Handheld Satellite Phone Solutions for Travellers

ExplorOz Member on IsatPhone Pro
The aim of this article is to provide a simple overview of the current satphone environment in Australia - assisting recreational, outback travellers make informed decisions when considering the purchase (or hire) of a handheld satellite phone for use on their next trip.
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Article By: Michelle Martin. Revised 26 Sept 2013 (June 2008)
Latest Feedback: 10 Dec 2014

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Go to top Determining your Needs

There are vast gaps in the mobile network coverage here in Australia. In fact, you don't have to travel far from a town or city to drop out of mobile service range.

For this reason, there is a genuine requirement for some travellers to look at satellite phones for use on trips and especially to know it can be used in emergencies when no other methods of communication are available.

Making sense of all the options available to you to determine what network, what handset, and what plan to choose is the hardest part. Ever-present of course, is the advancing technology and consequent changes in network offerings and pricing plans.

Essentially, there are a range of solutions and some are better catered for different user groups. Certainly, you may find yourself in need of using a satphone for both recreation and business, and perhaps overseas too. Identifying your needs for satphone use will be the determining factor in what option you choose, as your needs will invariably differ to the next person. It would therefore be impossible for us to provide a simple, comprehensive article to be of use to all satphone users, so for the purposes of this article, we will only concentrate on handheld satellite phone usage in outback Australia, by recreational vehicle travellers. This will of course, simplify the nature of this article as it will eliminate some of the other satellite phone options

Top 5 Considerations

There are always threads on the Forum asking “which is the best network provider?”, “which is the best handset?”, “which is the cheapest plan?” but these aren’t actually the questions that will help you move forward in your quest for your best satellite phone solution. In fact, when reviewing Forum threads in preparation for writing this article, we came across 5 key scenarios when you’ll want to use your satellite phone.
    1. Dialling 1800/13/1300 numbers:- some satphones/providers do not offer the ability to dial these type of numbers. Consider the numbers you use when making bill payments, contacting your insurance company, making warranty claims, etc. Most of your breakdown resolutions may require contacting one of these companies via their call centres, and often times it is time consuming/difficult to find an alternative contact number. Having the ability to dial these type of numbers was voted by ExplorOzers one of the top buying considerations, however all companies using a 1800/1300 numbers will also have a standard number so it is possible to get around this problem simply by gathering your important numbers before your trip.

    2. Dialling the Australian Emergency Call Centre 000/112:- in response to a mandate from the Australian Communications and Media Authority earlier this year, any satellite phone providers that could not offer Australian users the ability to call 000/112 were made to implement such a service. Prior to July 2013, this has been a problem area for some satellite phone users but it is our understanding that this issue has now been fully resolved across all carriers but you are urged to check this for yourself before signing any agreements.

    3. Inbound Calls/Text:- some satellite phone plans/networks are exceptionally costly for the caller to reach you. Don’t forget that carrying a satellite phone for “emergency use” is often a two-way requirement, ie. family members back home need a simple/cost effective way to contact you urgently (kids in trouble, parents fall ill, you are required back home urgently etc). The best solution to this scenario as voted by ExplorOzers is considered a plan that offers an Australian calling number (cheaper), and/or the provision of using a website to type a short message that is sent to your phone (free of charge to the sender).

    4. Prepaid Plans:- particularly relevant to ExplorOzers who may only require a satphone for a few weeks a year is the option to use a pre-paid plan. These enable you to avoid the commitment to fixed monthly service charges over a long period that you don’t require. You simply select the plan with the amount of included airtime you anticipate you need for a fixed time and a fixed cost. If you find you have underestimated your usage, you can simply “top up” your card and/or extend your plan through your service provider. Some providers will not offer prepaid plans, but will offer casual plans, which may be equally reasonable – depending on your particular needs.

