Satellite phones allow people in remote locations to make phone calls from pretty much anywhere in the world. We dug in to find the best satellite phone and plan for off-grid adventures around the globe.
Satellite text messengers are popular tools for backcountry communications. Created as an affordable alternative to satellite phones, the price gap between satellite text and voice services continues to narrow. Monthly voice plans now start as low as $65 — with a free phone. Why text when you can make a voice call?
For abbreviated exchanges, a quick SMS message usually works perfectly. For conversations demanding a high degree of detail and large volumes of information, nothing beats a voice-to-voice dialogue.
When a Call Is Better Than a Text
Last winter while traversing Chile’s Atacama Desert, our Toyota Hilux inexplicably died, leaving us stranded on a mountain at 17,000 feet. After a volley of sat-phone calls to friends and mechanics in three countries, we diagnosed the problem as an antitheft system gone haywire.
One final call to Chile’s national police put our extraction in motion with no delay or drama. We could have achieved the same result with our satellite communication device, but voice calls undoubtedly expedited the resolution.
Breakdowns in the Andes aside, you don’t have to travel far to justify a satellite phone. Cellular service in the backcountry of North America is terrible. Drive an hour from Denver, and you might as well be in Mongolia.
Best Affordable Satellite Phones, Plans
Although only three providers dominate the satellite phone market, it’s difficult to know which to choose. Iridium, Globalstar, and Inmarsat all make great products backed by billion-dollar satellite networks. The best option for you hinges on one variable: where you plan to put it to use.
The first step in selecting a provider is comparing coverage maps. Iridium’s 66 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites offer connectivity to 100% of the globe.
Inmarsat’s four satellites rotate in geosynchronous orbit over the equator at a staggering height of 32,000 miles. At such a lofty position, they cover 90% of the planet only missing sight of the poles.
Globalstar’s constellation of 48 LEO satellites, once chided for spotty coverage, continues to improve. Nonetheless, vast swaths of the world remain outside Globalstar’s reach, making it a non-starter for some users.
The Inmarsat IsatPhone 2 consistently rates as the best value in satellite voice communications. Third-party retailers regularly offer free phones with the purchase of a yearly contract. My free phone, which has not left my side in a year, came with 70 minutes of monthly talk time for just $60. For an extra $5, unused minutes roll over. Deals seem to come and go quickly, so time your purchase accordingly.
As a technical tool, the IsatPhone 2 includes several useful features. The dedicated SOS button connects to the GEOS dispatch center in Texas for one-touch emergency notifications. Capable of sending SMS texts and brief email messages, the battery provides an unmatched 8 hours of talk time and 160 hours on standby. Although it’s not the most compact phone available, it redeems itself with a weather-resistant housing, large color display, tactile buttons, and intuitive menu navigation.
Field notes: When used throughout most of North, Central, and South America, the IsatPhone 2 almost always found a satellite. The geosynchronous satellites, which remain stationary overhead, virtually eliminate the chance of dropped calls. But getting a connection isn’t always a given.
In deep mountain valleys of the Himalayas and the Peruvian Andes, the IsatPhone 2 sometimes struggled to connect. Relocating to higher ground usually solved the issue. If I have one complaint, the sound quality and slight delay are a bit bothersome. Then again, it’s impressive for a signal bounced off a tiny satellite 32,000 miles away.
Owners of Garmin inReach Explorer and Bivystick text-messengers know the Iridium name well. As a longtime Iridium customer, I have sent and received more than 3,000 messages over the network from four continents. Whether in the Amazon Basin or the fjords of Iceland, I seem to always get a signal.
Although it’s often the most expensive option for voice calls, it’s still affordable. The Iridium 9555 phone currently retails for $1,500, with select deals dropping the price to $799. A 90-minute talk plan now starts at $89. That’s not cheap, but that’s half the cost of what it was just a few years ago.
The main reason to pay the premium for Iridium, outside of the extensive coverage, is the reception quality. In January, I used an Iridium 9555 in Nepal to call a U.S.-based doctor to help diagnose and treat a badly infected foot. The Iridium LEO satellites, positioned only 1,200 miles above, provide crystal-clear communications.
The downside of LEO satellite reception is most noticeable in valleys and canyons where the line of sight to satellites overhead is compromised. Dropped calls are not uncommon, as satellites streak across the sky and sometimes travel out of reach. All the same, Iridium makes a superb phone backed by an impressive network.
Field notes: The Iridium 9555 is convenient because of its robust build and compact size, even at the sacrifice of battery life. With just 4 hours of talk time, a second battery is a must. I also like having the programmable SOS button linked to the GEOS dispatch center for easy emergency notifications. Above all, it’s the sound quality I appreciate most. During the lengthy discussions with our mechanic in Chile, I heard his every word clearly.
Best known as the network behind the ubiquitous SPOT Messenger, Globalstar is a relative newcomer to voice communications. The Globalstar GSP-1700, the brand’s first and only phone, is a fine product with 4 hours of talk time, fast data speeds for quick transmission of texts and coordinates, and voice quality on par with (if not better than) Iridium. As an added convenience, Globalstar phones use a U.S.-based phone number without an additional fee.
Good deals on the GSP-1700 come and go, with $500 being a fairly consistent sale price when purchased with an annual subscription plan. If you’re inclined to pull the trigger, now’s the time. If you buy direct from the brand’s website, the phone is free with talk plans starting at just $65 for 150 monthly minutes.
Prospective buyers of the GSP-1700 must carefully evaluate the coverage map to ensure they won’t slip outside the network. For most users in North America, getting a solid signal won’t be an issue. If you plan to venture into Asia, Africa, or popular destinations in Central and South America, you’re better off with Iridium or Inmarsat.
Field notes: During a year of testing in remote parts of the United States and Central America, the GSP-1700 did okay, but not as well as it should have in areas with excellent views of the sky. When it couldn’t connect, waiting long enough for a satellite to come into range often solved the problem. Once again, even shallow valleys and canyons were enough to block signals to LEO satellites. If you currently use a SPOT Messenger, you already have a good idea where the GSP-1700 will and will not work.
The Impossible Nature of Direct Comparisons
As much as I would love to pick one phone and network as the ultimate winner, it’s simply not in the cards. Where and when you attempt to make a call has a direct impact on the ability to connect to satellites.
While camped in Alaska, I was able to place a call in the morning with a Globalstar phone, but not in the evening. The Inmarsat phone failed to get a signal at all until we relocated to the next valley over. At a camp near Tibet, the Iridium phone was useless, but the Inmarsat phone connected in seconds.
Every phone had moments when it just could not make the link. A shift in time and place is the only remedy.
International Travel and Satellite Phones
During the 5 years I spent compiling these impressions around the world, each destination required strict attention to satellite phone regulations. Many countries require expensive permits or ban satellite phones outright. Failure to obtain the necessary permissions can result in a confiscated phone or stiff fines.
And it gets worse. In India, where satellite phones are illegal, unwitting travelers with phones in their luggage are regularly tossed in jail. Know before you go.
Talk or Text Messaging: Which Is Best?
Before you chuck your inReach, SPOT, or Bivystick satellite messengers, evaluate the features you currently use and like. Satellite phones are great, but most don’t offer tracking features, GPS navigational aids, or detailed maps. In that regard, a satellite messenger might be your best bet.
As the cost of satellite phones and services continues to drop, one thing remains constant. When you’re in a jam far from home, hearing a friendly voice on the other end of a phone is priceless.