Article Highlights:

  • Modern satcom devices are now more compact, affordable, and user-friendly.
  • Features like SOS alerts, GPS navigation and secure communication make satellite phones crucial for ensuring safety in emergencies, even in the most remote areas.
  • Companies like Apple, SpaceX, and Verizon are expanding satellite-to-cell services, making satellite communication accessible to business travelers and adventurers alike.

Satellite communications is no longer a niche market for governments, military and organizations operating in remote areas. First launched by Motorola in 1989, the devices were bulky, expensive and primarily used by government agencies, military personnel and organizations operating in remote areas.

Since then, technological advancements have led to the development of more compact, affordable, and user-friendly satellite phones, tracking and messaging devices making them accessible to a broader consumer and business marketplace.

Satellite phone networks have expanded their coverage areas and improved connectivity, allowing users to stay connected in remote regions, at sea, and in areas with limited or no cellular coverage. Expanded global coverage makes satellite phones and other devices a valuable tool for adventurers, business and leisure travelers, and individuals living or working in remote locations.

Advancements in technology have led to integrating satellite communication technology with smartphones, GPS capabilities, and data services, enhancing the functionality and versatility of satellite devices. Users can now access email, internet services, and location-tracking features on satellite phones and messaging devices.


A computer-generated image of a mobile phone connected to a worldwide satellite network.
Satellite messaging: coming to your mobile phone soon.

New Satcom Technology Developments

Apple is expanding the capabilities of its satellite messaging on the new iOS 18. The update will broaden the availability beyond emergency messaging, and messages via satellite will be an option when cellular and Wi-Fi connections are unavailable.

And It’s not just Apple. There have been several updates in the satellite-to-cell market. SpaceX is testing for direct-to-cell Starlink satellites with partner T-Mobile.

There are reports that T-Mobile customers using the Android 15 beta see their eligibility for satellite messaging. Verizon recently announced a $100 million deal with AST SpaceMobile for satellite direct-to-cellular service for its customers.

Now, Verizon and AT&T are both working with AST SpaceMobile, but the company has not yet launched its satellites that will operate the service.

“The race among wireless service companies and smartphone manufacturers to provide satellite communications capabilities for users provides business, leisure and adventure travelers a bigger safety net to travel more boldly in the future,” said Dan Richards, CEO of The Global Rescue Companies, the world’s leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services, and a member of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board at the U.S. Department of Commerce.


Business Traveler Satcom Needs

A business traveler may need a satellite phone or satellite messaging device for various reasons that are distinct from those of a tourist on leisure travel.

They often travel internationally to various destinations where local networks may not be compatible with their phones. Many workforce travelers frequently visit international destinations, like Bolivia and Madagascar, where local cellular networks may not provide reliable coverage. Satellite phones offer global coverage, allowing seamless communication across borders without the need for multiple SIM cards or roaming charges.

Business travelers may need to communicate sensitive or confidential information that requires secure and private channels. In some regions, using local networks may pose a risk to data security. Satellite communication devices provide a secure means of communication for business-related calls, messages and emergencies.


Satcoms: Tools for Survival

Communication in remote areas is one of the primary reasons for using satellite phones or satellite messaging devices since they work in areas where there is no cellular coverage, allowing people to stay connected when they’re in isolated locations.

In emergencies such as accidents, getting lost, natural disasters, or medical or security events, a satellite device can be a lifesaver by enabling communication with rescue services. Here are some examples:

A satellite tracking and messaging device was instrumental in saving a helicopter pilot following a crash on a frozen lake in Canada. “When Global Rescue received the SOS alert, emergency rescue coordinators in our operations center immediately notified the appropriate first responders,” said Jeff Weinstein, a paramedic and a medical operations manager at Global Rescue. “Without Global Rescue’s swift action and coordination with Canadian first responders, triggered by the satellite SOS alert, the pilot’s extraction to safety might not have been possible.”

Global Rescue operations received a satellite SOS emergency notification from a user in Scotland to report his wife fell and severely injured her back. The Global Rescue medical operations team notified Scotland’s first responders and coordinated the location of the injured woman. She was successfully airlifted to a hospital for treatment.

A teenage hiker was separated from his family during an unforeseen wildfire in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area of Washington. Global Rescue received a satellite SOS emergency alert with the location of the endangered hiker and two others. Global Rescue notified first responders who rescued the group from a nearby shoreline using the local marine patrol boats.

Sir Richard Branson climbs a snowy mountain at high altitude.
Sir Richard Branson, frequent user of satellite phones on his many adventures.
Bear Grylls wearing adventure gear stands in front of a green hillside.
Bear Grylls is another frequent satellite phone user.

Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire and founder of the Virgin Group, is known to use satellite phones and communication devices during his various expeditions and record-setting adventures. While not a traditional celebrity, Bear Grylls, a well-known adventurer and television personality, often uses satellite phones and communication devices during his survival expeditions in remote locations.

[Related Reading: How To Send an SOS]

The reliability and global coverage of satellite technology make it a valuable tool for anyone to improve their safety and connectivity in remote or challenging environments like hiking in remote areas, stranded at sea, lost in the wilderness, or experiencing an emergency in any place where cell coverage is non-existent or unreliable.


