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February 01, 2010

Stay In Range With a Satphone

Satphones offer anglers dial-up peace of mind...

Iridium's 9555 handheld, which debuted last year, comes with a mini-USB port and SMS texting. It transfers data at 2,400 bits per second.

So that boaters don't pull their hair out, though, several of Iridium's service partners have created compression software to expedite file transfer (check out Global Marine Network's XGate).

Handhelds generally cost about $1,500. Some may be used with a docking station, plus a small, omnidirectional external antenna, bundled for an additional $850 to $2,000.

Anglers who run cabin boats that can handle fixed satphone units with their larger antennas may opt for Iridium's OpenPort or Inmarsat's FB150, which offer faster data-transfer rates (up to about 150 kilobits per second) and multiple lines. Both hardware systems cost about $5,000.

Priceless Safety
As with cell phones, the costs associated with buying a satphone don't end when you pay for the hardware. Service providers package phones with calling plans that normally range from slightly less than a dollar to $2 per minute for handhelds.

With fixed phones, plans are priced based on minutes of voice service and megabytes of data transfer. A sampling of rates showed $0.85 to a high of $18 per minute for calls, depending on whether you call a land line or another satphone (the latter costs more), and $6.50 to $15 per megabyte of data. Calls coming in to satphones from a land line or cell phone can cost the caller $3 to $15 a minute, according to several sources.

Globalstar's current unlimited airtime plan, valid until March, costs $34.95 per month, plus a $50 activation fee.

Anglers who may take an occasional trip to a remote location may choose to rent a satellite phone. Renting also offers a glimpse at what each product offers before purchase. More than half a dozen companies rent satphones; BoatU.S. Foundation maintains a list on its website at

At press time, GMPCS Personal Communications' website offered an Iridium 9505A handheld for $57.95 a week, plus a package of minutes costing anywhere from $47 to $417. Customers must ship phones back within three days of the end of the rental at their own cost.

But as with products such as EPIRBs, boaters must ask themselves: What's the price of safety and peace of mind? When your vessel is the only one for miles, running along an outlying island shoal, and your props smack a piece of hard, floating debris, what will you do?