After a dearth of new communications products for voyagers since Iridium and Globalstar came to market in the late 1990s and Pactor-III allowed faster HF radio e-mail a couple of years later, there are finally some exciting new offerings coming soon. While all the details on these products are not yet available (and some products won’t be fully available until this time next year) we know enough about them to offer some details.
Products available today
Iridium continues to be the only provider of truly worldwide voice and data communications, via their constellation of 66 satellites in a
low-polar orbit 500 miles up. Iridium is the only provider that hands off traffic from satellite to satellite until the call is connected, thus providing true worldwide coverage. Phones start at about $1,400, with airtime at $1 to $1.50 per minute, and data at a slow 2,400-baud speed. Iridium works very well, but as with many satellite phones, you are likely to have a poor signal in urban areas. Satellites are farther apart as they pass through the Tropics, so they are frequently lower on the horizon with weaker signals. Because of this many users in the Tropics install a small vertical (less than 1-foot tall) external antenna for less than $500. Iridium has begun to design its next generation system, but it’s probably five to seven years from deployment, and the current system is expected to work fine beyond that time frame.
Globalstar provides service within about 1,000 miles of many continents, using satellites that orbit in a similar fashion to Iridium’s, with each satellite circling Earth every 90 minutes. Many of Globalstar’s satellites have reduced duplex capability, resulting in frequent dropped voice or data calls, and periods without service. Globalstar hopes to have eight spare satellites operational within the next few months, but it’s hard to guess how much this may improve service. Globalstar is spending $885 million on a new constellation of satellites (compatible with current phones) to be deployed beginning as early as 2009. Phones run about $650, airtime from just pennies to about $1 per minute, with spotty coverage until about 2010.
Globalstar’s simplex system allows small transmitters on vessels and other assets to transmit location information to the satellite, which relays that information to a gateway on the ground, then routes it to the intended recipient via the Internet (most other satellite providers have similar systems). This simplex system is unaffected by duplex problems, but is not able to provide phone or two-way data service.
SkyMate provides reliable e-mail-only service to most of the globe, using Orbcomm’s satellite network which has polar-orbiting satellites 500 miles up with coverage in most areas from 60° N to 60° S. Coverage of the southern Indian Ocean and the southern half of Africa and adjacent waters should come online in 2008. There is no coverage in the middle of the Pacific Ocean south of the equator. Data is charged by the character for e-mail (about $1.40 per 1,000 characters). The system uses a small whip antenna (similar to a 3-foot VHF whip common on sailboats) and an energy-efficient, always-on transceiver costing about $1,200. While heavy users may rack up large bills, many light e-mail users are very happy with SkyMate.
Inmarsat is the oldest and most established satellite phone and data provider, and uses geostationary satellites more than 20,000 miles above the equator to provide service to Fleet 33, 55, 77, Mini M, and C-users. Some satellites handle entire projections of the Earth’s surface visible to the satellite, while others use spot-beam technology to provide stronger signals to several regions. The satellite dish used to catch the faster Fleet signals coming from so far away is relatively large (domes more than two feet across), heavy and expensive (about $10,000 or more), and appropriate only for larger yachts. But advances in technology allowing for much smaller antennas, and more competitive pricing should allow Inmarsat’s higher-speed service to make inroads into the smaller recreational vessel market (details below).
HF (SSB/ham) e-mail is still around, and with Pactor-III connections theoretically as fast as 3,000-baud, it can provide e-mail speed similar to Iridium, but without the per-minute airtime costs (a Pactor-III modem is about $1,000, plus about $3,000 for a good HF radio installation). Unlike any satellite link, HF e-mail is subject to varying radio propagation. If you are looking for the easiest e-mail connection, choose an appropriate satellite phone. HF e-mail works, but sometimes requires patience and persistence. Winlink (ham) offers a worldwide network of stations for licensed ham users, with limitations on the type of traffic allowed. SailMail is a similar and popular service using commercial SSB frequencies for $250 per year, with limitations on the amount of traffic allowed. Regional providers, such as CruiseEmail (U.S. and the Caribbean), and Radio Kiel (Europe), and others provide services similar to SailMail’s. We’ll talk about a new entrant, XNet, below.
There are number of new systems in the works. The information below comes from the companies themselves, and knowledgeable folks in the industry, but some details are not finalized, and you should do your own research when each product becomes available.
