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Hands-on experiences with a Thuraya phone
Friday, 15 June 2007
Over the past 5 years satellite telephone systems have become significant cheaper and affordable. In fact the cost of ownership can be lower compared to travelling abroad with a GSM phone in a roaming agreement. On top of that it comes with several features unavailable in GSM networks.

Choosing a satellite phone system isn’t like shopping for shoes – the tech jargon creates considerable confusion and the cost structure mystifies any newcomer. Luckily there are only a few satellite phone systems to choose from.

We’ve been using a Thuraya phone for more than a year now and pretty much covers our expectations. However getting to use it takes time and a lot of fiddling – it’s different from a mobile phone. Also there’s not much practical info available and real life satellite phone experiences are hard to find – even on the Internet. So here a few experiences using a Thuraya phone in Asia.

Thuraya Prepaid SIM card

Thuraya sells prepay SIM cards that need to be renewed every year. The thuraya phone SIM cards are anonymous and need no further registration. They can be bought on the Internet or through a Thuraya phone dealer. A little web surfing quickly gives a quick estimate of the Thuraya SIM prepay card price. They come with a small prepay budget to activate and test the connection.

Next is getting the Thuraya phone scratch cards to top up the prepay budget. Not always so easy because they’re not sold anywhere on the street. Read here about topping up our Thuraya prepaid balance in Iran. In case you're travelling keep a list of Thuraya scratch card vendors or have some-one you know buy the cards for you and SMS the scratch card number.

Recharging Thuraya prepaid balance

Since 2006 upto somewhere in 2007 there was a service which allows topping up the Thuraya prepay budget through the Thuraya phone just by calling a number. When on the road this system is good to have, without the Thuraya scratch cards there is not much left to call with (incoming calls still do work though). The top-up system worked everywhere and doesn’t require an Internet connection. However it stopped working in the autumn of 2007 and disappeared from the map in 2008 without notification. Not very customer friendly to say the least - it was a service supported by Thuraya. See

[update july 2008]  - Thuraya mentions a new service called At the time of writing is was in startup. Hopefully it stays alive a little longer than it's predecessor.

Thuraya call rates

Hughes 7100 and 7101 Thuraya satellite phones
Hughes 7100 and 7101
Without actually making a call it’s not easy to know the exact costs in front. The rate / minute in each country is different. How? The GPS in the Thuraya phone reveals the location and activates the cost structure for each country. So pretty much trial and error.

We had an 80 US$ card and after several calls we figured out it’s about one US$ dollar / minute. Sending text messages go for a fixed rate around 20 cents / message. Receiving messages is free. Someone calling a Thuraya phone is charged pretty steep – for Dutch callers using a KPN landline it was about € 7, - per minute.

Calling the Thuraya toll free number 150 gets you the value of the prepay budget and allows topping up the budget using a scratch card. It also is a way to test the Thuraya satellite connection if it works.

Making calls with a Thuraya phone

Getting connected requires experience with the Thuraya phone. In fact the antenna should be pointed to the south and requires a clear line of sight. Trees, buildings reduce signal strength to zero. Receiving a call requires the Thuraya phone to be outside – in some cases it can detect an incoming call inside a building. The phone goes into SAT alert which means you got to race outside and point the antenna to the south. The incoming call usually fails because you’re too late. However caller-id shows who’s been calling.

The SAT alert also comes when an SMS text message comes in. Usually the connection fails also – and no SMS test message. However there’s a trick to receive the message anyway. Calling the toll free number 150 will get the SMS text message instantly.

The sound quality of the satellite phone is pretty good – however in the first seconds of the call there can be a lot of “hello?”s and “are you there”s before the bi-directional channel is open to both parties. Impatient callers drop the connection – the ones who know keep the line open a little longer.

Thuraya GPS position

A nice feature of the Thuraya phone is the build in GPS. It allows to send the location by SMS / text message. Assuming the caller knows what to do with the WGS84 based coordinates. There’s a catch here. Text messages don’t arrive on all GSM phones.

Thuraya SMS roaming

After some digging not all GSM Mobile Network providers have a SMS roaming agreement with Thuraya. So basically as a Thuraya phone owner you have to know if the person receiving a text message has a mobile provider accepting Thuraya Text messages. Other than just trying it’s hard to get reliable SMS roaming agreement info from mobile providers as well as Thuraya itself. For example sending SMS text messages to KPN mobile works, sending the same message to Dutch Vodafone doesn’t. The Thuraya prepay card is charged in any case.

Another great feature is to be able to send free unlimited SMS text messages to Thuraya phones through the Thuraya website. SMS text messages arrive at the phone with a special number. Reception of these messages is also free.

Free SMS text messages to a Thuraya phone

The web based SMS text message system in the beginning didn’t work that well. SMS text messages queued up somewhere in the system and suddenly arrive in a burst after a few days. This while the Thuraya phone was on and facing south at the same time. It happened 4-5 times, but this SMS text message delay seems to be solved now.

Sending SMS text messages work also work from a Windows based computer. A Thuraya phone comes with software allowing to do this. You need a special cable that connects to a COM port. Teknobil sells a windows based Thuraya Manager allowing to send SMS text messages and capture / reload the Thuraya phone number book.

Thuraya Internet

The new generation Thuraya SO-2510 and SG-2520
The thuraya SO-2510 and SG-2520 smartphone
A Thuraya phone can also be used for accesing the Internet. Dialing in is pretty quick and the connection speed is quite ok. Hower the cost structure is time-based and uses the same rate as for voice. Receiving data quickly is therefor important. The new GmPRS system might change that, because it's packet based just like GPRS. Only the new 2007 models have this feature.

A Thuraya phone can also can connect to GSM based networks. Of course the roaming cost structure pretty much ruins a cheap deal. We used it only in SAT mode – meaning the Thuraya phone only connects to the Thuraya satellite system.

Other Thuraya Experiences

Roaming the internet for a few other experiences popped up a story about Thuraya goofing up during an Everest expedition in 2007. Not a very appealing story specially when relying soly on Thuraya technology. What's written coincides with the general feel i have also when it comes to trying to diagnosing Thuraya problems, there is very little info coming from Thuraya in this respect.

Having spending some time in the UAE region - the home of Thuraya - i can easily guess many reasons for this to happen. High tech equipment like Thuraya needs experienced, qualified and passionate people to make the service work reliable and consistently [read quality] on the long run. Nurturing human capital isn't quite developed in the region to say the least. This while money and equipment is available to the extreme.   

Nonetheless, in all the Thuraya phone system works pretty well. Costs are quite reasonably compared to its features. Calling rates are fixed per country and in case of an emergency the costs are predictable. With the credit card based top-up system there’s some guarantee the phone keeps on working in remote areas. For family it’s peace of mind we can be reached pretty much anywhere.

Thuraya fixed docking unit

We used the Hughes HNS-7100 Satellite phone with an APSI fixed docking unit for charging and indoor reception. The phone set is pretty rigid and takes a lot of abuse. The only downside is the low volume of the beeps and rings. However using the satellite phone with a fixed base unit compensates for the low volume.
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