What if you find yourself out of radio and cellphone range? Savvy skippers are turning to the sky to maintain communications. A growing variety of satellite communications devices are proving to be a convenient means for boaters to keep in touch with the rest of the world.
With almost limitless range, a satellite phone can help resolve communications isolation. Iridium (iridium.com) has several decades of reliable worldwide operation. The handheld Iridium 9555 direct-dial phone ($1,300) has short message service (SMS) and email, as well as voice capabilities. The Iridium 9575 Extreme ($1,695) adds an SOS button, which when pressed transmits a mayday with your position. It can also serve as a wireless hot spot.
Globalstar (globalstar.com), with a constellation of new satellites, offers the handheld GSP-1700 phone (shown above, $549) with voice and data capabilities.
Inmarsat (inmarsat.com), which provides high-speed Internet and satellite television reception to maritime customers, offers two handheld satellite phones. The IsatPhone Pro ($689) has voice, SMS texting and email. The IsatPhone Pro 2 ($995) also includes an e-compass, GPS tracking and an “emergency” button. Both are Bluetooth enabled.
To use these phones, fees vary depending on the carrier and plan. For frequent use, choose a monthly plan. Most basic airtime plans involve a one-time commissioning fee, usually about $50, and a monthly access fee (approximately $35 to $50), plus a per-minute airtime charge ranging from less than 90 cents to $1.50-plus per minute.
An alternative is to purchase a prepaid SIM card for a fixed amount of minutes and a specific period of time. One provider offers a prepaid 75-minute Iridium card for $165, which expires after 30 days. A 300-minute card is offered for $665 and has a 12-month expiration date. This may cost more per minute, but there are no commissioning fees required. So you get to choose how and when to use your phone.
Phones aren’t the only way to stay connected. For example, the Spot Gen3 (starting at $149.95, findmespot.com) from Globalstar is a palm-size satellite communicator that can transmit your position every 5 minutes to those on your contact list, who can follow you on Google Maps. An SOS button broadcasts that you are in need of emergency assistance. A basic service plan costs $50 per year.
InReach SE by DeLorme ($299, delorme.com) is a pocket-size communicator that can send 160-character text messages using a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. The free Earthmate app turns a tablet or smartphone into a navigation instrument pinpointing your location on a chart or map. With the Mapshare feature, others can “ping” you and “see” your position. Your safety is enhanced with interactive SOS, which allows you to carry on a dialog with rescuers during an emergency. Airtime plans are priced from $15 to $99 per month.
The SkyMate I1000 ($1,599, skymate.com) offers two-way emails that can also be sent out as faxes or voice messages. Online boat tracking is available by means of the SkyTracker feature. On-demand weather information is based on access to Nexrad live radar images and NOAA weather charts. Built-in Wi-Fi lets you operate SkyMate from your laptop. Airtime packages range from $18 to $70 a month.