Portable Satellite Phones: Communicating Off the Grid, by Jon Aldrich

If you’re reading this blog you are no doubt already well along on preparedness spectrum, finding yourself someplace between never in America and not if but when, more likely you’re nearer the latter.  You’re probably well versed in all aspects of food procurement, preparation and storage, water purification, providing shelter and security for yourselves and your families as well many of the other nuances related to preparing for future contingencies.  There is a world of good information available on all these subjects and more and, for most of it you need look no further than right here on the SurvivalBlog.

One key question is how we will communicate when land lines and cell phones are no longer dependable.  There is precious little available on the traditional information sources relating to communications, especially communications specific to person-to-person private communications.  This article is one person’s attempt to mitigate that void.

Walkie-Talkies and Ham Radios

Whenever interests do seem to drift to communications, walkie-talkies and ham-radios seem to be consensus topics of discussion.  Don’t get me wrong.  Some 2 Meter handie-talkies should be a part of everyone’s inventory, as should a good general coverage short wave radio receiver.  Transmitting via HF shortwave comes with its own set of complications.  It requires course instruction, licensing, a sizeable capital investment in equipment [especially for high power HF] and it may also necessitate significantly compromising one’s privacy and anonymity. (The home addresses for most hams are available online.)  Again, there is already considerable information out on the Internet and in the SurvivalBlog archives, relative to these subjects so I’ll not delve any further into it here. 

 

A Short History of Portable Satellite Communications                         

Satellite communication technology has evolved over the years not unlike the evolutionary progression of other technological innovation.  Take computers for example.  Early computers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and required a degree from MIT to operate them.  They filled complete rooms, even requiring their own air conditioning systems.  Only the largest of corporations could afford them.  Now computers are small enough to fit in your pocket.  They can be operated by small children and they are affordable by nearly everyone.

Similarly, just 30 years ago a satellite communication terminal would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to purchase, it would have required the same MIT degree to operate and it would have taken several strong backs just to transport it. 

In 1995 the MSAT constellation was launched with a footprint covering North and Central America and with it came the first portable satellite terminal.  Eye popping at the time, the MSAT constellation supported the briefcase sized Mitsubishi ST151, weighing in at 30 pounds and costing approximately $3,500.  While representing a significant breakthrough in satellite communications, the ST151 would dominate the portable satellite terminal market for less than one year.  Hand held, as in “hand held satellite telephone”, was not even in our vocabulary yet.

1996 ushered in a truly revolutionary phase in personal mobile sat comms with the launching of the mini-M terminal, supported by the Inmarsat satellite constellation, the first commercially available constellation with a world-wide footprint.

Priced about the same as the ST151, the mini-M weighed in at less than 6 pounds.   Virtually plug and play, the laptop sized mini-M also supported slow speed data transmission, heretofore unheard of in personal satellite communications.  Perhaps the most significant advancement of the mini-M was the improved quality of the voice transmission.  Also, unlike the 151, which had a North America footprint only, the mini-M could be used virtually anywhere in the world.  As significant a break through as the mini-M was, and it was significant, it would dominate the portable satellite communications market for less than two years. 

In 1998 Iridium launched its worldwide canopy of 66 satellites and rolled out the first handheld satellite phone.  Slightly smaller than the early bag cellular phone, the Iridium handheld would again revolutionize personal portable satellite communications.  Just a few years later that bag sized phone would shrink in size and cost less than $1,000.00.  Iridium, for the first time, made personal satellite communications affordable to the masses.  Now just about anyone who had reason to travel beyond land line or cellular service had an affordable communications option.    

As with the development of many industries, there have been breakthroughs and advances to satellite technology followed by failures and set-backs.  Not every constellation has been successful from the outset.  Competition remains fierce as satellite providers vie for market share.  The ultimate beneficiary of all of this will be, as it always is, the consumer.  There are currently 4 Satellite Networks available, Iridium, Inmarsat, Globalstar and Thuraya.

There are pros and cons to each constellation.  The purpose of this article going forward is to help you evaluate those pros and cons so that you can determine the best choice for you.  It’s not difficult.  There is overlap.  There’s no right or wrong to this process.  It’s just a matter of understanding what’s available and how the choices mesh with your needs.  A comparison chart has been provided which includes technical specs on each phone.

