Sat phones anytime, anywhere connect

A satellite phone is a boon for people traveling to remote areas and also in disaster-struck areas when the regular communication lines are down

When the devastating earthquake struck Pakistan in 2005, most communication lines were broken. And that’s been the story of most national calamities, be it Hurricane Katrina in the US or India’s own Mumbai floods.

The first to be hit are the landlines and if a base station is down, then even the mobile network comes to a standstill. That’s why in the aftermath of the Pak earthquake, the Government set up 110 Thuraya satellite phone booths to ensure connectivity for everybody when disaster struck.

Sat phones are great for remote areas, reporters and frequent travelers who zig zag all across the globe.

In Jurassic Park, the hero loans his satphone to someone who is eaten by a dinosaur. The hero then finds the phone in dinosaur dung and manages to call for help from the isolated island that they are on.

But what’s a satellite phone?

While your mobile phone communicates with the nearest base station, a satellite phone or satphone does the same with the nearest satellite. So that’s why when you’re with a satphone, you don’t have to worry about a network connection or whether you’re on top of a hill or in the middle of the sea. Moreover satphones generally communicate with low earth orbit satellites (LEOs), which are faster and give better coverage. (Note, while a geosynchronus circles the globe in one day, a LEO satellite can do it in 70 minutes flat).

The only difference between a regular mobile and a satphone is that the latter is heavier and bigger. They’re somewhat like the mobiles that were available 15-20 years ago. Plus they have a large retractable antenna that you have to pull out to establish contact with the satellite.

The advantages are many

Satphones have come as a big boon for reporters, explorers, archaeologists and the like. Basically anyone who has to work in remote areas. In the famous TV serial Relic Hunter, the main character is always connected no matter which remote location in the world she goes to.

That’s been the story in real life too. Two explorers Steve Brooks and Quentin Smith were stranded in a lifeboat in the ice-cold waters of the Antarctic. Steve called his wife via a satphone (she was in London, more than 12,000 km away). A search operation was organized and they were rescued in 9 hours.

A satphone can work anywhere in the world, the only condition is that you need the open sky to establish contact.

Of course, satphones have also got a bad name, because, if you’ve got the money, then you can buy a handset and service in one country and use it indefinitely anywhere in the world. That is why it is popular among drug lords and terrorists.

They are difficult to trace and even more difficult to tap by the authorities. In fact in India too, in many a police raids, hauls have recovered satphones.

Thuraya to start in India

Out of all the satellite phone providers, Thuraya has entered the Indian market. Headquartered in the UAE, it gives commercial services to 110 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa. It recently had a tie-up with U&I System Design to provide satphones in India. However, right now the government has not authorized it for commercial use. Only officials from the Indian government and the military are enjoying the benefits of anytime anywhere connectivity.

However it is expected that Thuraya will open shop in India very soon and distribute handsets and SIM cards the way it is doing in other countries. Thuraya already has tie-ups with around 188 GSM networks all over the world.

The best part about Thuraya is that their handsets come with a dual-mode feature. That is, they are compatible with both satellite phone and GSM networks. Thuraya has around 250,000 users all over the world.

The global players

Thuraya: Uses a geostationary satellite to give coverage to Europe, Africa and Asia. Have dual mode handsets that can work on a GSM and satellite network.
Globalstar: A low earth orbit network based in the US.
Iridium: A US-based competitor of Globalstar.
Inmarsat: Powered US reporters’ videophones in the US invasion of Iraq.
Teledesic: Was a proposed system of 288 satellites between Motorola, Microsoft, Boeing, Nextel and others, which never took off.

(This article appeared in the January 2006 edition of Living Digital magazine)