Whether you are a worldwide traveler, a fan of remote areas, or simply live in a place where cell service is not a guarantee, you might have looked into alternative methods of ensuring you always have a line of contact with the outside world. If that’s the case then a satellite phone service could be right for you! This article will cover one of the world’s leading satellite phone providers — Iridium. Iridium’s been hard at work since the turn of the century creating a network of satellites that cover the entire world. No matter where you are, the network can pick up your signal and transmit it where it needs to go.
Iridium’s satellite network is no replacement for standard cell tower networks, rather it allows people to stay connected when they are outside the range of their normal service. Working even in the most tempestuous storms, Iridium’s phones connect to satellites as long as they have a clear view of the sky (cloudy or not). This article will provide information on how satellite and tower networks differ, the pros and cons of each, and then go into Iridium’s phone plans and their satellite phones, and how to pick out the plan that best suits you.
What is the Iridium Network?
Iridium phone plans offer satellite coverage. They provide worldwide coverage for people who travel off the beaten path where conventional coverage will not reach. Satellite coverage is great for people who do a lot of traveling, as it works in airplanes, boats, and anywhere you have a view of the horizon. Iridium launched its first satellite in 1997 and has continued operations ever since, never resting on its goal to grow and strengthen the network.
Satellite Versus Tower Coverage
To ensure everyone is on the same page, this subsection will cover satellite networks and tower networks. The great majority of people don’t need to interact with satellite networks because, especially in the United States, tower networks provide supreme coverage.
Tower networks are those that depend on cell towers that dot the landscape to provide cell service to the surrounding area. All over the country, cell towers receive and transmit signals using radio waves. For instance, a call from California can bounce all the way to New York almost instantly. Cell towers can also send data very quickly, especially on the highest-speed networks. Users are able to stream high-definition video, which requires a tremendous amount of data. Most impressively, transmitting that amount of data to a single device is very easy for cell towers to accomplish.
Satellite networks work similarly, but they transmit signals via satellites orbiting the earth. In the previous example, a phone call from California bounces along the towers to reach New York and they interchange data along the network. For a satellite network, the satellite phone transmits its signal to a satellite which throws it back to the ground, and then it goes to the receiving phone. In the past, satellite phones were only able to connect with other satellite phones but now sat phones can connect with cell phones and landlines as well.
Satellite phone coverage works in just about all the areas that cell coverage does not. They are constantly moving and able to pick up signals from anywhere as long as it has a clear sight line to the sky. Iridium, especially, has a tremendous amount of coverage.
Iridium Phone Plans Offer Worldwide Coverage
More than any other satellite wireless provider, Iridium has constructed a net of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to provide strong connections to satellite phones. Their satellite grid covers all corners of the Earth, from pole to pole. Iridium keeps its satellites in communication with four others in order to keep its coverage optimized and as fast as possible.
Low Earth Orbit Satellites
The proximity of Iridium’s satellites to the ground helps keep the signal strong even if the weather is bad. Clouds have a habit of disrupting signals, but they have less of an effect on LEO satellites than they do on other satellites that orbit the Earth at a higher altitude. Iridium’s LEO satellites bounce and connect devices from all over the world. Their satellite grid is sustainable and growing. While satellites do fail, they are surveyed by a team of experts on the ground and they are safely guided out of the atmosphere and replaced by new ones, all to ensure that their coverage does not diminish.
Unobstructed View of Horizon
One area in which satellite phones differ significantly is in their need to be exposed to the sky. Their transmissions need line of sight, something not shared by cellular networks. Satellite phones are not an alternative to conventional cellular phones, rather they are able to be used in areas where cell towers don’t reach. Satellite phones are important for travelers and those who spend a lot of time in remote areas.
Satellite phones do not work, for instance, inside buildings or in cities. For best reception, they need to be used in areas where the sky is clear.
Iridium Phone Plans
Iridium has a wide selection of phones, accessories, and phone plans to satisfy all of their customers. Their phones and plans are meant for people who operate outside of the bounds of cell tower networks. They are more expensive and more limited, but available anywhere in the world. Before making any purchase it is important to figure out the extent of your phone’s needs. Every postpaid plan by Iridium comes with a 12-month contract. During those 12 months, you are free to change plans to add or subtract minutes from your monthly allocation.
While you do your research, there are a number of plans that do not require a yearlong commitment, rather they are prepaid plans that give all the minutes at once. This section will cover the phones that Iridium offers as well as their phone plans.
Iridium has a variety of cellular devices as well as accessories for their phones, but they have five main satellite phones. Iridium has a plethora of connectivity solutions, but satellite phones are the most common for individuals and they enable voice, messaging, and data just about anywhere on Earth. Their durability makes them the perfect companion to travelers, adventurers, and anyone who is venturing out into the wilds. They currently sell three varieties of satellite phones.
- The Iridium 9575A for the U.S. Government is probably not going to be your first choice! It is unique in its ability to communicate on secure lines through Iridium’s encrypted processes and it is designed specifically for government workers across all branches and levels of service.
