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I got a sat phone. You should get a satellite-based emergency communicator of some sort.

Posted by John T. Reed on

I made my first purchases in solar and satellite phones the same day: yesterday.
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I will write about the solar later
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8575 Extreme Iridium sat phone

The satellite phones I bought are two

'Iridium Extreme 9575 models' - https://satellitephonestore.com/catalog/sale/details/iridium-9575-extreme-satellite-phone-kit-7 at the 'Satellite Phone Store' - https://satellitephonestore.com/

They have another store in Sarasota and one in Anchorage. I felt I needed to talk to an expert in person about this complex purchase. I could not find another store closer to my San Francisco area house, in spite of it being 479 miles away.
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The cost is about the same as high-end smart phones although the minutes are more expensive.
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$1,295 plus tax for each phone less a 5% vet discount. The Sat Phone Store waived the activation fees for each phone.
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They have a number of options. I rejected all but two for various reasons.
I got:
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• a US phone number for each phone ($10 each)
• the smallest monthly plan (10 minutes per month for $49,95 per phone.)
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You can change to more expensive plans on a month’s notice. Nothing was speak-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace.
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International calls, but you can get a US sat number

Sat phone calls are dialed like international calls. First, the country code, then the area code and seven-digit phone number in the US.
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RECEIVING calls is FREE!
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So you text people and tell them to call you, right? As much as possible yes.
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When you exceed your monthly minutes during the month, you pay $1.59 per minute. But, wait. How much per minute does an international call cost?
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If you have a US sat phone number, they call THAT number which goes to Tempe, AZ (Iridium headquarters is in Chandler, AZ) then up to a satellite and back down to your sat phone. If your caller is like me, they probably pay a flat rate and get no incremental charge for calling a US number even a long distance away.
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So the call that is free to you is also free to them!
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You also get, and we have, a regular NON-US sat phone number for each phone. Persons in other countries get no benefit from dialing the US number. That would be an international call for them. So they call the non-US number and you may need to call them or get a more expensive monthly plan to avoid high per minute charges for you ro your caller.

You already use satellite receivers

You already have been using satellite communications for years. You probably have multiple GPS RECEIVERS: in your vehicle and your smart phone. In case you don’t know, those use several GPS satellite signals to figure out where you are. The model sat phone I bought has GPS. Some cheaper versions do not.
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Altitude, latitude, and longitude

As far as I know, my car and smart phone GPS are mainly ROAD and POI oriented. The GPS in emergency beacons and my phone are more latitude and longitude oriented, as befits search and rescue which often takes place off road or offshore.
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I just asked my smart phone my latitude and longitude by typing in my street address and it gave it to me to six decimal places. But that would be no help in a remote location. It looks like there are some apps that will tell you your “GPS location” which appears to be altitude, latitude, and longitude.

Why do you need a sat phone at all?

To call or be called when you have no other way, usually cell or Comcast or the like. When is that?
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A. Your grid electric is blacked out. Cell and Comcast-type phones require grid power to function.
B. Your cell battery is dead.
C. You cell phone is working, but you are in a place where you get no bars (e.g., at sea like on a cruise, in an aircraft, in a rural unpopulated area, at home in a place with crappy cell service like the canyon I live in).
D. You are having an emergency and do not have the transportation or time to get to an area with grid power or cell-service bars.
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Sat phones have batteries and they can go dead, too. The problem of dead cell phone battery can be fixed by having back-ups and taking care to keep them charged. Back-up cars can help with transportation if you can drive or have another driver at home with you. The sat phone is a sort of one stop simple solution to these four situations.

I graduated from the US Army’s first satellite communications officer course

In June 1969, I was one of about 15 army officer who were in the Army’s first satellite communication officer course. The field has changed a lot, but the fundamentals have not.

