After deciding to do the big lap of Australia, our minds shifted towards what we needed to do it comfortably, safely and with a bit of security. This led to the initial research into the different Satellite phone options, which spiralled out of control.
What started off as a simple thought turned into hours and hours of reading various websites, phoning different companies, discussing what we actually need and if I’m completely honest, it was quite frustrating.
There’s plenty of information out there, but getting access to the right information in one place proved to be almost impossible, so here we are.
I’m writing the ultimate guide to buying a satellite phone, and we’ll cover your choices, dive into PLB’s, satellite phone sleeves and heaps more, and by the end of this you’ll be in a similar position to me with knowledge, only in about one hundredth of the time!
Please know I’m not an expert in this field, but I’m happy to share my thoughts on what we’ve discovered.
If you disagree with anything we’ve written, or have some constructive thoughts to add please leave a comment below.
What is a satellite phone?
Most people have a mobile phone these days, and they are a pretty useful communication device. However, if you head a few hours away from home to a less populated area, you might have noticed that the reception can be patchy, and non existent in many cases.
This is because mobile phones rely on reception from cell phone towers, and if there’s no tower nearby you won’t have reception.
In actual fact, even if you are with the best mobile phone network, around 90% of Australia has no reception.
This is simply because the bulk of the population lives in tiny portions of Australia, where reception is available. If you needed emergency help what would you do in the 90% of Australia that doesn’t have reception?
There’s a couple of options, but a popular one is to use a Satellite phone. As the name suggests, these connect to satellites in the sky, and allow you to ring for help.
What satellite phone options are there?
In Australia, there are 4 main satellite phone providers/networks, and their phones only work on their network.
This is really important; you cannot buy a Thuraya Satellite phone and use it on the Iridium network, so pick wisely as its a long term commitment.
Once you have a phone, you need credit to use it. You can go on a phone plan, or buy pre-paid credit, but again, pick wisely as it can back you into a corner very easily.
The 4 satellite phone networks are:
The first satellite network is the most well known globally, and has been running since 1998. Currently there are 66 satellites, which results in the best reception globally, period.
Next on the list is Thuraya, which runs just two geosynchronous satellites, and provides reception to some 161 countries.
In Australia, reception is reasonable if you have line of sight to the North West, but becomes more patchy in the South East. This network is far more affordable though.
Another good option is Inmarsat, which offers good coverage across the entirety of Australia. They run one satellite over Papua New Guinea, and reception is global with exception to the polar regions.
Last but not least is Globalstar, which seems far less common in Australia. They run a simplex satellite service, and have decent coverage for the majority of the world.
What’s the best satellite phone network?
Now, this is where things get really interesting, and potentially difficult to decide.
The best satellite phone will depend on what you are chasing, and how much money you want to spend.
If you want the best phone reception, Iridium takes the cake every day of the week.
If you want the cheapest, and best bang for your buck satellite phone network, Thuraya is brilliant, but you need to understand there are limitations to reception, and that might be a game changer for you depending on whether you want to be able to drive and talk, or head to parts of Australia that have patchy reception.
All satellite phones have reception in Australia some of the time, but not all have it all of the time. At the end of the day, what good is a satellite phone if it won’t connect and work when you need it to?
Why did we want a Satellite phone?
We intend on exploring as many places off the beaten track on our lap of Australia as possible, and that means for a good chunk of our travels we won’t have reception.
If something were to go wrong, we’d be waiting for help, or driving/walking to mobile reception, and I’m not keen on that especially if the incident is time critical.
The main reason is for our own personal wellbeing. There’s always risks with travelling Australia, and if something went wrong and I couldn’t get help quickly because we were too tight to buy a satellite phone, I’d kick myself.
For us, its the time sensitive incidents that concern me most; snake bites, vehicle accidents and anything else that is serious. We’ve heard a number of times where a Satellite phone has saved the day, and it just makes sense.
On top of this, if we do have a breakdown in the middle of no where, you can use a sat phone to get parts and recoveries underway easily, with limited stress.
If buying a Satellite phone, and running one was only a few bucks every person heading out of town would have one, but they start off fairly expensive, and become much more expensive, depending on what you want to get.
Regardless of the cost, I want the security of knowing we’ve done everything we can to be safe. We’ve just dropped $3100 on a rear E locker and diff rebuild for the Isuzu Dmax, and the total vehicle cost was far more than this; despite being a complete miser I can’t see how a satellite phone isn’t justifiable.
I’d never live with myself if someone got bitten by a snake and died because we didn’t spend a few grand on a safety device.
We looked at PLB’s and EPIRB’s (and have a PLB that will be coming with us), but wanted the ability to communicate both to and from, verbally as needed.
Alternatives to Satellite phones
There’s a lot of different options out there for emergency response, and if you head away off the beaten track with nothing, you’re not being very clever. $250 will literally save your life if something goes wrong; don’t take the risk.
