Satellite phone

This page provides information about connecting to the satellite phone network that encircles the earth. Satellite phones are often the only way to get any kind of voice connection in some rural, regional or remote parts of Australia.

This page covers buying your own phone and service. It does not cover the USO Satphone service used by Telstra to provide the landline service under its Universal Service Obligation.

What is a satellite phone?

A satellite telephone, satellite phone, or satphone, is a type of mobile phone that connects to other phones or the telephone network by radio through orbiting satellites, instead of cell or mobile sites on the ground.

The advantage of a satphone is that its use is not limited to areas covered by cell towers; it can be used in most or all geographic locations on the Earth’s surface.

As a result, it’s widely used in the more remote areas of Australia, particularly if you move around a lot.

In general, satphones are about the same size as an ordinary phone or larger mobile phone handset, but may be heavier and broader.

One company now also provides a piece of equipment called a “SatSleeve”. This wraps around a compatible smartphone, such as an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, turning it into a satellite phone.

If you have a SmartSleeve, you will need to have both a satellite phone plan and a mobile phone plan to make calls over both networks.

How does it work?

When you make a call or send a message on a satphone, it sends a signal to one of multiple small satellites in orbit around the earth. This satellite then transmits the signal to the recipient of your message, who can then reply in kind.

There are several companies which provide satellite phone services, and each network uses a mixture of satellites they own and satellites owned by others, to achieve as wide coverage as possible.

The networks available in Australia are:

  • Iridium (used by Telstra)
  • Globalstar
  • Thuraya (used by Optus)
  • Inmarsat
  • Pivotel

This is very different to a home phone which uses a wired connection to a phone network, or a mobile phone which receives and transmits wireless signals from a signal tower.

  • The main advantage is that a satellite can receive and transmit your phone signal from almost anywhere. They’re used when service is non-existent or disrupted, or where reliability of the connection is paramount.
  • On the downside, the sheer distance covered means that signals take several seconds to be transmitted. After you say something on a phone call, you’ll have to wait a little while for a reply. The small amount of satellite infrastructure and low demand also means that using a sat phone is very expensive compared to a regular phone.

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. This means (for example) it’s not possible to use an Inmarsat handset on the Globalstar network, which makes choosing the right connection for your needs rather vital.

This article on the Grey Nomads website provides a review of the four networks. []

Can I get a satellite phone?

Yes. They are available to anyone, anywhere.

The phone equipment, and ongoing costs, tend to be more expensive than everyday mobile phone plans and handsets.

You also can’t easily switch between networks with the same handset. If you want to switch networks – for example, a different network offers a better plan – you will need to buy a completely new phone in addition to the plan.

Like mobile and internet plans, there is a large number of resellers and providers of satphone suppliers and plans.

It’s worth looking at the Telstra and Optus handset and plan options first, before comparing these with less-known providers and finding reviews of those suppliers in terms of network reliability, cost, and customer support (vital if your phone starts playing up in a remote area).

Satellite costs

Handset prices can range from about $800 through to $1900. This includes the SatSleeve, which needs to be attached to an existing compatible smartphone (at additional cost), and must have its own separate network and plan to work.

Costs per voice call can range from about $2 to $5 for a two-minute call, depending on the network and plan you’re on.

You can also use SMS and internet data over satellite networks – again, costs for these will vary between networks and plans.

Emergency calls on satphones

A satphone can’t provide location access to a 000 operator, as the signal is coming from a satellite. If the satphone is your primary means of emergency communication, we recommend having a source of GPS data with you as well, so this information can be provided to the operator.

If your satphone connection is also a smartphone, and you have a plan with internet connectivity, you may be able to use the Australian Government Emergency+ app to notify emergency services.

More information

The following sites provide an excellent overview of satellite phones, networks, and plans, and provided input to this page. We will add to this page as the site is developed.

Satellite Phone: 5 best sat phones reviewed.  July 2020.
Satellite Phone Services & Plans Explained.
Satellite phone networks.
How to Choose a Satellite Phone.