Satellite phone services explained

We all know the annoyance of being in a rural area and not being able to get mobile phone reception. But for many people living and working in remote areas of Australia, a lack of mobile contact can be more than inconvenient – it can be downright dangerous. If you encounter a problem and have no way to call for help, then basic mobile phone service just won’t cut it.

In cases like these, the most common solution is to use a satellite phone. These devices are bigger, bulker and costlier than normal mobile phones, but with one crucial advantage – they allow you to make calls to anyone from almost anywhere in the world. We’ve looked at what satellite phone options are currently available in Australia, and what it costs in order to use one.

man using satellite phoneWhat are satellite phones?

A satellite phone is exactly what it sounds like – a phone which uses a satellite to make calls and send messages. Sat phones are the tool of choice for many people venturing into remote areas with no mobile phone coverage, as they allow you to contact emergency services, colleagues, friends and family wherever you are.

How do satellite phones work?

When you make a call or send a message on a sat phone, it sends a signal to one of multiple small satellites in orbit around the earth. This satellite then transmits the signal to the recipient of your message, who can then reply in kind. There are several companies which provide satellite phone services, and each network uses a mixture of satellites they own and satellites owned by others, to achieve as wide coverage as possible.

This is very different to a home phone which uses a wired connection to a phone network, or a mobile phone which receives and transmits wireless signals from a signal tower. As you’d expect, satellite phones have their advantages and disadvantages.

  • The chief advantage is that a satellite can receive and transmit your phone signal from almost anywhere. They’re used when service is non-existent or disrupted, or where reliability of the connection is paramount.
  • On the downside, the sheer distance covered means that signals take several seconds to be transmitted. After you say something on a phone call, you’ll have to wait a little while for a reply. The small amount of satellite infrastructure and low demand also means that using a sat phone is very expensive compared to a regular phone.

What services are on offer?

Because of the infrastructure that satellite phone services require, there aren’t many companies which offer it. However, the two main network operators in Australia – Telstra and Optus – both provide satellite phones and service on their satellite networks, with various service options available.

Optus owns and operates its very own network of satellites, and offers three different products:

  • The Optus Thuraya SatSleeve, which connects to your mobile phone and is controlled via an app. The SatSleeve costs $888 to purchase outright, and from there costs $15 per month for a satellite service on a month to month basis. Satellite calls cost $0.95/minute within Australia and are free to receive, whilst SMS is $0.50 and other rates apply for overseas calls;
  • The Thuraya XT-LITE, a cheap, rugged sat phone handset. The XT-LITE has a RRP of $700 and costs the same as the SatSleeve on a monthly basis;
  • The Optus MobileSat, which plugs into your car and lets you communicate and access the internet on the move. The MobileSat is designed for working professionals out in remote areas, such as mining or geological workers. It comes with four different plans, each on a 12 month basis and with cheaper rates the more you spend:
Plan Migration Saver Connect Professional
Monthly fee $46 $68 $118 $169
Monthly allowance $0 (PAYG) $21.25 $84.25 $169

Source: Optus website

Telstra operates its services on the Iridium satellite network, and provides multiple hardware products to suit just about every private or commercial need. The telco offers five different Telstra Mobile Satellite (TMS) plans to allow you to customise your use, and each comes on a 24 month plan. The basic details of these plans are:

Plan Monthly access fee Included calls
TMS 35 $35 $10
TMS 55 $55 $20
TMS 85 $85 $50
TMS 130 $130 $85
TMS Data Only $185 $150

Source: Telstra website

You’ll also need to choose a satellite phone to go with your plan. There are three consumer-oriented products to choose from:

  • The Iridium GO!, a wireless internet hotspot that connects to satellite broadband. The GO! device costs $1145 up front, with the total cost depending on your choice of plan;
  • The LiteDock Extreme is Telstra’s rugged, compact satellite phone, which costs $2,045 RRP;
  • The DriveDock is a modified version of the LiteDock which plugs into your car, costing $3,095 up front.

Satellite phones are generally only worth the money if you absolutely rely on them. If you do, we hope you find this guide helpful.

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