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A satellite phone is simply a mobile phone that uses orbiting satellites
instead of cell towers to connect with main phone lines. While systems
vary, some satellite phones will work on just about every portion of
the planet. This is satellite phones' main advantage over cell phones -
they provide extra areas of coverage where cell phone networks don't.
In terms of reliability, satellite phone coverage provides access from
anywhere in the world with point to point connection. These phones
require a good view of the sky in order to work properly. In big cities
with tall buildings around the connection may get cut off. Inside a
building is a no-go without an external antenna. The coverage of the
four leading satellite phone companies varies. Here's a short overview.
Inmarsat: The first mobile satellite system to be conceived, is a great
example of how the technology has emerged from a niche market
and been made available to all. Originally designed for the maritime
industry, they now have over 100,000 registered satellite phone
terminals. Inmarsat covers most of the earth with the exception of the
poles. Their satellite phones are laptop size, not as portable as Iridium
Iridium: Probably the most famous, or rather notorious, of the satellite
systems on the market. Iridium provides true worldwide coverage with
one per minute rate no matter where you are. They offer portable
handset, fixed units and data rates up to 9.6kbps.
Globalstar: They envisioned their customers as people who were
working on the fringes of cellular networks, crossing in and out of
coverage areas. Therefore they designed a handset that would work
on both the cellular AMPS and CDMA networks and, the Globalstar
network. Globalstar covers most major global regions with better call
quality than Iridium and lower "home area" pricing per minute. They
offer portable handset and fixed units and data rates 9.6kbps.
Thuraya: Portable phone with coverage in most of Europe, Northern
Africa, Middle East and western Asia (No North American Coverage).
Smaller than Iridium or Globalstar and GSM cell capabilities built in
for dual usage. Not as secure as Globalstar or Iridium. Averaqe voice
The satellite phone technology emerged in the commercial market in
1998 but faded quickly after the two biggest service providers,
Iridium and Globalstar, filed for bankruptcy protection. Those failures
raised the question of whether satellite communications could be a
viable business in competition with cellular networks. Yet Iridium and
Globalstar emerged from bankruptcy within the past couple of years
and have since been run profitably. As coverage and call quality
improved, prices fell and data transfer speeds increased. When
Inmarsat's satellite service will reach the Pacific in 2007, it will be
possible to have true global broadband coverage.
The satellite market has a future, because there are always going to
be cases where you can't have other types of phone services. There
was a huge resurgence in interest after Hurricane Katrina because in
areas without any infrastructure, or with cellphone towers destroyed
and landlines not working, the only way to communicate was by
Satellite phones are the prime communications tool on many oil rigs,
around the North and South Poles, while crossing the oceans and in
deserted areas of developing countries with no cellular base stations.
The choice of which satellite phone service to use depends on several
factors, including where and how often the phone will be used and if
the user will send e-mail, photographs or other types of data.
For those who need truly global satellite phone coverage from
Antarctica to the North Pole and everywhere in between, the only
choice is Iridium. Though take in consideration that voice quality is
lower than competing services and data speeds are snail-paced. For
slightly faster data transfers and cheaper phone calls and handsets,
there is Globalstar, though the company does not have coverage in
sub-Saharan Africa, India and around the poles. Globalstar phones
can roam onto GSM networks, but the costs are usually higher than
what it costs to use the satellite service.
Another option is Thuraya Satellite Communications, which is based
in Dubai. Data transfer speeds are faster than with Globalstar and
the phones are comparable in size to small cellular phones, but
coverage is limited to Europe, most of Africa and Asia west of China.
Thuraya phones can also be used on GSM networks.
Nevertheless, as times goes by and the satellite phone technology
improves exponentially so will the satellite phone coverage.