Motorola 9505 Iridium Satellite Phone Review
Larger and heavier than a cell phone,
but works everywhere
No longer as bulky as
earlier model satellite phones - but still a lot larger and
heavier than the latest cell phones - a portable satellite
phone means you're never more than a few dial buttons away
from anyone, no matter where in the world you are.
Easy to use and with
coverage literally everywhere, Iridium satellite phones are
great for anyone when they're away from normal phone service.
Note - in this picture
of Iridium's 9505 phone, the antenna needs to be extended
prior to use, increasing its length by 3".
Part 2 of a 2 part
series on satellite phones : part one discusses
the different types
of satellite phone service
Part 8 of an 8 part
series on international phone
service options and issues.
Don't think you need a
satellite phone? How about next time you go on a cruise -
consider renting (or purchasing) a satellite phone to take with
you. Why pay the cruise line $10 a minute (sometimes more,
occasionally less) to make a call when you can use a rented
phone and pay between 85¢ and $1.80/minute (depending on the
plan you've selected), and get all incoming calls for free.
Satellite phones are neither as
small and light, nor as inexpensive to buy or use as regular
cell phones, but if you find yourself in a situation where you
need the guarantee of access to phone service, or where your
other alternatives are more expensive, then they become
extremely valuable, affordable, and essential.
Because most people have only
occasional need for satellite service, renting a phone on such
occasions can make
sense. But if you're going to be using a satellite phone regularly,
or want to have one 'just in case' of an unplanned future
owning your own phone and choosing an appropriate service plan
may be the better choice.
The Motorola 9505 - What you
My evaluation unit was kindly supplied by
[a company no longer in business]. I've tried to make this
review more generic now that they are no longer in the satellite
business, and even where not so generic, it is helpful for you
to understand what to expect from other companies too.
Their satellite phone
rental kit comes in a small hard-sided aluminium mini-briefcase. The case can be locked, and comes with two
keys. The lock is not a security lock, but can be helpful
to prevent the case accidentally bursting open.
Needless to say, if packing
the case inside your checked luggage when flying, you should
leave it unlocked in case the TSA choose to inspect it.
The complete kit, in the
briefcase, weighs close on three pounds. If that sounds inconveniently heavy,
don't worry - Mobal include a carry strap that clips on to the
outside of the case.
Inside the case are the
following items :
The phone itself, complete
Spare battery (batteries are
sometimes supplied as high capacity and sometimes as
Plug adapters for various
different types of power plugs around the world
Leather carry case for the
Carry strap for the aluminium
External magnetic mount
antenna (eg for on a car or boat roof)
Quick start user guide
Return prepaid courier
Although the phones, as
supplied new, also come with a headset and a lanyard wrist
strap, these weren't present in the supplied rental kit.
The Motorola 9505 compared to
the Iridium 9505a
At the end of 2004, Motorola
stopped manufacturing the 9505 satellite phone, and Iridium
contracted with a third party to manufacture what appears to be
the exact identical phone, with the only notable difference
being the brand name label now reads Iridium rather than
Motorola, and the model has changed from 9505 to 9505a.
In addition, some of the
accessories are slightly smaller in size. But otherwise,
the two phones can be considered identical units.
Capabilities and Specifications
of the 9505 Satellite Phone
Perhaps the most immediate
thing you'll notice about the 9505 is that it is big, compared
to a modern day cell phone. And when you pick it up, you
realize it is not just big, but heavy, too.
The phone weighs about 14.5
ounces with a high-capacity battery inside, and measures 6¼"
x 2½" x 1¾", plus an extra ¾" for the antenna. In other
words, the phone is similar in both size and weight to a pound
The antenna is 6" long closed and 9½"
when extended for use. And it isn't just a thin wire, it
is a barrel about ¾" in diameter. Normally it is rotated
behind the body of the phone, but when you want to use the
phone, you then rotate it up above the phone such that it points
directly up into the sky, and slide the two part antenna out to
extend it to full length.
This is very different to
today's modern cell phones with a built in 'invisible' antenna,
but remember that whereas your cell phone only has to reach a
mile or so to the nearest cell tower, your satellite phone may
have to reach as much as 1000 miles to the nearest satellite in
the sky. As such, the bulky antenna is not 'old fashioned'
but an unavoidable requirement.
