Off-Grid Communications – HAM Radio vs. Satellite
by Option Gray in Gear,Preparedness
HAM radios and satellite phones both aim to
solve a similar problem, offering you a method to stay connected, regardless of
the situation or environment you find yourself in.
While both technologies are very capable,
choosing the right tool for your needs can be an incredibly difficult decision,
especially when the decision very well could mean life or death in some
comparing HAM radios and satellite phones, you need to make sure to factor in
cost, two-way communication, one-way communication, internet access,
navigation, security, reliability, durability, and expandability. Each has
their pros and cons, to it is important you take an in-depth look at what you
need and what the tool provides.
HAM radios are extremely useful when looking
for an affordable long-distance comms system, but satellite phones cannot be
beaten for their security, range, and versatility.
So, join us as we break down the two devices
to help you decide which communications method is right for you?
Why Do You Need Off-Grid Communications?
Both satellite phones and HAM radios are
incredibly popular options for off-grid communications, when our normal phones
or computer networks are not available.
While their technology is dramatically
different, both options function extremely well when away from civilization
(either by choice or by circumstances) ensuring you have options to stay
connected to your team or family.
We’ve looked at some of the potential applications of HAM radios in a
recent article, but these systems can be used for almost any situation.
Whether you’re out on a hike and need to keep
your family updated on your progress, or just looking to reach out to your
connections to conduct open-source intelligence gathering, one of these devices
is likely going to meet your needs, wherever you find yourself in the world.
A Basic Introduction to the World of Off-Grid
We’ve looked at HAM radios extensively in the
past, but for those new to the systems, they are extremely powerful devices
that function through a transmitter, receiver and antenna.
radios are relatively simple to set up, so much so that many people have built
their own devices, with DIY kits available for as little as $200 dollars.
Wherever you source your radio from, all you
need after the initial set up is a license to operate within the United States
and you are ready to go.
In contrast, Satellite Phones are slightly
more complicated than the equipment you will find built into most HAM units.
Where HAM radios are able to pick up any signal
within a given broadcast range, satellite phones work through satellites
Once your phone is able to connect to one of
these satellites, you are able to call or text like any other phone today,
giving you a secure connection to either another satellite phone or standard
Unlike HAM systems, there is no licensing
requirements associated with these devices, but they do require rather
expensive subscription plans in order to function.
How Expensive is it to Get Started with
We all know how expensive preparedness can be,
especially with the high cost of equipment and investing in stockpiling, and
unfortunately comms is no exception…mostly.
Both HAM radios and satellite phones can be
incredibly expensive if you are looking to buy top of the line gear with the
best features and functionality.
Luckily, HAM radio systems do not need to be
expensive and entry-level equipment can be purchased starting
at as little $25.
With this budget, you can get incredibly
functional handheld devices that not only will work extremely well but will
also allow you options to upgrade your kit, such as improving your antenna and
phones are unfortunately nowhere near as affordable when
compared to HAM systems, with new sat phones starting at around $500.
expensive, there are more cost-effective ways to source your satellite
phones than simply buying new devices from retailers. As these devices are
built to last in even the worst conditions, many high-quality used devices are
available online for less than $200 if you can find the right deal.
My personal Iridium 9505A, originally
released in 2001, still remains one of my most reliable pieces of equipment and
was picked up on eBay for only $180.
They’ll come with some scrapes and
signs of wear, but this device has been around the world with me and has never
failed me yet.
Alternatively, various features of satellite
phone technology have been built into much more affordable messenger devices,
such as the SPOT X.
These devices are intended to use the
satellite network to keep you connected but limit the information you may send
to simple text messages and emergency messages (such as sending
grid-coordinates to rescue services).
Price can be a big deciding factor when you’re
looking to set up a communications plan, so for most people, we recommend
investing in HAM and only selecting satellite phones if you truly need their
With that said, sat phones are incredibly
powerful tools, so let’s get into their functionality to see if a satellite
phone might be the best option for you.
