How Satellite Phones Work


Sat Phones Flatten Wallets
Launching and maintaining satellite networks is expensive business. That’s why sat phone airtime costs an arm and leg (and maybe another arm).
Launching and maintaining satellite networks is expensive business. That’s why sat phone airtime costs an arm and leg (and maybe another arm).
Courtesy TerreStar

Compared to their ubiquitous cell phone counterparts, sat phones are a fringe technology. As with so many exceptional devices, they are more costly to use than more pedestrian phones. Prices may vary substantially depending on whether your provider uses geostationary or LEO satellites.

Regardless of provider, the terminals and handsets are always more expensive than cell phones. In a time when many cell phone service providers give phones away for free, sat phones cost a minimum of a few hundred dollars. As of 2013, for a better-than-average LEO handset, you can easily drop around $1,000. For a briefcase-sized geosynchronous-compatible phone, you'll blow spend several thousand dollars.

Yet that initial investment will likely be a drop in the proverbial bucket. Because to make calls, you'll spend a good chunk of money per minute. Prices vary greatly depending on the provider and who you're calling, but it's not uncommon to spend around $1 per minute and nearly the same for a single text message. Receiving calls is an even pricier proposition, especially if the call originates from a landline. In those situations, you may wind up paying several dollars per minute. That price jumps much, much higher if you're calling a phone in another satellite company's network.

Satellite company operators clearly understand that their services are much more expensive than a typical cell phone plan. That's why they often sell minutes as pre-paid plans. You're less likely to mindlessly run up bankruptcy-inducing bills if you've already spent that money in advance.

You may be able to dodge some calling fees by investing in a dual-mode sat phone. These phones are compatible with regular cell phone networks, and by default, they'll route your communications through them. But in times with you're out of cell tower range, the phone will switch to satellite mode, meaning you'll almost always have service.

Or, instead of jumping in by buying a phone, you can also consider a rental. You'll be able to rent a basic terminal or handset for just a few dollars a day. So, for shorter trips or when you're just trying out the service, rentals are a money-saving option.

Sky-high prices aside, sat phones fill a very noticeable gap in our age of omnipresent communications. Without them, many of the areas of the world would be unreachable by phone. And when you really need to make that call, there's no price too high to pay.

Author's Note

Satellite phone technology is currently red hot in some regions of the world -- most notably, areas of conflict and disaster where regular cell communication isn't possible. Still, the future of sat phones is at best rather murky. Constantly expanding cell coverage means former satellite-only customers have more ground-based (and thus, more affordable) options. Yet as sat phone networks get savvier and the world gets more technologically chaotic, you may find one day that a sat phone is the only thing between you and dead air.

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