Satellite phone service
takes place in the L band at about 1.62 GHz. This table
shows the frequencies
used by various other types of services.
There are three different
battery types available for the phone - standard, high and ultra-high capacity.
The standard battery offers up to 2.4 hours talk time or ten
times as much standby time; high offers 3.6/38 hours, and
ultra-high gives 7.6/72 hours of life.
These are very short times
for talking and standby, but your usage of a satellite phone
should not be considered the same as you use a regular
landline or cell phone. Satellite phones are more for
emergency and priority communications rather than ordinary daily
chatter, and so you'll probably find, when only being used for
essential purposes, even the 2.4 hours of talk time on a
standard battery will last you for weeks.
The high capacity
battery is similar in size and weight to an entire Motorola Razr V3
cell phone (which has longer battery life out of its vastly
smaller battery), the other two batteries are
only slightly smaller/lighter.
The manual is a good 'old
fashioned' style manual - in other words, everything is
carefully and fully explained. It is 200 pages in size,
but fortunately you don't need to read the manual from cover to
cover before turning on and using the satellite phone. Not
only is the phone intuitive and almost identical in operation to
a regular cell phone, but the rental company made things even easier by
including two laminated pages of a 'simple user guide' that
tells you all you probably need to know.
The funniest thing in the manual
You might want to keep your
SIM card in your wallet or purse when you are not using your
satellite phone. This ... gives you access to your service
even if your phone is not available. If you forget your
phone, insert your SIM card into a friend's phone to access your
Question to the manual writer :
How many of your friends already have satellite phones?
The phone (and Iridium's
network) support most of the same capabilities as regular
phones, such as :
The phone has a 100 number
phone book memory, and its SIM can store another 155 numbers.
All phone numbers should be stored as, and are dialed as,
international numbers - there is no such thing as 'local'
numbers due to the satellite phone not being tied to any
specific region or locality.
Iridium phones have their
own 'country' code, indeed, they have two different possible
country codes; either 8816 or 8817. Each phone has this
four digit country code, no area code, and then an eight digit
Using the 9505 Satellite Phone
It takes approximately 30
seconds from when you power on the phone to when it has
completed its boot sequence and locked on to the nearest
Placing a call is simple.
You dial the international access code (a '+' sign, created by
holding the zero on the keyboard down for several seconds) then
the country code and phone number you are calling. After a
delay of about 10 seconds while the call gets handled through
Iridium's network, you're then connected to the number you
Receiving a call is slightly
more complicated. Chances are you will usually have your
phone's antenna in the 'closed' position - ie, not extended, and
rotated to lie against the side of the phone, rather than
sticking up in the air. So when a call comes in, the first
thing that happens is the phone will make a chirping tone and
displays a message 'Rotate Antenna'. When the phone
detects the antenna has been rotated up it will then accept the
call, and only when the phone rings normally can you answer
This is not necessary, of
course, if you have the phone's antenna already opened up, but
due to the extra bulk and comparative fragility of the antenna,
you'll probably not do this.
Due to the compressed nature
of the voice signal, the quality is 'tinny' rather than
'normal'. While the quality is clear and understandable,
it is obvious that something has processed the voice signal,
unlike on a normal phone call.
There is a small amount of
delay while talking to the person at the other end, but not
appreciably more than on any other regular cell phone call.
Voicemail is quirky.
You're not automatically told when you have messages waiting for
you. This information is only sent to your phone when it
makes or receives a call. This is different to what we're
all used to, and is because of the very limited bandwidth
available to the service.
There is a workaround - you
can place occasional free 'test calls' to a special Iridium number (+8816
3111 0006) and during this free call, if there are voicemail
messages, that information will be sent to your phone.
Satellite phone signals are
very weak, and there needs to be an unobstructed line of sight
between your phone's antenna and the satellite it is
This means satellite phones
will generally not work indoors, unless you are by a window and
the window - by good chance - happens to be looking out to that
part of the sky where an Iridium satellite currently is.
Because the Iridium satellites are moving all the time, there is
no rule of thumb (such as 'you need to have a view of the
southeast sky') as might have been the case with fixed
satellites in terms of where to look for satellites.