Satellite phone Sleeves
If you don’t want to buy a dedicated Satellite phone, you can get sleeves that basically convert your smart phone into one that has satellite reception.
These are not cheap, and you then have to rely on your smart phone working properly and connecting to the sat phone, but they are a popular option.
The original emergency response device was an EPIRB, and has been used on boats heading offshore for many years. It stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, and has one function – to alert authorities that you are in a life threatening situation and you need help.
To use one, you open the flap, flick the switch and the unit will send a signal out for help. These tend to be quite large, but you can get one for about $250.
These are designed to be mounted to a vehicle or boat, and if you want something more portable, consider a PLB. If you are going to get an EPIRB, get one with GPS functionality, so help can find you far more accurately and quickly.
PLB’s and Messenger Services
A lot of people today are purchasing a PLB, which is essentially a small version of an EPIRB. These are fantastic for hiking and sports based activities where you don’t have a huge amount of weight or space capacity.
In conjunction with the ability to send for life saving help, there are a lot of PLB’s today that have a messaging service which you pay for a plan to use.
These include Zoleo, SPOT, Inreach etc, and allow you to send messages to loved ones, as well as have the safety of an emergency activation.
How much does a satellite phone cost?
You can pick a second hand satellite phone up for about $500. New Thuraya phones start off at about $1000, and then it goes up from there.
The base model Iridium is $1750, and if you want one that is more industrial the prices keep going up, and that’s without looking at external antennas, mounts and a whole world of accessories that you can get.
What satellite phones and other options did we look at?
Honestly, I looked at every single option out there. I was sold on the Thuraya arrangement, except for the potentially patchy reception in the South East of Australia. I looked at second hand options, satellite phone rentals and all of the alternatives.
These were the options we considered:
Take and use our existing PLB only
Take our PLB and buy an Iridium phone for $1800 outright plus $50 a month. A total of $2339 for 12 months or $2939 for 24 months, with the option of selling the phone when we return for $1200~
Take our PLB and buy Inmarsat phone. $1200 outright, and $53 a month as the $43 a month charges for incoming calls. $1836 for 12 months and $2472 for 24 months
Take our PLB and buy Thuraya phone. $1000 package plus $16.50 per month. $1200 for 12 months. $1400 for 24 months. A really good option in terms of pricing!
Zoleo – $320 plus $32 a month
Garmin inreach – $500 plus $20 – $25 a month
SPOT – $439 and $15 or 24 bucks a month
Why we bought a new Iridium 9555
Sarah will tell you I spend a lot of time before committing to buying anything, and that’s because I like to be thorough.
I can tell you I spent weeks digesting the various information, and thinking about what options we had, and various scenario’s.
In the end, we settled on a brand new Iridium 9555 satellite phone, on a $50 a month plan (which has recently been increased to $65 – owch). I looked at second hand options and Thuraya, and despite the strength of my stinginess, the Iridium won.
Thuraya was really the only other option that we considered in depth anyway, as Globalstar and Inmarsat wouldn’t have offered much of a saving, but I just couldn’t hack the thought of not having reliable service in the South East of Australia, where we will be spending a heap of time.
Thuraya does work there, just not all the time, and especially if you are in a valley, and the idea of having to hunt for life saving reception in the event of an emergency just seemed like a poor decision.
I looked at second hand phones, and whilst they would probably work fine, who knows how they’ve been treated, and once again, when you are in an emergency, you want something that is going to work!
Where did we buy from?
I was chasing the best deal I could get, and I wanted a space case and cover to come with the phone, as you’re mad to leave a satellite phone bouncing around your car, with two kids that would love to play with it.
A couple of people recommended Client Sat, and they’d been really helpful answering questions earlier on, so I rang them to see if they could beat the best price I could find online, and they killed it.
The cheapest I could find online was $1895 for the Grab n Go from Sat phone shop, and Client Sat did it for $1780 delivered to my door, and set the plan up for me with Pivotel.
The Iridium network can be used via a heap of resellers, and Pivotel is one of the more common ones. You can go through Telstra too, but everyone knows how challenging they are to deal with, and Pivotel has a fantastic reputation, so they got the business.
There’s a $45 a month Telstra plan, which you pay for every call, or a $75 a month plan for $40 included call and text allowance.
The $50 Pivotel plan gives you $5 value for calls, SMS and data and charges 99 cents for 30 seconds of calling, or 50 cents per SMS. Certainly not cheap, but you generally don’t care too much about the cost of calls when you need a satellite phone!
EDIT – this has now changed to $15 included value on their $65 plan (which is the smallest one).
Satellite phone plans
Pre paid vs post paid
There are a number of different plans that you can go on with a satellite phone. We chose the post pay, which means we get billed $65 a month (it was $50 when we signed up) plus any calls outside of the plan. This means you aren’t limited to communicating should the need arise if you are low on credit.