 

 

Models

 

IRIDIUM EXTREME

IRIDIUM EXTREME

ISATPHONE PRO

THURAYA XT

Size

140 x 60 x 27 mm

143 x 55 x 30 mm

170 x 54 x 39 mm

128 x 53 x 26.5 mm

Weight

247 g

266 g

279 g

193 g

Display

Glare-Resistant LCD Display

Glare-Resistant LCD Display

Monochrome Display

Glare-Resistant Color Display

Antenna Design

Retractable Omni-Directional Antenna

Retractable Omni-Directional Antenna

Fold-Out Directional Antenna

Retractable Omni-Directional Antenna

Durability Specs

Military Grade (MIL-STD 810F)

n/a

n/a

IK 03 (for shock)

Ingress Protection

Dust proof, jet water resistant (IP65)

n/a

Dust resistant, splash resistant (IP54)

Dust resistant, splash resistant (IP54)

Network

66 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites orbiting 485 miles from earth

66 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites orbiting 485 miles from earth

3 Geostationary (GEO) satellites in fixed orbit 22,000 miles from earth

2 Geostationary (GEO) satellites in fixed orbit 22,000 miles from earth

Coverage

Global, pole-to-pole coverage

Global, pole-to-pole coverage

Coverage over 3 regions

Coverage over 2 regions

Mobility

Talk and move freely 66 Low Earth Orbit satellites overhead

Talk and move freely 66 Low Earth Orbit satellites overhead

Talk with regional mobility limitations 3 Geostationary satellites in fixed location

Talk with regional mobility limitations. 2 Geostationary satellites in fixed locations

Phone Registration

Network registration

Network registration

Requires GPS fix and network registration

Requires GPS fix and network registration

Time to Power on and Make Call

Under 30 seconds

Under 30 seconds

72-120 seconds

Up to 1 minute

Ability to receive incoming calls

Capable of incoming call notification

Capable of incoming call notification

Capable of incoming call notification

Capable of incoming call notification

Ability to send/receive SMS Messages 

if antenna extended or retracted

if antenna extended or retracted

if antenna extended or retracted

if antenna extended or retracted

Ability to send/receive SMS Messages

Supported

Supported

Supported

Supported

Ability to connect to laptop

Supported

Supported

Supported

Supported

Battery Talk Time

3.5 hours

4 hours

8 hours

6 hours

Battery Stand By Time

30 hours

30 hours

100 hours

80 hours

 

IRIDIUM

If you know anything at all about hand held satellite telephones no doubt you have heard of Iridium.  It’s become almost a generic term for the product.

The 66 low earth orbit (LEO) satellites comprising the Iridium constellation were commercially rolled out for service in 1998.  Initially the Iridium business model failed and Iridium filed for bankruptcy, going off line for a year or so.  Although hard to see at the time, this may have been a good thing for the industry in the long run in that it resulted in much more competitive pricing and a much simplified model for usage pricing, two things that survive to this day and apply to all handheld options.  Although the Iridium constellation is older the satellites continue to function efficiently. 

Characteristics of a low earth orbit canopy of satellites:

  • Satellite’s position with respect to the users location on the earth surface is continually changing as the earth rotates under the fixed canopy of satellites.  During extended conversations this dynamic can result in the user being passed off from one satellite to the next as one satellite exits proximity and the next enters.  It happens infrequently but this passing off can result in a call being dropped.
  • Quicker set up and registration process when initiating a call.
  • Less latency during conversation.  Latency refers to the amount of time that passes between the time you stop speaking and the time the other party hears what you said.
  • Iridium is a fully duplex terminal meaning, even if both parties talk over each other both ultimately will hear what the other person said.
  • Direct over-head satellite access facilitating usage particularly when operating in populated areas, among buildings or in mountainous regions where clear line of sight to the satellite could be obstructed.  (More on this later when we discuss the comparison with geosynchronous satellite orbits.)
  • Better coverage at the higher and lower latitudes.
  • The Iridium 9555 and Extreme 9575 are unquestionably the most ruggedized of all handhelds.

INMARSAT

Inmarsat is the oldest of the commercial communications constellations having been operational for over 30 years.  It is perhaps the most financially viable of any of the constellations.  Arguably the most powerful of all communications satellites, Inmarsat’s three new F4 birds, in service for just over 3 years, enjoy the longest remaining “projected” useful life of any constellation in operation.

