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Why Satellite Phones Work Everywhere

on Thursday, 02 October 2014.

Sometimes technology can seem like magic. You press a button on your computer, and suddenly you can access all the world’s information from the comfort of your home. You put the key in your car’s ignition, and you can travel at speeds of 100 miles per hour or more. You pick up a phone, and even in the remotest mountain range, you can wish your mom a happy birthday from half a world away.

Satellite phone technology is indispensable to all sorts of travelers, but not many people understand exactly how the technology works. Just in looking at satellite phone coverage maps, it can be hard to believe that such significant coverage can exist in a handheld device. In more ways than one, satellite phones offer their carriers more perks even than modern-day, flashy smartphones, and that’s all due to the way satellite phone networks are constructed.

The Complexity of Satellite Communication

The world has been using satellites to aid in communications for more than 50 years, but the technology has progressed significantly since the era of Sputnik. We now use satellites for everything from television broadcast to surveillance, and there are as many types of satellites as ways to use them.

Satellite phone services tend to utilize two different types of satellites to ensure their coverage for their users. Geosynchronous or high Earth orbit satellites are huge machines launched high into the Earth’s atmosphere to provide the largest radius of service. These satellites move in time with the Earth’s rotation, meaning they appear to remain stationary in the sky, and all of these satellites are positioned above the Earth’s equator. While these machines are powerful and can store unparalleled amounts of data, their distance from the Earth means that they provide considerable delays (about 250 milliseconds) in data transmission. Additionally, because most companies only have a network of about three or four satellites to provide access around the globe, the smaller number of satellites in the network increase the likelihood of outages.

Conversely, low Earth orbit satellites offer users a different set of pros and cons. These machines circle the Earth much lower in the atmosphere and are much smaller and lighter than their high-flying cousins. These satellites move incredibly fast, circling the Earth in less than two hours flat. Though their size and position severely impacts the amount of data each satellite can hold — so companies need upwards of 60 machines in the sky to deliver worldwide service — their speed and abundance means that users are likely within range of two or more satellites at any given time. Plus, their proximity to the Earth means that they are much better at connecting to devices hidden in dense rainforests or in deep crevasses, so satellite phone users can be more comfortable with their coverage when traveling to these regions.

The Plethora of Features

Traditionally, satellite phones were bulky and heavy, making them inconvenient to carry around — though still just as critical to survival. While some devices (mainly those connecting to high Earth orbit satellites) tend to remain on the larger side, generally satellite phones are trimming down to be more pocket- and backpack-friendly for the regular traveler.

However, while satellite phones shed ounces off their weight, they are packing on more and more modern features useful to travelers on the road. Indeed, satellite phones are rapidly closing the gap between worldwide satellite coverage and advanced smartphone applications, making satellite phones the go-to devices for more than just adventurers and journalists.

Plenty of satellite phone providers offer devices that allow users to send messages to people around the world. Much like SMS or any type of computer instant messaging, this service provides simple, text-based communication anywhere in the world. While some cell phone providers allow their users to supplement their plans with messaging abilities outside the United States (or other home country) these augmentations tend to be expensive and limited. Meanwhile, satellite phone messaging capabilities only continue to develop in complexity, and plans are becoming more and more affordable.

Similarly, many satellite phones are beginning to offer Internet access just like smartphones. Satellites have the capability to transmit Internet as well as phone and video data, so satellite phone developers have begun to integrate this vital technology into their devices. Though the connection isn’t as quick as you might have at home or your favorite coffee shop, Internet access could provide life-saving information or even vital communication services while you’re traveling the world — all while your smartphone sits uselessly without service at the bottom of your bag.

Unlike cell phone towers that offer service in a limited radius of about 45 miles, communications satellites provide their users service virtually anywhere, anytime. Instead of hoping for a connection during your travels, trust in the ubiquitous satellite technology that keeps our world running.

Written by Steve Manley

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