When John Roskelley and his son, Jess, finally reached the summit of Mount Everest in May of 2003, they celebrated by placing a call on their Iridium 9505 satellite phone to their family back in Washington State. After four previous attempts, John had finally made it to the top of the 29,035-foot mountain. Twenty-year-old Jess had become the youngest American ever to reach the world's tallest peak.
"To be able to talk with our family on an instant basis made all the difference in terms of morale," says 55-year-old John, a perfect example of how thoroughly the satellite phone has changed what it means to get away from it all. "When I was climbing in the 1970s, Watergate came and went and I never knew a thing about it."
While satellite phones are nothing new, the Iridium is unique. Unlike other companies such as Inmarsat and Thuraya, which use geosynchronous satellites that only provide service to discrete portions of the globe, Iridium satellite phones can cover the entire earth. The company has a network of 66 low-earth-orbiting (LEO) satellites—as well as 14 backups—that hover 475 miles above the planet. While other companies have large, tabletop units, Iridium's 9505 phone is small—just 13.2 ounces—but comes equipped with all the bells and whistles found in a typical cell phone. Features such as one-touch dialing, an address book, voice mail, and vibrate alert are easily accessed through the phone's on-screen menu system, available in 21 different languages. (Talk time can be as long as nine hours when the phone is used with extended lithium ion batteries.)
The 9505 can also be outfitted with enough extras to make any gearhead smile. A $300 data kit allows the unit to connect to a laptop so you can surf the Web—albeit slowly—and transfer files and e-mail. And don't worry that you'll be cut off if the batteries run out of juice—the 9505 can be plugged into an optional $700 solar-powered battery charger. "It's about the size of a cafeteria tray. You just set it outside of your tent and it recharges your batteries in about two hours," says Will Cross, an explorer who has walked across Antarctica and used the Iridium at the North and South Poles as well as in northeastern Greenland.
The phone sells for about $1,200, and there is a one-time activation fee of $50. Monthly service is $30, but if you don't want the hassle of paying by the month you can buy minutes up front. Want to rent the phone instead? Dealers charge from $40 to $70 per week. The calls themselves range in cost between 99 cents and $1.50 per minute, which is significantly cheaper than using a traditional cell phone that works overseas. For example, in Russia, both T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless charge $4.99 per minute. But remember that the Iridium is best suited to the outdoors because, ironically, it does not work well in buildings.
And of course, always being connected can have its drawbacks. "I have some mixed emotions about the phone," says Joyce Roskelley, who had to coordinate with doctors in the States to help her son overcome an illness while he was on Everest. "Typically you'd say good-bye and update all your policies and hope they'd come home. But when you're in touch with them every day, it can get a little nerve-racking."
Iridium Satellite, 1600 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1000, Arlington, VA; 866-947-4348; www.iridium.com.