You can sell the satellite phone later on
One thing to remember is that satellite phones are a valuable piece of equipment, and whilst we’ve dropped $1800 on an Iridium 9555, we should be able to sell this in 2 years time for around $1200, so the actual phone cost is hugely reduced at the end of our travels.
We’ll do our best to look after it, and pass it onto someone else who wants the security of emergency contact anywhere on the globe.
On that point, we did look at second hand phones, and I wasn’t keen on buying something without a history that I knew, so stuck with new. If you wanted to save a bucket load of cash though, a second hand satellite phone would be a good option.
Take the money out of it
In our discussions, Sarah kept saying to me ‘just take the money out of it’, which is almost impossible for me, but I do see what she means.
You’d do anything for the safety of your family, and money aside, buying the most suitable satellite phone for your situation is worth it if it gives you peace of mind, and the ability to get urgent help underway as fast as possible.
Where do you want it to work?
If you are OK with a Satellite phone that works through most of Australia, but will be patchy or struggle in the south east, or in some hilly conditions then you can go with Thuraya, and be done with it.
I didn’t see the point in spending a small fortune on something that had limitations, when you could spend a bit more and get one that works everywhere.
We’ve used our Iridium 9555 a few times (nothing emergency related) and its always been pretty good.
If you get an Australian mobile number you can receive free calls in
If you are looking at a satellite phone, make sure you get one with an Australian mobile number, and one that has no cost to receive calls.
A lot of the plans and setups today allow satellite phones to receive calls for free. Yes, I want that to sink in for a second.
You can literally prank any of your friends from anywhere you can get satellite reception, and when they call you back its at the cost of a normal mobile phone call. In this way, you can keep in touch with family easily, and your satellite phone becomes more useful than just an emergency device.
I did notice that one of the Inmarsat plans charged you to receive calls, so watch out for it, but our Pivotel plan through Iridium comes with free incoming calls.
Can you still call 000 without a plan
On a mobile phone, even if you have no data left, you can still call triple 000 when it has reception. I wondered with a satellite phone then, if you could call triple zero without a plan. It appears this will work, but I’m not game to try it!
Weather and emails
Some people want to have access to weather forecasts, and to check their emails. This can be done on some satellite phones, and also a number of the PLB’s and satellite sleeves.
Cases, chargers and bundles
Space cases are incredibly cheap today, and if you are going to spend more than a thousand dollars on a safety device that is relatively fragile, its probably a wise investment.
In our case (pun unintended) we managed to get the grab and go package included for less than I could find the actual phone for sale, but even if you have to pay a bit its probably money well spent.
How long do you want it for?
The duration of your satellite phone use will play a huge role in choosing what is most suitable for you.
There’s a number of hire options that you can look into, with them becoming far less attractive if you are going away for a long time.
What happens when you return from your big trip? Are you going to hang onto it and cancel the plan, or put it on standby and pay a smaller fee just to keep it active?
Satellite phone rentals
If you are only going on short trips, it makes sense to hire a satellite phone instead. You can hire them for about $300 a month, and that’s cheap insurance if you need to stay in touch with family, or have the ability to call for help in the middle of the desert, or somewhere remote that has zero reception.
Make the satellite phone accessible
If you’ve not heard of a grab bag before, you should check it out. Its a simple philosophy, which revolves around having a bag that is ready made, and easy to access to grab should things go bad, real fast.
If your vehicle catches on fire, you want to be able to grab a bag that has everything you need in it to survive, and not be fumbling through drawers, or trying to unbury a box in the back of your vehicle.
You can put a bottle of water, your satellite phone, some basic medication, a few snacks and maybe a lighter, or matches, and you are probably good to go. We’ll make sure our grab bag and satellite phone are within arms reach, so we have maximum time to get the kids out if anything major goes wrong.
Can Starlink replace satellite phones?
Starlink is amazing technology. If you haven’t heard of it, Elon Musk has released low orbit satellites for data, and plans on having full global coverage soon.
The speeds are insane, and in many cases you can get far better than NBN speeds in the middle of the bush. Can it replace a satellite phone? Sort of, but not in its entirety.
Sure, if you have line of sight to a Starlink satellite you can get reception and voice call via data, but these units are big, heavy, take time to set up and require power. If your camper or 4WD catches on fire, do you think you’d have time to set it up and call for help?
If your vehicle rolls, would you be able to patch it together? If there was a real emergency, how much time would you lose setting one up?
These are a great substitution, but they certainly don’t replace a satellite phone just yet.
Should you get a Satellite phone?
Ultimately, this is a decision that only you can make. I felt the urge to get one as it keeps my stress levels down, and I know we have everything we need to get out of a rubbish situation if the need arises.
Whether you need one depends on how long you are travelling for, your risk profile, how reliable your 4WD is, whether you are travelling with kids, where you are going and heaps more.
Hopefully this guide has been helpful to you. I know for me, it helps to put my million thoughts down, and provides clarity, so hopefully it does the same for you.
What have you chosen to go with, and why? Let us know in the comments below!