What is a Satellite Phone? Who are they for?

The SmartSAT XT Lite, a Thuraya-made Satellite phone, on Smart’s website

We live in a world filled with smartphones and feature phones, with cellular-based technology like 4G, 5G and LTE. Smart recently announced a new phone, but it’s peculiar, it’s quite expensive and is not exactly a smartphone, it’s a satellite phone. To a common individual, it looks overpriced as it looks like just your regular feature phone from the early 2000s, however, a satellite phone is not a phone for a common individual, it has a special use.

So what the hell even is a satellite phone?

Satellite Phone

Thuraya XT-Pro, an example of a satphone

According to Wikipedia, a satellite phone, also known as satphone, or satellite telephone is a type of phone that connects to other phones via satellite instead of cell sites. Like normal cell phones, it uses radiofrequency waves to contact orbiting satellites. Because they are so versatile, and can be used in places with barely any signals such as remote areas, they are very useful in emergency or disastrous situations, say during or after an earthquake or after a deadly thunderstorm. People can use satphones and contact anyone anywhere while regular cell towers are down. Satellite phones rely on two types: Geostationary, which are satellites fixed above the equator and LEO or Low Earth Orbit, which are satellites that are 500-1000 miles above the earth.

While regular smartphones and feature phones depend on cell towers, huge chances are the cell sites will be down when a disaster happens, or they are completely filled. It’s better to be prepared than never.

Also, like a regular cellphone, you can use a satellite phone indoors, although take note that they don’t have internet access nor do they have features a common smartphone has. Its main purpose is to contact, call and text anyone and virtually, anywhere.

Although there are some exceptions, for example, the Thuraya X5-touch is both a smartphone and a satphone, coupled with Android OS and a touchscreen. According to Satellitephonestore.com, this phone costs $1229 (~59.7K php)

Okay, who are satellite phones for?

Satellite phones can be purchased by anyone, although they are commonly purchased by government officials, marine professionals, seamen and public safety agencies. Back then, it was much harder for a private individual to buy them, but in recent years, their prices are dropping. Although still quite expensive in comparison to a flagship smartphone, it is much more accessible now than ever before, and many individuals are buying them.

Which Satellite Phones can I buy? What companies are they connected to?

There are many satphone manufacturers and like cell-based telecoms, there are also satellite-based telecoms like Iridium, Thuraya and Inmarsat. There may be some legal restrictions when it comes to satellite telecoms, although many countries are becoming open to them. For example, Inmarsat, a British-based satcom company, is the first to gain permission to sell satellite phones in China. It is also the only company permitted to sell satphones in India.

Recently, Smart has announced they are selling their first satphone, with subscription prices announced through PLDT Enterprise’s website

There are multiple pricing plans, which will be listed below.

What are the Pricing Plans?

Airtime pricing plans are based on the following:

  • Ease of use
  • Geographic coverage requirements: global or regional
  • Location-based requirements like GPS capabilities
  • Bluetooth and WiFi capabilities
  • Ruggedness and build, whether they are IP-rated or not
  • Data capabilities including email, text, and messaging

Also, if you are planning to buy one, prepare to lash out at least 40K to 50K php, depending on the network. This is actually not expensive. According to Outfitter Satellite, a loss of communications can cost a network thousands of dollars per hour. It may be expensive for an individual, but satphones are considered a long-term investment rather than a thing a regular person should buy immediately.

You can read PLDT’s satellite plans here, before investing on a satphone.

Satellite Phones vs Cell Phones

In a nutshell, satellite phones connect through satellites found orbiting the earth while cell phones, including smartphones, connect through cell sites found throughout earth.

A satellite phone will not replace your smartphone, but rather it should be used when situations are dire, or when you are in an area where a cell site can barely or cannot cover it at all. Unlike smartphones and feature phones, satphone antennas are external rather than internal, which means that, if they are retracted, they will most probably not work due to how they receive RF signals.

Another difference is that they have their own calling code. There are cases, for example Globalstar phones that have US and Canadian numbers assigned. Again, like mentioned earlier, there may be legal restrictions. For example, Thuraya and Iridium are illegal in India while Inmarsat is not. Most phones have a feature called Direct Inward Dial (DID) which means you can use your country’s calling code, then overdial through its touch tone, the actual number assigned to said satphone. If you are buying satphones to receive calls, according to Forbes, it’s better to buy a phone with DID or overdial capabilities as calls can be quite expensive, usually $10 (~500php) per minute when calling from a public network.

Because they are connected to a satellite rather than regular cell towers, they have special SIM cards that may only work when using a satphone. Refer to your network provider for plans and pricing, as well as handsets.

Things to consider:

Although sat phones can be used virtually anywhere, there are still some things to consider


While satellites can provide you access anywhere, it is not guaranteed you’ll get a good signal. Depending on the foliage and location, there may be “dead areas”. For example, buildings, tall grasses and trees and other obstructions may prevent you in acquiring a good signal, be sure you are in an area where there is clear, empty space for a guaranteed good signal

Network Provider:

There are many satcom companies out there, however, the quality of the signal and its range still depends on the satellite provider. For example, Inmarsat does not fully cover the north and south pole while Iridium does, and there may be countries where satellite signals are weak. There also may be regional restrictions. For example, Thuraya only works on continents Europe, Asia, Australia and some parts of Africa. Please refer to your satellite provider for more information on their satellite range.