Satellite phones.

Compared to GSM (Cell) phones satellite phones are large, heavy, expensive to buy and slow when used for data. In fact they have very little going for them except that some of them work on top of a mountain in Tibet (or Kyrgyzstan, or Azerbaijan) and if that is where your campervan has broken down then that is what matters.

There are at least five satellite phone systems available (Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya, ACeS and Globalstar) but only two (Iridium and Inmarsat) are likely to be of interest to a campervaner intending to travel world wide.

Because Iridium phones are smaller and cheaper than Inmarsat ones (and because I have an Iridium phone) this web page is concerned primarily with the Iridium systems.

What do they cost?

In very round terms a new Iridium phone (e.g. a Motorola Series 9505 above) will cost you about $1500USA to buy and about $1.50USA per minute to use. There are still (in 2003) a very few old Iridium phones about that can be bought for about $700USA, they work just as well as the new ones but are more bulky. To add data capability to a suitable Iridium phone costs about $400USA (data calls are also charged at about $1.50USA per minute) All costs exclude VAT which will be added in the UK. Calls to Iridium phones, except from other Iridium phones, are very expensive (up to $6.00USA per minute) for the caller but free for the recipient.

Although $1.50USA per minute seems high the practical alternative is probably a UK based GSM (Cell) phone. As an example the price charged by Cellnet to call the UK from China (in 2002) using a UK GSM phone is approximately $1.59USA (excluding VAT)

You can send "text" (SMS) messages to (but not from) an Iridium phone. Rather surprisingly this is free both for the sender and the recipient.

How well do they work.

Iridium phones require a good view of the sky to work. Outside on top of a mountain is fine. Outside in a city with tall buildings around is possible some of the time, but you may well get cut off. Inside your campervan is no-go without an external antenna (about $150USA) but remember not to park under a tree. When they work the sound quality is poor compared to a GSM (Cell) phone.

Accessing the Internet.

Forget "surfing" the web. The data rate that is available from an Iridium phone is only about 2400bps (compared with 9600bps for most GSM phones and 30,000-45,000bps for a POTS line). However because Iridium provide access to the Internet via their own server with compression it is possible to send and receive text e-mail via an Iridium phone.

In very round terms you can send and/or receive three or four one page e-mails for about $4.00USA. For more information about keeping in contact when traveling click here (soon!).

Are they legal?

Technically you need permission to use a satellite phone in many countries (including China). In practice I have never heard of anybody having problems (Updated 2004, Oh yes I have!) but it is probably best to be discreet

Is it worth the cost?

On the China 2002 trip two of the nine vans had Iridium phones. Although GSM (Cell) phones worked in most places there were a few spots (Georgia(?) and large parts of Tibet) where only the Iridium phones worked On a couple of occasions in Tibet having an Iridium phone proved very valuable and reassuring. One Iridium phone on a trip like China 2002 is probably a good investment.

Home - This page last changed on 2005-01-24