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Pelton's World: Global Outreach
Robert Young Pelton has the secure line on staying in touch—no matter how far out there you are.   Illustration by Asaf Hanuka
Illustration: Robert Young Pelton

It was a month into the 1999 siege of Groznyy and the world was looking for Brice Fleutiaux. The French photojournalist had been kidnapped, the rebel commander I'd just interviewed was out to find him, and he needed to borrow my sat phone. Motioning for me to follow, the grizzled commander trudged out of his compound into the frigid night. At the time, I'd seen reports that Groznyy was receiving as many as 6,000 impacts an hour from various shells and rockets. It wasn't the best time to wander into the streets and make a call. But he pressed on.

When we finally reached the crest of a small hill about a mile (1.6 kilometers) away, he pulled out my phone, barked orders to find Fleutiaux into it, then turned to me and said, politely but firmly, "Now we go." As we were huffing back through the cold, I turned to watch that same hill get pounded by signal-targeting rocket batteries that had zeroed in on our position.

I'll admit, most folks don't need to worry about attracting Urgan rockets when they make a call, but there are a few other things you should know about global communications that can keep you affordably and reliably connected anywhere you go.
 
Go Local
More than 220 countries have cell service, and for that reason a simple cell phone is my most essential piece of field equipment. This sounds like a no-brainer, but there are a few details to consider. While any GSM-based cell carrier in the United States will allow you to make calls when overseas (the biggest are T-Mobile and Cingular), be prepared for outrageous roaming fees and surcharges—a lesson I learned after a week tracking insurgents on the Iraq border left me with a $1,500 phone bill.

Instead, I travel with an "unlocked" phone, meaning that it works with all carriers. My favorite is the Sony Ericsson W600 ($400; www.sonyericsson.com), into which I pop a prepaid SIM card from a local carrier. You can buy the cards almost anywhere overseas, often right in the airport or through a service before you leave (www.telestial.com). Once on the local network, coverage is amazing and so are the prices. An example: To call the States from, say, Afghanistan using a U.S. service costs several dollars a minute. With Afghan Wireless, it's pennies.

Sat Solution
Satellite phones are big and clunky, but if you have to make a call from the top of Everest, the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or any place without cell coverage, you're going to need one. My standby is the Thuraya ($550; www.thuraya.com). It incorporates GSM cellular service when available, minimizing costly sat time (up to $1.50 a minute). The one limitation is that it works only in Europe, Asia, and Africa; the Americas and the Poles are left out in the cold. For true global coverage, you'll want the more expensive Iridium phone ($1,200; www.iridium.com), which works well—except, I've found, in big cities and dense forests. That, or go for the CIA favorite, the Thrane & Thrane ($2,695; www.tt.dk). Break out the briefcase-size device, in any remote village, and get in a few calls home before they arrest you as a covert agent.
 
The Freebie
Who hasn't sat in some dingy Internet café hunting and pecking messages into their free Hotmail, Google, or Yahoo accounts? That's the tried-and-true way to keep in touch, but now there's a better option: Skype (www.skype.com). The Internet-based phone service requires only a computer with a mic and speaker (some travelers carry their own headsets) and a free registration. Armed with that, you can call any other Skype user—for free. Prepay a small per-minute rate, and you'll be able to ring up cell and land lines for a fraction of normal prices. The sound quality is stunning, and the ease of use could put telecoms out of business.

All-in-One
Used by journalists, the Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) allows you to send e-mail, data streams, and video feeds via satellite from a small router, such as the Nera World Pro 1000 ($2,495; www.satphonestore.com), anywhere in the world. Of course, you have to use it with your laptop, so it's cumbersome, and like a sat phone, it's not cheap ($500 a month, or $18.25 a day). Still, if you're an aspiring correspondent, a BGAN allows you to host, update, and broadcast your very own expedition or travel blog from the wildest places on Earth. Looks like I might have some competition.

Robert Young Pelton is the author of The World's Most Dangerous Places.


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