Satellites that ‘hover‘ over one spot

Some communications satellites are in GEOSYNCHRONOUS orbits. That means they seem to hover above a single point on the equator at an altitude of 22,236 miles.
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In fact the earth spins and the geosynchronous satellite orbits the earth at the same speed as the earth spins. The result is it takes the earth 24 hours to complete one spin and the exact same is true of satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Consequently, the speed of the geosynchronous satellite relative to the spot it is over is zero miles per hour—stationary.
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The speed at which a satellite orbits is determined solely by its altitude.
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Geosynchronous satellites have two problems regarding use for earth communications:
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1. They are so far out—22,236 miles—that it creates a DELAY in between what each person on the call says. Electromagnetic radiation travels at 186,000 miles per second. That is pretty fast, but a round trip of 2 x 22,236 = 44,472, which, in turn, is 44,472 ÷ 186,000 = .24 seconds—means a distracting, perceptible gap. You sometimes see it in TV interviews where they use a geosynchronous satellite.
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2. Although they are really high up at 22,236 miles, by definition, geosynchronous satellites can only see half the earth. So you need three of them each located 120º apart from the next one—one third of the 360º circle representing the equator, in order to call the other side of the earth.
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In that case, instead of the signal going up your closest satellite and bouncing back down to your side of the earth, the satellite will send your signal sort of sideways to one of the other satellites, THEN it will go back down to a part of the earth that your satellite could not see.
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The problem is if you go too far north or south on earth, your sat phone cannot “see” the geosynchronous satellite even way out at 22,236 miles altitude.
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Eric Talman, owner of Satellite Phone Store, says if your phone uses a geosynchronous satellite, you start having trouble connecting with it as low as 39º north. I live east of San Francisco. My latitude is 38º north. 39º north roughly runs through Salt Lake City, Denver, Indianapolis, Columbus, Philadelphia, Madrid, Istanbul, Beijing, Pyongyang, Northern Japan.
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The problem “seeing” a geosynchronous “hovering” above the equator north of San Francisco is caused by mountains and tall redwood trees. If you were at SEA, you CAN probably “see” the geosynchronous satellite at higher latitudes than 39º north. I do not know the southern hemisphere latitude at which it becomes problematic to “see” the geosynchronous satellites.
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There are two brands of sat phone that rely on geosynchronous satellites: Inmarsat and Globalstar. Because they lose connection about 150 miles north of me, I would not buy those.
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My son Mike and I drove to Vancouver, Canada in 2017 in my then new Lexus. I am not buying a phone that would not work when I go to Vancouver or Calgary, Canada or Alaska or to the Baltic Sea, where we took a cruise in August 2018 or the Mediterranean or Japan or Korea.
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The Iridium low-earth-orbit satellite constellation

The brand I bought—Iridium—does NOT use geosynchronous satellites. Rather, they use LEO satellites: Low Earth Orbit. That is where the manned space programs operate: hundreds of miles up. The Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the space shuttle programs orbited in the 100 to 500 miles up range.
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Iridium has 66 satellites orbiting at 485 miles altitude. At that altitude, they orbit the earth every 100 minutes. They also have spares in orbit in case one of the others malfunctions.
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iridium_satellite_constellation
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Like cell phone towers, they pass your call off to the next satellite as they move out of your area. With cell phones, however, the towers are stationary and YOU are the one moving.

Beware of extreme temperatures

My first use of the sat phone will be to go to the Lake Tahoe area of California. It can get really cold up there. Temperature is an issue. The manual says never expose the battery to temperatures below 32ºF or above 113ºF when charging. It gets below 32ºF at Tahoe; above 113ºF at a lot of places like Vegas and deserts. You need to keep it in the car passenger compartment, not the trunk. And in an interior pocket against your body, not in a pack when outside.

SOS button

The phones have an SOS button. If you have an emergency, you push it. It will ring where you tell it when you first set it up. I chose GEOS which I suspect most people do. If you push SOS, it will get you a GEOS operator and tell him or her your location latitude and longitude coordinates. You will also be talking to the GEOS dispatcher. That enables them and the local responders they tell about you to triage your situation.

ARTEX ResQLink beacon

Another device I recently bought—an ACR emergency beacon—just tells the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration that you are in grave trouble and your location. But it does not enable you to communicate with the rescuers. They do not know what your problem is; only that you are in grave danger and where you are (GPS latitude and longitude). NOAA is connected to other similar agencies worldwide so they respond to your call by dispatching the nearest rescuers to you to go help you.

GEOS

If you have a monthly Iridium plan, GEOS Travel Safety Group membership is included. The alternative is to buy prepaid cards. Those require you to separately become a GEO member.
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GEOS is an international 911 number so to speak. It is based in Houston. Essentially, they know all the emergency agencies around the US and the world and they will call the one hearest you.
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If you have a monthly plan and you exceed your monthly minutes, your calls, including your calls for help, go through and your monthly bill simply charges additional for them. If, however, you get a prepaid plan, and you use all the minutes, it will not work, even for emergencies. That possibility alone convinced me to get a monthly plan.
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GEOS also offers GEOS Search and Rescue which pays for things like chopper rescue and GEOS Medevac Plus insurance which flies you to a hospital near your home. Those cost extra and you get them through GEOS, not Iridium.
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Medevac insurance

I previously had chopper insurance through American Alpine Club when I hiked in the Grand Canyon. I now have it through the NRA. I need to compare the NRA and GEOS cost and reliability. Regarding the transport to a hospital near where I live, I need to see what coverage I already have, if any. Also, getting GEOS SAR may be required to get Medevac Plus.
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I do not need the transport back home insurance most of the time, but we travel domestically and internationally so I might need it then. On a road trip to Sedona, AZ from where we live, I was concerned about possibly needing chopper to take me to Vegas, Phoenix, or Palm Springs, CA in the event of a stroke or heart attack. A search for certified stroke center hospitals showed there were none on that route except in those big cities.