    5. Government Subsidy Scheme:- originally intended to expire end June 2013, the Gillard Government extended the Satellite Phone Subsidy Scheme until 30 June 2014 so there is a great opportunity here to save up to 50% of the cost of a handset if you qualify. How it works is that if you do qualify, you will be able to buy a satellite mobile phone from a registered dealer for the retail price less the amount of the subsidy. On the surface, eligibility appears to be only available to those “living” outside of a cellular mobile service range, however if you can prove that you will spend more than 180 days in a 2 year period in out of service areas (such as remote area travelling, or many short trips to black-hole areas), you might still qualify.

    Furthermore, the Pivotel representative I spoke to in doing this article even mentioned a 4WD Club who qualified for the subsidy for a phone they loaned out to its Members. There are many options so take a good look.

    Note:- If you are eligible for the subsidy you must get approval before the handset is purchased. For all details, and an application form, go to the Australian Government, Dept of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy website.

    Given the change of Government there is comment in the industry that the Subsidy Scheme could yet be cut by the Abbott Government, so if you qualify don’t miss the boat.

Obviously, this list is not definitive and you might certainly have other requirements to take into consideration.

Go to top The 4 Satellite Networks

In Australia, we have access to 4 satellite networks, being Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya, and Globalstar Australia.

Of the 4 satellite networks available in Australia, we have 2 Geostationary (GEO) systems, and 2 Low-Earth Orbiting (LEO) systems.

Satellites in GEO systems are said to be in a “fixed” position in the sky. In actual fact, they move with the earth at the same speed, therefore completing one full revolution per day. The distance to the repeater means the transmitter (handset) needs a good aerial, which is why satphones on these networks use a directional antenna. Thuraya, and Inmarsat are the two GEO systems in Australia.

Satellites in LEO systems orbit very fast and low to the earth’s surface (completing an orbit every 100 minutes). LEO orbiting satellites generally consist of a constellation of many satellites working together. Because of the number of repeaters (satellites) in sight at any one time, antenna direction is not an issue, hence satphones on the LEO networks use omnidirectional antennas. Iridium and Globalstar are the two LEO systems in Australia.

Iridium

The Iridium network operates a LEO constellation (satellites orbit around the earth). From a usage perspective, one of the pros of a LEO constellation is that they enable satellite phones to be designed with omni-directional antennas. To use this network you will need an Iridium handset.

Until recently, Iridium was the favoured network provider by seasoned outback Australia travellers (ExplorOzers). It offers great coverage even in hilly areas, and up until recently it was the only network whose phones enabled 000/112 direct dialling. This feature is now available for all callers using satellite phones within Australia, so this point of difference is no longer a factor that favours Iridium over Inmarsat or another network for that matter. Iridium also offers users calling within Australia the ability to dial 1800/13/1300 numbers.

Iridium can provide the best coverage of the two LEO systems available in Australia (ie. compared to Globalstar) but due to the lack of Australian gateways in the Iridium network, users will notice voice delays. A call to an Iridium satellite in Australia is relayed via neighbouring satellites to the nearest ground station, located in another country. A small latency (delay) is introduced, which users notice.

Iridium has also just announced its future plan for Iridium NEXT to commence rollout during early 2015 with full deployment anticipated by the end of 2017. In short, NEXT is promising a new generation of satellite phone technology. Unfortunately, we were unable to find specific details on the plan to include in this article.

Get Connected

In Australia, Iridium is provided by Telstra, Pivotel and other independent service providers (ClientSat, Landwide, TC Communications etc).

Costs/Plans/Handsets

Iridium supports pre-paid options starting with 1 month plans, up to 2 year plans and post-paid plans of course. Plan costs and airtime charges vary across the different plans and providers so do your homework.

The basic Iridium 9555 handset has proven to be one of the most popular choices selected by travel users and comes complete with a full accessories kit (hands free, external antenna, data cable, car & wall chargers etc) and does the job at a good price.

Alternatively, there is also a little loophole using Global Roaming that enables Telstra cellular mobile phone users to use their Telstra Next G SIM card (not prepaid) in the current model Iridium 9555 or 9575 handsets (or in the older 9505a and 9505 models). Whilst call charges will be high, and charged for both incoming and outgoing calls, this can be an effective backup for people that simply want the peace of mind knowing they have a satphone handy, without having to pay for a separate satellite phone plan, and giving you the option to pick up an older model second hand handset or to even borrow one.
9555 9505A Extreme

Inmarsat

Inmarsat operates GEO (Geosynchronous) constellations (satellites do not orbit around the earth, instead they are in a fixed position relative in the sky to an Earth-based observer).

