Iridium Satellite Phones: Your Need-To-Know Guide for 2017

So, you’re looking for a satellite phone…and you’ve heard a lot about Iridium:

But who is Iridium, why are they so popular, and will an Iridium satellite phone be a good choice for you?

Iridium Satellite Phones— What can they do for you?

Iridium is an American company that owns one of the world’s largest communications satellite constellations—aptly named the “Iridium Satellite Network”.

Long hailed as the industry standard for satellite phone connectivity, Iridium has a long-standing reputation as being the most reliable, trusted and capable satellite phone network out there.

There are three reasons why people feel this way:

Iridium provides true global coverage, while other networks cannot. Both the Iridium 9555 and Iridium 9575 Extreme handheld satellite phones outgun models from competing brands such as Globalstar and Inmarsat, which do not work well near the polar regions of our planet. In fact, large areas of these regions can only be reached by Iridium satellites.

Iridium satellite coverage map-iridium voice services

Popular with military forces the world over, Iridium satellite phones boast a much more rugged design than competing models from other networks. Over time, this popularity has trickled down into the consumer marketplace—making them a common choice for outdoor recreation and industrial use, where exposure to extreme conditions and heavy wear and tear is expected.

Iridium’s network has the most satellites, the most comprehensive global coverage, and boasts a network design that can transfer calls from one satellite to another, which helps reduce the rate of call drop-outs.

  • The Most Satellites:
    • Most Iridium phone users feel they have the best chance of staying connected, wherever they go, with Iridium. Thanks to 66 active, low-Earth-orbiting (LEO) satellites and seven in-orbit spares, the Iridium satellite phone network has the most satellites when compared to the competition. However, LEO satellites are not exclusive to Iridium. In fact many other networks, including Globalstar, use LEO satellites. Globalstar also offers satellite phone service.
  • Coverage Almost Anywhere:
    • LEO satellites travel around our planet. Thanks to this global movement these satellites can provide coverage (even if short-lived) into almost every nook and cranny on the Earth’s surface.Note that we specifically mentioned “even if short-lived”—why?

      Mountains, tall buildings and other high terrain features can prevent connectivity if they are between your Iridium satellite phone and the only available satellite in the area. Like all satellite equipment, your Iridium phone must establish a line-of-sight connection to at least one Iridium satellite before you’ll get a signal.

      So, because Iridium’s satellites are constantly moving, if you have no signal—just wait. At some point, a satellite will appear in a different location that affords a better line-of-sight and you will have reception, but it could be short-lived if its trajectory takes it behind another nearby obstacle.

      The point is this:

      All satellite phones, no matter what network they’re on, require line-of-sight connectivity. With Iridium, no matter where you go on the surface of the Earth, you will likely get a signal at some point—and it may be just long enough to make that important phone call, or send a text message.

  • Fewer Dropped Calls:
    • Iridium’s 66 LEO satellites are cross-linked to form a mesh network. This means each satellite can communicate with neighbouring satellites in adjacent orbits—calls can be seamlessly routed between them. So if your line-of-sight connection is about to be lost as the satellite moves behind a mountain, the call will be transferred to the next closest satellite in the area in an effort to maintain your connection.
    • This design is unique to Iridium and has clear performance advantages and added reliability over other mobile satellite networks.

Iridium Satellite Network Recap: Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • The most comprehensive global connectivity.
  • Mesh-network design to reduce the rate of dropped calls.
  • The most satellites of any communications satellite network.
  • Reliance on LEO satellites offers the best chance of connectivity in any location.
  • Great for short conversations or as a portable emergency back-up.
  • Reasonable hardware and service costs.

Cons:

  • Iridium’s mesh network design does give them improved performance over other satellite networks supported by LEO satellites. However, reliance on LEO satellites generally means that calls can be short-lived, especially in areas with high terrain features—regardless of what network you’re on…it’s simply unavoidable.
  • Short-lived connectivity can be less desirable for some applications. For example, if you rely on satellite for back-up communications at your command or emergency operations centre, you may prefer to have a sustained ongoing connection. In this case, a product supported by either the Inmarsat or MSAT networks might be more suitable. These networks rely on geostationary satellites and will provide a sustained connection at all times (if the hardware is stationary).
  • Overall, the Iridium network does not have the best audio quality—the calls are easy to understand, but the audio quality on other networks (like Globalstar and Inmarsat) is much better.

Iridium Satellite Phone Model Overview

Now that you have some background on the Iridium satellite network and it’s pros and cons, you should compare the different Iridium satellite phones models.
There are two:

Both have exactly the same signal capture capabilities and they both provide the same connectivity. The primary difference is design and feature set

 

Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone – Highlights

The 9555 is Iridium’s basic, no-frills satellite phone.

Use it for:

  • Phone calls
  • Text messages (SMS)
  • Email:
    • Connect it to a computer via USB cable and use it as a satellite router for a low-speed satellite data connection (suitable for light email when using a compressed email program).

This phone ticks all the boxes for basic communications needs—making it Iridium’s most popular model.

Reasonably durable and weather resistant, the Iridium 9555 satellite phone is a solid choice for any application.