- Their flagship satellite phone is the Iridium 9555. It is compact, light, and very durable. It is built so it can withstand just about any weather and be your anchor to the rest of the world no matter where you go. For those venturing out into the wider world, the 9555 is a great companion for keeping in touch with friends and family as well as contacting emergency services should something go awry.
- The Iridium Extreme is the phone for those who need the toughest device on the market. This device is built to function when nothing else does. It is weather resistant to the max and has layers upon layers of protection to ensure it's there when you need it.
These phones come with a substantial price tag. Their 9555 model is, give or take, $700 and their extreme model is $1400. These phones are meant for people who need them with regularity and provide excellent satellite access across their entire network.
Iridium Phone Plans
There are a lot of Iridium phone plans. The major difference between them is the number of minutes you can talk on your phone each month as well as the cost of adding on extra minutes (by the minute) if you go over your limit. Iridium offers four major types of plans, and these types are:
- Iridium Monthly Service Plans
- Iridium Annual Service Plans
- Iridium Global Service Plans
- Iridium Regional Prepaid Service Plans
Prior to going into each kind of plan and service offered by Iridium, there are a few important pieces of information regarding utilizing Iridium’s service.
- All Iridium plans come with a 12-month service contract
- Early termination of that contract results in a $250 early termination fee
- There is a $50 activation fee for every line
- Unused minutes rollover until the conclusion of the contract or when downgrading your current plan
- Calls are billed in one-minute increments
- Outgoing SMS are billed at one minute per message, but incoming SMS is free
Iridium Monthly Service Plans
There are 12 levels of monthly service plans offered by Iridium. They allow users to pick the number of minutes best suited for their travels, from 10 to 1000.
Iridium Annual Service Plans
These plans have the added convenience of being a prepaid plan with a one-time annual payment. The only monthly bill you’ll receive is if you go over the prescribed number of minutes. Iridium has three phone plans of this variety
- 150 Minute Iridium Annual Plan for $800
- 300 Minute Iridium Annual Plan for $825
- 1200 Minute Iridium Annual Plan for $1,495
These plans give you years worth of minutes all at once, and then you can use them however you wish. Because you are locked into a 12-month contract anyway, these plans are not a bad option if you know roughly how much communication you need with your satellite phone over the year.
Iridium Global Prepaid Service Plans
Prepaid minutes are perfect for people who do not need 12 months of service. As shown in the table below these plans are more expensive per minute, but the lowest cost postpaid plan over the course of the year is $650 for 120 minutes, while the least expensive prepaid plan is $160 for 75 minutes. These plans are ideal for people who are going on a single trip, for instance, going on a long hike or an extended trek into areas where there is no cell service.
Iridium Regional Prepaid Service Plans
Iridium’s regional prepaid plans offer lower prices for a specific zone of coverage. They have four regional plans, one in Latin America, one in the “Northern Lights” region, one in Africa, and one in Mid-East North Africa. These plans are valid for either six or 12 months and offer minutes at a much-discounted rate with no yearly contract.
Iridium GO! is a new product by iridium that allows up to five devices to connect wirelessly to it and transmit their calls and texts to Iridium’s satellite network. It is durable, just like all of Iridium’s other products, and is designed to help groups of travelers stay connected as they go. This device helps provide voice calls, text messaging, and specific data capabilities through optimized apps to stay connected using the devices with which you are comfortable. There are four major postpaid Iridium GO! plans as well as two prepaid plans.
- 40 minutes for $60
- 90 minutes for $100
- 250 minutes for $108
- 150 minutes and unlimited data for $150
It bears noting that for the first three plans data is counted towards the total allotment of minutes in the plan. For groups, the unlimited plan is recommended because it allows for each traveler to use a fair amount of minutes during the month as well as removing the worry that the data will run out at some time. The data is, of course, not very fast. Iridium has designed specialized apps to allow users to check e-mail and do other tasks that do not rely on a lot of data to run (browsing the web and streaming video are two common examples)
The prepaid plans are as follows:
- 200 minutes for $515
- 500 minutes for $795
Each of these plans come with double the voice minutes in data and six times the voice minutes in SMS. While very expensive, they last for 6 and 12 months respectively and allow the group to only pay once up front and enjoy their mobile satellite connection for a long time.
Is an Iridium Phone Plan Right for You?
Iridium phone plans offer something that conventional tower plans do not — worldwide coverage. Iridium is hard at work growing and speeding up its satellite networks, but at this moment they are best for voice calling and texting as a way to stay in touch when you are off the grid. They are not an alternative (yet) to cell tower phone plans, and they cannot offer much in the form of data at this time.
Iridium’s satellite network, and the phones they provide, are well worth the cost because of their durability and reliability. If you are going anywhere that your normal phone might not function, the safety of a satellite phone is well worth the bill. If you are traveling in a group, you can always consider splitting the cost of the phone and the plan to make it a bit easier to pay. It’s a bit like safety equipment in its current state. The scarcity of minutes (and how expensive they get as you order more and more) make it a tool rather than an instrument of leisure, which is how we utilize our cell phones on tower plans.