The Inmarsat network has 2 active satellites covering Australia, one of them services the West and Centre, whilst the East is covered by the other one. Inmarsat is not a truly global service as it does not service the poles, however this is not a consideration for the user group of this article. In any case, to use the phone you will need to position your antenna at the satellite, so some knowledge of how to use the phone is required to establish a network connection and make a call. You will also need a clear line of sight to that position in the sky i.e. clear of buildings, mountains, tree foliage etc Whilst these functions may seem problematic to some users, you are unlikely to have connection troubles in the wide open deserts of Australia’s outback.

Prior to July 2013, Inmarsat users could not dial 000 or 112 to contact the regular Australian emergency call centre, however this feature has now been enabled and with the release of the new IsatPhone Pro handset there has been a sudden switch of popularity amongst the Australian outback travellers to look at some of the very competitive pricing plans and options available from Inmarsat.

The release of the new IsatPhone Pro handset has set the cat amongst the pigeons, so to speak. IsatPhone Pro is much more akin to the smartphones we have become accustomed to using. The spec sheets promote its exceptional voice clarity, the longest battery life of any handset on the market, SMS text messaging and email, Bluetooth support and an intuitive GSM-style interface with high-viz colour screen, large keypad for easy dialling (even with gloves), this handset also enables you to view your GPS location data, and sent it as a text/email. There are other inbuilt features that you take for granted in your smartphone like calendar, alarm, calculator, and would you believe it – Twitter!. These are features that are missing from all other satellite handsets. The phone also has contact synchronisation with Microsoft Outlook 2007 (PC) and is compatible with Windows XP Pro, SP3 and Windows Vista SP1, plus comes complete with all the necessary accessories (battery chargers, handsfree headset etc).

Get Connected

In Australia, Inmarsat is not provided by any of the 4 registered Australian telecommunications providers (Telstra, Optus, Pivotel, Vodafone), which means you cannot obtain an Australian calling number and to call out (even to Australian numbers) you need to include the international country code. Airtime on Inmarsat is provided by independent providers including TC Communications (recently acquired by Inmarsat), and ClientSat.

The providers do offer mechanisms for getting around the international dialling issues, such as a two-stage dialling service which routes calls through a local number, and the use of web-based message service to your handset (free).

Costs/Plans/Handsets

The Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro has the lowest handset price (at the time of writing), pre-paid plans are usually competitive and the phone is easy to use. The handset can also send its latitude/longitude as an SMS message, so in an emergency this SMS can be sent to a family member who is pre-briefed to alert emergency authorities if such a message is received.

Just as with Iridium, your friends/family can send a free SMS from web to your satphone (IsatPhone Pro) too. However beware of much higher call charges for people calling you on the Inmarsat plan (due to your international phone number). If you choose to go with Inmarsat then you should encourage your callers to only contact you via the free SMS option.

Inmarsat users calling within Australia need to ensure their handsets are running the latest version of the firmware (v5.3) to be able to dial the Australian emergency call centre on 000/112. However, at this stage, dialling 1800/13/1300 numbers through the Inmarsat network is not possible.

Inmarsat recently changed their expiry periods on prepaid cards and some providers who still hold stock of the older cards can offer good deals such as 100 minute pre-paid cards that are valid through to December 2014. Apparently, new Inmarsat Prepaid cards have maximum 6 month periods so it pays to shop around if these features are important to you.
IsatPhonePro

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Thuraya

The Thuraya satellite that services Australia is located in a GEO (geosynchronous) orbit. This satellite is fixed approximately over Singapore, giving travellers in northern and outback Australia the opportunity for exceptional service, however it could have limitations in southern extremities. Despite some coverage limitations, many Australian recreational outback travellers report good coverage for the majority of the outback tourism regions. Given there is currently some very new technology being launched right now, Thuraya has some good offerings worth considering.