Learn More about the Iridium 9555
iridium 9555 satellite phone product collage

Iridium 9575 Extreme Satellite Phone – Highlights

The 9575 is Iridium’s newest satellite phone model—consider it as an upgraded version of the 9555 with more features and better durability.

Use it for:

  • Phone calls
  • Text messages (SMS)
  • Email
    • Connect it to a computer via USB cable and use it as a satellite router for a low-speed satellite data connection (suitable for light email when using a compressed email program).
  • SOS Alerts
    • This phone has a dedicated SOS button for true emergencies. SOS alerts are monitored by the GEOS international emergency coordination centre, who will notify local search and rescue authorities and give them your location information.
  • GPS Tracking

Boasting the highest durability rating of any satellite phone, this phone is also dustproof and jet-water resistant.

With the addition of SOS, GPS and hardcore durability features, this phone is overkill for most people, but is a popular choice for industrial users—especially for lone-worker safety.

Learn More about the Iridium Extreme 9575
iridium extreme satellite phone product collage

Iridium GO! Satellite Hotspot – Highlights

While this product is not technically classed as a satellite phone, it does provide satellite voice and data connectivity to a user’s smartphone. So we wanted to include it in this guide for your consideration.

The Iridium GO! is classed as a satellite hotspot. It is a “black box” solution that connects to your smartphone via wifi and essentially turns your smartphone into a satellite phone (Android and iOS devices only).

Use it for:

  • Phone calls
  • Text messages (SMS)
  • Email
    • Connect it to a computer via USB cable and use it as a satellite router for a low-speed satellite data connection (suitable for light email when using a compressed email program).
  • SOS Alerts
    • This phone has a dedicated SOS button for true emergencies. SOS alerts are monitored by the GEOS international emergency coordination centre.
  • GPS Tracking 
  • Connecting Multiple Devices
    • Up to 8 smartphones can connect to one Iridium GO! unit simultaneously (only one smartphone can actively make a phone call at any given time).

This device has all the same communications features as the Iridium Extreme phone, but in a different package.

Learn more about the Iridium GO!
iridium go satellite hotspot product collage

What Kind of Applications are Iridium Satellite Phones Good For?

Portable/Handheld:

  • Iridium satellite phones can be used as portable/handheld devices right out of the box. Keep in mind, you need to be outside so the phone’s antenna has a clear, unobstructed view of the sky (this is required with all satellite phones).

In a Vehicle:

  • Basic:
    • If you anticipate using a satellite phone from within a vehicle—then an Iridium phone is a good choice. Each Iridium phone model comes standard with a handy assortment of accessories for vehicular use—specifically an external magnetic-mount antenna (with cable attached), an antenna adapter bracket, and a car charger that plugs into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter outlet.
    • For basic, temporary use in your vehicle (while parked or driving), clip the adapter bracket onto the phone, connect the antenna cable and stick the magnetic-mount antenna on the roof.
      (It’s okay if you close the door on the antenna cable—the weatherstripping will compress around it.)
  • Advanced:
    • For more advanced vehicular use, such as hands-free calling, GPS tracking and bluetooth, you’ll need a docking station for your Iridium satellite phone. You install these docking stations on the dashboard or front centre console and hardwire them to your vehicle’s power system. Once the docking station is installed, you can insert your Iridium satellite phone for use while driving.
    • Some of the fancier docking stations are designed to provide hands-free capability, while others are simpler and require the use of a privacy handset for making and receiving calls. All Iridium docking stations will charge your Iridium phone battery, and provide satellite connectivity through a magnetic, or fixed-mount antenna on the exterior of your vehicle.

In a Building:

  • Typical Building Install:
    • Whether you’ll rely on your satellite phone for business continuity, or if you just need a phone line in your cabin for basic telephone connectivity, you’re going to need a fixed-site solution that you can use indoors. When combined with the right docking station and external antenna, Iridium satellite phones can be installed and used in any building.
  • Large Building Install:
    • Some buildings will require a lot of separation between the external antenna and your indoor Iridium phone unit. This means you’ll need a long antenna cable, which is fine. However, if the antenna cable length must be longer than 60 feet, you will need to use an ACTIVE Iridium antenna. These antennas are powered by a separate power amplifier, which you mount indoors alongside your Iridium satellite phone and docking station. The power amplifier ensures the antenna can transmit the satellite signal over longer lengths of small-diameter antenna cable without signal degradation.

So, Is an Iridium Satellite Phone Right For You?

Hopefully this guide helped you answer this question.

We’d love to tell you that one satellite phone is the best of them them all but, due to everyone’s differing needs, we can’t issue a blanket “this is the best satellite phone” statement—because for some people, other products are more suitable.

However, we do hope that the above information, combined with your knowledge of what you need, has helped you decide if an Iridium satellite phone is right for you.

Still unsure or have more questions?

Check out our Ultimate Satellite Phone Buying Guide to compare all of the satellite phones available. Here you will find a product comparison chart and basic information about each satellite network. This page is also home to our exclusive satellite phone finder tool, which you can use to get instant product recommendations based on your needs.

Further:

You can always get in touch with us by phone or email—visit our contact page. We are happy to learn more about your unique requirements. In most cases, we can point you in the right direction, or even make a recommendation after a quick conversation.