2 on post-paid, Kevin says.
5. The best sat phone for boating enthusiasts
“Depending on needs: Coastal Australia Thuraya or Inmarsat. If data for “GRIB” files (weather data / info is needed) either the Thuraya SatSleeve or Iridium GO. Iridium pland roam once more than 200 nautical miles from the coast and inbound calls become chargeable.
“Not the case with Inmarsat or Thuraya Offshore yachties – Inmarsat for voice and SMS coverage. Worldwide, anywhere a boat can get!
"As Inmarsat doesn’t roam, there is no charge for inbound calls and callers pay just the cost of calling a normal mobile phone. Pre-paid services have an international number.”
Kevin's bonus recommendations were:
Remote lone workers: IsatPhone 2 on pre-paid, or XT-Lite/ XT-Pro on a casual plan.
Professional, exploration etc: IsatPhone 2 on post-paid, XT-Pro on post-paid.
Urban yuppies going bush once in a while and wants to use their existing phone via satellite: Thuraya SatSleeve. “Satellite service subscription required but the $15 per month casual plan is well affordable.”
Global travellers and adventurers: “IsatPhone 2, but if in very mountainous terrain or polar regions, the Iridium 9575.”
Outback motorbike riders and 4WD mud and dust chasers: “The Sat Safety Bundle, or IsatPhone 2.”
As always, do your research, look around, ask questions of those who have actual experience with sat phones and remote-area comms, and only deal with reputable businesses.