By the author of Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City and The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook
Recently, I’ve been involved with the design and construction of two bunkers, one in my country. The multidisciplinary nature of these projects means collaborating with competent professionals and experts from various fields and all parts of the world. That’s one aspect I love about my work, and I learn a lot, too.
The team in charge of communication installations in both contracts is one such player. They’re a small boutique operation specializing in commercial (i.e., civil) comm systems for tactical applications and challenging environments. We’ve worked together before during the pandemic when demand surged.
This time, besides the usual, I participated in a workshop to catch up with the most recent tech available for use in future projects, including a rundown on the latest generation of seamless cross-band radios (SAT/LOS/BLOS networks + INE and FMV capability). It’s state-of-the-art stuff that goes beyond the typical comms fare, worth an article on itself.
They also let me test a satellite phone and a satellite messenger for a couple of months.
I’m not a total stranger to sat tech, having used sat phones and trackers briefly in the past for sailing and exploration treks. But despite being curious and into various outdoor activities for most of my life, I’ve never actually given it much thought nor felt compelled to invest in one for personal use.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t pass up on the opportunity to give it a good try, especially with the professional support being offered. I took both with me on backpacking trips around remote areas, and the experience changed my mind.
Here, I share my findings and considerations in civil satellite communication, not for bunkers, adventures, or professional work, but for prepping and survival applications.
A brief history of satellite communications.
Those with a smidge of curiosity might want to check this short article on the topic. It’s well worth the read not only because civil and military satellite communication is one of the main pillars of modern civilization but above all for the fantastic tales of engineering, electronic, and aeronautical achievements presented.
It opens with a mind-blowing 1945 paper from a certain Arthur C. Clarke, then a 27-year-old Royal Air Force officer, who proposed the idea of geostationary satellites (i.e., moving at the same speed as Earth’s rotation, thus fixed position relative to a point on its surface), “… so an antenna on the ground could be pointed to that satellite without having to track its position.” He devised that twelve years before Sputnik was launched in 1957 (as a science fiction and Arthur C. Clarke fan, I confess not knowing that until recently. What an incredibly visionary mind).
The space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union put a lot of satellites into orbit in the following decades (1967 still holds the record for launches, 143 or one every 2-1/2 days). During the 80s and 90s, computing science fast-tracked aeronautics and communication technologies, while more recent breakthroughs in electronics and batteries made compact, energy-efficient devices viable.
Private companies jumped in to cater for a growing public, competing and driving prices down. Though still relatively expensive to purchase and, mainly, operate (when compared to cell phones and other alternatives) 2-way satellite communication is today more accessible than ever, with two dozen providers offering various options and plans.
Sat comm remains a niche, with businesses and corporations making a large part of clients. Now, it could be seeing the start of another boom sparked by Elon Musk’s Starlink, among other initiatives (more on that below).
Also called sat phones, these devices are used by enthusiasts and professionals traveling, exploring, and working in remote lands and waters. Think of deep wilderness/desert exploration, high mountain treks, polar expeditions, power lines, oil platforms, oceanic sailing, etc.
Sat phones are touted to have more robust and stable signals than their cell counterparts, which rely on a network of short-range strategically positioned towers to relay the radio signal. My iPhone 11 went off-grid quickly, going through backcountry terrain and remote beaches, even in some dirt roads inside parks and rural areas – places where the Iridium and SpotX had full signal.
The mobile network system is a marvel but not without drawbacks. Low-density population regions (rural, semi-rural, and wild) tend to have poor to zero network coverage. “Shadow” zones are common. Relay towers can become overwhelmed, fail, be hacked, destroyed, or suffer attacks and blackouts. Satellite phones have limitations, but overall, they’re safer and less vulnerable.
My experience with a sat phone
Iridium Satellite Networks provide satellite services for voice, data, messaging, and tracking (people, assets, and cargo). Based in McLean, VA, its network comprises 66 LEO satellites. I got a 9555, the middle or “value” model. Iridium’s line has a basic push-to-talk (the Extreme, more of a walkie-talkie) and the top 9575 Extreme, built for harsh conditions with live GPS tracking/monitoring and other fancy features.
The 9995 is a compact and lightweight handheld device (for a satellite phone). It reminisced of those early, blocky cell phones of the 90s. At 253g on my scale, it’s still twice heavier than my iPhone 11. The 9555 is similar in form and shape to an HT, with a small dotted backlit monochrome LCD screen and soft rubber pads that are easy to use even with gloves.
