Anglers who gunkhole through the Bahamas, range into Baja California, or explore remote regions of the Everglades or Pacific Northwest passages know they can't depend on cell phones and VHF radios for a lifeline. To reach out and touch someone, they need extreme long-distance service - via satellite.
Satellite phones, first commercialized in the late 1970s, have slowly gained in popularity for recreational use as they have shrunk in size and price. However, since few companies can afford the multibillion-dollar investment to launch and maintain satellites, satphone options remain few.
In North America, anglers who want a handheld phone may choose between Iridium and Globalstar. However, industry pioneer Inmarsat says it expects to debut the handheld IsatPhone Pro at the end of this year's second quarter (June/July). All three companies also offer entry-level fixed phone systems for sport-fishing and leisure vessels.
Know Before You Go
Beyond simple description, however, the satphone issue clouds. Globalstar has experienced aging issues with its satellites that have disrupted the two-way communication needed to sustain voice and Internet services. As a result, service may be unavailable at certain times in certain locations, and call duration may be limited.
Globalstar says it will launch the first six of 24 second-generation satellites this summer to replace the faulty units. Plans for a late 2009 launch were postponed because of financial challenges as well as an earthquake in Italy that damaged a crucial facility, the company says.
In the interim, Globalstar created a call-times tool at http://calltimes.globalstar.com. Customers log in with their location and find call windows for a four-day period. The company also initiated unlimited-calling plans for a fixed fee each month, similar to many cellular contracts.
Globalstar and Iridium use low-earth orbit satellites (LEOs), which travel 500 to 900 miles above the earth. Iridium says its 66 satellites circle the earth every 110 minutes, providing literally worldwide coverage without service gaps. Iridium also says it's the only company with a cross-linked system: Each satellite passes off the call to the next in line in a seamless way, much as cell towers transfer calls as a user moves.
What Goes Up
After a call goes up from your boat to the Iridium LEO system, it passes along to a satellite in view of a download station. The call transfers to the station and is patched into the telephone grid.
Inmarsat uses 11 geostationary satellites that rotate with the earth and fly more than 22,000 miles above the planet. These satellites generally weigh and cost more than LEOs, but fewer are needed for global coverage (with the exception of polar regions). Because of the greater distance the signal travels, however, boaters generally need larger antennas and experience some delays in conversation. That "satellite echo" varies and may be caused by other reasons.
Satellite phones have also become data transmitters, as boaters require some connection to the Internet and e-mail as they travel. But satphones - especially handhelds - provide notoriously slow data-transfer speeds, slower than dial-up modems.