4WD MODIFICATIONS - COMMUNICATIONS & NAVIGATION
A couple of vehicle breakdowns and medical emergencies during our travels in Australia’s Outback and our best satellite telephone 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 telephone 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.
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 had 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.
Rather than drive ourselves nuts monitoring the 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 gidgee 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.