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4WD MODIFICATIONS - COMMUNICATIONS & NAVIGATION

SATELLITE PHONE COMMUNICATION
This more reliable form of communication for remote areas got easier in mid-2023.

 

A couple of vehicle breakdowns and medical emergencies during our travels in Australia’s Outback and our best satellite phone has more than paid for itself.

 

As 90 percent of Australia is not covered by the mobile telephone network it’s very reassuring to have an easy to operate and reliable form of communication in case of a medical emergency or vehicle breakdown.

Remote area emergencies aside, having a satellite phone with you is also a great way to keep in contact with relatives and friends back home, if only to let them know that you’re OK.

We’ve been asked which are the best satellite phones to buy or hire for Australian conditions, so here they are: Telstra’s Iridium or Inmarsat.

That’s a hard call for us to make, because Telstra is without doubt one of the worst companies we’ve ever had to deal with. For a communications company, their customer service is disgusting. Inmarsat/Pivotel couldn’t possibly be as bad.

The plus side for Telstra is by far the best mobile phone coverage in rural and arid Australia, so a Telstra mobile phone usually works where Optus doesn’t, meaning your reliance on sat phone coverage isn’t so great.

We’ve tried every available phone system – Thuraya, Globalstar, Inmarsat and Iridium – over the past 15 years and Iridium and Inmarsat/Pivotel are the only ones that do what most 4WD people want: provide reliable mobile coverage anywhere in Australia inside or outside a moving vehicle.

Total Australia coverage is by far the most important purchase criteria, we believe: there’s zero value in a sat phone that can’t find a satellite when you need it.

Iridium uses 66 low-orbit satellites, so there’s global coverage (we’ve used ours in Japan successfully) and plenty of redundancy. We’ve never, ever found it unable to connect with a satellite.

When we needed to summon a Flying Doctor helicopter to a severely injured person in a very remote area of Central Australia that connectivity was, literally, life saving.

Globalstar also relies on low-orbit satellites, but the company has had a chequered history of satellite reliability.

Our Globalstar phone has always suffered from unreliable coverage, but a late-2022 loan of US$252 million from Apple to expand coverage will hopefully improve that situation.

Inmarsat is, as the name suggests, primarily a marine communications system that relies on only three geo-stationary high-orbit satellites, so there were some not-so-good-coverage zones, until Inmarsat linked with Pivotel in 2017.

In 2020 Pivotel introduced a  “$47/month” plan, over 24 months that could be paused for up to six months in any twelve – pay $10/month while paused – making it a 42-48 month plan really. Free incoming calls and SMS.

Inmarsat coverage is truly global and doesn’t suffer from the ‘bottom of a canyon’ effect that low-orbit satellites can, but it can’t work reliably from a moving vehicle, without the addition of a special aerial that wasn’t cheap when we checked – around a grand.

Thuraya is also reliant on geo-stationary satellites, but there are only two: same moving-vehicle connectivity problem as with Inmarsat, but worse. The unit needs to be pointed at the satellite constantly or the signal will drop out. It covers SEA and Australia, but not NZ or the USA.

Voice calls are expensive on all four networks and no casual user in a right state of mind would contemplate sending or receiving more than very basic data via satellite: it’s far too expensive.

We’ve had mixed success with them for SMS receipt when the phones were turned off. Inmarsat was better than the other three.

 

Rent or buy a sat hotspot

 

The latest possibility is the Iridium GO! –  the world’s first wifi satellite hotspot.

The Iridium GO! is the only satellite phone device that allows you to connect to the Iridium satellite network via your smartphone or tablet device.

This is Iridium’s most compact device, with voice and data that up to five units can connect to at once.

We hadn’t evaluated one as at late 2022, but it certainly looked the goods.

Yet another possibility is to sign up for a Starlink satellite service at your residence, like we have. The Starlink mobile dish can be taken with you on your bush travels and for a monthly fee of around $35 on top of your household monthly rental – around A$140 – you can have mobile wifi phone and internet service.

However, satellite availability for Starlink mobiles as at mid-2023 wasn’t nearly as good as that for fixed installations. Our bush testers were very disappointed with mobile internet coverage.

 

 

Apple – the next step

 

In late 2022 Apple announced a satphone function for the iPhone 14: emergency satellite connection in the event of an emergency. At that time, the service was available only in North America, but that coverage was expanded to Australia on May 16, 2023.

Unfortunately, Apple’s sat partner was Globalstar, so we hoped that company’s coverage improved rapidly.

Using Emergency SOS via satellite requires an open space, with a clear view of the sky and horizon.

The iPhone 14 sat function is said to show on-screen instructions to establish a connection with a satellite. Once connected, you’ll be asked to answer a series of emergency questions to best describe your current situation.

Your iPhone then is supposed to start a chat with emergency responders by sharing your medical ID, emergency contact info, current location and elevation, remaining battery life and emergency questionnaire answers.

In ideal conditions with a clear view of the sky, it can take 15 seconds to send a message, Apple claims. However, it can take more than a minute if you’re under trees with light foliage.

 

 

Sat phone etiquette

 

Rather than drive ourselves nuts monitoring our sat phone and worrying about SMS receipt all the time we’re out of mobile range we’ve set a ‘call time’ – 5-7pm EST – during which the sat phone will be turned on and monitored. We take incoming calls then and turn the phone off.

That’s the time at which we’re monitoring ‘skeds’ on our ‘old fashioned’ HF VKS-737 Flying Doctor Radio and usually sitting around a camp fire…

We can use our Telstra mobile phone SIM in our Motorola satphone, so we don’t have to sign up for an expensive monthly plan, but we’ve heard that some newer sat phones won’t do that.

Our sat calls show up as additional amounts on our normal mobile phone bill.

The main issue we’ve had with the Motorola phone is poor battery life, so we keep it plugged in while we’re monitoring it.

We have a magnetic roof aerial, as well as the standard extendable captive aerial, so we can use it on the move, if we need to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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