Breaking Down Functionality
radios and satellite phones are built with two-way voice communications as
their main priority, but as we will see
it is not the only way you can stay connected.
Both styles of device allow extremely
functional two-way communication, although do this in very different ways.
phones act almost identically to any other cell phone, allowing you to phone both other satellite
phones, normal phone numbers, and even home phone numbers.
Once your call is placed and connected, your
call is a secure two-way signal between two devices that cannot easily be
intercepted. These calls are not anonymous, as your network provider keeps
a record of each number you call, but like traditional phone calls, the content
of your conversation is private.
systems allow two-way communications, but instead of a secure line between devices, anyone can
broadcast or listen on a given frequency leaving your transmission extremely
vulnerable to interception.
This does not have to be a negative, as
communications are mostly anonymous meaning anything shared in a HAM broadcast
cannot be linked back to you, and more importantly, it also provides a great
way to make new connections also interested in HAM radio.
The inability to call other people directly
can make it difficult to reach the people you need to reach, but with a
detailed communications plan, it is possible to make sure the people you need
are active on pre-scheduled frequencies and at the correct time.
While being able to share information via
voice calls is useful, many of us rely on text messages to quickly share
information incredibly fast.
This feature is unfortunately not supported by
most HAM radios but is an area where satellite communicators thrive. Satellite
phones offer two styles of one-way messaging depending on your needs.
The first acts
like almost any other cell phone, allowing you to send and receive SMS messages
almost anywhere in the world. This makes it much easier to keep in contact
with the people important to you, not only updating them on your current
situation but also allowing them to pass any necessary information over to you.
method is typically found on much more affordable satellite devices, which only
support outgoing preprogrammed messages to a single contact or emergency
While these devices are less capable than a
full-fledged satellite phone, they are also easier to use, meaning you may be
able to quickly broadcast a call for help in an emergency scenario without
having to jump through countless menus.
3 Satellite GPS Messenger
For devices such as the SPOT
communicators, an SOS broadcast is often as simple as two button
presses, one to call for help and the second to confirm your message before you
Satellite phones offer a whole new realm of
communication when compared to HAM radios, but while one-way communications are
not natively supported by most HAM radios, as we will see there are ways to
work around these limitations.
While most people associate phones and radios
with calling or texting, internet access has become a staple of modern
smartphones. Both devices
offer some basic forms of internet access that can be incredibly useful
when away from civilization.
radios are much less functional in this role, but for accessing basic internet functionality such as email,
they can be more than sufficient.
We’ve explored this functionality extensively before,
but to summarize, a sound card is used to connect your computer to the radio
before encoding your message to be transmitted over select frequencies to
These servers then decode the incoming digital
signal and automatically send it on through traditional email to your intended
Much like texting, this is an area where
satellite phones again outperform HAM radio, offering far more functionality
than simple emails.
By connecting your radio and computer through
a specialized data transfer cable, your satellite phone connects you to the
entire internet, allowing you to send email, browse the latest information, or
transmit reports back to a home base.
While connecting to the internet is possible with a satellite
phone, it is important to note that connection speeds are by no
means fast. If you are lucky, data can be transmitted around the speed of your
cell phone on 3G but more commonly will slow down considerably.
Slow speeds are a small price to pay when this
technology allows you to check emails or access your latest sitrep halfway
around the world, but it is important to be practical and don’t push the
connection to far (such as by streaming high-definition videos).
internet access does not come cheaply, often requiring an ungraded subscription
plan to be supported by your satellite phone, but again is well worth the price
considering the functionality offered to you.
We would never recommend you rely on either a
HAM radio or satellite phone as your sole means of navigation, but that does
not mean you cannot incorporate them into your kit as a means of
Both newer models of HAM devices and satellite
phones have begun to incorporate GPS systems, including entry models, in order
to help make sure you are prepared for whatever your situation might throw at
While these devices include a GPS chip, they
are very different from your normal GPS system you may find from Garmin or
Polar. Instead of providing turn-by-turn navigation, most of these devices
only offer latitude and longitude grid-coordinates.
