“Be Prepared” Satellite Phone Voice Services: What does it cost to save a life?

The cost-of-ownership for Iridium, Globalstar and the IsatPhone Pro’s handheld voice services are compared. IsatPhone Pro’s hardware prices and newly available prepaid airtime plans establish it as the lowest cost option for always-ready emergency voice communications.

Perhaps it’s simply because you like to be prepared, just in case the car gets stuck on the way home from this winter’s ski trip. Or just in case the next hurricane knocks out all the phone lines and cellular service between here and who knows where. Or maybe just in case you break a leg on your next back-country hiking or hunting trip. Whatever the reason, you’ve realized the only way to talk to someone to ask for help in a crisis without conventional communications is to have a mobile satellite phone handy. Now what do you do? And what is the least expensive means of satisfying your passion for preparedness without having to pinch every other penny in your possession?

Before diving into our analysis of available options for “just-in-case” satellite voice systems, one simple truth needs to be addressed. Like any cell phone, a satellite phone that isn’t activated under an airtime plan is nothing more than an expensive paperweight. Furthermore, if you’ve waited to activate your satellite phone until your emergency actually happens, you’ve waited too long. The whole reason you’re considering a satellite phone is because you’re concerned about losing communications during a natural disaster or personal emergency. What do you need to activate a satellite phone? Yes, communications.  What have you just lost with your regional, local or personal emergency? That’s right, communications. So indeed, you’ve saved yourself from paying a monthly service fee for your satellite phone’s airtime plan by purchasing that satellite phone and putting it in the drawer inactivated. In so doing, you’ve also emasculated the potential of this phone to possibly save your life. Consequently, any meaningful analysis of the costs-of-ownership of a life-saving satellite phone has to consider up-front hardware AND on-going airtime costs.

Three competitors presently vie to provide you with your just-in-case voice solution. There’s Iridium, the seasoned veteran with its 9555 and Extreme 9575 phones. Globalstar, injured and out of commission for five years but returning in 2013 with high hopes of climbing back into the mix. And then there is the IsatPhone, new to the handheld game but aggressively priced and carrying with it Inmarsat’s heritage of success in fixed phone installations.

Iridium

Of the three competitors, Iridium is the only truly global satellite phone. Pole-to-pole coverage grants to the Iridium network unprecedented reliability and access to voice communications no matter where you roam.  But such system capability doesn’t come cheap. Its 9555 phone is routinely priced around $1200. The high-end 9575 Extreme does contain built-in GPS which can be accessed for personal tracking and its SOS button can be triggered for emergency help but you’ll need to shell out almost $1500 to purchase the 9575 phone.

Iridium airtime service doesn’t do anything to lighten your cost-of-ownership. The least expensive way to keep an Iridium phone active and relevant to you as a communication solution during an emergency is with a postpaid airtime plan. Whereas Iridium once offered a postpaid voice-only plan that creative resellers were able to market for as little as $25 per month, Iridium slammed that door shut in mid-2012. As such, their least expensive postpaid plan now runs almost twice as high at $45 per month ($540 per year). This excludes any of the per minute charges you’d actually pay when you talk over the phone (although if the issue is getting someone to you in time to save life and property, the per minute rate you’re paying is probably the least of your concerns). Couple that with the price of the 9555 or 9575 and your first year cost-of-ownership with Iridium runs between $1700 and $2000! Global coverage is great but if emergency voice communication is your criterion and cost is a deciding factor, you are paying an awful lot to make sure you can make such a call from the North Pole.

Globalstar

The Globalstar system has been largely offline since early 2007 when solar radiation zapped the duplex transceivers on the majority of the satellites in the Globalstar constellation. As such, no matter how inexpensive or cost-effective Globalstar airtime has been since 2007, the lack of Globalstar coverage over the past five years has excluded it from any consideration as a just-in-case satellite solution. But the company has been inching its way back to being a bona-fide sat com provider in 2011 and 2012 and should complete the re-launch of its constellation by early 2013. In September 2012, most locations in the Globalstar footprint (see coverage map below) receive 45 to 50 minutes of coverage in a given hour.  This amount of up-time and the imminent launch completion convinces us it should now play a role in your just-in-case satellite phone considerations.

 

GlobalStar Coverage Map

Globalstar’s 1700 phone sells for $499. Because of the state of its network, the company has been offering unlimited airtime at the unheard of rate of $40 per month. Amazingly, if you have an active phone and can find a working satellite, you will spend less to talk through the Globalstar satellite network than you will on most cell phone plans.

However, because I’m going to assume you wouldn’t mind paying $10 a minute if it will save your life, the fact that Globalstar’s $40 per month provides unlimited talk time is largely irrelevant to our calculus here.  What we’re more interested in right now is knowing it will cost me $480 for my first year of Globalstar airtime to be prepared to make that all-important one or two minute call for help. Combining $480 in annual airtime costs with the $499 price of the Globalstar 1700 and the first year cost-of-ownership with Globalstar is $979, almost one-half the first year cost of Iridium. It’s hard to say what Globalstar will do with its airtime plans once the full satellite constellation is in place (prior to the Globalstar constellation demise in 2007, low end airtime plans were in the $50 per month range), but right now in late 2012, it costs you much less to buy and maintain an active Globalstar phone than it does with Iridium.

Inmarsat

Your third option is Inmarsat’s IsatPhone Pro. Inmarsat has been a global leader in satellite communications for decades, but it entered the handheld market only very recently (in the US not until late 2010). Although coverage extends from 70N to 70S, the fact that its geostationary satellites are positioned at the equator makes an IsatPhone Pro sensitive to the direction the antenna on the handheld phone is pointed, particularly at higher latitudes. Users above about 45 degrees of latitude must have clear views of the sky to the south and orient the phone’s antenna in that direction to minimize signal drop.

Aside from these limitations, the IsatPhone is an excellent solution for voice communications. Voice quality is high and because those Inmarsat satellites aren’t moving, once you’ve achieved a signal lock, the connection is very stable. The price of the phone is around $700 after an Inmarsat price hike in early 2012. This has been more than compensated for by Inmarsat with its globalization of prepaid service on September 1, 2012. This change lowered the annual cost of airtime service to less than $200 for the IsatPhone Pro and consequently has elevated the phone’s status as a cost-effective, “just-in-case” satellite solution immeasurably.

The minimum year one cost of ownership for the IsatPhone and airtime service is under $900 ($897 for a complete hardware/airtime kit from OCENS).  This is almost $100 less than Globalstar and less than half the cost of Iridium. The IsatPhone Pro’s comprehensive coverage (both temporally and geographically) gives it a further leg up on Globalstar.

The following chart offers a summary comparison of year one costs of hardware and airtime from the three providers:

Cost Comparison Chart

Inmarsat’s low annual airtime cost also means it delivers to you the lowest on-going cost year-in, year-out.  Second and later year costs of operation of the IsatPhone Pro are $300to $350 less than Globalstar or Iridium.

Ongoing Cost Comparison Chart

Consequently, IF your objective is the least expensive route to accessible satellite phone voice communications just in case everything goes to heck in a hand basket, the IsatPhone is your answer. It does this by merging middle-of-the-road hardware costs for its handheld phone with annual airtime costs substantially below Iridium and Globalstar.

 CLICK HERE to see the OCENS IsatPhone Pro “Be Prepared” kit.