Pay as you go

Ruth Ling

Periodicals Officer, Inmarsat

Seeing the world's wild places and sleeping under the stars are all very well for the soul and the psyche, but there are times when even the most intrepid adventurer needs a few home comforts and conveniences.

Take the telephone. Even on a two-week holiday it's rare that one doesn't need to make or receive a call, whether for business or personal reasons, or for checking on the return flight. But the mobile cellular phone which usually goes everywhere with so many people these days may be outside its usual coverage area when venturing far from home. And the country he's visiting may have unreliable terrestrial telephone communications, or be in a location just too remote to be covered.

Holiday destinations are rapidly being established in parts of the world where the telecommunications infrastructure hasn't kept pace with the rise in tourism. But, even in the most undeveloped parts of the world, tourists need never lose touch with home for lack of a phone. Whether on safari in East Africa or on a train in India, a traveller can still make and receive calls and faxes thanks to satellite communications.

Using the Inmarsat system, signals are relayed from an Inmarsat-phone to a satellite 36,000 kilometres above the Equator and back to Earth via a land earth station, where they are switched to the conventional telecommunications network. The terminal can be anything from a payphone installed in a remote hotel or fishing lodge to a portable laptop-sized Inmarsat-phone weighing as little as 2.2kg.

Huntin', shootin', fishin', phonin'...

Tour operators in remote areas are catching on to the idea. Universal Safari Tours of Kenya has fitted satellite communications equipment on its vehicles so that travellers can keep in touch with their homes and businesses while they are out in the bush. As a spin-off benefit, the tour guides can use the system for operational purposes. And the Mount Gamsberg Safari Club, based at an isolated farmstead 180kms from Windhoek in Namibia, has an Inmarsat-phone for its guests' use as heavy rain frequently brings down the telephone lines.

Thousands of miles away in Canada's North West Territories, from any roads or telephone lines, is the Kasba Lake Fishing Lodge. Doug Hill, who runs the lodge, uses an Inmarsat satphone. "Mostly, it's to get the weather reports for the charter flights which bring in the tourists for their fortnight's fishing," Doug says, 'though from time to time guests will have cause to use it as well." In the Russian oil town of Urengoy, the Urai Hotel is as luxurious as any you would expect to find in a Western capital city - though the town's remote location means that it doesn't have good terrestrial network connections. But the hotel has a Norwegian-made Inmarsat-phone which is linked to the hotel's exchange. A communications company in Cyprus supplied the equipment and programmed the exchange so that customers can call direct from their rooms. Calls are automatically logged by the hotel exchange and the cost of the call is added to the customer's bill.

At the Mount Gamsberg Safari Club, the same method of payment is used as Namibia has no credit card system, but at Kasba Lake guests who use the satphone call the operator and quote their credit card details and the bill is sent directly to the customer at his billing address.

High tech among the dinosaurs

A satellite telephone has its place even in a land where dinosaurs roam. Five hundred kilometres off the coast of Cost Rica in the Western Pacific is the Cocos Island National Park. A wildlife sanctuary, this remote island provided the setting for Steven Spielberg's dinosaur movie Jurassic Park, which he filmed there in 1992.

Cocos Island attracts around 4,000 visitors each year, including film crews, scientists and fishermen from Costa Rica. The park's two wardens use an Inmarstphone to keep in touch with colleagues in mainland Costa Rica and around the world. A cosy business, you might think - but the park authorities find that visitors help the telephone pay for itself. Tourists and day trippers use the Inmarsat-phone as a payphone when, just like Steven Spielberg's biggest box office hero, ET, they get the urge to 'phone home'.

Profits and benefits for tour operators

With an initial investment of as little as $3,000, anybody from hotel operators to post and telecommunications providers (PTTs) call supply reliable, easy-to-operate phone, fax and even data communication virtually anywhere on the world's surface.

Until now, the cost of linking remote communities to the world's telecommunications networks by cable has been prohibitive. With satellite payphones, the initial cost of buying and installing the unit is far more affordable. Long-term maintenance is also much reduced.

Remote hotels, game parks and tour operators in such places can all benefit from having satellite communications, according to Gavin Cheyne, travel market manager at Inmarsat, the international mobile satellite organisation.

"High-spending tourists who have travelled halfway across the world expect basic service such as telecommunications to be available everywhere." says Cheyne. "By making telecommunications available to them, you're providing them with a much-needed and appreciated service. But you are also giving yourself an income.

"If you assume 30 minutes of phone calls a day, your Inmarsat-phone will pay for itself within three to six months," he explains. "After all, you'll start seeing big profits. In addition, the owner of the phone - the tour company or the hotel - has the benefit of using it for its own needs, such as making reservations or calling for medical assistance."

Payphones for tourists on the move

Travellers now have the luxury of making international calls while they're actually on the move, thanks to the launch in 1996 of satellite payphones.

Several railway companies and airlines offer satellite communications to their passengers. In Russia, the Gorkovskya railway company has installed a satellite payphone for passengers' use on its 400kms route from Moscow to Nizhniy Novgorod, and in India a satphone is being fitted on the famous train for tourists, the Palace On Wheels, which runs between Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. In South Africa, both the state-owned Blue Train and the plush Victorian-style Rovos Rail train are investigating Inmarsat phones for their passenger's use.

It's not just on land, but in the air and at sea, too that travellers to remote places can use telecommunications services while actually in transit.

Worldwide, more than 40 air carriers provide satphones for passengers' use on their commercial aircraft, with some also offering facsimile and data facilities and access to huge, live data banks and in-flight entertainment.

And passengers on cruise ships have come to expect satellite telephone and fax services to be as readily available to them as the more additional on-board services such as duty-free shops, bars and casinos.

Sophisticated equipment

The first satellite payphones were launched in early 1996 and, by mid-year, six companies were offering such equipment, most including sophisticated payment facilities.

One Inmarsat payphone, for example, will accept a range of different phonecards, including the latest memory and smart cards, as well as the more familiar genetic credit cards and pre-paid chip cards.

Another includes a hot-key button for credit card users, which provides a fast connection to 24-hour, multi-lingual operator who verifies the user's credit card details. At least two models of satellite payphone provide ports for two phones, a fax and a data connection. These allow the unit to be used in offices and hotels, for example, to provide communications for the establishment itself and to offer payphone services for customers. All calls are itemised so owners can monitor use of the equipment.

Inmarsat is an international partnership of 79 member countries. Information on any of these services is available from Inmarsat Customer Services on 44 171-728 1000 (fax: 171-728 1044) or from 99 City Road, London EC1 1AX.