Off-Grid Communications – HAM Radio vs. Satellite Phones
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 instances.
When 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 Comms
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.
HAM 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 orbiting Earth.
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 cell phone.
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 Off-Grid Comms?
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 battery pack
Satellite phones are unfortunately nowhere near as affordable when compared to HAM systems, with new sat phones starting at around $500.
Although 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 versatility.
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
HAM 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.
Satellite 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.
HAM 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.
· The second method is typically found on much more affordable satellite devices, which only support outgoing preprogrammed messages to a single contact or emergency services.
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.
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 send it.
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.
HAM 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 WinLink servers.
These servers then decode the incoming digital signal and automatically send it on through traditional email to your intended recipient.
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).
This 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 redundancy.
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 you.
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 cell phones.
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 technology.
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 options.
Firstly, while HAM radio is less popular than it was during the 90’s, less popular does not mean dead.
It 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.
This is especially true if you look at joining local organizations, which can significantly help you find other people interested in HAM you can start talking to.
Secondly, 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 Communications
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 party.
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 communications plan.
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 circumstances.
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 another user.
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 device.
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 expansion, including:
· Battery Packs
· 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 scratch.
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 and globally.
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 calls.
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 survival.