The Blog

Expedition Tech: How To Stay In Contact From (Almost) Anywhere

There once was a time—not all that long ago—when explorers and mountaineers would set off to distant, unexplored places for the sole purpose of filling in the blank spots on the map. They would often remain almost entirely out of contact for weeks, if not months on end, only sending letters and dispatches when it was absolutely necessary. Meanwhile, back home, their friends and family waited anxiously for news of their fate, all the while wondering if they would ever see them again.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and those days are all but forgotten. In an age where the Internet and satellite communications have made the planet a much smaller place. As long as you don’t forget to bring your power bank, it is now possible to Skype from Everest, email from the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and send a text from the North Pole. The modern explorer has an impressive array of tech tools at his or her disposal, allowing them to stay in touch from virtually anywhere. Here are some devices that can help you to stay in contact on your next adventure.

Satellite Communicators
Small, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive, satellite communicators allow users to share their current locations with friends and family back home, and even provide the ability to send short text messages to let them know you are okay. These devices do not support voice communications of any kind although they do have the ability to signal for an emergency evacuation should the need arise. Satellite communicators provide relatively good coverage across most of the planet, and they can serve as a good safety-net for outdoor enthusiasts visiting far flung locales.

Examples of this type of device include the SPOT Satellite Messenger and the DeLorme InReach. Of these, the InReach seems to be the favorite of most adventurers because due its ability to facilitate two-way communication and better coverage area. Both devices require monthly service plans to operate.

Satellite Phones
Satellite phones have been around for years now, and they remain one of the most reliable ways to stay in contact while traveling off the beaten path. Sat phones allow users to place voice calls from just about anywhere on the planet, although instead of using traditional cell phone towers, they connect via satellite instead. Because of their reliance on those satellites, these devices generally need a clear line of sight to the sky overhead in order to function properly, but depending on the service provider, they can usually place a call from just about anywhere on the planet.

More versatile than satellite communicators, sat phones are not only capable of making voice calls, but can also send SMS text messages too. Some can even connect to the Internet, although at extremely slow speeds. This extra functionally comes at a price however, both financially and otherwise. Sat phones are more expensive than communicators, and are also bulkier to carry around.

There are essentially four major players in the satellite phone market. They include Iridium, Thuraya, Globalstar, and Immersat. Each provides different types of coverage, models of phones, and quality of calls. Of these, Iridium and Immersat offer the best coverage of the planet, while Thuraya probably has the best voice quality due to the larger bandwidth that its satellites provide. All four providers are working on improving bandwidth and updating their networks for future communications needs.

In recent years, the cost of making phone calls with a satellite phone has improved dramatically. It now costs, on average, about $0.15 to $2 per minute to place a call, depending on geographic location, provider, etc. This is fairly affordable when used sparingly, all things considered. The cost of placing a cal to a satellite phone is quite a bit more expensive however, often running $8 to $12 per minute. With that in mind, be careful who you share your satellite phone number with.

Satellite Internet
The newest, and most versatile, gadgets for staying in contact while in the field include several devices meant to provide Internet access in the most remote regions of the world. These devices use the same satellite networks provided by the sat phone companies, and while they do allow you to surf the Internet, post to social networks, and update your blog, they can be painfully slow most of the time. As mentioned above, the satellite companies are working on next-generation networks that will greatly improve available bandwidth, and provide better speed, but they are years away from truly implementing those systems.

Two popular devices for connecting to the Internet from the far corners of the planet include the BGAN from Immersat and the Iridium Go, a compact system that is small, lightweight, versatile, and poised to improve as next-generation satellites come online. Both allow for data and voice communications, and have networks that span nearly the entire planet. Iridium’s is the only provider that offers coverage of the entire planet, including the the North and South Pole. Immersat doesn’t cover the Poles, but it does have the rest of the world well blanketed as well.

The BGAN has a tried and true reputation for providing reliable data connections from remote areas. The service has become a mainstay on expeditions to the Himalaya, the Arctic, and other challenging places. The Iridium Go is a much newer, more advanced system, but it hasn’t seen as much use in the field just yet. It is likely that it will become much more popular in the years ahead.

The cost of using these devices can still be somewhat expensive. For instance, Immersat charges $7/megabyte of data used on their BGAN network. That means costs can add up quickly, as uploading a single photo could set you back more $20. Iridium plans are based on minutes used, which considering the speed of the service could get pricey quickly too.

Explorers like these satellite Internet system as they allow them to post dispatches, send emails, and connect with social media while they are on their expeditions. It also helps to keep them in touch with friends and family back home, allowing them to feel a bit more connected with what is happening there. Of course, their sponsors love them too, as this technology helps to provide extra exposure while the actual adventure is still unfolding.

The future of satellite communications from the field will include smaller, faster, and more powerful devices. But as of now, these are the options that are available to outdoor adventurers who need to stay connected in the most remote regions of the world.