Many of you may use satellites on a daily basis and may not even realize. You are probably aware of Dish or one of the satellite-based TV services but if you have cable TV the chances are that some of that is delivered to your local provider via satellites. If you drive past any local TV station you will probably see a number of large dishes on their roof or on their property. If you live in more rural areas some of your phone service, and more so cellular, may be sent from the local cell site via a microwave or satellite to a hub. If you use any navigation system these days you are using a satellite-based system, although those are usually one-way.
Satellite communications are useful when in the more remote areas, where there is no cell phone coverage and where there are not Amateur Repeaters that you can reach to call for help, or if you do not have an HF radio. HF radios tend to be heavier, require a larger antenna than your hand held, and you need to have a General, or higher, class license. You also need to have an idea where on the bands you are likely to find someone listening. However, they are FAR cheaper than a satellite based device and provide one-to-many, whereas a satellite phone is one-to-one usually.
Satellite communications can provide a number of services. First, all satellite devices use GPS in some fashion, therefore, most devices are going to provide your location. The available devices fall into a couple of different categories/capabilities; phone, text messaging, radio, personal location/SOS beacon. Some devices have more than one capability.
Also, you must understand a little about the satellite systems that most of these devices operate on, so you are aware of the coverage that they provide and their limitations. Despite what most movies and TV shows depict, you must have a clear view of the sky to use a satellite device, that means being outside. You may get some service if you are by a large south facing window, depending on the satellite system. There are two primary satellite networks that most of the commercial devices use, Iridium and Globalstar.
Of the two, the Iridium network provides a more comprehensive coverage, with about 66 satellites in a low earth orbit, about 485 miles above the earth, providing 100% coverage over the globe. In addition to the operational satellites they have a number of spares in orbit that can be brought into service if one breaks. Each satellite communicates with four other satellites near them, three ahead and one behind, so they ‘hand off’ signals with no apparent loss to the user.
The Globalstar satellite network uses 48 satellites in low earth orbit. They provide coverage over most of the globe but not in the polar or over the sub-Saharan African areas.
Radio over satellite has been around for many years, but up until recently it was only available in one device and is expensive, over $10,000 for the unit, and only available as a mobile or fixed installation. In addition to allowing device to device and device to landline or cell phone calls, the device offered a private talk group, channel, for your company and a number of national ones for groups such as law enforcement, fire, etc. A number of national organizations, including FEMA and the Federal Aviation Administration, use them as the talk groups allow the one-to-many radio feature without the need for a ground-based infrastructure such as phone lines, internet and radio towers. Use of the radio feature doesn’t count as part of your pe-use minute costs. Obviously, these units are out of the price range of most of us.
Fairly new to the market is the Icom IC-SAT100 radio. This is purely a radio over satellite device, operates over the Iridium satellite network but doesn’t provide phone or texting capabilities. The device is about the size of a handheld radio, but with an antenna appropriate for satellite communications. The service plans require you to have three devices before you get your own talk group, or channel, for your private use. The units are not cheap, about $1,200 each. From what I’ve seen of the available service plans the costs accrue per-minute use charges, so costs can run up quite considerably.
The Garmin inReach mini is a small device, about 2”x4”x1.5” that provides GPS location, maps and text messaging capabilities when connected to an app on your phone via Bluetooth. The app integrates with your contact book in your phone, so you can send a text to anyone that is in your existing contact list. It requires a service plan and the basic plan runs about $14.95/month. You can add additional services to include position reporting whereby it will notify a chosen person via text of your location at preset intervals. Another add-on service is weather reports and if you are a mariner you can add specific marine weather reports. You can set it to send your location when sending text messages. Additional services include aviation and other alerts. It has a SOS feature that will notify two present people, you set up when activating the device, as well as an emergency center that will try to communicate with you via text as well as notify emergency services. The devices vary in price from $311-$360 so look around when buying one.
Another similar device is the Garmin inReach (models include the Explorer and SE+). These are very similar to the Delorme models, and Garmin bought out Delorme a few years ago. The inReach is modeled on the Garmin 64st handheld GPS device. It can be used for regular tracking as a stand alone device as well as sending and receiving text messages from the device or by linking to a smart phone or ipad. Again, as with the inReach mini you need a service plan. It also has the SOS feature. Prices vary from around $350 for a refurbished device to around $460 for a new one. If you choose to get a refurbished one, I’d suggest getting from Garmin directly as I’ve seen reviews where people have got them through Amazon and discovered it’s still active on someone else’s account and they couldn’t activate it. As with any used device it’s always buyer beware.
With the Garmin plans you can upgrade, downgrade or stop your service plan at any time.
Editor’s note: after a lot of research I bought an inReach mini for myself in 2019 and I’ve used it when camping with no cell service. I already had the Garmin 64st GPS unit otherwise I would have probably bought the inReach. My “safety plan” gives me 10 included texts a month for $14.95, so I do one test a month to the two people who have the number. I have a friend who has one and used it to get medical help for someone in his party on a hunting trip that was having a heart attack. There are numerous reports of lives being saved with the inReach and inReach mini devices on the Garmin web site.
A fairly new device on the market is the Bivy Stick. This is a small 2”x6” “stick”, that connects to your smart phone and an app for use. Similar to the inReach mini with providing mapping, text messages as well as a SOS feature and uses the Iridium satellite network. The device is priced between $200-$359, so again check around. Service plans seem to start around $17.99/month and it is also on the Iridium network. The big disadvantage that I see with this device is that you have to use your phone to use it, whereas you can use the inReach mini from the device directly.
The SPOT GEN 3 device is one that has been around for a while. It is similar in function to the inReach mini. It is on the Globalstar satellite network, so coverage isn’t as extensive as the inReach and other devices on the Iridium network. The cost of the device is around $100 however one of the major comments that I see in reviews is that the service plan is a yearly fee of around $200 and is renewed automatically, if you don’t give more than 30-days’ notice it is automatically renewed for another year. It doesn’t appear there is a flexible plan like the ones available for the Garmin devices. Most of the review comments are negative.
The SPOT X2 is similar to the GEN 3 except that it has a QWERTY keyboard so you can send messages directly from the device, therefore no need to have a cell phone with you. It is priced around $249. The monthly plan options are the same as for the GEN 3. There also seems to be the same mix of negative comments about the device when actually trying to use, or even with the ‘out of the box’ issues.
A satellite device capable of keeping you in touch when out of cell phone range can be extremely useful. When using a device that connects to your smart phone put it in airplane mode to save battery otherwise it will continue to search for a cell network and drain your battery quickly. Only give a very few people the number, as well as strict instructions as to when to use it, as it will be costing you money for each message. The time to send a message is longer than using your phone, so expect this. Keep your device charged and I strongly suggest that you keep it in an EMP proof bag.