Don’t rely on your smartphone off shore. Satellite phones are affordable and the smart way to go.

Most mariners own a smart phone thinking that it eliminates the need for a satellite phone. But handheld satellite phones are a great safety feature, and every mariner should clearly understand the difference between a satellite phone and a cellphone––whether (the phone is) smart or otherwise.

A satellite handheld does one important thing really well: it enables communication when there is no other way to communicate. Smart phones, while loaded with features, work only when they can connect with cell towers, and there are very few of those in the open ocean or sparsely populated cruising destinations. In contrast, satellite phones operate when their antennae have a “clear view” of a satellite in orbit, which can be anywhere on land or water regardless of cell tower location.

The difference between the three major sat phone brands available in North America are driven by the different types of satellite constellations each uses. All three satellite communication systems have one thing in common—their satellites are accessed through ground stations that act as gateways between the regular earth-based phone and internet system, and the satellite arrays themselves.

Inmarsat has three major geosynchronous satellites located 22,235 miles above Earth and is considered by many to be the gold standard in satellite communications. Since the satellites remain stationary relative to the earth’s surface, calls are not handed off from one satellite to another, which reduces dropped calls. However, Inmarsat’s satellite positioning does not provide reliable service in areas of the North or South poles. The relatively long distance from the earth also results in the two second “satellite delay” when using Inmarsat’s handheld phone.

Iridium puts 66 satellites in low earth orbit, which is approximately 485 miles from Earth. They are in a polar orbit moving at about 17,000 miles per hour, which enables coverage in extreme northern or southern areas of the globe.

SPOT_Phone_Antenna2 (1)

Globalstar has 32 satellites orbiting about 800 miles from Earth. Because of the relative closeness of both the Iridium and Globalstar satellite arrays, there is no perceptible delay in voice transmission. Globalstar owns the line of Spot satellite communicators, which includes the new Spot Global satellite handheld phone.

Another satellite array, Thuraya, services primarily Europe and is not available for service in North America. It has most recently developed an add-on that turns any iPhone 4, 4s and 5 into a satellite receiver capable of making phone calls, sending and receiving text messages, and using social media. A free app from the Apple store is required.

For those used to smart phone screens, the displays on the sat phones will be considered minimalist. However small they may be—and they are small—they show all the information required to make a call: when the phone is searching for a satellite it can connect with; when a satellite is acquired; signal strength (in traditional “bars”); and battery state.

Having personally used all three of the phones available, what most impressed me about all of the models is the call clarity. In most cases, the calls were as clear as on a cell phone.

The new Spot Global phone sells for $499, the Inmarsat Phone Pro costs about $150 more, and the Iridium can be two to three times the cost of the Spot. Each of these phones comes with a standard household battery charger, but each has different standard items. The Inmarsat comes with a 12V car charger, while the other two do not. For an extra cost, an optional docking station/battery charger with an external antenna is available for all phones. All retailers of sat phones are putting together aggressive sales packages and various suppliers will rent sat phones on a daily or monthly basis.

When it comes to buying airtime or a calling plan, like any consumer purchase the rule of thumb is “Buyer Beware!” Some plans allow only calls on land and in contiguous waters out to 12 miles, which is not really useful to an offshore cruiser or sport fisherman. Phone plans run the gamut, with rates that range from as low as 25 cents per minute in a plan that requires a minimum use of $100 per month, to another phone plan where that same $100 produces an 83 cent per minute rate, while others are as high as $21.60 per minute. Most sat-phone calling plans, however, have no long distance or roaming charges. The extra services and features you’re used to with your cellphone voice mail, activation fees, SMS/text messages are not necessarily standard on sat phones, and data transmission costs vary widely from carrier to carrier.

Anyone selecting a sat phone should first decide specifically how it is to be used. If the purpose is to use it as a safety measure and make a call only when required for that purpose, all three phones will do the job. However, if, like a cell phone, a sat phone is to be used for regular communications, the permutations and combinations become endless, and the prime consideration changes from the hardware cost and features to airtime costs and features. Do your research carefully and thoroughly to ensure you get the right phone and the right calling package for the intended use.

By Roger McAfee, Southern Boating February 2014