Can You Use A Satellite Phone In The Ocean?

Yes. You can use a satellite phone at sea. In fact, with a few exceptions, most satellite phones can be used worldwide.

The only factors that negatively affect the use of a satellite phone on the ocean are geographical or artificial features, political influences, and system issues relating to the placement of the satellite constellations.

In the open ocean, satellite phones may be a sailor’s only marine communication connection with the rest of the world.

In this article, I provide a basic description of the technology. I also look at the services offered to sailors and which is the most appropriate provider for the different geographical regions.

Using Satellite Phones at Sea

Satellite phones are incredibly useful for ocean voyages, as they connect through orbiting satellites rather than relying on cell phone towers.

Sailors, cruisers, and boaters alike often rely on quality satellite phones for safety, keeping in touch, and necessary phone calls while sailing.

Variables affecting the signal of satellite phones include:

  • Number of satellites in the provider’s network
  • Orbital location of the satellites
  • Position of the satellite phone
  • Phone’s line of sight with the satellite

Remember that even cloud cover over the ocean can sometimes affect the connection. However, despite these variables, satellite phones are generally a reliable option when venturing out to sea.

📡 Arial correctly set for a mid-Atlantic chat.

What Is A Satellite Phone?

A satellite phone is a communication device that resembles a conventional mobile phone but connects to orbiting satellites instead of cell towers.

Some popular models include the Inmarsat IsatPhone 2 and Iridium 9575. These phones enable you to send and receive voice calls, text messages, and access limited internet services.

Additionally, they often offer features such as Wi-Fi hotspots and routers, enhancing their communication capabilities.

The user-friendly interface and ease of use make satellite phones an excellent choice for remote areas.

Best Satellite Phone Networks at Sea

There have traditionally been three major players in the industry. However, the advent of Elon Musk’s Starlink might change this dynamic. For now, here are the ones you must know about.

Inmarsat Satellite Network

The Inmarsat Satellite Network offers extensive coverage areas excluding the North and South poles.

The network hosts 14 geosynchronous satellites situated above the equator, known for their highly reliable service. Inmarsat satellite phones provide various functions, including:

📞 Voice calls
💬 Text messaging
🆘 SOS alerts with location services
📨 Email messaging

Iridium Satellite Network

Boasting the widest coverage, the Iridium Satellite Network consists of a constellation of 66 satellites, reaching locations such as Antarctica, Greenland, Alaska, and northern Canada. However, at lower latitudes, signals may be subject to ionospheric interference.

Globalstar Satellite Network

The Globalstar Satellite Network, a collaboration between Loral Corporation and Qualcomm Inc., features a network comprised of 32 low-earth orbiting satellites offering several benefits over its counterparts, such as:

  • Optimal path elevation angles
  • Improved satellite visibility
  • Lower susceptibility to ionospheric effects
  • Higher downlink frequency
  • Multiple path availability

These advantages result in lower fade levels than Iridium and Inmarsat. Globalstar also allows suitably equipped cell phones to access its constellation.

Currently, trial access is available through Apple’s iPhone 14 connected to American networks. It is expected that more devices will gain access in the future.

Globalstar’s dial-up coverage does not work in Central and Southern Africa, China, most of Asia, Antarctica, Greenland, Alaska, and Northern Canada.

“Direct Internet calls” can be made from all regions except China, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama (and their coastal waters).

Factors Affecting The Use, Or Quality Of Satellite Phone Signals

The Surrounding Terrain Next To Coastal Waters Or In Harbor

The terrain influences call quality due to the need for an uninterrupted line of sight to the satellite network.

Calls made in harbors and coastal regions next to mountains or large city skylines may suffer from quality issues. Ensure your antenna maintains a clear line of sight to enhance the overall experience.

The Weather Conditions On The Ocean

Extensive cloud cover over the ocean may hinder the possibility of establishing a connection with the satellite.

Be aware of weather forecasts and potential interruptions in marine communication due to poor weather conditions.

The Equipment Being Used To Connect To The Network

Ensure your satellite phone matches the technical specifications of your service provider’s satellite constellation.

Using incompatible equipment would lead to unsuccessful connections across different satellite networks.

The Altitude And Orbital Locations Of The Satellites

The accessibility and call quality are affected by the number and orbit of satellites in a network.

Iridium and Inmarsat differ in how their constellations are arranged. In short, Iridium provides truly global coverage, while Inmarsat offers almost complete coverage (excluding poles).

Globalstar covers specific regions like the Americas, Europe, Australia, parts of Asia, and Africa.

The Number Of Satellites In A Network

You may experience dropped calls if a satellite cannot pass on the signal due to blockage or lack of visible satellites.

For example, Iridium calls are handed off to the next satellite every 50 seconds, and dropped calls could occur if one satellite in the constellation is unserviceable.

Always be prepared for potential interruptions during satellite phone usage.

The Network Licensing Agreements

Certain countries resist satellite phone operators, leading to no coverage in those areas. Be aware of the network’s licensing agreements, as satellite calls are routed through base stations into conventional telecom networks, which could pose limitations in some regions.

Data Congestion At The Satellites

Call and data traffic may cause network congestion. Busy satellites may drop more calls and offer reduced call quality due to their finite capacity.

To minimize this issue, avoid using satellite phones during peak usage times or increased periods of data congestion.

Frequently Asked

Will A Cell Phone Work In The Middle Of The Ocean?

No, a cell phone generally will not work in the middle of the ocean, as there are no cell phone towers within range to provide coverage. However, a satellite phone can work in the middle of the ocean, as long as there is a line of sight connection to the satellite, and the service provider’s constellation of satellites covers the area.

Are There Any Areas Where They Won’t Work?

Some satellite phone providers, such as Inmarsat and Globalstar, do not provide coverage at the poles. Additionally, Globalstar coverage is only available in certain countries, meaning there may be no reception in most parts of Africa and Asia. It’s important to understand the coverage limitations of your satellite phone provider and have alternative communication options, like an SOS button or rescue services, for emergency situations.

Are You Globally Covered, Or Do Some Only Cover A Defined Area?

Satellite phone providers offer coverage in the areas where they have satellite coverage, and there must also be an agreement with the countries concerned. While some providers offer more extensive coverage areas, others have more limited or regional services. Verify the coverage area and international network compatibility for reliable communication in emergencies or remote areas.

Closing Remarks

For deep-water voyages, select a satellite phone provider that matches your cruising area, weighing their pros and cons.

  • Inmarsat: Offers excellent call quality but lacks coverage over the poles.
  • Iridium: Provides a global coverage network, although call quality may not be as good.
  • Globalstar: Utilizes the most modern technology, but full Earth coverage is still incomplete.

Despite satellite phone technology promising broad coverage, there are limitations. For example, certain countries like China do not permit sat phone usage.

Additionally, satellite phones require a line-of-sight connection, meaning call quality may be affected by obstructions or weather conditions such as cloud cover.

With this understanding, you can confidently select the best satellite phone that balances coverage, call quality, and compatibility with your intended cruising area.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.