Satellite phone networks

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Satellite phone networks
Spoilt for choice

Industry expert Kevin White gives his guide to the satellite phone networks available in Australia

For Australian Coverage there are only four networks. No Australian operator owns a global satellite network.

The networks are:
•             Iridium
•             Globalstar
•             Thuraya
•             Inmarsat

Of the big telcos in the Australian market Telstra will only offer connections on the Iridium network and Optus will connect only on the Thuraya network, so it pays to shop around a variety of providers to find the network and plan that is right for your needs.

Post-paid plans are available on all four networks, but pre-paid plans are available only on the Inmarsat and Iridium networks in Australia. Each network requires a different handset / hardware. For example it’s not possible to use an Inmarsat handset on the Globalstar network.

There’s now more choice than just handsets when it comes to satellite solutions. There are some quite innovative devices which couple to smart phones, tablets and PC’s offering voice, SMS and data services. Think of these devices as acting like your own satellite communications network. Devices like the Thuraya SatSleeve, Iridium GO! And Inmarsat IsatHub provide voice, data and SMS satellite connectivity within wifi range of the unit – usually around 30 metres.

Here’s some discussion on what the different networks offer.

Iridium A truly global network. In fact it is the ONLY global satellite telephone service provider. It operates by using a constellation of 66 satellites revolving around the earth. Calls are picked up from the handset and passed form satellite to satellite to an Earth Station in Arizona USA where the call is delivered to the global telephone network. Like Globalstar calls in areas closer to the equator can suffer from interruptions as the satellites are spaced further apart in a polar orbit.

The satellites are at around 800km altitude and moving at 27,000 kmh! Whilst the Iridium constellation is the oldest network, Iridium are about to launch a new constellation called “NEXT”. The new constellation will provide much higher data speeds and will be backward compatible with existing handsets and devices.

Coverage: Truly Global, polar regions included.

Pros:
•             Global coverage.
•             Small and robust handsets.
•             Good value plans for the heavy user.
•             GPS built in on newer handsets
•             GEOS tracking / SOS on some devices

Cons:
•             Calls may be interrupted in areas close to the equator (Cape York, Gulf Country etc.)
•             Casual plans are more expensive than other networks.
•             Low data speeds 2.4 Kbps (some compression gives an apparent speed of 10 Kbps to some applications) •             Lower voice quality

Globalstar
Similar to Iridium in that it uses a constellation of satellites revolving around the earth. Calls are passed from the satellite to local Gateways (in Australia, Mt Isa, Dubbo and Meekatharra). Calls are not passed between satellites.

Using fewer satellites than Iridium, and having to be in range of an earth station means service interruptions can also occur in areas closer to the equator (as mentioned with Iridium) In the Cape York vicinity one would anticipate a service availability of 80%. This does not mean that one can’t make calls, just that there may be interruptions. The satellites take 10 to 12 minutes to pass overhead at an altitude of ca. 1400 km.

The Globalstar network received a lot of bad press due to the failure of some satellites compromising network performance in 2007/2008. As a result Globalstar launched a 32 new second generation satellites, completing the network in 2013.

The “New” constellation of satellites is a vast improvement over the older satellites and it is said the Globalstar network has more subscribers than any other satellite network.

Coverage: Australia Wide but will have reducing availability in the far north. Significant availability reduction will be noticed heading north of the Broome / Townsville regions.

Pros:
•             Inexpensive handsets.
•             Excellent value casual plans.
•             Inexpensive car kits.
•             9.6 kbps (38.4 Kbps compressed) data with optional kit.
•             Best voice quality of any satellite network.

Cons:
•             Service interruption in far north (southern hemisphere)
•             Limited SMS facility. (system messages only)
•             Handsets more bulky.
•             No GPS

Thuraya
The Thuraya network relies on two geostationary satellites at an altitude of ca. 36,000 km, covering over 140 countries.

Being a Geostationary satellite system – if you can see the region of the sky where the satellite is located you can make and receive calls. In Australia that means having a view to the WNW / North and about 25 to 50 degrees above the virtual horizon depending on location.