Satellites may be anywhere - north, south, east or west, and
because they move across the sky quite quickly, if you start off
a call with a clear view to a satellite, if the satellite then
moves behind something that blocks your view to the satellite,
and if there are no other satellites in clear view, your call
may be dropped.
If you are in a car, you
should use the external antenna that comes with the phone, and
mount the antenna on your roof. This is a small low
profile magnetic mounted dome, much like a GPS or satellite
With the external antenna, the phone should work reasonably well
in your car, even when driving, but it may have problems in
cities when tall buildings may obscure the view of the sky.
If you're outside with the
phone, but in a forest, the trees may block the radio signal
(especially during/after rain).
If you're on a cruise ship,
you'll probably want to go up on deck to be sure of reliably
connecting with a satellite to make a call.
Although the Iridium
satellites cover the entire world, their spacing is not even.
They are closer together where their orbits meet up, at the
north and south poles, and are furthest apart at the equator
(think of segments of an orange that are fattest in the middle
and narrowest at the top and bottom).
This means the closer you are to the equator, the
fewer satellites there will be in the sky and the greater the
slope distance from you to a satellite. Service is
therefore at its most 'fragile' close to the equator, and
increasingly more robust as you move north or south away from
In theory, using a phone at
sea should be easy, due to the wide unobstructed view of the sky
from the deck of a boat/ship. But reader
McMurren reports of a problem when using his Iridium phone
at sea - a situation we doubtless all hope not to share :
I've used Iridium phones
several times in Alaska. They're great for emergency
communication. But not ok for any high-quality talk.
I made the mistake of relying on one for my call-in radio show
while at sea in the Shelikof Straits here in Alaska.
While we were on the
crest of the wave, it worked fine. However, as we dove
into the trough while navigating the 40-foot seas, we lost
the signal. Also, when I threw up, it covered the
window and then froze...so it also blocked the signal.
I got about five minutes' worth before I gave up.
Iridium compared to Globalstar
While in theory both of the
two major (North American) satellite services offer similar
service, coverage, quality and reliability, in practice there is
a massive difference between Iridium and Globalstar.
A recent (Feb 2007) Frost &
Sullivan report exposed a serious deterioration in Globalstar
service. Only about one third of calls placed through
Globalstar were actually successfully completed, whereas for
Iridium there was a 95% - 98% success rate. Two out of
three calls failed with Globalstar, whereas only one out of 20 -
50 calls failed with Iridium.
For this reason, most people
will feel confident choosing Iridium, and very few people would
feel comfortable choosing Globalstar.
Calling an Iridium Phone from a
The good news - incoming
calls are free to the user of the Iridium phone. The bad
news - placing a call to an Iridium phone is not as easy as it
should be, and can be ridiculously expensive to the person
making the call, but there is a work-around.
In theory, if a person
wishes to call you on your satellite phone, they simply dial
your phone's number, same as they'd dial any other international
But many long distance phone
services (especially discount phone services) haven't been
programmed to understand what the international codes for
Iridium are, and will give an error signal when a person tries
to call an Iridium number.
And if your caller can get a
call to go through, they might find themselves paying anything
up to $15/minute for the call! This is outright extortion.
Now for the workaround.
Callers can instead call a regular US number, either a local
number in AZ or an (800) number, and then, when that number
answers, they dial in your satellite phone number to have the
call then forward on to your satellite phone. Your caller
pays only the normal cost to reach the US phone number they
call, and you then pay the cost for the call to be forwarded on
to your satellite phone, generally at about the same cost as
you'd pay for making an outgoing call yourself (ie $1 -
$2/minute). This is called 'two stage calling'.
Should you rent or buy an
Iridium satellite phone?
Iridium phones are expensive
to buy, and most potential users of an Iridium phone will only
have occasional rather than daily need of using the phone.
These factors encourage many people to consider renting a phone
for the times it may be needed, rather than owning one outright.
renting a phone from [the company no longer in business], you
would have been paying $9/day, plus an optional extra $6/day
for insurance. They charged you $2/minute for
outgoing calls; incoming calls are free, and playing back
voicemail is $1.50/minute.
renting a phone from another company, you'll be paying $19/day or less, depending on the
number of days you rent the phone (most rentals will
probably be at a rate of either $11 or $7/day), plus you might
choose to pay a flat $5 extra to have a second battery (included
with the out-of-business company).
