Feature Story

Your Smartphone Takes Its Own Vacation

by Mary Gorges

In Alaska, you may go ‘off the grid' but can still phone home.

Even in a state with parts of it so remote that a ‘no-screens vacation' is all part of the experience, it's getting harder and harder to unplug. Only 730,000 people live in Alaska, but up to two million visit every year, mostly in the summer. And most of them will realize that being in the Last Frontier means saying goodbye to their smartphone at times because the many mountain ranges often block line of sight to a cell phone tower.

The grid in the sky

Alaska's thousands of miles of rugged terrain are dotted with not only tall mountains, but tall satellite dishes. Tourists find out what the locals already know – you can't always use your cell phone.

Alaska's many private pilots rely almost solely on satellite networks. Only 10 percent of the state is accessible by road, and there are 9 times more pilots and 16 times more aircraft per capita here compared to the rest of the U.S. The pilots rarely fly above 5,000 feet – too high to use cell phones but too low for air traffic control. Rust's Flying Service flies tourists to Alaska' remote wilderness lodges and glaciers, and says satellite phones in each seaplane makes flying much more reliable.

Alaska's Mt McKinley

At 20,237 feet, Alaska's Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in North America. During June and July, about 1,200 climbers attempt its summit.

Mark Westman is a climbing ranger and says CB radios were the mode of communication on the mountain 10 to 20 years ago, but have since been replaced by satellite-enabled phones. There is no cell phone coverage at all on the mountain – the distance to the closest cell phone tower is too far (about 70 miles) and the mountain is just too high to get line of sight.

"Satellite phones have certainly changed things," says Mark. "The summit rate was very low this year due to bad weather so a lot of people were hunkered down and unable to move. The satellite phones were key for safety, and really change your sense of isolation." He says climbers call frequently for weather updates (often right before attempting to summit) … or when they're in trouble.

Westman at 14,000 feet on satellite-enabled phone

"Are you there?"

What's the reaction from tourists who come to Alaska?

Greg Lee, of the Satellite Phone Store in Anchorage says many tourists already knowing cell phones won't work in many parts of the state. He says many visitors are starting to pick up a satellite phone in advance, or have one flown out to them. Lee says a lot of air taxis won't drop off clients on a remote hiking, hunting or bear viewing trip unless they take a satellite phone with them. A rental runs about $50 per week plus a bundle of prepaid voice and data minutes.

Air strip used by Dennis

But even in the wilderness, WiFi can be had …via a mobile satellite hotspot. Iridium Communications announced this month the availability of Iridium Go! It's basically an antenna that connects smartphones and tablets to a satellite-based Wi-Fi zone, and connects up to five devices at a time.

Satellite-enabled trackers are becoming commonplace too. They're the size of a cell phone, cheaper and send a tracking beacon of your location to the web. You can't use them to call, but can send either one-way, pre-programmed text or email messages …or with the newer trackers, like the InReach Explorer, two-way, real-time texting and email.

Spot Tracker

When private pilot Dennis Poirier blew a tire landing his plane recently and bent his prop, he was "stuck in the middle of nowhere". But with a tracker made by Spot, he sent a one-way message to his wife of "I'm ok. Send mechanic." He says trackers are a great alternative to satellite phones because they're so much lighter.

Dennis also says he now brings a tracker with him on hikes, fishing, kayaking, even running. "You don't need line of sight – you can be way out of sight and still get a message out."

Even in Alaska's wilderness, there's no guarantee anymore of a true ‘tech timeout'. Technology has made it so we almost can't get lost anymore.


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