from Yachting World, Jayne Toyne, January 27, 2022
Satellite phones and satellite trackers have transformed long-distance sailing, with the ability to download accurate weather forecasts, call anyone in the world and track positions across an ocean hour by hour. We guide you to find the best satellite phone or tracker for communication at sea.
The best satellite phone for you is the one that does the job you need it to do. If you are looking to make calls, send and receive texts, drop bread crumbs for passage tracking and download a daily weather file, then these satellite phones or satellite tracking devices could be just the ticket. You can keep one of these in your grab bag too, along with an EPIRB for extra security in case of emergency.
The ubiquitous Iridium 9555 can be seen on many boats who need to equip themselves with the bare minimum of satellite communications to meet an offshore event mandatory requirements. They sell well on the second hand market too. I have used one of these phones to call out my own mayday after a dismasting in the Atlantic and its simplicity and portability was a huge win for me. You don’t always need to spend the most to get what you need.
But bear in mind, if you are looking to fire back photos and videos to your Instagram and YouTube channels, then these are not the best satellite phones for you. This is because we have become accustomed to smartphones and endless data. These satellite phones do not have high data handling capacity, no matter how much data you buy, they are still very slow. (Rather like old fashioned house phone dial up internet from the 90’s, waiting 30 minutes for a tiny picture to download)
We have a separate guide to data rich, fast uploading/downloading satellite phone options.
Questions to ask before buying a satellite phone
Where will you be using it?
What will you be using the phone for? (voice, text, weather reports, position tracking, sos etc)
Do you need waterproofing?
How important is battery life?
Do you need internal GPS?
Do you want to send photos and videos to social media or to a personal blog or website?
Do you want a portable satellite phone to keep in a grab bag?
Will you want to take it with you on to other boats?
What airtime plan will suit you?
Satellite phone global coverage
Global coverage offered by satellite phone providers (maps courtesy of Global Telesat Communications)
Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone & SIM Card With 75 Minutes For 30 Days
This handset comes with a prepaid SIM card and 75 minutes for 30 days validity (note you must activate the SIM card within 6 months of purchase).
Industrial-grade design for durability. Compact physical footprint means it will slip easily into a grab bag or large jacket pocket.
Enhanced SMS and email messaging capability. It comes with a phone cover and a hands free wired headset in the box.
Price £1215 (Price £1016 phone only)
Iridium 9575 Extreme Satellite Phone with a Prepaid SIM card (No Airtime Included)
The Iridium 9575 Extreme is SMS and email enabled. SMS and email messaging is limited to 160 characters and delivery/receipt is dependent on compatibility with local mobile network carriers
The phone has an integrated speakerphone and hands-free capability through a headset included as standard in the box.
It is the only satellite phone currently available with emergency services supported by GEOS International Emergency Response Coordinating Centre and is included at no additional cost.
Equipped with Location Based Services (LBS) enabling GPS positioning.
Ruggedised to a IP65 rating, the highest of any satellite phone currently available. It is jet water resistant, shock resistant, dust proof and has a rugged antenna.
Price: £1,230 / $1,150
The Iridium GO! is a pocket sized device, with an IP rating of IP65, that enables you to use your smartphone or tablet to make voice calls, share photos, access emails, SMS two-way, use GPS tracking and send out SOS alerts.
Simply flip up the integrated antenna and the battery-powered unit will connect quickly and automatically to the Iridium LEO satellite constellation. You can then connect and operate up to 5 devices at a time using the Iridium GO! app.
You will need to purchase airtime for a prepaid SIM, or enter into a monthly contract for the post-paid SIM before you can use your device.
Inmarsat IsatPhone 2 with SIM Card and 50 Airtime Units
Inmarsat is another big name in satellite communications, and their IsatPhone 2 has good reviews. Inmarsat offers near-global coverage, and the phone has around 8 hours’ talk time, an integral GPS sensor, and is IP54 water- and dust-resistant.
It has an SOS button for emergency use. Reviews suggest that it’s a good choice if you’re looking for predominantly voice calls – for heavy data use, it’s more cost effective to use one of the company’s impressive FleetBroadband units.
Garmin InReach Mini
Ok, so Garmin’s InReach Mini may not strictly be a satellite phone, in that you can’t use it to make phone calls, but it’s a low-cost messenger that allows two-way text messaging.
You can also use it to trigger an SOS call to a 24/7 search and rescue centre, and have a tailored weather forecast delivered for a subscription fee. Worth considering as a lower-cost alternative if you don’t need voice or data capability.
The SPOT X has a 2.7-inch screen with a backlit display which allows you to view message status and add contacts. Also, the satellite tracker is dust and water protected to IP67 standard.
Connect your SPOT X to the SPOT X app via Bluetooth, to access satellite connectivity.
Users can select from 2.5, 5, 10, 30 or 60 minute tracking intervals, to let family, friends and other adventurers follow your progress with SPOT’s Google Maps interface. The check-in button is an important feature. It enables users to quickly and easily let everyone know they’re okay.
The SPOT X has a built-in compass and programmable waypoints to help you navigate whilst on your trip. Additionally, there is an SOS button on the device for emergency situations. Send an S.O.S. to the 24/7 Search & Rescue centre, message back and forth about the nature of your emergency, and receive confirmation when help is on the way.
Thuraya SatSleeve Plus
The SatSleeve is designed to transform your smartphone (Apple or Android) into a satellite phone by clipping to the phone. You get the apps and interface you are familiar with, access to your emails and usual phone numbers through a free SatSleeve App that lets you interface your phone’s address book.
You can choose various access points to give you the level of compression you need and avoid heavy and expensive data use (heavy compression, low or no compression are the options).
Thuraya XT Pro Satellite Phone
Thuraya’s XT Pro is a ruggedised handset that boasts a long battery life, built-in GPS and a large display. Thuraya claims up to 2/3rds global coverage, so it’s important to ensure that your cruising ground or passage area is included – you can check the coverage map at the top of this article.
You can make calls and send SMS from the handset and use the phone as an internet access point. There’s a dedicated SOS button that sends a pre-programmed alert to a preset number, not the GEOS service as used by some other brands.
Buying the best satellite phone is just the start – you’ll also need a SIM card and data plan. These vary considerably in cost and it’s worth spending some time researching the best options for your type of sailing. MailASail have a useful guide to choosing your usage on their website. Global Telesat Communications also have a comprehensive website with lots of airtime plans available to accompany the satellite equipment you choose to buy.