A paging type function on the handsets (and SatSleeve) provide limited alerts to incoming calls whilst indoor with the antenna stowed.

Coverage: Australia wide + 2/3s of the globe, excludes the Americas, some of Africa, far Pacific Ocean and NZ.

Pros:
•             Small compact handsets.
•             Excellent Australian Coverage.
•             Extremely good value casual plans.
•             SMS and fast data (up to 60 Kbps)
•             GPS built in / tracking function

Cons:
•             Not a global network
•             Variable voice quality

Inmarsat
Like Thuraya this system relies on geostationary satellites. Whilst not truly Global the Inmarsat coverage is effectively global with the exception of the polar regions. The satellite view in Australia is more North rather than Thuraya’s West of North position. Similar to Thuraya the phone can be used indoors if at a window with a view to the satellite.

GEOS emergency response is available, using the SOS button on the handset. Depending on the plan selected registration may be required. The GEOS alliance co-ordinates search and rescue throughout the world.

Coverage: Global, except polar regions.

Pros:
•             Mid price handset
•             Tough, water resistant handset
•             GPS built in
•             Good coverage
•             Pre-Paid or Post-Paid Plans
•             GEOS tracking / SOS

Cons:
•             No Coverage in Polar Regions
•             Very expensive inbound calls if not on a plan with a standard mobile no.
•             Data at up to 20 Kbps compressed (2.4kbps raw)

SUMMARY

All the networks will operate in all areas of Australia, some of the time. Terrain (hills, gullies), extreme cloud cover (Thunderstorms), dense foliage and buildings can all limit satellite reception.

If using either of the “constellation” type networks (Iridium and Globalstar) and the terrain is blocking access one simply waits until there is a satellite where the sky is in view. With the Geostationary systems (Thuraya and Inmarsat) it may be necessary to move to a location that brings the satellite into view.

Longevity: No one can really say. At present the Iridium network is due for upgrade – expect this starting in 2017 with no firm completion date. The new network will be backward compatible with legacy handsets. Inmarsat are committed to maintaining functionality and there’s often talk of 15 year life for their satellites. Globalstar has just finished launching a bunch of new satellites so one would expect the network to be running in the present state for quite some time. Thuraya have indicated a commitment to the Australasia and European markets, but at this stage don’t have spare satellites, but there is indication that an upgrade and redundancy can be expected soon.

One thing to remember when selecting a network is that a satellite failure WILL have an effect on service provision. In the LEO systems (Globalstar and Iridium) such a failure will cause a service degradation. In the GEO sat (Inmarsat and Thuraya) systems a satellite failure could mean extended service unavailability across an entire region.

That said, there are so many users and a commercial argument for all platforms not to leave customers stranded for access permanently due to a satellite failure. To date satellite services have been extremely reliable with short term lack of access more likely due to backend terrestrial system failure than the actual satellite itself.

In terms of running cost, the order would go in a list like this (low to high)

.             Thuraya
•             Globalstar
•             Inmarsat
•             Iridium

Pre-paid services are available only on the Inmarsat and Iridium networks, however the Iridium Pre-paid rates are very expensive and the SIM cards will expire three months after the last top up.

The Inmarsat phone when using Pre-Paid will have a number commencing with 870 so one needs to dial 0011 870… or +870.. to call the unit. Similarly dialling from the Inmarsat phone can be more complex when using Pre-Paid.

Before calling ANY satellite phone that doesn’t have a standard Australian mobile number check with your service provider as to the cost. Telstra are known to charge up to $20 per minute for calls to satellite services!

Australian call routing: Post-paid plans with local call routing are available on all four networks. This means that the satellite service will be allocated a standard Australian mobile number instead of an international style of number.

Callers can reach you for just the cost of calling a normal Australian mobile number. However you have to consider the “roaming” nature of plans on the Iridium network, as once more than 200 nm from Australian shores you may be charged for incoming calls.

Advantages:
•             Allocation of a standard Australian Mobile Number (inexpensive to call and easy to remember)
•             Easy outbound dialling (just like a mobile phone)
•             Access to 1300 and 1800 numbers
•             Easy to understand nature of call costs

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