What is a satellite phone? The name is kind of self-explanatory. Regular phones and smartphones work by connecting to wireless networks beamed from terrestrial base stations, cell sites, and towers. Terrestrial refers to the earth. Regular mobile devices connect through towers located here on the ground. In contrast, a satellite phone (or satphone) works by connecting to a wireless network beamed by satellites orbiting in space.
A long, long time ago – 1962, the first orbiting communications satellite was launched. But it wasn’t until 1989 that Motorola launched the first satellite phone. Since then, a handful of other satphone makers have emerged. Note that, unlike mobile phones, satphones can not roam to another satellite network other than that which it was built for. To use a satellite phone service, you have to buy service credits, similar to the way you have to buy mobile airtime for your regular phone.
What is a satellite phone good for?
Satphones are ideal for use at locations where there is no terrestrial cellular network service available. We are talking about wildernesses, deserts, mountainous regions, and the great vast seas and oceans of planet earth far from land and the reach of mobile networks. A satellite phone is useful for keeping in touch in such far out places. It serves as a useful tool for emergency service workers, especially, for this very reason.
List Of Satellite Phone Operators
The most prominent providers of satellite phone service are Inmarsat (the oldest satellite operator), Thuraya, Iridium, and Globalstar. Thuraya satellite phones were some of the best known traditional satphones. Iridium phones are also well known and provide the widest coverage. Traditional satphones are expensive, costing as much as $1,500, and initially offered nothing but satellite connectivity. Over time, satellite phones added dual-SIM functionality, so you can use your regular SIM card in it, alongside a satellite SIM card. This bridging of the gap between satellite and terrestrial connectivity took a new turn in 2022.
On August 24, 2022, SpaceX announced its plans to provide satellite phone service to T-Mobile, effectively joining the league of satellite phone operators. As such, when this rolls out, SpaceX becomes a satphone operator. The T-Mobile/SpaceX partnership will initially cover only the United States, providing much-needed connectivity at locations across the country where there is no wireless cell service.
On September 7, 2022, Globalstar announced that it will be providing the newly-announced iPhone 14 and 14 Plus, and iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max, with satellite connectivity. The announcements of partnerships between Space-X and T-Mobile, and Apple and Globalstar, signal the beginning of a new generation of satellite phones. With the arrival of the iPhone 14 series, regular smartphones now began to join the league of satphones by offering satellite connectivity. Joining the iPhone 14 series will be a number of yet-to-be-named devices from T-Mobile USA.
In an interesting twist, Huawei also launched the Mate 50 a few hours ahead of the iPhone 14 series, and that model supports satellite-based SMS, just like the iPhone 14 series do. Huawei Mate 50’s satellite messaging uses China’s global BeiDou satellite network for this. That makes Huawei Mate 50, not the iPhone 14, the first regular phone announced to support satellite messaging.
How good is satphone connectivity?
If you were expecting to hear of blazing fast Internet and the like via satellite phone service, you will be disappointed. Despite the futuristic, cutting edge optics, satellite phone connectivity offers the slowest Internet speeds available – as low as between 2 and 4 Mbps, but often much lower than those figures. You will also get SMS and voice call service. That is mostly it. Over time, the service will improve and deliver faster speeds and support more advanced features, but for now, the purpose of satphone services is to provide emergency SOS when you are outside of regular cellular wireless coverage.
Can you turn your smartphone into a satellite phone?
The answer to that question is a yes. You will need an adapter, like one from Thuraya, called Thuraya SatSleeve+, along with a mobile app. This will enable you latch on to Thuraya’s satellite network for voice, SMS, and Internet in locations without GSM coverage. The adapter is a jacket worn on the phone. What kind of Internet speed will you get using this jacket? 15 kbps upload and 60 kbps download maximum. Yes; that creepy crawly slow, but if you are being Indiana Jones, that’s what you get. The Thuraya SatSleeve+ looks like this on a typical Android phone:
The Thuraya SatSleeve+ costs US$679 on Amazon. A competing satphone adapter is the Iridium GO!, which costs US$795. You use it with an accompanying app to latch on to satellite service on your smartphone.
With the BeiDou-Huawei partnership, the SpaceX-T-Mobile partnership, and the Apple-Globalstar partnership, users of regular smartphones can now enjoy satellite coverage outside of cellular service areas without the need for an adapter or jacket. T-Mobile phones will connect via SpaceX’s network of satellites, while the new iPhone 14 and 14 Plus will connect through Globalstar’s satellite network.
How does Huawei Mate 50’s satellite messaging work?
When outside GSM wireless coverage, the phone can be pointed up to connect to any available BeiDou currently has 35 satellites in orbit over planet earth. Details are not available yet how the feature is used on the phone.
How does the iPhone 14’s satellite connectivity work for Emergency SOS?
If outside GSM coverage and want to use your iPhone 14 or 14 Plus for emergency SOS via satellite, you have to point the device directly at a satellite with a clear view of the sky. How do you pull this off? The phone has an Emergency SOS menu that guides you in pointing to the exact location of a Globalstar satellite in the sky. Once you have a satellite connection, you can send SMS. It is limited to SMS for now, but other channels will be available eventually.
How much does the iPhone 14’s Emergency SOS service cost? Apple says that it is available for free for 2 years in US and Canada.
Welcome to the next generation of satellite phones. As you can expect, more mobile brands will release models offering the same feature. Satellite phone service is about to become more mainstream than ever before. Expect Samsung to step up so as not to be left behind in the new gold rush for satellite mobile services.
November 2022 Update: The first Samsung cell phones to come with satellite connectivity will be the Samsung Galaxy S23 series.
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Founder of MobilityArena. Yomi’s journey in mobile started in 2001. Besides obsessing over mobile phones, he also started creating WAP sites (early mobile-friendly websites created with WML). He began writing about phones in 2004 and has been at it since then. He has owned over 200 devices, from Symbian, Palm, PocketPC/Windows Mobile, BlackBerry/BB10, webOS, Windows Phone, Firefox, Ubuntu Touch, to Android, iOS, and KaiOS operating systems.