TechRepublic editors Mike Jackman and David Bard are currently trekking through Nepal on their way to the Imja Tse peak at 20,285 feet. On their high-altitude journey, they will be testing high-tech equipment, including a satellite phone.If your job takes you to remote destinations throughout the world, sooner or later you will need the wide-reaching services of a satellite phone.Here’s an overview of what you can expect from this cutting-edge technology.
Whether you are a high-altitude IT executive or a high-rise CIO, if you need to keep in touch with your staff wherever your business forces you to roam, satellite technology might be the answer to your phoning needs.

How well do they work?
Although base station units are available for satellite phones, many are designed to be mobile, mounted in vehicles or carried and used in the open. These mobile satellite telephones are somewhat limited in terms of where they can be used because current technology requires “line of sight” between the phone’s antenna and an orbiting satellite or group of satellites.

However, the ability to talk via satellite phones from within buildings could be broadened substantially within a year or so, according to Ayse Ozgur Aytar, an analyst in the Wireless Group at The Strategis Group Inc. in Washington, DC.

“I hear that ICO Global, a satellite venture to be launched in 2001, expects to provide service coverage indoors as well, which could be a way to win large numbers of customers,” Aytar said.

Beyond that specific limitation, satellite phones are also trying to overcome other concerns.

The sat phones are supposed to pass off from one satellite to another seamlessly, without a dropout in the transmissions.

“According to some surveys, users experienced dropped calls every few minutes with Iridium and Globalstar handsets,” Aytar said. “Inmarsat, on the other hand, has proven to be providing more reliable service. Reports from the war in Kosovo suggested that users were able to complete their calls on Inmarsat phones rather than Iridium ones.

“In terms of voice quality, I have tried a Globalstar phone and I could assure you that the quality was very high and transmission was comparable to a cell phone’s.”

Costs and restrictions on use
In the U.S., one of the reasons that people are drawn to satellite phones is that less than half of the country is covered by cellular telephone networks, leaving sizable communication gaps for people who travel the country or work in isolated or remote areas.

Of course, the problem is aggravated on an international scale when there are countries, particularly in the Third World, that don’t have complete land-line telephone infrastructures in place, let alone cellular networks.

For IT professionals who are traveling from country to country, today’s satellite phones can now go anywhere without regulatory troubles. In the past, countries were charging tariffs to bring certain satellite telephones into their counties. Now all phones of a particular type can enter without the tariff, thanks to an agreement brokered by The International Telecommunications Union, Aytar said.

“The only complication would be not receiving global service at this point due to these [mobile satellite] services not being launched everywhere yet,” he said. “Globalstar, for example, has service available in 34 countries.”

Costs also are projected to get cheaper in the future, Aytar said.

While the phones may still cost about $1,500 each, they are following the cellular phone’s path of getting smaller and lighter.

Service costs are also dropping.

When asked about cost, Aytar replied, “Globalstar’s basic plan has a monthly cost of $29.99 and call charges per minute vary between $1.50 to $3.” While this may be true in most countries, the cost can run considerably higher. For example, TechRepublic editors Mike and David are paying as much as $6 a minute for their calls from Nepal.
Have you had a good or bad experience with satellite telephones? Are you in situations where they are useful? Do you not use a satellite phone now, but think you might if they get as small and light as cellular telephones? Post your thoughts below or send us an e-mail telling us what you think.
Phones tested on land and sea
Perhaps the greatest challenge to a piece of technology is to function well in extreme conditions, which is exactly what Mike and David are testing as they attempt to climb Ijma Tse.

They are using an MVS MiniSat phone, which is the size of a notebook computer but will allow them to connect with a computer to transmit stories and other data. It connects through the Inmarsat system.

Another adventurer, Tori Murden-McClure who is the first American—and first woman—to row across the Atlantic Ocean last year, had great success using a Thrane and Thrane Marine Telephone through the now-defunct Iridium network.

“The clarity was outstanding, as good as any cell phone,” Murden-McClure said about her satellite telephone. “It did not seem to be affected by weather, which was remarkable. Even with the boat tossing back and forth, I could carry on a conversation with the outside world.”

The rower said she found her satellite phone invaluable for talking with family and friends who wouldn’t see her during her 81-day trip, and for getting weather information to help her prepare and adjust her course.

“The greatest benefit [of the satellite phone] is to have communications in the event there is a life-threatening emergency,” Murden-McClure said.
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