The Interview: Ken Grunski and Telestial Satellite Phones
Ken Grunski, Telestial
A few months ago, I rented a satellite phone from Telestial, the leading provider of SIM cards, satellite phones and GSM phones, to bring on a trip to the Himalayas. In rural Nepal, with 20,000 foot peaks around me, it was touch and go at times. But sure enough, I was able to use the phone to call home. True, the phone is about the size of a small brick, something that MacGyver would have used on an early episode. But hey, I was calling home via a satellite and that appealed to the George Jetson in me. When I returned home, I got in touch with Telestial’s president, Ken Grunski, to learn more.
What kinds of travelers might need to bring a satellite phone along with them?
Essentially, a satellite phone can be viewed as a travel luxury or essential, and as with most things, the beauty or in this case 'need' is in the eye/mind of the beholder. Unlike 20 years ago, going on a vacation nowadays does not mean being out of touch. And most likely the more responsibility you have, the more likely is your need to be "available" regardless of the circumstances.
Now the fact that a cell phone does not have coverage where you travel means nothing to those needing to get in touch with you. They expect to pick up a phone and hear your voice if not immediately then shortly thereafter. Add to this that unlike 20 years ago, Nepal, Patagonia and even Antarctica, while still exotic locales, are more accessible than ever before. But try making a phone call when you need to. If you get sick in the Gobi desert, what good is the helicopter rescue coverage if you can't call the helicopter.
In short, if your travels take you to a remote destination with limited or no phone service, whether for business, ego – everybody is blogging these days from Kilimanjaro — or personal safety, a satellite phone is literally your lifeline.
Is Iridium still the prevailing technology these days? And why?
Well, better to say it is the most reliable. Remember when the Chinese blew up their satellite in space? If so, you may also recall the backlash on all the space debris, which in this case actually damaged an Iridium satellite with no loss of service, because there are over 65 of them. You can lose a few satellites with no problem. Also, Iridium can singularly claim pole to pole coverage, compared that to say Thuraya, which covers Europe – useless — Africa and the Indian subcontinent through China, with two satellites. Now imagine a malfunction with say one of them. Half the coverage area is gone, at least. Globalstar, another mainly north/south American pretender/competitor has been malfunctioning for two years. We are all still waiting for the new satellites. Iridium provides the most comprehensive and reliable coverage, generally speaking – and no I don't own Iridium stock.
Can you give us an example of what it costs to rent a sat phone and the cost per call?
Typically, the high-season rate, from mid-April to end of September, is daily from $13 to $19 and weekly $79 to $99. The low-season rate is daily from $7 to $9 and weekly from $49 and up.
This is barring any hurricanes in the Texas panhandle through the southeast which can happen through October and extend the high-season rates, or forest fires anywhere. Per minute rates is anything from $1.50 to $2.95. Generally a lower rental rate on the equipment means a higher per minute rate.
If you know you will talk a few minutes a day it may be worth buying minutes in advance. Thirty minutes is usually plenty for a leisure trip.
Insurance on the phone may be worthwhile. Even if you are careful, phones get stolen — often at customs — so even with a high deductible, insurance may be worth it. This generally adds $3 to $5 per day.
Be aware of rates too good to be true. You may be getting a three year old phone that will break mid-way through your trip or you are in for a billing surprise when your deposit is never returned. Or they may be out of business. Telestial has been around for 10 years, a lifetime on the internet in travel and telecommunications.
And my favorite classic trick to watch out for is the advertised $35 weekly rate. As you get into the shopping cart to select your destination, if you select anything other than the US/Canada there is a 'surcharge' because the company planned on giving you a Globalstar, which is much cheaper for them to maintain.
The Iridium 9505a that I rented from Telestial
I actually rented a phone from Telestial in May when I went traveling in the Himalayas of Nepal. I found it worked well — when it worked. That is, in deep mountain valleys, I could not always get a signal. Or the signal would come and go. Granted, we're talking the highest mountains in the world. But do you have any advice for those who would take a phone on a trek or climb?
The phone you rented is as good as it gets for a non-military budget. Absolutely, valleys make a difference –the deeper they are, the worse the signal — because the nearest satellites maybe just to the left or right of the peaks you are walking between. Likewise, climb out of the valley and you get better coverage. As an example, on the Annapurna circuit time your calls during the evening acclimation ascents or during the day when you are hitting the altitude. In Manhattan, climb to the roof or head to Central Park.
I should mention that the per minute cost of using your phone was about half the price of using my AT&T Blackberry in Nepal, in the few places, such as Kathmandu, where I could use it to call. Do you think the per minute costs for satellite calls will actually come down over time?
If you considered buying a phone you would definitely not pay more than $1.50. At this price it is cheaper to use a sat phone in 70 percent of locations outside or Europe. But who wants to step outside and/or down the block to make a phone call with a device the size of a cordless phone? Nevertheless, we sell quite a few satellite phones.
What does it cost to buy one of these phones?
The newest 9555 from Iridium retails for $1,595. It is more compact and a few ounces lighter then the 9505a you rented and it has a speaker phone. The kit includes car charger, hands free, leather case, the works. Cheaper prices may mean a cannibalized kit.
The cost of a usage plan?
This varies. An 'average' single user retail plan would be $40 to $47/month and $1.49/min. Telestial as an example offer 24/7 tech support in seven languages with offices in the US, Europe and Australia so you get a big brother helping you out when you need help.
And who is actually buying them?
Anyone going outside of an area with limited or no phone service is a candidate. These include overnight camps in Pennsylvania, ExxonMobil, aircraft in Alaska (we have equipment to track aircraft real-time online), fishing vessels anywhere, any media company with reporters in the field, anybody living in North Dakota or West Virginia. Even.doctors in Portland – they even get the built-in car kit.Oregon is a big state.
How about data transmission? I believe you can send data with the current breed of Iridium phones but how fast is it?
Slow, about 9.6kbps which is about good enough for SMS text or email with no PowerPoint attachments.
Is it possible to access the web?
If you're patient.
How about texting?
This is no problem. You can SMS to any Iridium or cell phone. In fact, folks can send you an SMS from telestial.com and you receive it all for free. Really.
What do you see for satellite phones in the future?
There are two competing groups who want to launch a new North American satellite system that would use cellular or satellite depending on coverage w/a pda device. The problem is that Blackberry for email works in 150 countries (including the US) unlimited for $50 a month ($29 in the US only). I suspect that this is true as to what other pundits are saying, that there are not enough subscribers for ongoing service. But even Iridium went bankrupt once before. Let's all just stay away from the stock …