Satellite phone service is an interesting beast. It’s flexible, reliable, and can be used anywhere, making it ideal for emergencies. But you’ll pay for that flexibility: it’s not cheap. So, is a satellite phone right for you? Or should you consider an alternative like VoIP instead? We’ll walk you through everything you need to know to decide.
Satellite Phone Service: Is It Right for You?
Choosing a satellite phone provider
There are several providers offering global satellite phone service. The big players are Iridium, Globalstar, and Inmarsat.
You can also get home phone service from the major satellite internet providers, HughesNet and Viasat. These providers use VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) to provide phone service. Which option is best depends on how and where you want to use the service.
Satellite phone vs. VoIP
Satellite phone service
VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol)
Satellite phone service
True satellite phones work by sending radio waves directly to a satellite in orbit, which then sends the signal back down to be routed onto standard telephone lines. Satellite phones are self-contained, meaning they don’t require an internet connection or any other infrastructure to use (unless you’re calling a phone that does depend on local infrastructure). The equipment to send and receive the satellite signal is either built in to the phone handset itself or is in an external unit that the handset connects to.
Satellite phone service is primarily used in remote areas that lack other options. If you were going camping deep in the wilderness or scaling high mountains, this would be the phone to take. It’s also useful in emergency situations because it doesn’t require any extra equipment or infrastructure. If a natural disaster strikes and telephone lines go down, satellite phones will still work just fine. This is why they’re often used by disaster relief teams.
Iridium, Globalstar, and Inmarsat
The big three providers of satellite phone service are Iridium, Globalstar, and Inmarsat.
Iridium has the highest service prices because they offer the most comprehensive global service, effectively covering the entire planet with a network of 66 low-Earth orbiting (LEO) satellites. The only factors that might affect your coverage are customs regulations for specific countries.
Inmarsat offers global coverage everywhere except for around the North and South Poles. (Although there are plans to launch a satellite system that will provide service in those areas in 2023.)
Globalstar offers regional coverage that’s dependent on the device you choose. There are Globalstar coverage maps you can use to see which device covers which regions.
Cost of the actual satellite phone aside, the price of monthly satellite phone service starts at about $40 a month for a 10-minute plan from Globalstar and Inmarsat. Iridium will charge around $50 per month for a 10-minute plan. Again, that Iridium worldwide coverage comes at a price.
From there, prices just keep going up as you get more minutes per month, with minutes and monthly prices both extending into the thousands. All three providers charge for calls on a per-minute basis—there are no truly unlimited plans here without major restrictions—so if you use the phone frequently, the costs can add up quickly.
Rather than using a specialized handset to make calls, Iridium GO! provides a unit that you pair with your smartphone. You can then make satellite calls and send text messages right on your existing phone with all the availability benefits of satellite service. The Iridium GO! unit is compact and durable, so it can be taken out on boats, deep into forests, and on other excursions where a satellite phone would be useful.
VoIP stands for Voice over Internet Protocol. This is a type of phone service that sends the signal over the internet. Since internet access is so prevalent these days, VoIP calling is often very affordable, and you don’t even need a handset for it—it can be done right from a computer.
VoIP is the type of phone service offered by HughesNet and Viasat. Unlike true satellite phone service, it’s mainly intended for home or office use rather than use in the field. Since you need a stable internet connection, it’s not necessarily reliable or possible for arctic expeditions or search-and-rescue operations. It’s great to have as an emergency home phone service, though, and it makes a perfect phone solution for small businesses.
Viasat Voice is a VoIP home phone solution from Viasat, one of the two major satellite internet providers in the US. Viasat Voice offers unlimited local and long-distance calling in the US and Canada. It also comes with advanced features like voicemail, call waiting, and caller ID.
Viasat Voice starts at $19.99 per month for the first six months and can be bundled with Viasat satellite internet to save a bit of money.
HughesNet Voice is the VoIP phone solution from HughesNet. It’s a home phone service that operates over the HughesNet satellite network. Like Viasat Voice, you can choose to keep your current phone number or get a new one, and the service offers unlimited nationwide calling. HughesNet Voice also offers two international calling add-ons of either 200 minutes or unlimited.
HughesNet Voice starts at $19.95 per month for 12 months with a 24-month contract.
Best satellite phones
Just having satellite service isn’t enough: you’ll also need a satellite phone to go with it (unless you get the Iridium GO! unit). These are specialized phones that are able to send and receive signals to and from satellites in orbit.
One thing to keep in mind about satellite phones is that they’re expensive. This is primarily because of the large amount of tech packed into them. Many are also designed to be extremely rugged and durable.
Here are some satellite handsets to consider:
Inmarsat Isatphone 2.1
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Iridium 9575 Extreme
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Garmin inReach SE+
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Choosing a satellite phone largely comes down to how rugged and durable you need it to be. If you’re going to be using your phone for something like mountain climbing or disaster relief efforts, you want a phone that can withstand extreme environments.
The Garmin unit is an interesting exception: it’s not a true phone but instead can be used to send text messages and SOS signals, making it a lot cheaper than a typical satellite phone with voice functionality.
Save money with satellite internet and VoIP bundles
HughesNet and Viasat both offer bundles with satellite internet and VoIP phone service. Bundling is convenient, and it typically saves some money compared to getting your services separately.
- If you bundle with Viasat, you’ll save $10 per month for the first six months of service.
- If you bundle with HughesNet, you’ll get setup and activation of your phone service at no additional charge.
How to choose a satellite phone service
So, how does one pick from all these options? It’s best to choose a service based on what you’ll use it for. Here’s a table that sums it up:
What you need it for
Service you should get
Emergencies, expeditions, or extreme environments
Iridium, Globalstar, or Inmarsat + rugged satellite phone
Boating and camping trips
Iridium GO! + your existing smartphone
Home or office use
HughesNet or Viasat
FAQ about satellite phone
What is VoIP?
VoIP stands for Voice over Internet Protocol. These phone services transmit data over the internet. That means they require an internet connection, but a standard telephone line or other infrastructure isn’t necessary.
How do satellite phones work?
Satellite phones operate by sending and receiving radio signals directly from orbiting satellites. This allows them to function anywhere in the world.
Which is better: VoIP or satellite phone?
It depends on what you want to use it for and whether you’ll have reliable internet access when you need to make a call. If you do, VoIP is a much more affordable option. If you don't have access to internet and reliability is critical, a satellite phone is the better pick.
Can satellite phones call regular cell phones?
Yes! You can call any working number from a satellite phone.