Satellite Phone

Chapter one

Do you wander in the back country, out of cell phone contact with the rest of the world? Do you wonder what you would do in case of incapacitating injury or perhaps a catastrophic  breakdown of your vehicle? If your  vehicle breaks down you may be able to walk towards help… maybe a long walk… and at my age those 20 mile (plus) hikes may take several days. And if you have a broken leg maybe you won’t walk at all. Maybe you will wait in extreme pain and agony while your hiking partner makes the hike back to civilization. What? You are out there alone? You need a plan B, one that involves communication with the rescue posse.

 Is a satellite phone what you need for peace of mind? Does the expense worry you? There is a lower cost option like the Spot Satellite Messenger device. Basically Spot has four buttons: On/Off, OK, Help, and 911. In life threatening situations press 911 and the rescue posse is sent to your GPS coordinates. If your need is less drastic press “Help” and your selected loved ones can arrange transportation for you. If you want to play “where in the world is Waldo” press the “OK” button and your location is sent to those who might worry about where you are at the moment.

How good is Spot? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) via the Forest Service tested Spot for use under various conditions and I think you will find the results encouraging.  You can find their results online. Try this link: 

The Spot device will cost about $150, the service will cost about $150 a year, and if you want GEOS rescue insurance you will spend another $150 a year (Prices are subject to change). It’s money well spent if you need the rescue posse and a helicopter ride to the nearest hospital.

I have a Spot and I’m amazed how easily I can reach a satellite and how accurate the GPS position can be. But if you really need to communicate with someone and tell them the details of your sad story then some form of satellite phone is necessary. If I’m in serious trouble I want to talk to someone. Try this link to an amazing real life adventure story, an actual rescue effort, and make up your own mind, Spot or not.


There is good news if you decide on the sat-phone. It turns out the price is low enough to be affordable even for those not in the top one percent.

What brand of sat-phone should you buy? The choices may be bewildering. Reviews may be little more than rehashed advertising fluff stuff. Some basic understanding of how the satellite network is deployed is necessary. How you plan to use the sat-phone is critical to the decision of what you need to buy.

The first question to answer: Where in the world will you be using the phone? Availability of service may not be worldwide. Some countries prohibit the use of a sat-phone. Depending on location some phones can see their satellite better than others. If you are outside the USA you may need a more robust service package.

 The satellite network may be critical to the reception you need.  Being able to see the satellite is crucial to communication with it. A satellite perched in stationary orbit over the equator may be too low on the horizon for good reception if you are in mountainous terrain. If you are mobile you may be able to move to where a signal can be received but if you are down with a broken leg the satellite must come to you. Satellites that are moving may eventually be easier to see but pose the problem of how long a conversation can be held before the satellite goes out of sight. Use of SMS texting reduces the air time needed to send or receive a message.

For me the choice was an Iridium Extreme 9575. I liked the reception footprint and the data capability of the sat-phone. It is GPS capable and has SOS features. The service plan is comparable to a cell phone service plan in terms of cost. I selected the “no minutes” service option and plan to use the SMS texting feature to further reduce the cost of service. My option costs about $50 a month plus charges for the air time used. If you need a phone just for the summer months another option is to rent a phone.

As we speak I am waiting for the FedEx parcel to arrive with my Iridium 9575… more later.

Chapter two

The FedEx Home Delivery van rolled up our driveway four days after we ordered our Iridium Extreme 9575 satellite phone from Globalcom, a company located in Dallas, Texas. After purchasing the Iridium phone online we eagerly followed progress of the FedEx shipment west. It arrived in our vicinity three days later and on the fourth day at 09:45 a.m. it arrived at our doorstep.

We purchased a bundled package called a “To Go” kit which also included a Pelican Case among a dozen other items. Unfortunately the Pelican Case didn’t arrive with the shipment so we quickly called the vendor to find out why. There was a dead silence for a few seconds (no doubt they were looking up the purchase order) followed by profuse apologies. The Pelican Case arrived by FedEx Home Delivery four days later, accompanied by a note expressing apologies. Apology accepted!

Included in the “To Go” package were two SIM cards. One for a post-paid account and the other for a pre-paid account. We chose the post-paid option because more services are available if one signs a contract for one year. The services were important to us because of the way we planned to use the phone. We chose the “no minutes” contract to get the cheapest option. I own a cell phone and don’t use it five minutes a month. I carry the cell phone primarily to use as an emergency communication device. Much of the territory where I roam doesn’t have cell towers so the cell phone is basically useless except for some of the apps. Most of the time the cell phone is turned off to conserve battery time. I expect to use the satellite phone the same way so there is no reason to buy a lot of minutes that will expire at the end of the month.

The first adventure with the new phone was to sit down with the instruction manual with phone in hand and figure out how to charge the battery. For unknown reasons Iridium engineers have chosen to make it necessary to charge the battery while the battery is attached to the phone. Think about this: they recommend buying an extra battery to provide additional battery time but one can only charge the battery while it’s inserted into the phone…  so when battery number one goes dead one inserts charged battery number two… and now how does one charge the dead battery? …seems to me like a good way to end up with two uncharged batteries. Fortunately after-market chargers that solve the problem are available.

One other minor complaint. The battery is locked into place on the phone by rotating a flimsy key mechanism. The battery and phone fit is very snug to provide a water tight seal. At first I had a problem with the fit until I removed a thick label glued inside the battery compartment. With the label removed the problem went away.

The battery must be removed to insert the SIM card. The directions in the instruction manual provided were unclear to me on how to accomplish that seemingly simple task. The diagrams in the manual did not look like what I was seeing inside the phone. Fortunately the down-loadable version of the manual provided a much more complete explanation of how to insert the card. The device that holds the SIM card must be slid forward and then rotated upward about 70 degrees. Insert the card into the holder and rotate the holder downward and slide toward toward the bottom of the phone… easy peasy.

Phone security in case of theft can be increased by removing the SIM card and keeping it on your person. The phone cannot be used without the SIM card and to activate a new card one would be required to submit the serial number of the phone so locating the stolen phone would be simplified. The SIM card is about twice the size of a postage stamp so I would be more concerned about losing or damaging the card.

So, battery charged, SIM card inserted, and phone activated I was ready to start pressing buttons. The keyboard looks similar to a standard phone but each button needs to fulfill a number of functions. Think about condensing your computer keyboard to a dozen keys and you will have some concept of the problem.  Iridium should issue a teenager with the phone. If you use one of the full featured cell phones you probably will have no problem figuring out how to use the satellite phone. For me I can only hope that practice makes perfect. Maybe I should have spent more time using my cell phone. By the time I get “MyPhoneBook” populated I will be an expert on entering data from the keyboard . It’s too bad the satellite phone can’t talk to my computer where entering data is infinitely easier.

Literature that comes with the satellite phone proclaims boldly (shouting with capital letters) that you must be outside, away from large structures and trees, with an 80% view of the sky when using the phone. I have successfully used mine while in the house sitting next to a window. Granted, I am sending short text messages (SMS) instead of voice calls but since that is how I intend to use the phone in the wild I have more confidence in usability during less than optimal conditions .  

One last complaint… the leather holster that came with the “To Go” kit is about two sizes too small for the Iridium Extreme 9575 phone. After some not so subtle stretching techniques I managed to squeeze the phone into the holster but I have serious doubts about being able to push buttons while the phone is holstered. Maybe with some minor modifications the holster will be useable.

more later…

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