Satellite phones: the answer to patchy mobile reception?

When I write about the problems of mobile phone reception in this column, I normally end up with a bumper inbox – bad signal seems to be an issue that affects many readers.

Satellite phones: the answer to patchy mobile reception?

Of course, if you listen to the marketing puff from the mobile networks, you’ll see them all proclaiming they have 99% coverage, and that’s true – but this figure is only for their old-school 2G signals and, like many a marketing statistic, it tells only half the story.

The way that network coverage is measured (at least in the UK) is on a “by head of population” basis. This means that the mobile networks concentrate on the cities and large towns, where they can cover more people from a single mast.

It’s simple economics – invest the money in places with the greatest population density, so the stats look better.

Fine print

Although UK 2G coverage is typically 99% (by head of population) across all networks, you’ll find it’s considerably worse for 3G, where the coverage is 97% at best (3, T-Mobile, and Orange) and can even fall as low as 80% (O2).

Each network also publishes coverage maps (although I reckon they often make them deliberately difficult to find and tricky to navigate), but when you look at the maps for North Wales or the lumpy bits of Scotland, you’ll see they look a lot like Swiss cheese, with lots of holes. Likewise, try to use your phone in a typical West Country bay and you’ll find that reception is often impossible.

The trouble is it’s remote places such as these where phone reception is often very important. What if you’re trapped on the beach of a Cornish cove, with the tide coming in? What if you were doing a bit of hill running, broke your ankle and can’t get down off the mountain? What if your car is stranded in a snow drift on a high, bleak and windy moor?

As I’ve mentioned before, you can still make emergency 999 calls on other networks, but there’s an awful lot of our small island that none of the networks reach, and if you hop over the water to foreign lands, you’ll find it’s even worse.

Satellite solution

There is a solution of course, but you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you? For the past few weeks, I’ve started playing with a couple of bits of kit loaned to me by satellite phone firm Inmarsat. I was given an IsatPhone Pro and an Explorer 500 BGAN data terminal.

There are a handful of satellite phone providers out there, and doing a bit of research among users I found that they vary quite a bit. There’s Thuraya, for example, which is cheap (relatively speaking), but its satellites are in geostationary orbit (GEO), 22,000 miles away in the Clarke Belt, so there’s a very significant delay when trying to hold a conversation.

Its data service is also slow (about 1Kbit/sec). Thuraya does have an advantage in that its phones will roam onto GSM, if a normal signal is available.

Then there’s Iridium, which uses low Earth orbit satellites. It has less of a voice delay than with Thuraya, but I found frequent reports of dropped calls and data rates still aren’t fantastic, with a maximum limit of 2.4Kbits/sec.

Finally, there’s Inmarsat. As with Thuraya, it uses GEO satellites, so there can be a bit of a delay on voice calls, but the connection seems to be more reliable.

Fold it away

You can get guaranteed data rates of up to 256Kbits/sec, and one of the things that really appeals to me is that the phones have a fold-away antenna. The other providers’ handsets usually have quite a lump at one end, much like old GSM phones used to have.

I know from painful experience that such devices can give you a painful poke in the ribs if you’re carrying the phone in an inside jacket pocket.

Immarsat IsatPhone Pro

So, what’s the IsatPhone Pro like to use? Well, having only fired it up a couple of times so far, the main observation is that it’s no smartphone – don’t expect to be running apps, or updating your social networks from this handset.

But it does offer voice communication, voicemail, text messages, email and GPS location data. I’ve tested only voice calls so far and, apart from a bit of a delay caused by the 44,000-mile round trip, I found it to be very good – as good as, or maybe even slightly better than, normal cell phone quality.

The handset is certainly no looker. It’s quite chunky, but most satellite phones are – it’s those pesky laws of physics that are partly to blame. The good thing is that it’s splash and dustproof (Inmarsat claims IP54 level), and battery life is reasonable at 100 hours standby.

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