Outgoing calls are at a rate of $1.70/minute.
Both also offer data kits so
you can use the phone as a (very slow) modem possibly included
at no extra charge, possibly with an extra fee for the data kit.
buy a phone, you'll be paying an upfront
charge of about $1495, but then you will save on rental fees and will
probably pay a lower cost per minute for airtime as well.
There are a range of different plans available, variously where
you either prepurchase minutes that remain valid for up to two
years (depending on the quantity of minutes prepurchased) or pay
monthly minimum amounts that include varying amounts of airtime
and pay extra if going over your included minutes, same as most
cell phone accounts. The lowest rate available seems to be $25/month with no minutes included
- this is best for people simply wanting to keep a phone available
in case of emergency).
So where is the breakeven
point for renting compared to buying? If you
are renting a phone at $11/day and using 5 minutes of airtime a
day, then it would take about 125 days of usage at this level to
compensate for the higher upfront but lower ongoing cost of
owning your own phone.
If you are wanting a
satellite phone as an emergency preparedness item - for example,
if you live in an area where hurricanes can occur, then plainly,
because you can't plan ahead for such things, you need to
consider buying a phone to have it on hand, rather than renting
one as and when needed.
Add to the simple
ownership/rental cost equation a
factor to allow for the greater convenience and pleasure of
owning your own phone and always having it available, and fairly
soon the concept of owning your own satellite phone becomes
appealing and affordable.
This table lists the type of
users who may be better suited to rent or purchase a satellite
suited to rent
suited to own
Infrequent adventure traveler
user of service
Infrequent ocean cruiser
If you buy your phone, you
can choose from many different levels of service contract.
The lowest monthly contract is $25/month, with no free minutes
included, and all outgoing minutes charged at $1.50. The
highest monthly contract is $270/month which includes 240
minutes, and extra minutes are charged at $1/minute.
As an alternative, you can
avoid the monthly fee and simply buy prepaid packages of
minutes. The least expensive to buy is a 75 minute package
for $135 (ie $1.80/minute); the most expensive is a 5000 minute
package costing $4,250 (ie 85c/minute). These packages of
prepaid airtime have varying validity periods - in the case of
the basic 75 minute package, you must use your time within a
month or lose it; and in the case of the maximum 5000 minute
package, you have two years to use the airtime.
How much does it cost people
to call you
This is a potential trap.
Iridium phones have their own 'country code' and not all regular
long distance services will allow people to call that 'country'
as part of your calling plan. And, if people can call the
Iridium code, they might find the cost per minute to be very
Fortunately, there's a
solution to this problem, what is called 'two stage calling'.
People who wish to call you first call a US number, and
then when that service answers, they then dial on to your
satellite phone. This means the person calling you pays
little or nothing a minute to call you. But you will then
pay a per minute cost yourself, comparable to the rate you pay
for outgoing calls (ie $1 - $2/minute). Overall, the total
cost is probably less than if your caller made a direct call to
your satellite number, but now you're paying for the call,
rather than your caller.
Read more in Part 1
the first part of this series, we
explain what satellite
phone service is and discuss the four different major types of
satellite phone service.
Iridium's satellite phone
service is not nearly as convenient as regular cell phone
service, and shouldn't be considered as an alternative. Any
time you can use regular mobile service, you're of course much
better advised to do so.
But, in cases where regular
phone service is not available - either because you're out of
coverage, or because of a disaster interfering with regular
service, then a satellite phone becomes the only game in town
and the minor inconveniences inherent in such service become
insignificant compared to what can sometimes be literally a life
saving ability to communicate with the rest of the world.
In addition to 'obvious'
uses for satellite service, consider renting (or buying) a
satellite phone next time you take an ocean cruise, and save
yourself the need to pay $10 or more a minute on ship to shore
phone service. $1.50 or so a minute for satellite service
suddenly seems attractive when compared to such prices!
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7 Apr 2006, last update
21 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.