Sat, Skype or Cell?

Approx read: 2 mins

What’s the best way to communicate when travelling?

It depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing. One choice is easy: if you’re in a place where you have to be sneaky about communicating, you need high risk travel insurance.

Satellite phones are great when navigating remote areas or after natural disasters. If cell towers have been hijacked, hacked or destroyed, a sat phone will still work. At sea, up a mountain, in the boonies, these devices work like magic. Guess where the magic ends? In a building. Sat phones work best with clear access to the sky.

You might be surprised by all the places you can get mobile phone service.

Northern Africa is one of the cell-friendliest developing areas in the world. Because most people don’t have bank accounts, they use their phones to buy things and send money back home. 25% of Kenya’s GNP flows through cell towers. Worldwide, there are over 6.5 billion mobile users, with a penetration rate of 93%

If you want to communicate in the other 7%, you need a satphone.

Don’t think that satphones guarantee privacy. Libya and Syria are two countries known to use satellite phone tracking tech to keep an eye on people.

If you must use a satphone, take the battery out of it when you’re not using it. The phones use GPS to locate satellites and some continue to broadcast their GPS even when in the ‘off’ mode.

Satphones look more like regular phones these days, but they still have a funny-looking antenna that has to be extended for the phone to work. By stashing the phone nearby and using a Bluetooth headset, you’ll just look like a jerk, not a journalist.

When not using your satphone, keep a dummy SIM card in it, with some fake emails and contacts. A wiped SIM card looks sneaky.

The Committee to Protect Journalists suggests using a different location for each call, keeping your calls short, and never calling from a place that’s difficult to evacuate.

Satphones take time to connect.  Be sure to budget connection time for your calls. Small World News also recommends using code for calls, SMS and emails sent via satphone.

You won’t be catching up on ‘Game of Thrones’ with a satphone. Most data packages are slower than dial up, and the fast ones aren’t cheap.

Not all countries are keen on satphones. The usual suspects have banned them-Myanmar, Iran, PDRK, Cuba, Russia- as well as Poland and Hungary. Check the country restrictions before you leave; at up to €1700, confiscated satphones are a lot more expensive to replace than nail clippers.

Some journalists use Skype. But a bandwidth drain in the middle of a firefight waves red flags at Internet surveillance teams.

There’s no perfect solution. Need a sure-fire way to stop electronic monitoring? Get a carrier pigeon.

Sarah is a blogger, writer and amateur palaeontologist from New Orleans. When not writing or digging dinosaurs, she teaches English.