Bought the phone in person at a satellite store

One of the reasons I wanted to buy in person rather than online was to have the dealer do the initial setup. I read the quick start manual online. It did not sound that quick. I think it took about 45 minutes.
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Install SIM card. Install battery. Get US number (for which we paid extra). The non-US number is on a data plate on the back of each phone. The ownership of the phones by me and my wife had to be registered with Iridium.
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We had to select whether we wanted to use GEOS or put some other number to be called by the SOS. We chose GEOS then had to provide them online with all our contact information and the names and contact information for two of our next of kin.

Test after purchase

Then we tested the phones by going out in the parking lot (sat phones have to see the sky.) The little screen on the phone tells you when you are connected to a satellite. At that time, the dealer used my new phone to call my cell phone. We then did a “test one two three” to each other. Worked just fine. We did that with each sat phone.
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If you buy online, you need to do all that by yourself. I guess the manual, etc, tells you how and it is do-it-yourself-able, but I much preferred to have it done by an expert.

Charging

Charging the sat phone is a bit more complicated than a cell phone. You have to attach a special bottom to the phone and the plug you put into the wall is also special. I expect that is because this phone is for international travelers and the variations in foreign plugs and voltage must be accomodated.
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Apple products apparently have some internal sensor of different voltages and automatically switch to the correct voltage. I guess the Iridium has no such sensor adapter so you have to use the special plugs and the spacial bottoms that come in the Iridium Extreme 9575 when you are in countries with different electrical systems.

No texts to tour US sat phone line

I tried to send a text from my cell phone to my sat phone through my US sat phone number. The response was that number is a landline. Verizon—my cell provider—says they will send it but only after it is converted to a voice mail and for an unspecified fee. Our current “landline” is a comcast number. You cannot send a text to it either because it is not a cell phone and there is nowhere to display a text. But the sat phone has a screen. Seems like the US number for the sat phone ought to be a dell number, not a landline.

A satellite emergency beacon or communicator/phone could save your life

When I was in middle school, I think, we had to read a short story by Jack London called “To Build a Fire.”
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Build_a_Fire
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It is about a man alone in snow-covered wilderness. He needs to build a fire to survive. I will not tell you how it ends. It is extremely poignant.
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Now buying, as I just have, an emergency beacon and a sat phone, I can envision a similarly poignant story of a person who did NOT buy an emergency beacon or any other way to communicate with flying help.
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You are gravely injured or sick lying on the ground. Your cell phone is not working for one of the reasons stated above. You cannot yell loud enough to call anyone. Your are unable to walk or crawl to help. You may be in wilderness like a national park or just in a sparsely populated area or you are in the ocean or on a lake. Maybe your car ran off a road down a ravine or off a cliff leaving no trace of you for other motorists to see. Maybe you are in your back yard at home. You’ve fallen and you can’t get up sort of situation.
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As you lie there, dying, during the day, you see planes as low as 1,000 feet flying over or within sight of you. But they cannot see you. Jet airliners full of people fly six miles up within your sight, but they cannot see your plight. As night falls, the planes and jets are still there, but you can only see their lights.
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In the first hour after sunset and the last hour before sunrise, you can even see the characteristic “T” shape of the Iridium satellites as they go into the darkness but still far enough out to the side of the earth that you can see the sun reflecting off their solar panels.
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The aircraft and satellites throb with aircraft fuel or solar/battery energy. The contain highly trained human pilots in the case of the aircraft. Both the aircraft pilots and the satellites are connected by the miracle of Marconi’s 1890 invention of wireless communication to an army of pilots and emergency medical technicians and doctors and hospitals eager and wanting to help you. The NOAA and GEOS search and rescue operations have “mission controls” worldwide waiting to help you.
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But they must KNOW you need help and your LOCATION. If only you had a way to tell them.
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You COULD have had a way:
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• an emergency beacon like the ACR ResQLink (the size of a bar of soap) I recently bought for $300
• a satellite communicator that lets you text with rescuers like the Garmin Inreach $450
• a sat phone like my Iridium 9575 Extreme $1,295.
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Get one.

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