Turn-by-turn navigation is extremely powerful
and a great convenience of modern life but is by no means necessary.
As long as you have a map and a compass, the
GPS incorporated into your satellite phone or HAM radio can be more than
sufficient to help you navigate your way out of a bad situation or regain your
bearings if you become lost in the middle of nowhere.
GSP enabled units do come at a slightly higher
price tag, but offer you redundancy in one of the most important areas you
possible can get.
Personally, I prefer the convenience of using
a GPS watch to offer this redundancy, but if you are looking to invest in some
new gear, it may be worth paying just the little bit extra for the added piece
of mind a good GPS unit can offer you.
Should Popularity Affect your Choices?
Your decision to invest in a new
communications platform will likely be influenced by the number of people you
can reach with your new device.
Just like many of us have Facebook accounts
because it allows us to reach the greatest number of people, we’re hoping HAM
radio or satellite phones will also allow us to keep in touch with the people
important to us.
This is again an area where satellite phones
slightly outperform HAM radios, as they natively support calling to standard
This alone is one of the primary benefits of
satellite phones, as it allows you to stay in touch with the people most
important to you, without requiring them to make any changes to their current
In contrast, HAM radio usage is certainly more
time consuming and less popular within the mainstream, making it slightly more
difficult to stay in contact with those that matter
This should not cause you to rule HAM systems
out completely though, and there are several reasons that still make it an
incredibly powerful option for those looking for off-grid communications
while HAM radio is less popular than it was during the 90’s, less popular does
not mean dead.
may take slightly longer to be able to successfully find someone broadcasting
that you can talk to, but with a bit of time and patience, there are still
plenty of active people for you to start making new connections.
is especially true if you look at joining local organizations, which can
significantly help you find other people interested in HAM you can start
as we’ve already mentioned, HAM systems can be incredibly affordable if you are
looking for entry level systems.
This means if you are looking to incorporate
HAM radios into a communications plan, it is practical to purchase several
radio systems to distribute to people within your team or party.
Finally, the ease of use found with most HAM
radios makes it very practical for you to introduce new people to the world of
HAM radio communication and get everyone in your party up to speed.
Whichever technology you choose, both HAM and
satellite phones are very practical methods of keeping in touch with the people
that matter most to you.
HAM radios are more effective if you are
looking to meet new people, but for your own communications plan with an
already established group, both systems will make sure you can reach the people
you need, when you need them.
Important Considerations of Off-Grid
If the popularity and price of a given
communications device shouldn’t dramatically affect your choice of hardware,
let’s look at some of the more important factors that may influence your
decision to choose one device over another.
For most of us, security is the most important
factor you should consider when investing in a new communications technology,
especially if you are sharing sensitive information over a network.
We’ve discussed the differences slightly when
looking at the functionality of these two communications options, but it is
important to note that no single method is perfect.
All comms technologies have some
vulnerabilities that people can exploit to varying degrees to compromise either
your information or location.
Satellite phones offer a secure end-to-end
communication option, meaning any information you share while connected to
another user remains confidential and cannot be intercepted by a third
Although this method is secure, sat phones
leave a paper trail that may be used to link you to other people or groups,
meaning there is a potential risk to your security.
In contrast, HAM radios offer an alternative
form of security, by eliminating any record of your communications and allowing
you to broadcast with a relatively high degree of anonymity.
As we saw in a recent article, it is important
to impose other methods of security as the actual information broadcast over
HAM frequencies is open to interception, but this entirely depends on what is
being broadcast and the situation you find yourself in.
In most cases, especially if you are just
relying on your device to communicate to a home base for updates on your
wellbeing, the security offered by each device is more than sufficient.
With that said, if the traffic being sent is sensitive and risks compromising
your work, we recommend reaching for a satellite phone where possible.
