The days of smartphones being a luxury item are gone: these days everyone seems to have one. But it doesn’t matter how much it costs, when there’s no signal, your phone is as useless as a Spiderman walkie talkie, right? Maybe not…
Text: Elise Kirsten
Smartphones have become an integral part of society and we rely on them for more than just voice calls and texts. These pocket computers feed us information and keep us in touch with a potential plethora of people though social media and the internet. There are times however, where cellphones don’t work, maybe because a network is overloaded or maybe you’re travelling in an area that doesn’t have coverage.
That doesn’t mean that interaction with your regular global or local hub has to be cut off. There are various off-grid solutions for staying in touch, with a satellite phone, for example. Instead of relying on ground-based cell towers, these phones connect to satellites in one of three Earth orbits: high, medium and low. As NASA explains on its website: “Many weather and some communications satellites tend to have a high Earth orbit, furthest away from the surface. Satellites that orbit in a medium (mid) Earth orbit include navigation and specialty satellites, designed to monitor a particular region. Most scientific satellites, including NASA’s Earth Observing System fleet, have a low Earth orbit.” In fact the International Space Station hovers only 400km from the Earth’s surface.
When it comes to harnessing these satellites for communication, some companies offer subscription services to allow you to access their various satellite networks. Globalstar, Thuraya and Iridium phones are connected to low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, while Immarsat phones are connected to global geostationary, high Earth orbit (HEO) satellites. It’s best to check which countries and regions are covered by each network before signing up.
Here are a few options for you.
1. Iridium Extreme (9575): Satellite phone
The Iridium Extreme satellite phone is described is by the manufactuer as the toughest military-grade designed satellite handset ever built and is also the smallest Iridium phone ever. It offers GPS-enabled location-based services, online tracking (which can be disabled for ‘stealth operations’) and comes with programmable emergency notification to personalised contacts.
Price R20 500
2. Inmarsat IsatPhone 2: Satellite phone
This rugged handset “has been engineered to cope with anything that nature can throw at it – from searing heat to icy blasts, desert sandstorms or monsoon rain”. The battery life is impressive: eight hours of talk time and up to 160 hours on standby. This satellite phone is dust, splash and shock resistant and operates at 20°C to +55°C, it can also tolerate humidity of up to 95%.
Price R12 500
3. SPOT GEN3
The Spot Gen3 gives you a critical, potentially life-saving line of communication when you travel beyond the boundaries of cell service. The latest generation of Spot devices lets family and friends know you’re okay, or if the worst should happen, sends local emergency responders your GPS location, via GEOS (International Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre) all with the push of a button. A motion-activated vibration sensor tells your Spot to send track updates when you are moving and to stop when you do. The pocket-sized device allows you to alert your personal contacts when you need help in non-life-threatening situations. Or, use Spot SOV (save our vehicle) for professional services on land.
Price R2 699 (excluding VAT and subscription to the Globalstar satellite network)
4. Thuraya SatSleeve
Thuraya has developed two SatSleeve models; one for iPhones and one for Android phones. The sleeve fits onto your smartphone and allows you to connect to the Thuraya network via a downloadable app. This is an easy way to transform a regular cellphone into a satellite smartphone.
Price $700 (about R9 900)
5. Thuraya SatSleeve Hotspot
The SatSleeve Hotspot is a portable satellite hotspot that allows you to use your phone to make calls, send texts, use email or social media apps within 30m of the hotspot. So you can be inside or under shelter while the hotspot is outside and facing the satellite.
Price $700 (about R9 900)
6. GoTenna Mesh
The first-generation goTenna devices allow two smartphones to communicate via text message when there is no network coverage, acting as a two-way radio, as long as the units are in range of one another. The new goTenna Mesh can do so over triple the distance by relaying communications via other goTenna Mesh devices. This increases the reach to extend beyond point-to-point range, allowing communications to leapfrog across other devices to the recipient phone even if they are not within range of each other.
Price $179 (about R2 500) for a pack of two, $329 (about R4 600) for a pack of four, $579 (about R8 100) for a pack of eight
7. Garmin inReach Explorer+
The inReach Explorer+ is a device that offers GPS Navigation and is a full fledged satellite phone with 100% global Iridium satellite coverage. You can send and receive text messages while beyond mobile phone range, trigger an interactive SOS message to GEOS, the 24/7 search and rescue monitoring centre, and track and share your location with family and friends. The inReach Explorer+ comes with preloaded topographical maps and you can pair it with mobile devices using the free Earthmate app or access other downloadable maps. Like regular satellite phones, the device requires an active satellite subscription plan to function.
Price R8 499
8. Zartek ZA-758 two-way radio
A two-way radio, or walkie talkie, is a handy way of keeping in touch, provided that the two communicating parties are within range of one another. The Zartek ZA-758 functions licence-free by using preset public frequencies and 500mW of power. This model has a 600m-1.2km indoor range, 2km-6km outdoors and a 10-30km range from an elevated line of sight.
Price R1 099