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Satellite Phones for Remote Regions

Mobile phones are a modern miracle, as we have grown accustomed to connecting to a cell tower anywhere around the globe. But there still are remote regions where travelers need to rely on satellite phones to keep in touch.

Yes, satellite phones still seem James Bond-ish, but they have become affordable and practical -- phones are available for around $500 to $1200, calling plans can fall under $1 a minute, and handsets weigh from 13 ounces down to only 4 1/2 ounces.

Currently, Iridium is the only mobile satellite service that offers full coverage around the globe, pole to pole, using its constellation of 66 low-earth orbiting satellites.

Regional services like Thuraya use a handful of satellites parked in geosynchronous orbit over specific regions of the globe. It offers consumer-friendly (but less rugged) small and light handsets, some also with GSM cellular service.

My experience with the Iridium phone was very good. It successfully connected even walking under light foliage and in the car near the window. And it worked fine from my front porch during a thunderstorm. Calls connected quickly (within a few seconds), the voice quality was fine, and the round-trip delay through the satellite was very short.

Today's satellite phones also have familiar features from mobile phones -- including phone book, voice mail, call forwarding, hands-free, and even ring tones. Callers dial your number as an international call. And you can send and receive text messages and e-mail.

For a remote data connection, you can hook a satellite phone to your computer with a data kit. However, the bandwidth is very low -- around 9.6 Kbps for Iridium. Laptop-sized data terminals like the Immarsat BGAN offer more broadband-like data rates up to 492 Kbps, while also providing simultaneous voice calls.

See my full article on Satellite Phones, for more on satellite phone carriers, products, and services.

See my article, Trip Tech: Far and Away, in the Oct. 2008 issue of Condé Nast Traveler for summaries of these products.

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