Satellites turn the globe into one big hotspot

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An adventure trip to the jungles of Borneo or the Guyanese rain forest will mean the traveller is without a mobile phone signal. Walking up a hill will not help because the nearest mobile phone cell could be many hundred miles away.

The good news, if you want to stay in contact with others while on holiday,perhaps for business or health reasons, is that this does not mean you are restricted to staying in well established tourist destinations where “five bars” is virtually guaranteed.

That is because communicating using the four main satellite networks – Iridium, Globalstar, Thuraya and Inmarsat – has now become practical even for the casual traveller.

Satellite phones that are not much larger than mobile phones cost as little as $600 to buy or $20 per day to rent and work almost anywhere outdoors.

The networks’ service areas vary, but between them they provide coverage across the globe. And call costs are so low that in many cases it is cheaper to make a satellite call than to use a mobile phone abroad.

“I like to go alone to remote mountain areas in places such as China and El Salvador, but because of one family member’s health problems I want to be contactable at any time regardless of where I am,” says Michael Pappas, a frequent adventure traveller.

He uses a phone connected to the Iridium satellite phone network, paying $19.99 per month line rental and $1.50 per minute for calls. “This is actually cheaper than using a hotel phone or roaming with a mobile phone and I can use it anywhere,” he says.

Mr Pappas also uses the satellite phone to get the latest prices and buy and sell shares. “I use an automated touch tone system and it seems to work perfectly anywhere. I’ve traded stocks while sitting in the middle of nowhere in the central highlands of Iceland,” he says.

If you travel infrequently you can avoid paying a monthly satellite line rental fee by buying a hybrid GSM/satellite phone, and using it with the SIM card from your ordinary mobile phone when you go on a trip.

It will then work as a cellphone where GSM coverage is available, but will “roam” to a satellite network when in the wild – as long as your mobile phone network has a roaming agreement with a satellite network.

In the UK, for example, Vodafone has a roaming agreement with Globalstar, and Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile and 02 with Thuraya. Satellite call charges appear on your mobile phone bill at the end of the month.

The call quality provided by satellite phones is generally good, even in the harshest of environments.

Ellen MacArthur, the round-the-word yachtswoman, used one during storms on her recent record breaking voyage.

“When I called my family I could have been calling from the phone box at the end of the street,” she says.

With a cable to connect a satellite phone to a laptop PC or handheld PDA, you can also send and receive e-mails and browse the web from the middle of nowhere.

Connection speeds are not high – a maximum of 2.4kbps on Iridium and 9.6kbps on Globalstar and Thuraya – but enough to transmit small photographs as e-mail attachments if you have a little patience.

Paul Sutherland, a marine wildlife photographer, uses a satellite phone attached to a laptop to send photos back to his website in the US.

“I managed to document a live tiger shark attack on green turtles at Raine Island in the South Pacific and using a satellite phone I was able to get the shots on my website the same day,” he says.

For higher data speeds you’ll need a Regional Broadband Global Area Network (Regional BGAN) terminal, which connects to Inmarsat’s network. The terminal is about the size of a laptop computer, and works as a satellite dish and modem in one.

Plug it in to your laptop or PDA, point it at the right part of the sky, and you have an always-on internet connection of up to 144kbps (about one-quarter of the speed of standard broadband) anywhere in the coverage area – which includes most of Africa, Europe, South East Asia, and the western half of Australia.Terminals cost about £300, and data charges are about £4 per megabyte transferred.

For a complete portable office communications system, travellers will have to wait till the end of this year for the launch of a service called BGAN from Inmarsat.

The cheapest BGAN terminals will cost about $750 but promise download speeds of 384kbps, and include a socket for a traditional telephone or phone headset which can be used to make voice calls while connected to the Internet.

More expensive ones will offer higher speeds and wireless capabilities, making it possible not just to stay in contact but also to turn almost anywhere on earth into a Wi-Fi internet hotspot.

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