Thuraya has been offered through Optus and AST for some time to Australians however using the network has previously been via an international Thuraya SIM, which has meant higher call charges.

Pivotel Australia however is currently in the final stages of commissioning Thuraya on their local network, which means Pivotel Thuraya customers will have Australian SIMs. The network is apparently only 1-2 weeks away from completion.

At this stage, Thuraya users cannot direct dial the 1800/1300 numbers but this service will be functional once the Pivotel Thurarya network is fully operational (1-2 months after start-up).

In terms of innovation, Thuraya has something unique that no other satellite network does – the SatSleeve. This is a satellite adapter which turns an ordinary iPhone into a combination of a GSM and satellite phone whilst also providing extended battery life and a dedicated emergency button for instant communications in remote locations. For people with a compatible phone, this could represent a significant saving by negating the need to purchase a handset.

Get Connected

Thuraya (International) airtime is provided in Australia by Optus and AST Australia. Thuraya Australia is offered by Pivotel.

Costs/Plans/Handsets

Thuraya users are offered 2 handsets, the XT (satellite-only phone which includes GPS navigation/tracking), and the XT Dual (a dual mode phone that works in either GSM model or in satellite mode). Plus, the new SatSleeve – currently compatible with iPhone4 & 5 (and S models), but will be released for Android next year (although only for the Samsung Galaxy S4).

Pivotel Thuraya do not plan to offer pre-paid satellite phone plans, however they are releasing casual plans starting from $15.
SatSleeve Thuraya XT Dual & XT

Globalstar Australia

You can forget all the bad publicity you’ve read about Globalstar. The aging satellites that plagued service in recent years have been decommissioned and the new satellites are up (the constellation consists of 32 satellites). The new Globalstar system will be robust and despite not being fully complete yet, it is already reporting 85-90% coverage.

Globalstar Australia is a LEO system that uses Australian gateways. Globalstar is different to Iridium in this respect in that signals from Globalstar satellites reach the ground via local ground stations (gateways) of which there are several. This results in no latency (delay) in the signal. A handset calls the satellite, which repeats the signal directly back to the earth. Users of the Globalstar network will notice exceptionally clear calls with no voice delay as a result.

As the new Globalstar system approaches 100% coverage and more satellites are in view at any time it is becoming increasingly tolerant of hilly and forested areas, however Globalstar Pivotel are currently advising that if travelling in the tropics of WA, Qld and NT, that the coverage would be weaker than if travelling in SA, and Vic.

Globalstar provides users with an Australian mobile phone number, meaning that inbound calls to the satphone are charged to the caller at standard mobile rates and at no charge to the receiver. This makes it very easy and economical for family and friends to stay in touch when you’re out in the bush. As with other satellite and mobile phone systems, Globalstar Australia supports the 000 and 112 emergency services and 1800/13/1300 dialling.

Get Connected

Globalstar airtime is provided in Australia exclusively by Pivotel (who also provide Iridium and therefore offer airtime on both the LEO systems).

Costs/Plans/Handsets

Pivotel does not offer Pre-paid Globalstar plans but has a $22 casual plan for those that are looking for a low-cost commitment. There is only one handset available, the GSP 1600. It supports voicemail and short incoming text messages, but not sending text messages. However it has an inbuilt data modem so it can be used with a laptop computer for simple, on-line text-based tasks such as sending and receiving text only emails through an email client. You will need an optional data cable to use this facility.
GSP 1600

Go to top How do mountains affect satphone signals?

Let's look at the two different satellite systems separately:-

First, a person on the ground trying to use a satphone on a GEO system (ie Inmarsat or Thuraya) needs to have a clear line of sight to the satellite (which is at least 36,000 km away). Where you are on the ground relative to the position of the satellite is a factor here because the closer your position (lat/long) to the satellite, the closer you get to near vertical signal direction. If the satellite is 60 degrees away, then the signal is reaching upwards at 30 degrees from the horizontal so only obstructions that are high enough to interrupt that signal will disrupt communications.

