Prepaid satellite phone service where credits last indefinitely?
October 8, 2017 2:34 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to maintain a satellite phone that would let me call other regions if a regional emergency rendered local networks useless. I'm happy to pay high usage fees in the even I need to make an emergency call. But I can't find any service options that don't cost hundreds per year. Are there any?

Even the prepaid SIM cards have an expiry date, meaning the (expensive) minutes expire a certain number of months from when you buy the credit, not when you first use it. It seems there's no way to activate any of these prepaid cards from the satphone (you must contact the company, and they promise a 48 hour turnaround time), so you can't start the expiration clock only once disaster strikes. Are there any options here?

I'd be happy with any setup that let me make voice calls OR send SMS messages OR use internet data. As far as I can tell, the service all works the same.

My understanding so far:
Iridium network: no longer offers prepaid plans. It looks like there are monthly plans as low as $50/month that can be pooled with multiple users, so perhaps if several friends/family wanted to join, we could maintain a pooled active account, then just pay per minute if we ever needed to use it.

Inmarsat / BGAN: Whether prepaid or postpaid, it's going to cost $700+ per year

Globalstar: No prepaid options, minimum $700+ per year for service

Thuraya: No service in North America (where I need it).

Previous questions (1, 2) didn't quite find solutions. The SPOT locator mentioned does have cheaper annual plan, but it only allows a single canned message.
posted by reeddavid to Technology (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you considered becoming a ham radio operator as an option? It's free (with equipment and a license) and works during emergencies with alternate power source. You can report emergencies and communicate with other people, though I'm not sure how far away reliably and if both parties would need a ham license.
I think it'd be at least worth a shot going to a ham radio store or such and asking if that could fit your needs.
posted by sacchan at 6:49 PM on October 8, 2017

The Spot Messenger offers a SOS button, a 'I'm okay' button and a customizable button. Could you prearrange that at reception of a customized button someone out of your region could activate your satellite subscription?

Otherwise, Garmin's inReach seems to offer SMS via satellite, but looks like it needs some kind of subscription too...

inreach device website here
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 7:08 PM on October 8, 2017

I could have sworn I'd seen fairly small value Iridium cards with one year validity for maybe $100. It was only 30ish minutes, but that seems OK for a last resort emergency backup. It's been a few years since I last looked into it, though. Now that I live in a major city I can be fairly sure COWs will arrive within a few days of any major disaster that takes out communication.
posted by wierdo at 3:50 AM on October 9, 2017

I should note that Iridium has never sold prepaid directly. You have to go through a reseller, which may or may not be easy to find. It doesn't have to be from your region. There used to be some folks selling on eBay. That's where I initially found them when I was looking, anyway.
posted by wierdo at 3:54 AM on October 9, 2017

I think it'd be at least worth a shot going to a ham radio store or such

Ham radio stores are basically not around in the US anymore unless you are in a state that has an HRO or have one of the VERY few remaining smaller stores. If you are in the US the ARRL has a club locator that lets you find clubs near you if you are interested in going that way.
word of warning, many ham clubs are infested with jackoffs. many are the opposite
posted by Dr. Twist at 10:36 AM on October 9, 2017

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