The phone has a protruding stubby antenna that reaches 6″ when extended and pivots to stay pointed at the sky when used – a dead giveaway of a satellite phone if there’s one. Since mine was borrowed, I didn’t use the memory (100 entries), instead dialing to make the calls. International and local codes must be inserted before the receiver’s number. Overall, the operation is intuitive, with easy-to-navigate menus.
The 2200mAH battery lasted almost one-and-a-half day on a full charge, with about six or seven brief (5-10 minutes) conversations scattered throughout. That’s better than the advertised 30 hours on standby or 4 hours of conversation, perhaps due to the mild temperatures faced during the period. They provided me unlimited airtime, but since I’m not given to long conversations over the phone, I only used it for test talks.
In any case, that’s plenty for a rescue or other emergency, especially if it’s turned off when not in use to save battery. For extended or frequent conversations, though, extra batteries and chargers are necessary – unpractical for someone carrying a backpack with essentials for an adventure but a non-issue if used at home during a grid-down or other SHTF.
It charged from my compact 25W solar panel using a UBS-to-jack adapter, which I use to recharge my HTs when camping or trekking. Likewise, a 5000mAH power bank will top it a couple of times. My 9555 came with a DC and a car charger. Aftermarket, higher-capacity batteries are available for purchase.
I also had the opportunity to make a few calls with an Isatphone Pro from Inmarsat while on site. It’s a blocky unit, a few grams heavier than the 9555, and sporting a more powerful battery (100 hours on standby and up to 8 of conversation) plus a few extras. The Inmarsat satellite network is said to be more robust than Iridium’s, though I didn’t notice a difference in the quality and stability of calls between it and the Iridium.
SpotX: The working class alternative?
Satellite messengers offer one or two-way text communication to keep you in touch with civilization or to get help in an emergency. It’s not as practical nor functional as voice or data, but it has some upsides, such as lower cost, more extended durability, and less bulk.
Spot is a subdivision of Globalstar, a company offering satellite asset tracking and monitoring services for transportation fleets (another massive market for satcom).
Spot offers three products aimed squarely at the outdoor/adventure/exploration public: the Trace, a small, light (3.1oz) and basic tracker; one step above, there’s the Gen4, also a tracker but offering more features such as motion activation (to save battery), SOS button, and emergency rescue coordination.
Finally, there’s the top SpotX, which I tested. It’s a proper, standalone 2-way communication device that allows exchanging messages (SMS or email) with any cell phone number or email address anywhere in the world. It reminisces the Blackberry, with its large LCD screen and built-in QWERTY keyboard. The unit is reinforced to withstand the rigors of outdoor conditions and rough use.
The SpotX also has waypoint navigation and can link to smartphones by Bluetooth using a dedicated app (Android and iOS). That won’t make voice calls nor access internet though, only enable typing/reading and sending/receiving text messages using the phone’s touch screen instead of the integrated keyboard. The SpotX doesn’t transmit photos or videos either.
Signal is determined mainly by the network, which, as mentioned, is provided by Globalstar. Coverage is good in North and South America and Europe. The SpotX can run on a full charge for up to 240 hours or ten days, something desirable in the real world. Mine still had some juice after a week of use. Weight is 7oz. (198g) and charging is done through a mini-USB port so any charger, a power bank, or a solar panel can be used.
Cost: a quick breakdown
Please note prices, plans, and conditions can vary according to provider and region; I’m just providing an overview.
Each 9555 runs for about $1,000. It’s possible to subscribe to a postpaid (monthly or yearly plan) or opt for a prepaid SIM card. Both incur activation and sometimes carrying fees as well. It’s small but adds, and early termination fees may also apply to postpaid yearly or monthly plans.
Postpaid plans start at 5 or 10 minutes at around $50-80, up to 500 or 1,000 minutes for about $400-500. These offer greater flexibility and the possibility of utilizing additional minutes if needed (for an average of $1.50 per minute).
Prepaid plans also offer various options for a lower rate per minute but are still relatively expensive. Even though airtime is limited to pre-purchased minutes, one advantage is being able to “purchase once and activate service only when needed.” Pre-purchased minutes also expire, with 6 or 12 months of validity, depending on the plan.
Who’s it for?
