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June 27, 2012

Sat Phones Reconsidered

Offshore communications becomes a specialty, and you may have the tool of tomorrow in your pocket

I recently read an interview with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top fame, and the interviewer asked the obligatory “What one thing would you take on a desert island to survive?” Gibbons answered, to paraphrase, “With a fully charged iPhone, you can survive about anything.”

What his response lacks in absolute truth, it sure makes up in prophecy. Whereas once cell phone service was nonexistent at distant fishing destinations, access to service has become widespread, even in remote and undeveloped places.

Patch Job
“The only time you really need a sat phone is when you are in transit, or when you are in between islands,” says Eddie “Beeper Eddie” Juan of Exit Wireless (305-256-8000), in Miami. But reliable communication during that transit time is still critical.

Exit does a brisk business with anglers traveling the Bahamas, South Atlantic and Caribbean. And because demand is year-round in South Florida, the company stays on top of what works, what’s popular and what anglers opt to use. “To fishermen going to the Bahamas and Caribbean, we sell a lot of the IsatPhone by Inmarsat. That seems to be the phone that works best right now,” Juan says.

Changing Scene
When we talked to Juan a couple of years ago, Iridium was the phone of choice and rental the favored transaction. But that’s changed. “Most people buy the phones now,” says Juan. The IsatPhone Pro comes bundled with a 500-minute service package for about $1,100. The minutes are valid for two years, so expiration is not a big concern.

However, the IsatPhone prepaid program isn’t licensed to work within the United States. But for fishermen heading for the horizon, that’s not really an issue. “When the cell phone quits working, the sat phone kicks in,” says Juan.

Satellite texting and check-in devices, like the Spot Connect or DeLorme inReach (see “Sat Time,” SWS August 2011), have yet to gain wide popularity among his customers. “People want to talk,” says Juan. “In an emergency, whether it’s a shark bite, falling in a livewell or a breakdown, it’s easier to pick up a phone and talk to somebody.”

Another Angle
John Klein, president of Satellite Phone Solutions (www.satellitephonesolutions​.com), sells Iridium, Inmarsat and Globalstar. And he agrees — with a caveat — that cell service, once you make landfall, has never been better.

“Cell phones are fine in the Bahamas, but look at how much the bill is going to be at the end of the trip,” he says. Klein has of late put a lot of faith in Globalstar, whose service is on the upswing with new satellites that go online at the rate of about one a month.

“With a Globalstar sat phone ($499), the bill will be under $39.99 (the price of an unlimited minutes service deal),” says Klein. He says the call completion rate for Globalstar is currently above 75 percent and, by the end of the summer, will be on par with other sat services, at 100 percent. If you make your calls during the optimum window posted on the Globalstar website, completion is at 100 percent right now.

Simple Solutions
Globalstar’s sat system has maintained dependable service the past few years with the Spot Connect communicator. While messaging remains limited to short texts, the system is reliable for recording a track and transmitting an “I’m OK” message on findmespot​.com and to selected e-mail recipients. Completion rate is 100 percent, says Klein, and he does a steady business in renting the units to anglers for the time they need them.

For more demanding conditions — say, fishing the canyons off the Northeast — he recommends dropping a little cash. “The Inmarsat FB150, at $5,000 to purchase and a dollar a call, works reliably, and you get weather reports. I would want that.”

With data handling, e-mail and Internet, things get complicated, beyond the reach of most fishermen who make a long trip or two a year. Those of us who want safety and communication during those times, the simpler the system that we rely on is, the more time we can devote to fishing. Besides, things are still changing fast.

“Everybody wants their cell phone to work through the satellite,” says Klein. “Every company is working on a solution to that.” By the end of 2013, Klein predicts, traveling fishermen will have a choice of two or three satellite hubs or relays that will allow them to use their cell phone and patch into sat service with it. “Everybody is heading that way,” he says.