Satellite phones

Until the mid-1990s, satellite phone communication was a technology found primarily aboard merchant ships, large yachts and the military vessels. Antennas tended to be large, complicated affairs that were not particularly well suited to most voyaging sailboats. All of that changed with the introduction of reliable handheld units. Once a bulky and expensive luxury, handheld satellite phones have become nearly as ubiquitous as the cell phone, the VHF and the HF SSB for sailors venturing offshore.

The first handheld to offer global communication and data coverage was Iridium. The original Iridium system design called for 77 satellites to orbit the earth in low earth orbit (Iridium is named after the atomic element of the same name which has an atomic number of 77). Due to cost considerations, the system was cut back in size and is made up of 66 satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of about 485 miles. Probably the most impressive aspect of the system is its ability to transfer calls between satellites across the constellation until one of the satellites is over an earth station, at which point the call data is downlinked. The result is the only system that can offer global coverage.

Iridium began providing service in late 1998. Unfortunately, the company went into bankruptcy in the summer of 1999. Among the causes was the fact that the cost of equipment and service was beyond the reach of most customers. At the time the company only had 55,000 subscribers. In 2001, the assets were purchased by a group of private investors and the company was reestablished as Iridium Satellite LLC. By 2005 the number of subscribers had doubled.

Today Iridium service is available for a fraction of its original cost. A variety of service plans are available, with per minute charges beginning at about $1.40. A number of companies rent Iridium phones with typical rates beginning at about $25 per week for the earlier model 9500 handset and $70 per week for the latest model 9555. An 8-week rental, long enough to cover most offshore voyages will cost between $200 and $660 depending on which phone model is selected. Airtime charges range from about $1.00 to $1.78 per minute.

Iridium handsets have evolved from the original 9500 Iridium, produced by Motorola, to the new 9555. The 9555 is about the size and has the same comfortable “feel•bCrLf as a cell phone of a few years ago. It is about 30% smaller and lighter than previous Iridium phone and is equipped with a mini USB data port (making it easy to use for e-mail). The handset weighs 9.4 ounces and can operate in standby mode for up to 30 hours with talk time up to four hours. It has a 200-character illuminated graphic display, illuminated weather-resistant keypad, integrated speakerphone and two-way SMS and short e-mail capability. There is also a SIM-based address book with a 155-entry capacity. There is also a mini USB port for data applications. The 9555 handset is priced at about $1,500.

Globalstar established commercial satellite phone service in early 2000. It is comprised of a LEO constellation of 48 satellites orbiting about 932 miles above the earth. The key to Globalstar’s system is it’s signal. It uses a code division multiple access (CDMA) signal. Every call over the network is assigned its own code, distinguishing it from other calls on the network. The CDMA technique used by Globalstar is now the basis for all 3G communication services.

Signals from Globalstar phones are relayed to ground-based “gateways•bCrLf which pass the calls and data communication on to a terrestrial telephone network &mdash landline or cellular. Globalstar satellite phones work as both cellular and satellite phones.

Globalstar offered reliable voice and data service in more than 100 countries covering six continents with the exception of high polar regions and some mid-ocean regions until 2007. At that time, its satellites began to fail, seven to 10 years earlier than expected. The problem was devastating; Globalstar’s stock fell and customers were left without a reliable satellite carrier.

Following the failure, Globalstar launched eight spare satellites in 2007 and is scheduled to deploy additional replacement satellites during 2009. The company says that it will continue to provide and support two-way voice and data communications, but there will be gaps in service depending on your location and time of day.

Despite the fact that the system is only partially functional, Globalstar is offering what they call Unlimited Loyalty Plans. These include unlimited calling plans for 2009 and 2010 priced at $19.95 per month. It is unclear what ßrates will be when the system is fully functional again.

Globalstar’s GSP-1700 satellite phone is one of the smallest and lightest satellite phones available today and offers a wide range of accessories for the phone including data transmission kits, and auxiliary antennas for marine use. With the data kit, the GSP-1700 works with any Point-to-Point Protocol, or PPP, standard Internet devices including Windows, Mac OS and Linux and offers the fastest satellite data speed of any handheld satellite phone. Free trials of OCENS Mail and OCENS WeatherNet are included with the data package. The Globalstar GSP-1700 sells for about $995.

Thuraya satellite phones use geosynchronous satellites to provide voice, data, fax and SMS service, and as such, they function best when the terminal unit is stationary. Thuraya’s satellite coverage includes a large region of northern, central and western Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

Thuraya offers two handheld satellite phones &mdash the Thuraya SO-2510, priced at about $865 and Thuraya SG-2520 at $1,095. The Thuraya SO-2510 is small, lightweight and features GPS tracking, fax/data and SMS service. The Thuraya SO-2520 is also a 3-in-1 phone that features satellite, GSM and GPS service.

Thuraya customers can purchase prepaid airtime SIM cards for $155.95 and recharge them as needed (small at 49.50/3 months, medium at $97.50/6 months, large at $189.50/12 months &mdash about 40, 80 and 160 minutes each respectively) or postpaid airtime for a one time activation fee of $50, a monthly fee of $47.50 and a rate of $1.49/min. for calls placed in the Thuraya system. Calls to other systems are $3.99/min. for GSM calls and $10/min. for other satellite systems.

Inmarsat is another system based on geostationary satellites and currently provides handheld satellite phone coverage in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. A newcomer to the handheld market, Inmarsat terminals have been common on ships and larger yachts for some time. The company’s latest generation Inmarsat-4 satellite is located over the Indian Ocean and as such also provides service to Western Australia.

The IsatPhone handheld satellite phone features voice and data communications as well as GSM (900-MHz) functionality. In the GSM mode the phone can send and receive text messages up to 160 characters. Two service plans are offered &mdash a Basic Plan at $20 per month and a Travel Plan for $95 per month including 120 minutes of airtime. Calls to landlines or cell phones are billed at $0.95 per minute.

The new phone is lightweight, rugged and retails for about $600. Inmarsat hopes to offer North American coverage within one year.

Using a handheld with an external antenna

While many voyagers with handheld satellite phones like Globalstar and Iridium Satellite use them in the handheld mode, it is also possible to use these phones with an external antenna that is mounted on the exterior of the vessel. With this setup, you can plug the satellite phone into an external antenna lead and make a call from down below. You don’t have to go up on deck every time you want to make a call. Most of these external antenna units don’t add any extra functionality to an Iridium.

There are also more sophisticated iridium-based units that use an external antenna and have a belowdecks unit with both RJ-11 and RJ-45 jacks for plugging in standard telephone handsets. Global Satellite has a unit called the ComCenter Outdoor. This uses a pole-mounted external antenna for use with the Iridium system. Users can make standard voice telephone calls and also send data by plugging their computer into the ComCenter Outdoor’s belowdecks unit using an RJ-45 jack.

Another enhanced iridium product is the OpenPort unit (seen above) from Iridium. This uses an external antenna about the size of a small radome with a belowdecks control box. The OpenPort belowdecks interface is equipped with three RJ-11 ports for connecting standard telephone units. This device is intended for the large yacht/commercial ship market as it allows for multiple users simultaneously accessing voice or data services.

Tim Queeney

By Ocean Navigator