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Major Satellite Mobile Networks: Understanding the Differences

When you need to rent or purchase a satellite phone, you might be surprised by the number of networks and devices you have to choose from. Much like cell phones, you have a choice of networks and a wide array of devices, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

There are four major satellite networks to choose from, and which one is best for you depends on where you will be making calls from and which features you need on your phone. Not all of the networks work the same in all areas, and some networks, like Inmarsat, are more focused on data connections than voice calls. As you begin your research into which phone you need, consider these important differences between the biggest carriers.



Considered to be the largest and most reliable satellite network, Iridium offers truly global coverage with its constellation of 66 low Earth orbit satellites which provide service even over the open ocean and the North and South Poles. The provider also offers some of the most advanced and most rugged phones in the satellite market; the Extreme line, for example, is the first in the industry to offer GPS tracking and one-touch SOS capabilities. In fact, Iridium was also the first satellite provider to offer customers the ability to send tweets via satellite phone. (No satellite phone offers the capability to read tweets or access any other social media networks, yet.) Iridium does have some limitations, as the phones are banned from North Korea, Poland and Hungary. In addition, some countries, including Iran, Cuba, Sudan and Angola, have embargoed the phones, meaning that you need special governmental permission to bring them into the country, and they are not guaranteed to work within the borders.


While Globalstar has some of the most affordable rates for devices and airtime, it’s also had some difficulties maintaining a reliable satellite network in recent years. The failure of some older satellites, means the service in some parts of the world, primarily in the lower latitudes, have experienced long connection wait times, dropped calls or no connection at all.

However, Globalstar is in the process of launching new satellites to improve its network and service reliability — and bring service to areas where it currently does not offer service — and the network does offer reliable service within the U.S. Globalstar phones can also function as both satellite and cellular phones, meaning that the same phone can be used in a place where a cell phone may not work, such as the remote wilderness, and will then reconnect to a traditional cellular network when in range of a tower. This makes these phones attractive to those who live and work in rural areas.Globalstar is also renewing its focus on the hurricane and emergency preparedness market. For those who need a satellite phone as a backup in the case of a cellular phone or power failure, Globalstar is an affordable option.


Inmarsat is devoted primarily to creating broadband Internet connections almost anywhere in the world and offers the fastest global Internet access available via portable terminal. Using the Broadband Global Area Network, users can set up an Internet connection almost anywhere in the world, allowing them to send and receive email, conduct live video conferencing and connect via voiceover Internet connections.The military and media outlets are the primary users of the Inmarsat network, and the company’s Fleet Broadband service offers reliable phone and Internet connections to vessels at sea. The company also offers satellite phones with coverage for almost the entire planet, excluding the Poles.


Based in the United Arab Emirates, Thuraya is the smallest satellite phone network, with service limited to the Middle East, parts of Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. Thuraya is known for offering smaller, lighter phones than some of the other networks — and for those phones’ ability to connect to GSM cell phone towers in addition to satellites.The cellular capabilities activate only on those phones that are outside of Thuraya’s coverage area, and only for those who subscribe to a Thuraya service. In other words, if you rent a Thuraya phone, you can only use it within the network’s satellite service area.

Choosing the right satellite phone provider can make the difference between getting in touch when you need to, and being frustrated when your call doesn’t go through. Do your homework, and choose the network that best meets your needs.


About the Author: Steve Manley is the president of Globalcom Satellite Communications ( Globalcom offers phones from Globalstar, Iridium, Inmarsat and Thuraya and can accommodate almost any request for satellite phone purchase and rentals.

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