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Friday, January 28

Communications

Cell Phones: Everyone in Africa seems to have a cell phone and most urban areas have signal. SMS is one of the cheapest and quickest method of contacting someone. Local SIM cards can easily be bought for cheap local calls - you just need your passport.

Internet: Internet is one of the most useful tools for overland travel and has been much easier to get than expected. Many camp sites and restaurants have WiFi, although often too slow for Skype. We often buy a local SIM card that can do both data and voice and use that in our network unlocked 3G USB Stick (Huiwei) - most carriers provide codes that you can transfer voice credit to data bundles to keep the cost down. This typically costs $5 a week in East and Southern Africa, but North Africa is expensive.
 
Satellite Phones: There are many factors to consider; Coverage, Cost of Device, Minimum Voucher Size and Voucher Expiry. Per minute charge varies, but it not that important as ours is only for emergency use only when we are away from cell phone networks. Most GSM (Cell Phone Networks) don’t accept SMS from a Sat Phone. An SMS can be sent to a Sat Phone for free for most types – this is done from a web site, but will only be received when the device is on and out of the vehicle (line of site of satellites). Data is prohibitively expensive. I wouldn't consider a sat phone essential, but we did end up using ours.

  • Inmarsat – The network has 11 geostationary satellites (about 4 for voice) at 37,000km above the equator causing a longer delay. Coverage is most of the world except the poles. There is less redundancy on the network, but the signal is good and handles buildings and mountains well. We bought the IsatPhone Pro, which is very popular and cheaper than Iridium phones new - the older models were not considered as reliable as the Iridium. You can  You can but any amount of credit and it is valid for 2 years. 
  • Iridium – The network has 66 satellites orbiting the earth (each one crossing the poles) – this gives the network true global coverage and redundancy when there is issues with a satellite, but the orbit is low (781km), so there can be interference with buildings and they move fast (27,000km/h) so calls can sometimes be dropped when switching. The older 9505A is considered the most reliable and is still used by the US Army. The devices are very expensive new, but ok used - we originally bought one on EBay, but then sold it again for about the same price when we realised that the only suitable credit for us was the $300 Africa Only one, valid for only 1 year - it ended up cheaper to sell it and buy the Inmarsat. 
  • Thuraya – The network has 3 geostationary satellites, so no redundancy. The phones are smaller than the others (cell phone sized) and fairly reliable. Thuraya is popular for shorter North African overland trips being a lot cheaper to buy, but the battery life is not good and there is no coverage in Southern Africa and little in East Africa.
  • GlobalStar – Coverage for most of the world except Southern Africa and India. Go Spot EPIRB / Tracking Devices uses this network.
  • Other – Most other companies are regional.



VHF / 29MHz: These are popular for 4x4 clubs. 29MHz has fewer channels than VHF, but a longer range. VHF has a shorter range, but is clearer – there are generally only a few factory programmed channels for a club. These don’t appear useful unless travelling in a group and require a licence to be bought at every border. 

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