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Satelite vs Cellular Phones

There are several factors that differentiate satellite phones from cell phones. How they work, their utility and cost just to name a few.

Functionality Differences

Cellular phones or cell phones use small stations or towers known as ‘cells’ from which they receive their signals and to which they send signals. As the user moves from one destination to the next, his call or his cellular service is passed on from cell to the next. The mobile handset is thus in continuous connectivity with the different cells of the network provider and the individual can talk on the move. This is thus known as mobile connectivity.

Satellite phones on the other hand, do not use ‘cells’ or towers. They work with satellites orbiting the Earth. These Low Earth Orbiting or LEO satellites receive signals from the satellite phone handsets and send signals to these handsets as required. The satellite phones send signals to the satellite, which passes it on to a gateway. The gateway routes the calls to the receiver. Also, all calls made to the satellite phones are routed via the satellites.

Differences In Area Coverage

Cellular phone companies generally provide network coverage in densely populated areas. Since the companies have to set up ‘cells’ to be able to provide coverage, they need a high number of subscribers to justify setting up the cell. In thinly populated areas or remote areas with difficult terrains, the cost of providing coverage is often more than the expected returns. Hence, while cell phones work great in densely populated areas, they may or may not work in inaccessible locations.

Satellite phones communicate with the LEO satellites and not with any ‘cells’ on Earth. Hence, the coverage provided by satellite phone companies is far greater than that provided by cellular phone companies. Since satellite companies don’t have to set up cells from destination to destination, they offer service in a wider area and some even offer it across the globe.

Usability Differences

Cell phones have become an absolute necessity for practically all urban residents. In fact, a large number of people are opting to have cell phones instead of the traditional landlines. Cell phones are perfect to use while on the move in metropolitan cities. For marketing and sales executives, employees, CEOs, managers, mothers, students and almost all people in different walks of life - cell phones provide a high value service. They are also a great option to surf the net, listen to music and exchange photos. In short, cell phones have become the single all-purpose media electronic instrument of the 21st century.

Satellite phones on the other hand, are perfect for use in remote and thinly populated areas where cellular companies do not provide network coverage. Satellite phones are also extremely handy in situations when cellular networks go down. Such situations generally arise in times of natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and floods when the ‘cells’ that route calls are damaged.

Satellite phones have the advantage in such conditions since natural disasters do not affect the LEO satellites. Hence while cellular phone networks are down, satellite phones continue to function as normal. This has indeed saved many lives in the recent past.

Satellite phones are also the perfect option for companies that have research laboratories or departments in isolated areas like Alaska, Siberia and Antartica. Adventurers who frequently travel to densely populated tropical forests, high mountain areas and across oceans also prefer the better coverage provided by satellite phones.

Differences In Cost

As is to be expected, cellular phones are far cheaper to operate and maintain than satellite phones. The cellular phone handsets as well as the subscription plans offered by cellular service providers are extremely affordable and cost barely a few cents per minute.

Satellite phones on the other hand are expensive. The satellite phone hand sets or the fixed satellite phone sets cost a pretty penny as does the satellite phone service provided by leaders in the industry like Iridium and Globalstar. At an average satellite phones can cost anything from $600 to $1000 with costs going up to $1.50 per minute for talktime.

Thus, cell phones and satellite phones are both a boon to the world of communication and both service users in different ways and under differing conditions.

Jeff Lakie is the founder of

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