Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Satphone to the Rescue

When traversing through remote and dangerous areas where cell phone coverage is virtually non-existent, you should consider using a satellite telephone so that you have the ability to summon help should the need arise.

A satellite phone, or satphone, is a mobile phone that communicates with communications satellites that are orbiting the Earth. Because the device is always in range of the orbiting satellite, the device is able to provide a constant telephone connection regardless of where the user is located.

Satellite coverage may include a specific region, such as the western United States, or the entire Earth. As long as you are in the defined region you will have a reliable telephone connection.

Anyone who has struggled to receive a stable cell phone signal can appreciate how comforting it would be to have a reliable signal without having to worry about being in range of a cell phone tower.

As two recent tragedies demonstrate, satellite phones should no longer be considered luxury gadgets for the rich. Indeed, they can be life saving devices.

James Kim, his wife Kati, and their two children were driving to their California home after a Thanksgiving holiday trip to visit their family and friends in the Seattle area. While traveling through the back roads of Oregon, the family car got stuck in heavy snow.

If the Kims had taken a satellite phone on their trip, they could have called for help and potentially could have been rescued within a day or two. However, the only communication device they had in their car was the cell phone that was unable to locate a signal.

After being stranded for eight days, Kim left his family and ventured into the wilderness in an attempt to find help. His wife and children were rescued three days later by searchers who vectored in on the area where the car was stranded by tracing cell phone messages sent to the Kim’s mobile phone.

Unfortunately, Kim did not return to his family and was eventually found dead approximately seven miles from the stranded car. His tragic death could have been prevented if the family would have had a satphone with them on their trip.

Since building a satellite and launching it into space is more expensive than constructing cell phone towers, it’s no coincidence that owning a satellite phone is more expensive than a traditional cell phone.

A Qualcomm GSP-1600 satphone costs $645, and the best airtime plan that I could find cost 14 cents per minute. You don’t have to be able to join the same country club as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in order to purchase your own satphone, but those costs are quite steep for the average person.

However, several companies allow you to rent a satphone. Globalstar, for example, has rental plans that start at $39 per week for a satphone. Airtime rates under the rental agreement cost an additional $1.49 per minute.

While you may not want to use the satphone to call your neighbor for help with a campfire recipe, very few people would flinch at the price if they could use the phone to call for help in an emergency situation.

The recent case of three mountain climbers lost on Oregon’s Mount Hood further illustrates how a satphone would be beneficial when emergencies occur in remote areas where cell phone coverage is limited or unavailable.

As with the Kim search, rescuers tracked cell phone usage to determine a general search area. However, it still took several days for searchers to locate the body of one of the climbers. The other two climbers are still missing.

Like the Kims, had these experienced climbers taken a satellite phone on their climb they could have summoned help immediately and potentially been rescued.

Although satellite phones have been available since the early 1990s, they continue to occupy a niche market when compared to their cellular cousins. The low price and ubiquitous nature make cell phones a more attractive option for everyday use.

Many people believe it is essential that they carry a cell phone with them while traveling. However, guides, outfitters and park personnel should recommend that travelers and adventurers carry a satellite phone when heading into remote locations that have limited cell phone coverage.

Spurred by the global marketplace and worldwide business travelers, some manufacturers are combining the cell phone and the satellite phone. These hybrid devices work on available cell phone networks when they are available, but they have the ability to utilize satellite communications when there is no cell service.

One example of these useful devices is the Thuraya SG-2520, which sells for approximately $895. For those who travel in areas of the world that do not have cell phone coverage, this new generation phone will be an indispensable, albeit expensive, tool.

As technology advances and users demand uninterruptible mobile phone coverage, I’m certain that you will see more hybrid devices like the Thuraya SG-2520. As these types of devices become more prevalent the price will drop.

When this occurs, hopefully situations like the two recent tragedies discussed in this story can be avoided with the prudent use of a mobile phone that has constant coverage regardless of where it is used.

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