But reaching the satellites is also an issue for a person on the ground trying to use a satphone on a LEO system (ie Globalstar or Iridium). The altitude of these LEO constellations and the number of satellites in each (Iridium 66 satellites at 800 km, Globalstar 48 satellites at 1400 km) are designed to ensure that the user can see more than one satellite at any time, but if you are in a gully there is every chance that the view of all close LEO satellites is fully or partially obstructed. Furthermore, the LEO system depends on the uplinked signal reaching a "moving" satellite, so even if you can make contact, the call is highly likely to drop out as the particular satellite being accessed passes out of the window of view from the gully, before another satellite has come into view through that window.

LEO satellites (Globalstar & Iridium) actually work best when the user is closer to a pole because the satellites are more closely aligned in that plane. Conversely, because they are furthest apart from each other at the equator, accessing a LEO satellite is more difficult in mountainous terrain as you get closer to the equator. In Australia, that could cause potentially cause communication problems in Kakadu or the Kimberley.

Go to top Why some satphones have international numbers?

Due to the deregulation of the telecommunications industry, independent airtime providers can offer you service on any of the 4 Satellite Networks but beware of one simple fact – only the 4 Australian licensed mobile telecommunications companies – namely Telstra, Optus, Pivotel, and Vodafone, can provide you with an Australian call number and Australian direct dial services. If you choose to purchase airtime from independent airtimes providers, you will be given an international phone number and when you make calls you’ll be using the international prefixes. There are some exceptions, where the independent provider has setup a call routing system to allow you to use a local number and many also provide excellent web-based messaging systems that are free and easy for your friends/family to contact you. It’s just worth noting these things before you sign up.

Go to top Smartphone to Satellite Communicators

Whilst the SatSleeve is indeed an innovative first in smartphone to satellite voice communications, it is not the first device that has offered a smartphone-to-satellite communication solution.

Here’s a quick summary of other non-voice smart-phone to satellite devices:

SPOT Connect

the Spot Connect, is a small device that you connect via bluetooth to your smartphone when needed. At a little over $200, it’s a robust value-for-money solution that is much cheaper than buying a handset, however it will not provide voice call service. Vehicle tracking can also be activated through this device (compatible with EOTrackMe). Whilst the SPOT Connect only provides you with basic data button functions that access the satellite network to send custom email and text messages via satellites to your contacts or the AMSA and is a “send only” device, it is nevertheless an effective one-way satellite communicator with some nifty features to suit remote area travellers. Of course, as with all satellite devices, you will also need a subscription plan for your satellite service (purchased direct from Spot, which in Australia is operated by Pivotel).

inReach Satellite Communicator

the inReach has the ability to deliver 2 way messaging and once paired with a compatible smartphone or tablet, becomes a 2 way communication device which can be utilised anywhere on earth. Using the Pivotel Iridium satellite network it offers complete global coverage. ExplorOz is an authorised distributor of the inReach device, however to activate your service you will need to go via the Delorme inReach website to subscribe to a plan). InReach plans have a minimum 12 month term and start from $19.95 per month.

Go to top Final Comments

The difference between the 4 satellite networks is really in the coverage and service you can expect for the area in which you’ll be using it. None are stand outs in all circumstances, but perhaps this article has helped you understand how to determine what system will be more optimal in particular conditions.

For wide open spaces in central Australia you can really go with any of the networks as neither GEO or LEO systems will limit your use in any specific way. Your choice of provider essentially comes down to other personal factors and pricing options for your volume of use.

As with all ExplorOz articles, we have taken no payment from any provider or network in preparing this article to ensure the information we provide is as impartial as possible. However, we recommend going direct to the providers' websites for further detailed information, especially on pricing and other options and variations that aren't covered by this article.

Special mention and thanks to Colin, Bruce, Phil, & Frank for their technical critique and proof reading of the final draft.

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Go to top Tags

Satphone, Iridium, Globalstar, Inmarsat, Thuraya, Satsleeve, Satellite Communicators, Inreach, Spot Connect, Smartphone To Satellite Communicators