Benefits of Satellite Comms

Having a reliable means of communication provides additional security for people traveling domestically or internationally, especially in unfamiliar or risky locations. Many satellite devices have an SOS button that can be activated in emergencies, sending a distress signal and location coordinates to emergency services.

GPS navigation features are also featured on satellite communications devices, helping leisure, business and adventure travelers navigate unfamiliar terrain and find their way back to safety. Satellite devices can receive weather updates that help users plan activities accordingly and stay safe during extreme weather conditions or threats of predictable natural disasters.

Peace of mind is a significant benefit of satellite communications device use. Eight out of 10 respondents (82%) would feel safer with a smartphone enabled with satellite connection abilities, according to the world’s most experienced travelers responding to the Global Rescue Spring 2024 Travel Safety and Sentiment Survey.

“Nearly half (49%) said they like knowing they can always call for help if needed while more than a third (37%) reported that having satellite communications capabilities if cell coverage is unavailable gives their family, friends or colleagues peace of mind,” Richards said.

One out of 10 (12%) said they had lost cell coverage during travel, and it concerned them that they were unable to communicate with others, especially in an emergency. Staying connected with family, friends and colleagues gives people peace of mind during their travels, reducing anxiety and stress by providing updates on their whereabouts and well-being.


Satcoms? No Guarantees of Emergency or Travel Communications

Satellite phones and satellite messaging devices are reliable for communication in many circumstances, but they can fail.

Satellite phones and devices require a clear line of sight to communicate with satellites in orbit.

“Topography does affect satellite communication; a clear view of the sky is necessary. It may be challenging to connect with satellites in thick forests or where there are steep slopes above you. The same is true in urban areas with tall buildings. You may be able to send a signal indoors if you are standing next to a window,” said Harding Bush, a former Navy SEAL and associate director for security operations at Global Rescue.

The position of the satellite constellation in relation to the user’s location can affect signal strength and connectivity. Users in certain regions may experience intermittent or weak signals if the satellites are not positioned optimally.

Harsh environmental conditions such as extreme cold or heat, high altitudes, or exposure to water can impact the performance of satellite devices and lead to failures. During peak usage times or in areas with high demand, users may experience satellite network congestion leading to slower data speeds or difficulty establishing connections.


Countries with Satellite Communications Device Restrictions

Satellite communications devices, like phones or messaging devices, are highly restricted or regulated in some countries.

It has been illegal for foreigners to bring satellite phones and devices into India for many years under the Indian Telegraph Act. After the Mumbai terror attack in 2008, which was coordinated with satellite phones, stricter regulations around these devices were put into place.

Bringing an unauthorized and unregistered satellite phone into India can lead to significant legal complications, including arrest and detention. If traveling to remote regions in the country, however, satellite phones can be e-registered and licensed with the Department of Telecommunications.

North Korea – The use of satellite phones is highly restricted. While it is illegal to travel to North Korea with an American passport, tourists who are permitted to visit are not allowed to bring in or use satellite communication devices without special permission.

China – In China the use of satellite phones is regulated and may require visitors to obtain a permit before using such devices within the country.

Myanmar – Myanmar officials restrict the use of satellite phones, and travelers must declare and register their devices upon entry into the country.

Cuba – In Cuba, visitors are required to obtain a permit from the government to use such devices.

[Related Reading: Where Are Satellite Phones Illegal?]

Satellite phones and devices are also illegal or strictly regulated in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Chad, Russia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Pakistan.


User Error

The biggest mistakes individuals make when using a satellite messaging device or phone are relying solely on the device for communication and not having a backup plan. While satellite devices are reliable in remote areas, they can still encounter technical issues or run out of battery.


5 Satellite Phone/Satcom Device User Mistakes:

  1. Failure to familiarize themselves with the device. Users should practice using their satellite phone or messaging device before a trip, including making calls, sending texts, and using the SOS feature. Users should understand how the SOS feature works, who receives the message and what they will do. It is best to coordinate a test message.
  2. Loss of battery power. Staying charged is essential. Forgetting to keep the satellite device powered up and not bringing extra batteries or a power bank can be a critical mistake. In remote areas, access to power sources may be limited, so it’s important to always keep the device charged.
  3. Forgetting to keep subscriptions current. Satellite communication devices often require a subscription for service. Forgetting to renew the subscription or failing to check the expiration date can leave users without access to communication when needed.
  4. Overestimating coverage. While satellite devices provide coverage in remote areas, limitations exist, especially in certain terrains, locations or conditions. Users should be aware of the device’s coverage limitations and plan accordingly.
  5. Neglecting to add key contacts to the device. Users should preload essential contacts into the device for easy access in emergencies, including names, numbers and email addresses for family, friends, colleagues, embassies, personal physicians and more. Key contacts must know how to get in touch on the satellite phone or device. Have them complete practice calls or messages.

Do You Still Need a Travel Protection Membership?

“We always recommend that if you’re traveling, especially to remote locations where cellular service is not guaranteed, pack a satellite phone or messaging device and extra batteries,” Bush said. “If you’re concerned enough about your travel communications to buy one of these devices, then you also need a Global Rescue membership.”

Remember: Global Rescue services are not just for emergencies and rescues. Medical and security professionals are on hand 24/7 to answer any concerns regarding your travel plans, activities or health and safety questions.