I have spent most of my career outfitting people and organizations with satellite phones, and I have probably answered the question, “Which satellite phone would you recommend?” about a hundred thousand times. Most of the time the person asking question expects an answer like, “I’d recommend this one” or “That one is definitely the best.” In truth, I can’t honestly answer the question without first having my hopeful inquisitor answer a few questions for me.

I’ve found over the years that a lot of people purchasing satellite phones have very little idea about what they are getting into, and sometimes don’t really understand why they need one. So I decided to publish a list of questions that will hopefully help you to clarify what you actually need and to narrow down your choice and make an informed decision.

Question 1: Do I actually need a sat phone?

One common misconception is that a satellite phone is going to get better reception than a cellular phone. In most cases the opposite is true. I also hear a lot from people who think a satellite phone is more futuristic, has more features, or less expensive to use - all misnomers under ordinary circumstances.

While a satellite phone may not be as susceptible to cloning and therefore somewhat more secure than its terrestrial counterparts, it still may not be the best option for someone overly concerned about security. Satellite phones don't work indoors (unless special reception equipment is installed on the building), so you may find the security risk more palatable than going outside to make all of your phone calls. Cellphone providers have pretty sophisticated technology to spot fraudulent use, and will usually refund any fraudulent usage. 

So who does need a satellite phone? The key thing to remember is satellite phones work where and when others do not. If you are someone who finds yourself off the grid, you probably need a satellite phone. If you are concerned about having a communications option should the grid fail, you need a satellite phone. If you have to regularly communicate with someone who is using a satellite phone, having one that uses the same satellite network can sometimes save significant usage charges.

Our customers range from boaters to backpackers to military. We outfit first responders and help building managers with contingency solutions. We sell to bush pilots, doomsday-preppers, safari goers, rally racers, archaeologists and lumberjacks - just to name a few.

Question 2: Where will I be using the phone?

"I thought satellite phones work anywhere" you point out. And some of them do. There are also satellite phones that work regionally. The truly global phones are usually a bit more expensive to purchase and use, than regional phones. So if you have a specific area or areas that you need covered and it happens to be within the footprint of a regional phone then you may be able to save yourself some money. If you aren't sure where life is going to take you, then a truly global satellite phone is likely the proper choice.

Another thing to consider when thinking about where you need the phone to work is whether or not you will be able to use the phone outdoors. I have already mentioned that satellite phones don't work indoors as stand-alone devices, so if you will need the phone to work inside a building or vehicle or on an airplane or boat, then make sure you also purchase an antenna, cable and docking station or adapter for your phone.

Question 3: Other than voice calls, what other features do I need?

Right off the bat, let me point out that satellite phones aren't packed with all the features, apps, ring tones and bells and whistles that you will find on today's smart phones. Most of them don't even have a color display. If you are thinking to replace your cellphone with a sat phone, then be prepared to do without all the extras. Most satellite phone users keep their cellphones and use the cell most of the time.

Setting the fluff features aside, there may be some things beyond phone calls that you need your satellite device to do. Applications like SMS, GPS and Data may be mission critical to your operation. Most satellite phones offer SMS, but not all of them do. So if you are planning to use that feature make sure you check. There are a few satellite phones on the market that have built in GPS, but there are a few that don't. If you want to using the phone with a tracking application it must be able to broadcast it's GPS coordinates. GPS-enabled phones usually also have an SOS button, which depending on your application may be something you really need.

Handheld satellite phones are limited to a bandwidth less than 10 kbps, in layman's term that is super slow. With the handheld phone and the right compression software or equipment you can realistically expect to send and receive text email and small compressed images. Some mobile websites will work, but they will not load quickly. There are narrow band apps available that will allow you to access weather and post updates to social networks. Notice I said post to social networks, not access social networks. If you have a heavy data requirement then you may want to consider a satellite data terminal instead, but that is for a future discussion.

Question 4: How often will I use my satellite phone?

Some satellite phone users are event oriented or seasonal. They won't use the phone at all for most of the year, but when they are in season they will use it a lot. Others use the phone for backup. They rarely talk on it but need it to be active and available at all times, just in case. Then there are those who use the phone consistently year round. Stop and think about what your usage pattern will be. It probably won't be the same as your cellphone usage. Keep this in mind while selecting a plan. 

Prepaid airtime is a very common option among satellite phone users, and it is not because they can't get approved for a monthly plan. It is because they anticipate a large amount of usage year round. We have a lot of pilots and guides in Alaska, who buy prepaid SIM cards with a six month validity because that is the length of their season.

Satellite phone usage is still significantly more expensive than cellular. If you use the sat phone in same manner as you use your cell, the charges can rack up pretty fast.

Question 5: How will I recharge my batteries?

Many people own satellite phone because they are working or playing off the grid. Areas that have limited communication options available also often have limited power resources. Make sure that you know what your power options will be before you go. The last thing you want is to do everything right and then have your battery die. In addition to AC wall chargers and DC car plugs, we also have a selection of solar chargers available. If you aren't sure that you will have a readily available reliable source or power, I recommend you get a couple of extra batteries, just in case something goes wrong.

Choosing a satellite phone is big decision. Getting it right will allow you to keep connected to what is important during your time off the grid. Getting it wrong can be disastrous. Make sure you select a good company to do business with that will be there for you when you need them, and if the choices are too confusing give them a call. The right company should be able to guide you through the choices and help you make a decision that you feel confident in. They work hard and are committed to supporting customers both before and after the sale.