About Satellite Phone Service
The ultimate in go-everywhere phone
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 service : part 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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)
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
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 ¼ 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
particular because of its limited geographical coverage, there
is little to recommend Thuraya service to US users.
Globalstar Satellite Phone
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
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
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
Iridium has a
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
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
The service failed to win
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
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
By 31 Dec 2004 it had
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.
Well, clearly, 2014 has come and gone, and Iridium is still out
there. Indeed, as of the end of 2018, Iridium now has 1.1
million active users. But Iridium has somewhat "pivoted" its
services and now over half its users are "things" rather than
people - devices that are using Iridium to remain connected to the
In 2007, Iridium announced a
program to launch a new generation of satellites, termed its
"NEXT" generation. Launches began in January 2019, and it
has now deployed 66 active NEXT satellites, plus has another nine
in orbit as active backups, and another six units on the ground.
Iridium satellite service is
theoretically available everywhere on the planet. For
political reasons, it is restricted in North Korea and North Sri
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
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
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
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
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
Globalstar does not have global service. Previously, Globalstar
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
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
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
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
There are two reasons for
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
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
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.
Update 2020 : While the
9505a handset remains expensive, newer models have been released
at lower prices - for example, the popular 9575 which lists for
$1375, but which can be found for a lower price at companies such
SatellitePhoneStore.com (currently $1295) and, in a manner
akin to how wireless companies used to discount cell phones when
you signed up for a plan, can be had for as little as $600 when
signing up for a service plan.
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
Considering these issues
above, we don't predict major drops in either handset or airtime
costs occurring with Iridium satellite service in the
If you are looking to buy a
Satellite Phone Store sell phones for all the four main services -
Inmarsat, Thuraya, Globalstar and Iridium.
If you are wishing to rent
an Iridium phone, many different companies have rental programs
Of course, other companies
also sell and rent satellite phones.
Read more in Part 2
the second part of this series, we
review Iridium's satellite phone service.
Satellite phones are not an
alternative to regular cell phones, but are intended as an
alternate communication system for when and where cell phones
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
There are several different
providers of satellite phone service. Most (American)
readers will probably choose either Globalstar or Iridium.
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31 Mar 2006, last update
21 Jul 2020
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