If you took your mobile phone with you to Antarctica you wouldn’t be able to get a signal because there are no networks in Antarctica – no Television signals and, apart from BBC World Service and the Christian Network which is just about audible on Long Wave, no radio signal either. Instead I communicate using satellite phones. Satellite phones work in exactly the same way as mobile phones except that the network is not operated from masts on Earth but from satellites in space. I use a satellite phone to make a call once a day to the logistical operators ALE (Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions) to tell them my position. If they don’t hear from me in a 24-hour period they will send a plane to the last position I reported and look for me. When (and if) they find me, I will be going home regardless of whether the lack of communication was due to a genuine emergency, a communications failure or an error on my part – it doesn’t matter, the expedition is over.
With so much time, energy and funds invested in the expedition, it is vital that my communications equipment works reliably in order to avoid an unnecessary end to my expedition as much as for my safety. For this reason I carry two satellite phones (one as a back up), two SIM cards with prepaid airtime, two batteries for each phone and a spare of every other vital lead or part. All the spares represent a lot of extra weight but I wouldn’t want to take any chances.
Antarctica is one of the few places on the planet where there isn’t permanent satellite coverage – close to the pole there are a couple of hours in each day when the sateliites are so low over the horizon that the signal is patchy at best – and there is only one satellite network that provides any coverage at all, Iridium.
I have two Iridium Extreme 9575 satellite phone handsets. They are a new product that was only released a few weeks before I left for Antarctica. They are smaller, lighter, ‘ruggedized’ and can provide GPS location information. But the main reason for the excitement over the new Extremes is because they can connect to a small device which then acts as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. So now, if you have a smart phone, you can access the internet exactly as you would at home using a satellite hotspot – even in Antarctica.
I get very excited by new technology, particularly by new ways of communicating, but just because we CAN, doesn’t mean we HAVE to. I’ve carried satellite telephones on all my previous expeditions which means that, technically, I could have called anyone in the world any time I wanted. I could have rung home every single day if I’d wanted to – but the truth was I didn’t want to. It is really hard to be transported from your tent in Antarctica back to the warmth and comfort of home – but only for a few short minutes while the call lasts. One second you are surrounded by your family, laughing and joking and the next, the instant the call is disconnected, you are alone again and somehow feel further from home than ever.
I speak to ALE once a day to report my position and every third day I ring my home support team to pass messages and speak to journalists or schools. Apart from that I can send (but not receive) tweets and record a podcast daily. This will be my contact with the world for three short months – and I have to say, it’s a unique experience!