Unlike the LEO Iridium constellation, Inmarsat’s high earth orbit (HEO) satellites orbit the earth at 22,000 miles directly over the equator.  The users position with respect to the satellite remains fixed, much the same as television satellites do.  Consequently the Isatphone Pro remains attached to the same satellite for the duration of the call.   No system is perfect so, while the Isatphone Pro may occasionally drop a call, it will not be caused by transferring a call from one satellite to the next.

Because all satellite terminals require clear line of sight between the antenna and the satellite, issues can arise which affect the ability to see the bird.  This is particularly true if operating at extreme high or low latitudes where clear line of sight to the satellite might be obstructed by the horizon or even buildings or terrain. 

Another feature, which might be considered a double edged sword, is the fact that the Isatphone Pro requires a GPS fix prior to operating.  Obviously this can be advantageous in an emergency situation when it would be helpful to automatically transmit your position via SMS.  There is also the possibility of compromising security in the event the user does not want his position known.

The Isatphone Pro is the most recent addition to the handheld market, having rolled out commercially just over three years ago.  It’s compact design, affordable price point and ease of use has contributed to its commercial success. 

GLOBALSTAR

I’ll mention Globalstar only briefly.  Re-launched in 2006, the LEO Globalstar constellation initially endured a myriad of problems and equipment failures resulting in a reputation for unreliability.  I know that Globalstar is diligently working to re-establish its credibility in the marketplace. [JWR Adds: On August 28, 2013, it was announced that after a one billion dollar investment, Globalstar has resumed full operations, with their second generation constellation of satellites. So it is now functionally comparable with Iridium. Time will tell if they’ve successfully worked all of the kinks out. Most industry analysts are confident that they have.] 

THURAYA

The Thuraya constellation consists of two high earth orbit (HEO) satellites in similar orbits to those of Inmarsat.  Since there are only two satellites (compared with Inmarsat’s three) Thuraya cannot provide worldwide coverage.  The Americas are not within the Thuraya footprint.  Thuraya covers most of Europe, Northern Africa, Asia and Australia.

Thuraya is not without its attributes.  It supports high speed data.  The actual handsets are considerably smaller than either the Iridium or Isatphone Pro.  Thuraya handsets are comparably priced with the Isatphone Pro. 

None of us know what is going to happen, if it’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, how long it’s going to last or how bad it’s going to be.  Neither do we know how much warning we’ll have, if any.  We only know this can’t end well.  We prepare for the worst but we hope for the best. 

Now I know that preparing is about establishing self-reliance, off the grid self-reliance.  Don’t need anyone for anything.  Yet man is not an island.  We are social animals and that is not going to change regardless of what does or does not happen.  It may have to take a back seat for a while but we’re not going to change. 

Imagine for a moment, not being able to personally communicate with anyone outside of shouting distance.   Just because things might go to hell in a hand basket doesn’t mean we no longer will need to communicate with our kids on the other side of the country, or our parents in Florida or Arizona not to mention our “group”… which just may not be where we need them to be when it hits the fan.  Again, if we had a clear road map as to how this will all ultimately go down, well, we may not need a lot of things.  But we don’t.   

Handheld satellite telephones (even the more expensive models) are a fraction of the cost of ham radio equipment.  They require no license or registration.   They require no formal instruction in fact, if you can operate a cell phone you can operate a sat phone.  Perhaps most importantly, they allow for personal and private one to one communications with anyone on the planet, at any time, for any reason.

I know we’re not all in same place on the preparedness spectrum and it can be almost impossible to talk with family or friends who may not yet see the world as we see it, but people change.  We did.  They will too. 

Make a list of those folks with whom you would like to remain in contact.  It may be a short list to start but it will grow as more and more people become enlightened.  Exchange satellite phone numbers with each other.  Establish a list of contacts.  Consider the possibility of someone maintaining a discreet list of like-minded satellite phone owners.  It’s not far-fetched.  It may be a new idea to many of us but not to all.  Lists like this already exist all over the country.

About the Author: I’m a survivalist and an entrepreneur with a passion for blue water sailing.  My wife and I founded International Satellite Services in 1996 while living on a remote island in the Northwest Caribbean. Our company provides portable satellite Internet and voice solutions for individuals and businesses operating in remote areas off the grid.  We provide services via the Inmarsat, Iridium, Lightsquared and Thuraya Satellite Networks.

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