> TEOTWAWKI Blog: Satellite phones for Survival?



Satellite phones for Survival?

I was watching 24 the other day, where the head bad guy was using a satellite phone to further his evil scheme. This got me thinking--a sat phone could be pretty handy in a localized disaster--in a 9/11, Katrina, Haiti or Chile type situation, local cell and landlines are knocked out or overloaded with traffic. So, I did some digging to see if sat phones--cool as they are--would be a viable option.

Compared to Ham/Amateur Radio
When we talk about survival communications, ham radios are typically the first to come to mind. I'm no expert in hams, but I've done some reading. They have a lot going for them. But, they also require tests, licenses and specialized knowledge. Small, portable handheld ham radios need to be within range of a functional repeater to get much distance. Even using a good base station radio, if you're not within range of a repeater, you're looking at using big antennas and bouncing your signal around the atmosphere, which may or may not work. They require lots of tinkering and are not always the most reliable form of communication; often times ham ham buddies will give up talking over the radio--because of poor signal, interference, whatever--and just call each other on the phone. If I'm wrong on this, let me know--the above is my understanding based on what I've come across.
When compared to ham radios, sat phones are pretty much plug-and-play. They don't require much in the way of special knowledge. They don't require licenses, use of repeaters, phone patches or anything special. You just dial the number, wherever you are on earth. Simplicity has a lot going for it.

Sat phones are definitely not as "standalone" as hams are. First, they need the satellites to be working. Sat phone to sat phone calls just stay within the sat network--no landlines involved. However, calls to normal landlines or cell phones involve the cell/landline infrastructure. If you're in a disaster area, calling a conventional phone in an outside and unaffected disaster area with operating phone infrastructure, you'll be ok. But if they are affected--if you're trying to contact someone on a compromised network--then you'll be just as screwed as everyone else. So, for a nationwide or worldwide SHTF situation, a single sat phone may do you limited good. Even if you had several people with sat phones to communicate with, they'd only work as long as you could get access to the satellite network.

Cost (It Ain't Cheap)
Price is also definite consideration for a sat phones. A new sat phone will run you around $1,500, although used models are available on eBay at a substantial discount (under $500). Once you have the phone, however, you will need to activate it and then purchase airtime like a cellphone. This isn't cheap--but it has dropped in price in recent years and should continue to drop in the future.

Iridium is the big name in sat phones--they've got the only truly worldwide network. The best deal that I've found is their 222 minute prepaid sim card, which can be had for $450 and is good for one year (activated as soon as you purchase it). Cheaper cards are available, but they expire in 1-3 months. You can of course get more minutes for more money--500 international minutes for $675, etc.  You can subscribe to a plan--but the basic plan, no minutes included plan, is $40/month or $480 for a year. Outgoing calls on that plan will run you $1-$2/minute, so the 222 minute prepaid sim is cheaper and gives you some minutes to work with. Basically, to have a functioning sat phone, you're looking at about $500 a year for a couple hundred minutes.

Globalstar, Iridium's main competitor, has less expensive phones and similarly priced plans. They are currently in the middle of launching new satellites, though, so you may want to wait until that happens to make any purchase.

Like with all things, deals can be had. eBay, for example, has a few used Iridium phones with several hundred remaining minutes for well under $1,000. People buy these for a trip or expedition and then sell 'em off quite regularly. As always, know what you're buying before you drop the cash!

It could make sense...
So--assuming you can afford one--when would you need a sat phone? Here are three situations that come to mind.

Off Grid and Very Mobile: If you spend lots of time in areas without reliable phone networks--off roading, backcountry skiing, hiking, exploring, out at sea or otherwise off grid--a sat phone could come in handy fairly regularly and would be smart to have around just in case. There's not really anything comparable in capability. Want to call home from the top of Mount Everest, the middle of the ocean, or the Island from Lost? A satellite phone is your only option.

Frequent Travelers: If you travel internationally or outside of your home region frequently, a sat phone could be a good insurance policy to make sure that you have communications ability back home. For example, if you were in Chile for business when the earthquake hit, you would have the ability to call home immediately and tell family and co-workers that you were ok, get a read on the situation, and start planning your evac immediately.

If you don't have the time/interest to get into Ham radio: For the most part, a ham radio set up will probably serve you better for SHTF situations in the US, which has a robust system of repeaters and an avid amateur radio community. It should also cost you quite a bit less than buying a sat phone and keeping it active. But, if you don't want to study up for your ham license and spend the time to figure it all out, then a sat phone is your alternative. It will give you simple-to-use phone communications with anyone with a sat phone or an operational land/cell network. Personally, I fall somewhat into this category--I'm just not that interested in ham radio.

Of course, the more the above apply to you, the more useful a sat phone will be to you. If you frequently travel off the grid internationally, a sat phone would be very wise indeed.

I think sat phones have a way to progress still--prices need to drop and I'd like to see some kind prepaid "emergency" sim card that one could just hold onto until an emergency came along. As-is, your minutes expire or you're paying $40-$50 a month for the "insurance."  My budget is unfortunately not that flush at the moment. However, if I had the money, I'd probably invest in one. Sure, it wouldn't do me a ton of good in a sudden nation or worldwide TEOTWAWKI scenario, but for local/regional disasters or troubles while traveling off the grid/abroad? Super useful.

And hey, they're Jack Bauer-approved, which is always a plus.