How To Satellite Phones

How To Select A Satellite Phone

Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone

For the first time buyer of a satellite phone, the selection process isn’t akin to your last cell phone purchase.  Now you’re leaving the terrestrial world and are headed to space.  The various satellite phone operators provide different areas of coverage around the globe and use different technologies, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) versus Geo-Stationary Orbit (GEO), which need to be factored into your decision making process.

Important factors for choosing the best phone for your needs are:

  • Where will you need to use the phone geographically?
  • What is the terrain that you will need to operate in – mountains, plains, deep in a tree canopy?
  • Is it for emergency only use or will you use it on a regular basis?
  • How many minutes of phone calling do you expect to do on a monthly basis?
  • Will you require any type of data services for email, Internet access or GPS tracking?
  • Will you want to operate the satellite phone while in a vehicle or inside of a building?

Comparing Satellite Phone Coverage

Each satellite operator has different coverage areas for the use of their technology.  Iridium is the only provider that offers complete global coverage, from pole to pole.  Inmarsat offers near global coverage but has limitations in the polar regions, such as northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland and parts of Russia.  Thuraya provides regional coverage for most of Africa, Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia.  Ligado Networks provides regional coverage of North America, the Caribbean and parts of Central America. Globalstar coverage is limited, and often time of day based, due to issues with their satellite fleet.

Need To See the Sky

Even if your area of operation is within the coverage footprint of a satellite operator, the terrain in your area of operation will impact usage and should be factored into your decision making process.  All satellite communications operates on the premise of clear line of sight to the satellite(s).  Operating under a tree canopy or deep in a canyon can impede your look angles or line of sight.  With the GEO operators (Inmarsat, Ligado Networks , Thuraya) you are operating in a situation where, with only a few exceptions, you will only have one satellite that you can view.  So a mountain between you and your view to that satellite means that either you’ve got to move somewhere else to make your phone call or perhaps external antenna options mounted on poles may suffice.  Iridium’s LEO constellation consists of 66 satellites that orbit the earth with 11 satellites in each of six orbital planes that intersect over the north and south poles.  With Iridium a user can expect to be able to have line of sight to more than one satellite at a time which is helpful when operating in certain types of terrain.

Most all of the satellite phones have optional accessories for docking kits to enable the use of the phone in a vehicle or from inside of a building. There are also external antenna options available that can be mounted on a pole to improve look angles to satellites.

Surf The Web On My Satellite Phone

We are all used to Internet access on our cellular phones and so there is an expectation that you will be able to do the same things on a satellite phone.  Well, not so fast, literally.  Handheld satellite phones do have data services, but the average speed is 2.4-9.6 Kbps, meaning you can use them for text emails but not much else.  If you have the need for file attachments or full Internet access, then the next step up from a handheld phone is an Inmarsat BGAN terminal that provides both a telephone service and a broadband Internet connection.


The different technologies, GEO versus LEO, have an impact on reliability from the perspective of calls dropping (unwanted disconnection).   You can look at reliability from a few angles; first, does the service reliably connect from your area of operation?  Second, when it does connect, how long can it keep a call connected without dropping?  Generally speaking, the GEO solutions tend to hold calls longer than the LEO solutions. However, as we’ve said with Iridium, if you are at the North Pole, your only choice is Iridium since they are the only operator that provides coverage of polar regions.

Specialized Services

The Ligado Networks service offers some unique capabilities that you won’t find on any other network.  Specifically, push-to-talk, two-way radio via satellite.  So, if your voice communications requirements include the need for broadcasting or dispatch operations, then the Ligado Networks service is a unique solution.  There are also other benefits of the Ligado Networks service related to Public Safety, specifically, interoperable communications for Public Safety agencies via SMART talk groups and integration with the GETS system.  Network Innovations SATRAD solutions operate on the Ligado Networks network.

The Bottom Line

There is no one right answer to which phone is the best choice, since it will depend upon your unique requirements.  Contact Network Innovations to talk with a specialist that can help you determine the best fit for your needs.