Satellite phones are also at a much lower risk
of compromising your position, as they are not prone to triangulation attacks
associated with HAM radios, but again this risk is only present in a handful of
situations, so it should not completely rule out HAM radios from your
A secure and capable communications device is
all but useless if they are unreliable and unfortunately both HAM radios and
satellite phones can fall short in this area, under certain
For both styles of devices to work
effectively, they must have a line of sight to either a satellite or
another radio receiver, meaning in densely populated areas with large
structures, you may not always be able to reliably establish a connection with
This can often be easily overcome by moving to
a new location, away from buildings, and ideally on high ground to improve your
visibility and communications capability.
HAM radios are arguably more reliable than
satellite phones in this regard, as
buildings will not completely eliminate your ability to send a broadcast a
signal but instead will limit how far your signal can reach.
Unfortunately, satellite phone’s reliability
again suffer as their functionality requires a satellite to be positioned
overhead, which is not always possible as there are only a limited number of
satellite orbiting the Earth.
This is not typically a problem for most
users, as if you are able to wait a few minutes, a new satellite should be
brought into your region allowing you to call out, but is worth keeping in mind
if you ever need to use your satellite phone in an emergency.
Both devices can be incredibly reliable most
of the time, but like any technology, it is important for you to be aware of
their limitations and be prepared to take steps to get the most out of your
One final consideration you may look for in a
device is it’s upgradability, as this can play a key role in the
longevity of any product you invest in.
Handheld HAM radios and satellite phones are
relatively limited in their upgrade capabilities, but do offer some forms of
Headphones / Earpieces
Real upgradability can be found in more
traditional HAM base stations. These typically separate their
components, making it much easier to make individual upgrades, repairs, and
adjustments to your equipment without the need to start completely from
While its true HAM radios are more convenient
to upgrade, it is important to note that the technology found in satellite
phones has remained relatively consistent for years now.
As these devices are built with longevity in
mind, there is less of a need to upgrade them, as even an unmodified base unit
is still incredibly functional.
If we’ve convinced you to invest in a HAM
system or satellite phone, it can be intimidating, especially considering the
number of devices on the market.
For those looking to get into the world of
HAM, like most people, we recommend starting with a cheap Baofeng device.
The Baofeng UV-5R has
made itself a staple within the HAM radio community for being an incredibly
capable device while remaining user-friendly at a very low cost. The UV-5R is
one of the best options for under $50, but if you’re willing to pay just a
little bit extra, we recommend getting the upgraded DM-1702B.
The DM-1702B is only
slightly more expensive but comes with a very clear screen and a range of
additional features including GPS functionality and call recording. Many
of these radio features are by no means necessary for a beginner looking to get
started in the world of HAM radio, but it is a great option if you are looking
for a radio that will last even as you improve your operating skills.
Recommending a good satellite phone is
difficult, largely because your decision will likely be somewhat influenced by
whatever is available on the used market at the moment, and what you are
willing to pay in terms of a monthly subscription plan.
The Iridium 9505A comes highly recommended and
has never failed me yet, even after years of use, but any device you can find
from Iridium, SPOT or Inmarsat should easily meet all your needs so shop around
and try to find a good deal.
Good communications is a key aspect to any
preparedness or gray man plan, and both HAM radios and
satellite phones can fulfill this role very effectively.
For most of us, a HAM radio is more than sufficient
to maintain comms within your team or family, and can be an incredibly powerful
tool when conducting open-source intelligence gathering, both locally
With that said, if you are looking to truly
expand your communications plan and integrate existing cellular devices, the
security and power of a satellite phone cannot be beaten.
Whatever style of device you choose, it’s
important to integrate it into well thought out communications plan, that
everyone in your group is familiar with and can readily use when the time
If you’re looking to learn more about how to
build a good communications plan, be sure to check out some of our previous
articles on Ham radios and their security or stay tuned as we
continue to explore satellite phones and their applications in the world of