The four main commercial satellite communication networks are Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya and Globalstar. The questions you should ask yourself when choosing a network are:

  1. Where do the satellites offer coverage?
  2. How high up are the satellites?
  3. Are the satellites stationary?
  4. Do I need data?
  5. What are the costs?

The answers to this questions define what satellite network suits you best, if you will be able to make a connection and how stable it will be.


Iridium and Inmarsat provide the only ‘global’ networks. Iridium provides the only network that also has connectivity on both the north- and south-pole.

  • Iridium – truly global coverage
  • Inmarsat – global coverage except the north- and south-pole
  • Thuraya – Europe, Asia, most of Africa, Australia
  • Globalstar
    • – Pre-Paid: America’s, Europe,
    • – Post-Paid: America’s, Europe, Russia, Australia

Embargo’s and Government Restrictions

Even if there is coverage technically, check for government embargo’s. Most networks don’t provide coverage i.e. in Cuba, North-Korea, Iran, Sudan, Syria and Crimea. In Myanmar use of a satphone is restricted by national laws. In China and India only use of the Inmarsat network is allowed by national laws. In Russia you have to register your Iridium phone at Iridium Russia (not too much hassle). You are held responsible for any consequences related to embargo’s and/or restrictions, so please make sure you inform yourself well. For additional information, see (i.e.) this link. For definitive information, please contact the embassy.

High Orbit or Low Orbit

Satellite phones and terminals don’t work inside. They need a direct line of sight to the satellite. When there are obstructions around you, the further away from earth a single satellite is located, the larger the chance that you will ‘see’ it and be able to connect to it. Thus there is a trade-off: low-orbit networks (Iridium – 82 satellites, Globalstar- 24 satellites) need more satellites than high-orbit networks (Inmarsat – 4 satellites *, Thuraya – 2 satellites) to cover the same area. To put it simply: ideally you’d have a network with lots of high-orbit satellites. Because that’s not the case with high-orbit networks you need to know where the satellite is located relatively to yourself and point the antenna towards it. (Same holds for a low-orbit network when you are moving out of the coverage area: i.e. with Globalstar you need to point the antenna south in Alaska.)

Stationary or Moving

Most networks (Inmarsat, Thuraya & Globalsat) use ‘stationary’ satellites, this means their location relatively to a certain location on earth does not move. Iridium’s low-orbit satellites are different: they ‘move along’ and pass by a certain location on earth. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage:

  • On the upside: when connectivity is bad you just wait till the next satellite comes by
  • On the downside: your connection can -and especially with limited sight will- drop


Most satphones officially offer a data-connection, but we would not recommend it. If you are in need for data (i.e. for GRIB-files) you are better of with a ‘broadband’ terminal. Satellite ‘broadband’ is not to be confused with your regular broadband connection: it does not come close to what you are used to at home or on your mobile phone.

Over the past decade Inmarsat was by far the leading network in satellite data connectivity with its BGAN service. In 2019 Iridium launched its new Cetrus service that is currently still in development and expected to become the industry leader for the next few years.

One advantage a ‘broadband’ satellite data-terminal offers is the possibility to make more attractively priced satellite phone-calls as well (through rather a IP- or a regular handset). Thus, providing you with an off-the-road ‘office’. Please see our satellite internet section for more information.


There is no such thing as a free lunch: essentially better connectivity comes at a higher price. Of the global networks, Inmarsat is generally cheaper than Iridium. Thuraya and Globalstar are both cheaper than the global networks, but each have limited coverage. To compete with this lower pricing (to some extent) Iridium also offers regional sim-cards. It depends on your exact travel plans what network suits you best.

A quick and dirty indication:

  • Equipment costs between:
    • 2 Euro 50 cents per day for a rental handheld, and
    • € 8000 for the newest type of data-terminal
  • Airtime costs between:
    • € 55 per month (cheapest global coverage option) / € 0.50 p/m / € 0,50 per SMS, and
    • as high up as you wish – € 10 per megabyte for data.


There are two main trade-offs to be found here:

chance of getting connection VS connection stability

network coverage VS airtime costs

Iridium offers you with the highest chance of getting a connection anywhere in the world, especially in the mountains, jungle – with limited line of sight and on a small ship in rough seas. Chances are though that your connection drops – as the low-orbit satellites move by. In these situations it is likely that no other network would have provided you with a connection at all though . When using Iridium with limited ‘sky-sight’ I personally often switch to sending texts.

Inmarsat satellites are up high in the sky – located above the equator. This means Inmarsat works extremely well close to the equator. When you move to higher (or lower) latitudes it becomes a bit more of a hassle to get a connection: one needs a direct line of sight to the satellite and point the antenna towards it. This might be impossible when mountaineering and approaching the mountain from the ‘wrong’ side, or relatively hard to achieve on a small ship in rough seas. More expensive (non-handheld, i.e. marine) terminals with active antenna’s do the pointing for you though. And once you have a connection it is really stable and reliable. Inmarsat is also more economically priced compared to Iridium.

Thuraya‘s satellites work’s comparable to those of Inmarsat but, with only two satellites, service is limited to Asia, Northern Africa and Central Europe (not Southern Africa, as the satellites are located slightly north of the equator.) The main advantage of Thuraya is that it is very cost-effective for emergency usage. Most Thuraya phones (including the ones we rent out) accept ‘normal’ mobile phone sim-cards. Some Thuraya phones are ‘hybrid’ models can switch between regular cellular (2G/3G) networks and on the Thuraya satellite network.

Globalstar is cheaper than both Iridium and Inmarsat, but has limited coverage. For satellite phone usage Globalstar would mainly be interesting when traveling to the America’s. Globalstar also offers the well-known ‘Spot’ tracking devices. The coverage offered by these Spot trackers is more extensive than the coverage offered by Globalstar’s satphones, but still way worse than i.e. Iridium trackers. At WorldSat we focus on the ‘global’ networks. However, we can provide you with advise and equipment (both phones and trackers) / services for Globalstar too if this fits your journey best!

Personal advice?

In need of more personal advice? Contact us.