When analyzing the value and effectiveness of satellite communication for prepping, we should consider the context and a few other factors, including the cost. How critical is effective communication for your preparation strategy or plan? How does it compare to other alternatives? Does it fit into your budget? How’s the performance in the urban environment?
Objectively, usefulness might be limited except for those who live (or work) in a remote area, o a region subject to frequent disasters or grid-downs.
For someone investing a million dollars (or more) in a bunker, a set of sat phones brimming with unlimited airtime may be chump change. For most ordinary people, having a sat phone “just in case SHTF” may represent a considerable investment for occasional use, especially compared to cell phones, HAM radios, WTs, and other options.
Yes, it works well in cities, but reception is affected by constructions and vegetation and won’t work well between tall buildings. Much less indoors, as the antenna needs a line-of-sight with satellites. In parks and other open areas, fine. I could sometimes connect from windows and balconies, though the reception was unstable. Sat phones have connections to external antennas to be installed in apartments, vehicles, and even boats or airplanes.
The point is, if the infrastructure gets affected by whatever in your city, you’ll be able to connect with the world, that’s for sure.
Is it worth it?
As with most cases, the answer is “it depends”on several things. It depends on one’s budget, location, context, and strategies and plans for emergencies. There’s no question it’s essential to be able to communicate with others inside or outside of an affected region to coordinate efforts or actions, relay news, and so on. A portable satellite phone is the top solution if you need a reliable, flexible, fully functional emergency comm system.
A 2-way messenger like the SpotX or one of its competitors takes a close second, presenting an attractive alternative for a reasonable cost. It’s limited to written messages but quite robust and versatile. The focus should be on the capacity to communicate efficiently worldwide in case the grid goes down, which it accomplishes pretty well.
That’s a topic of great importance, covered extensively in preparedness and survival communities. I’m a certified HAM hobbyist and have testified to the efficacy of radios during some real-life emergencies here on TOP. I believe every prepper should invest in this skill, bar none.
However, it can’t be denied that a sat phone or messenger is the most reliable way to communicate worldwide in case of a grid-down or other SHTF, or to stay in contact with civilization no matter what. Other than that, there’s always something new being developed and offered so here are some attractive options:
- Apple has created an emergency satellite messaging service that works without WiFi or cell signal and allows the Find My app to share locations with other people via satellite for remote tracking. The service is free for two years after phone activation, but it’s available on iPhone 14 only.
- Elon Musk’s Starlink is making waves in civil satellite communication as well. It requires relatively bulky equipment and isn’t yet available in all countries. However, the service is expanding quickly and offers a pretty attractive mobile option called Starlink R.V. (a.k.a. ROAM) for those on the move. Speeds are impressive and connection stable.
- Iridium’s Go! is a portable, compact hotspot (antenna + router) that allows connection of up to five devices simultaneously for high-speed internet access anywhere on the globe. It’s IP65 rated, powered by a rechargeable battery, and has a SOS button, among other features. Go! runs for about 20% less than a 9555, though it operates with the same phone plans, making it equally expensive to maintain. However, connecting up to five devices and enabling calls from tethered smartphones improves the cost-benefit ratio.
- Garmin, ACR Bivy Stick, and other new satellite trackers offer messengers similar to the SpotX, but without the integrated keypad: they link via Bluetooth to allow for typing, sending, and reading messages on one’s smartphone. They’re smaller, lighter, and since most people carry their phones everywhere nowadays, they’re a hit among the outdoor crowd. Some models can switch seamlessly between satellite and WiFi when a signal is available, saving airtime.
Technology keeps evolving fast, with devices shrinking and becoming more powerful, efficient, and reliable, and that’s a boon. Size, weight, and power (SWaP) optimized devices are the future of personal communication, as these are even more critical for tactical applications. Mass adoption and competition can bring satellite service prices further down, maybe to the levels of their mobile counterparts.
As it is, the cost of functional 2-way satellite communication (phone, internet, and messaging) still runs a bit on the high side to be practical for everyday use, and even more so as a backup/standby “just in case” (at least for most people.) However, since that’s a personal decision, perhaps renting a sat phone before parting with the cash is definitely a sensible strategy to find out.
What about you? Do you have a satellite phone? Are you interested in trying one out? Why or why not? What are your thoughts about satellite communications? Do you think it’s a good addition to your emergency comms plan?
Let’s discuss it in the comments section.
Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.
Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City , is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. He’s also the author of The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.
You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor