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Iridium satellite phones work almost everywhere in the entire world.

Few people need a satellite phone all the time, but many of us may have occasional use for one.

And if you're traveling far from normal civilization and cell phone coverage, you might literally find a satellite phone a life saver.

 
 
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Motorola 9505 Iridium Satellite Phone Review

Larger and heavier than a cell phone, but works everywhere
 

No longer as bulky as earlier model satellite phones - but still a lot larger and heavier than the latest cell phones - a portable satellite phone means you're never more than a few dial buttons away from anyone, no matter where in the world you are.

Easy to use and with coverage literally everywhere, Iridium satellite phones are great for anyone when they're away from normal phone service.

Note - in this picture of Iridium's 9505 phone, the antenna needs to be extended prior to use, increasing its length by 3".

Part 2 of a 2 part series on satellite phonespart one discusses the different types of satellite phone service

Part 8 of an 8 part series on international phone service options and issues.

 

 

Don't think you need a satellite phone?  How about next time you go on a cruise - consider renting (or purchasing) a satellite phone to take with you.  Why pay the cruise line $10 a minute (sometimes more, occasionally less) to make a call when you can use a rented satellite phone and pay between 85 and $1.80/minute (depending on the plan you've selected), and get all incoming calls for free.

Satellite phones are neither as small and light, nor as inexpensive to buy or use as regular cell phones, but if you find yourself in a situation where you need the guarantee of access to phone service, or where your other alternatives are more expensive, then they become extremely valuable, affordable, and essential.

Because most people have only occasional need for satellite service, renting a phone on such occasions can make sense.  But if you're going to be using a satellite phone regularly, or want to have one 'just in case' of an unplanned future emergency, owning your own phone and choosing an appropriate service plan may be the better choice.


The Motorola 9505 - What you get

My evaluation unit was kindly supplied by Mobal, who sent me one of their rental units to use for a week.

Mobal's satellite phone rental kit comes in a small hard-sided aluminium mini-briefcase.  The case can be locked, and comes with two keys.  The lock is not a security lock, but can be helpful to prevent the case accidentally bursting open.

Needless to say, if packing the case inside your checked luggage when flying, you should leave it unlocked in case the TSA choose to inspect it.

The complete kit, in the briefcase, weighs close on three pounds.  If that sounds inconveniently heavy, don't worry - Mobal include a carry strap that clips on to the outside of the case.

Inside the case are the following items :

  • The phone itself, complete with battery

  • Spare battery (batteries are sometimes supplied as high capacity and sometimes as standard capacity)

  • Car recharger

  • Mains recharger

  • Plug adapters for various different types of power plugs around the world

  • Leather carry case for the phone

  • Carry strap for the aluminium briefcase

  • External magnetic mount antenna (eg for on a car or boat roof)

  • Quick start user guide

  • Phone manual

  • Return prepaid courier shipping label

Although the phones, as supplied new, also come with a headset and a lanyard wrist strap, these weren't present in the Mobal kit.

The Motorola 9505 compared to the Iridium 9505a

At the end of 2004, Motorola stopped manufacturing the 9505 satellite phone, and Iridium contracted with a third party to manufacture what appears to be the exact identical phone, with the only notable difference being the brand name label now reads Iridium rather than Motorola, and the model has changed from 9505 to 9505a.

In addition, some of the accessories are slightly smaller in size.  But otherwise, the two phones can be considered identical units.

Capabilities and Specifications of the 9505 Satellite Phone

Perhaps the most immediate thing you'll notice about the 9505 is that it is big, compared to a modern day cell phone.  And when you pick it up, you realize it is not just big, but heavy, too.

The phone weighs about 14.5 ounces with a high-capacity battery inside, and measures 6" x 2" x 1", plus an extra " for the antenna.  In other words, the phone is similar in both size and weight to a pound of butter.

The antenna is 6" long closed and 9" when extended for use.  And it isn't just a thin wire, it is a barrel about " in diameter.  Normally it is rotated behind the body of the phone, but when you want to use the phone, you then rotate it up above the phone such that it points directly up into the sky, and slide the two part antenna out to extend it to full length.

This is very different to today's modern cell phones with a built in 'invisible' antenna, but remember that whereas your cell phone only has to reach a mile or so to the nearest cell tower, your satellite phone may have to reach as much as 1000 miles to the nearest satellite in the sky.  As such, the bulky antenna is not 'old fashioned' but an unavoidable requirement.

Satellite phone service takes place in the L band at about 1.62 GHz.  This table shows the frequencies used by various other types of services.

There are three different battery types available for the phone - standard, high and ultra-high capacity.  The standard battery offers up to 2.4 hours talk time or ten times as much standby time; high offers 3.6/38 hours, and ultra-high gives 7.6/72 hours of life.

These are very short times for talking and standby, but your usage of a satellite phone should not be considered the same as you use a regular landline or cell phone.  Satellite phones are more for emergency and priority communications rather than ordinary daily chatter, and so you'll probably find, when only being used for essential purposes, even the 2.4 hours of talk time on a standard battery will last you for weeks.

The high capacity battery is similar in size and weight to an entire new Motorola Razr V3 cell phone (which has longer battery life out of its vastly smaller battery), the other two batteries are only slightly smaller/lighter.

The manual is a good 'old fashioned' style manual - in other words, everything is carefully and fully explained.  It is 200 pages in size, but fortunately you don't need to read the manual from cover to cover before turning on and using the satellite phone.  Not only is the phone intuitive and almost identical in operation to a regular cell phone, but Mobal make things even easier by including two laminated pages of a 'simple user guide' that tells you all you probably need to know.

The funniest thing in the manual :

You might want to keep your SIM card in your wallet or purse when you are not using your satellite phone.  This ... gives you access to your service even if your phone is not available.  If you forget your phone, insert your SIM card into a friend's phone to access your personal service.

Question to the manual writer :  How many of your friends already have satellite phones?

The phone (and Iridium's network) support most of the same capabilities as regular phones, such as :

  • 3-way calling

  • Call waiting

  • Calls on hold

  • Conference calling - up to five people

  • Call forwarding

  • Text messaging

  • Voicemail

The phone has a 100 number phone book memory, and its SIM can store another 155 numbers.  All phone numbers should be stored as, and are dialed as, international numbers - there is no such thing as 'local' numbers due to the satellite phone not being tied to any specific region or locality.

Iridium phones have their own 'country' code, indeed, they have two different possible country codes; either 8816 or 8817.  Each phone has this four digit country code, no area code, and then an eight digit phone number.

Using the 9505 Satellite Phone

It takes approximately 30 seconds from when you power on the phone to when it has completed its boot sequence and locked on to the nearest satellite.

Placing a call is simple.  You dial the international access code (a '+' sign, created by holding the zero on the keyboard down for several seconds) then the country code and phone number you are calling.  After a delay of about 10 seconds while the call gets handled through Iridium's network, you're then connected to the number you called.

Receiving a call is slightly more complicated.  Chances are you will usually have your phone's antenna in the 'closed' position - ie, not extended, and rotated to lie against the side of the phone, rather than sticking up in the air.  So when a call comes in, the first thing that happens is the phone will make a chirping tone and displays a message 'Rotate Antenna'.  When the phone detects the antenna has been rotated up it will then accept the call, and only when the phone rings normally can you answer the call.

This is not necessary, of course, if you have the phone's antenna already opened up, but due to the extra bulk and comparative fragility of the antenna, you'll probably not do this.

Due to the compressed nature of the voice signal, the quality is 'tinny' rather than 'normal'.  While the quality is clear and understandable, it is obvious that something has processed the voice signal, unlike on a normal phone call.

There is a small amount of delay while talking to the person at the other end, but not appreciably more than on any other regular cell phone call.

Voicemail is quirky.  You're not automatically told when you have messages waiting for you.  This information is only sent to your phone when it makes or receives a call.  This is different to what we're all used to, and is because of the very limited bandwidth available to the service.

There is a workaround - you can place occasional free 'test calls' to a special Iridium number (+8816 3111 0006) and during this free call, if there are voicemail messages, that information will be sent to your phone.

Signal coverage

Satellite phone signals are very weak, and there needs to be an unobstructed line of sight between your phone's antenna and the satellite it is communicating with.

This means satellite phones will generally not work indoors, unless you are by a window and the window - by good chance - happens to be looking out to that part of the sky where an Iridium satellite currently is.  Because the Iridium satellites are moving all the time, there is no rule of thumb (such as 'you need to have a view of the southeast sky') as might have been the case with fixed satellites in terms of where to look for satellites.  Satellites may be anywhere - north, south, east or west, and because they move across the sky quite quickly, if you start off a call with a clear view to a satellite, if the satellite then moves behind something that blocks your view to the satellite, and if there are no other satellites in clear view, your call may be dropped.

If you are in a car, you should use the external antenna that comes with the phone, and mount the antenna on your roof.  This is a small low profile magnetic mounted dome, much like a GPS or satellite radio antenna.  With the external antenna, the phone should work reasonably well in your car, even when driving, but it may have problems in cities when tall buildings may obscure the view of the sky.

If you're outside with the phone, but in a forest, the trees may block the radio signal (especially during/after rain).

If you're on a cruise ship, you'll probably want to go up on deck to be sure of reliably connecting with a satellite to make a call.

Although the Iridium satellites cover the entire world, their spacing is not even.  They are closer together where their orbits meet up, at the north and south poles, and are furthest apart at the equator (think of segments of an orange that are fattest in the middle and narrowest at the top and bottom).  This means the closer you are to the equator, the fewer satellites there will be in the sky and the greater the slope distance from you to a satellite.  Service is therefore at its most 'fragile' close to the equator, and increasingly more robust as you move north or south away from the equator.

In theory, using a phone at sea should be easy, due to the wide unobstructed view of the sky from the deck of a boat/ship.  But reader Scott McMurren reports of a problem when using his Iridium phone at sea - a situation we doubtless all hope not to share :

I've used Iridium phones several times in Alaska.  They're great for emergency communication.  But not ok for any high-quality talk.  I made the mistake of relying on one for my call-in radio show while at sea in the Shelikof Straits here in Alaska.  Bad idea.

While we were on the crest of the wave, it worked fine.  However, as we dove into the trough while navigating the 40-foot seas, we lost the signal.  Also, when I threw up, it covered the window and then froze...so it also blocked the signal.  I got about five minutes' worth before I gave up.

Iridium compared to Globalstar

While in theory both of the two major (North American) satellite services offer similar service, coverage, quality and reliability, in practice there is a massive difference between Iridium and Globalstar.

A recent (Feb 2007) Frost & Sullivan report exposed a serious deterioration in Globalstar service.  Only about one third of calls placed through Globalstar were actually successfully completed, whereas for Iridium there was a 95% - 98% success rate.  Two out of three calls failed with Globalstar, whereas only one out of 20 - 50 calls failed with Iridium.

For this reason, most people will feel confident choosing Iridium, and very few people would feel comfortable choosing Globalstar.

Calling an Iridium Phone from a Normal Phone

The good news - incoming calls are free to the user of the Iridium phone.  The bad news - placing a call to an Iridium phone is not as easy as it should be, and can be ridiculously expensive to the person making the call, but there is a work-around.

In theory, if a person wishes to call you on your satellite phone, they simply dial your phone's number, same as they'd dial any other international number.

But many long distance phone services (especially discount phone services) haven't been programmed to understand what the international codes for Iridium are, and will give an error signal when a person tries to call an Iridium number.

And if your caller can get a call to go through, they might find themselves paying anything up to $15/minute for the call!  This is outright extortion.

Now for the workaround.  Callers can instead call a regular US number, either a local number in AZ or an (800) number, and then, when that number answers, they dial in your satellite phone number to have the call then forward on to your satellite phone.  Your caller pays only the normal cost to reach the US phone number they call, and you then pay the cost for the call to be forwarded on to your satellite phone, generally at about the same cost as you'd pay for making an outgoing call yourself (ie $1 - $2/minute).  This is called 'two stage calling'.

Should you rent or buy an Iridium satellite phone?

Iridium phones are expensive to buy, and most potential users of an Iridium phone will only have occasional rather than daily need of using the phone.  These factors encourage many people to consider renting a phone for the times it may be needed, rather than owning one outright.

If renting a phone from Mobal, you'll be paying $9/day, plus an optional extra $6/day for insurance.  Mobal charges you $2/minute for outgoing calls; incoming calls are free, and playing back voicemail is $1.50/minute.

If renting a phone from Telestial, you'll be paying $19/day or less, depending on the number of days you rent the phone (most rentals will probably be at a rate of either $11 or $7/day), plus you might choose to pay a flat $5 extra to have a second battery (included with Mobal).  Outgoing calls are at a rate of $1.70/minute.

Both Mobal and Telestial also offer data kits so you can use the phone as a (very slow) modem - Mobal will include this at no extra cost, Telestial charge an extra $25 for the data kit.

If you buy a phone from Telestial, you'll be paying an upfront charge of $1495, but then you will save on rental fees and will probably pay a lower cost per minute for airtime as well.  There are a range of different plans available, variously where you either prepurchase minutes that remain valid for up to two years (depending on the quantity of minutes prepurchased) or pay monthly minimum amounts that include varying amounts of airtime and pay extra if going over your included minutes, same as most cell phone accounts.  The lowest rate available seems to be $25/month with no minutes included - this is best for people simply wanting to keep a phone available in case of emergency).

So where is the breakeven point for renting compared to buying?  If you are renting a phone at $11/day and using 5 minutes of airtime a day, then it would take about 125 days of usage at this level to compensate for the higher upfront but lower ongoing cost of owning your own phone.

If you are wanting a satellite phone as an emergency preparedness item - for example, if you live in an area where hurricanes can occur, then plainly, because you can't plan ahead for such things, you need to consider buying a phone to have it on hand, rather than renting one as and when needed.

Add to the simple ownership/rental cost equation a factor to allow for the greater convenience and pleasure of owning your own phone and always having it available, and fairly soon the concept of owning your own satellite phone becomes appealing and affordable.

This table lists the type of users who may be better suited to rent or purchase a satellite phone.

Better suited to rent
 

Better suited to own
 

Infrequent adventure traveler

Regular user of service

Infrequent ocean cruiser

Disaster preparedness


Airtime costs

If you buy your phone, you can choose from many different levels of service contract.  The lowest monthly contract is $25/month, with no free minutes included, and all outgoing minutes charged at $1.50.  The highest monthly contract is $270/month which includes 240 minutes, and extra minutes are charged at $1/minute.

As an alternative, you can avoid the monthly fee and simply buy prepaid packages of minutes.  The least expensive to buy is a 75 minute package for $135 (ie $1.80/minute); the most expensive is a 5000 minute package costing $4,250 (ie 85c/minute).  These packages of prepaid airtime have varying validity periods - in the case of the basic 75 minute package, you must use your time within a month or lose it; and in the case of the maximum 5000 minute package, you have two years to use the airtime.

How much does it cost people to call you

This is a potential trap.  Iridium phones have their own 'country code' and not all regular long distance services will allow people to call that 'country' as part of your calling plan.  And, if people can call the Iridium code, they might find the cost per minute to be very expensive indeed.

Fortunately, there's a solution to this problem, what is called 'two stage calling'.  People who wish to call you first call a US number, and then when that service answers, they then dial on to your satellite phone.  This means the person calling you pays little or nothing a minute to call you.  But you will then pay a per minute cost yourself, comparable to the rate you pay for outgoing calls (ie $1 - $2/minute).  Overall, the total cost is probably less than if your caller made a direct call to your satellite number, but now you're paying for the call, rather than your caller.

Read more in Part 1

In the first part of this series, we explain what satellite phone service is and discuss the four different major types of satellite phone service.

Summary

Iridium's satellite phone service is not nearly as convenient as regular cell phone service, and shouldn't be considered as an alternative.  Any time you can use regular mobile service, you're of course much better advised to do so.

But, in cases where regular phone service is not available - either because you're out of coverage, or because of a disaster interfering with regular service, then a satellite phone becomes the only game in town and the minor inconveniences inherent in such service become insignificant compared to what can sometimes be literally a life saving ability to communicate with the rest of the world.

In addition to 'obvious' uses for satellite service, consider renting (or buying) a satellite phone next time you take an ocean cruise, and save yourself the need to pay $10 or more a minute on ship to shore phone service.  $1.50 or so a minute for satellite service suddenly seems attractive when compared to such prices!
 

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Originally published 7 Apr 2006, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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