Can I afford to pay the monthly rate for an emergency satellite phone?
March 16, 2011 4:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in buying a satellite phone for my parents, who live in a natural disaster-prone area. What sat phone system will cost the least for a 0 minutes plan and doesn't have satellites that are being phased out this year?

The idea is the phone will only be used if there is a serious emergency, so I don't need any minutes.

I read that several satellite phone companies' satellites are nearing the end of their operational life and will be taken out of service in 2011, and that it might be wise to avoid those companies. I'm not sure if that is the case, but I'd like to get the most affordable but the most reliable service - clearly there is no point in buying a cheap sat phone if it doesn't work in an emergency!

Anyone have any experience with this kind of thing? Thanks!
posted by arnicae to Technology (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can't comment directly on that, but a satellite-based alternative you might look into is called the Spot. They have a few different products. They're used by hikers and people venturing into cellular-free areas who might need emergency assistance.
posted by adamrice at 6:22 PM on March 16, 2011

If sat phones are prohibitively expensive, you might consider buying them a device like SPOT ($149.99 for the device; $99 annual subscription).

If there is some sort of emergency, they can send you an all ok (for your piece of mind if other means of communication are down), a custom message, a request for non-emergency assistance, and most importantly contact emergency responders with their location.

It's dead simple to use (push a button to contact emergency services) which would be handy if they are injured.
posted by special-k at 6:28 PM on March 16, 2011

The $99 annual fee with SPOT only includes basic preprogrammed text messages. For the ones that will allow you to type a custom message, it's 0.50/message or $29.99 for 100 (don't know how long before the texts expire.) Also, I don't believe any of the SPOT devices include voice communication. While the SPOT Connect works with a smartphone, it only indicates being able to send email and texts.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:20 PM on March 16, 2011

Disclaimer: I work in satellite telecom.

The only viable satellite phone options at this point are an Iridium 9555 or the new Inmarsat ISATphone. Globalstar is dead as well, a doornail. Plans that cost $0 a month do exist, but the credit expires. Google about iridium credit vouchers. The main difference between Iridium and Inmarsat is that the former uses a network of low earth orbit satellites and works truly anywhere on the planet that you can stand outdoors with the phone (even at the north pole, south pole, middle of the south atlantic ocean etc). The latter uses Inmarsat's I-4 series of geostationary satellites, the same ones used to provide BGAN data service to BGAN terminals, so it generally doesn't work above or below 70 degree latitude. This is why the Iridium phone has much better resale value and costs more. You can get an ISATphone for about $600 new if you sign up for one year of service. Typical Iridium or Inmarsat plans for your own number and 0 minutes a month are about $35 monthly, minutes beyond that range from $0.95 to $1.35/minute (or 50 cents per SMS).
posted by thewalrus at 6:52 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I guess I should add that the Iridium satellite constellation is generally in good health, and seems like it will last until the new satellites are launched in a couple of years. Iridium's #1 customer is the US Department of Defence, which has built its own teleport (gateway to terrestrial networks) in Hawaii. They are continuing to roll out new services like the Iridium OpenPort maritime data/calling system, and Iridium modems are integrated into a lot of critical SCADA things. Globalstar will probably be fine when its new satellites are launched and functioning, but right now it's barely usable for even SMS.
posted by thewalrus at 6:55 AM on March 17, 2011

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