XNet began operations in late 2005, and is growing as an alternative to other HF radio e-mail providers, with service ($250 for six months or $360 per year) in the U.S., the Caribbean, the Atlantic (north of the equator), Europe, and parts of the Mediterranean, with other areas possible in the future. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am president of the XNet Yachting Association, provider of XNet service.)
Some advantages of XNet over other HF e-mail providers: Most stations transmit an audible beacon tone every four seconds. If you hear the tone, you know the station is waiting to accept your traffic. If you don’t hear the tone, a connection is not possible on that frequency at that time. Listen on a different frequency, and transmit on the frequency you hear the clearest tone. This ensures optimum connection speed, and eliminates the frustration of hunting for the scanning stations of other HF e-mail providers.
Other advantages are:
• Better compression techniques
• Works with nearly any e-mail client (Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, etc.)
• Full support for HTML, attachments, OCENS WeatherNet, OCENS mail/XGate
• Versions for Windows, Macintosh, Linux
• Spam and size filtering, pull-forwarding from your other e-mail addresses
Inmarsat’s IsatPhone may be the most exciting new offering for small vessels. With a street price of about $600, airtime at $1 per minute, and a 2,400-baud data rate, the IsatPhone’s small handheld phone should be a hot seller. Today, coverage is limited to Africa, the Indian Ocean, Asia, and the waters toward Australia (areas from 40° N to 40°S between 10° E to 130° E). This is the area covered by Inmarsat’s F1 satellite of the new I-4 generation of satellites (the signal north of 40° N and south of 40° S is too weak for good coverage with this small handheld phone). By late 2008 all areas of the globe from 40° N to 40° S should be covered by the F2 and F3 satellites. The IsatPhone also works on GSM cellular networks with local cellular carrier activation.
Inmarsat now offers Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) to terrestrial markets, using Inmarsat’s F1 (Indian Ocean and adjacent areas) and F2 (Atlantic Ocean and adjacent areas) I-4 generation satellites. F3 (Pacific Ocean and adjacent areas) will complete global coverage from about 70° N to 70° S in 2008. You use a small, portable antenna with an integrated transceiver and modem (some as small as a hardback book, weighing only two pounds and costing less than $2,000), pointed to within 16 degrees of the satellite. On a nearly stationary boat this would work fine. Airtime runs about $1 per minute for voice while data is billed by usage at about $8 per megabyte, for a fast 400-kbps connection (nearly 200 times as fast as 2,400-baud).
Inmarsat’s Marine BGAN (Fleet Broadband) now becoming available, is the same as terrestrial BGAN, but with hardware optimized for the harsh marine environment. Called Fleet Broadband, Marine BGAN uses a relatively small three-axis stabilized antenna. Thrane & Thrane’s Sailor 250 dome measures about 15 inches in diameter, lists for $12,995, and provides 284-kbps (over 100 times as fast as 2,400-baud) Internet speed. KVH TracPhone FB250 offers a compact version measuring 11 inches in diameter and weighs only 11 pounds at a similar price, with data priced from $8.50 per megabyte to $13.50 per megabyte, and voice calls from just under $1 per minute to $1.89 per minute.
Iridium Broadband: Shortly after Fleet Broadband comes to market, Iridium is likely to introduce Iridium Broadband, using the existing Iridium constellation. Iridium Broadband hardware will include an antenna a bit larger than most small enclosed radars (about 18 inches in diameter by 10 inches tall) containing an array of Iridium antennae, and a transceiver below deck to gang up to 64 of Iridium’s 2,400-baud connections to provide 128-kbps of data service. Hardware and usage pricing is likely to be equal to or less than Inmarsat’s Fleet Broadband, with data pricing possibly on a sliding scale based on connection speed. This may represent a significant savings versus the standard 2,400-baud Iridium connection ($14 per megabyte versus over $50 to $100 per megabyte), and you get the data more than 50 times as fast. Iridium Broadband also has the advantage of being available anywhere on Earth from day one.
Omnisat: One new offering uses one-way communication to deliver weather forecasts to underserved areas of the globe, and may be of great interest to many voyagers. Beginning before the end of 2007, Omnisat will broadcast via satellite an array of weather products using multiple beams on WorldSpace satellites, providing coverage initially in Europe, the Mediterranean, and waters adjacent to Northern Africa (see coverage map), adding the rest of Africa, Asia, and adjacent waters in the future.
XM and Sirius use a similar broadcast technique to deliver weather to the U.S. and adjacent waters, but suffer, in my opinion, from their roots serving the aviation community, as they offer rich current observation content, but only very limited forecast content, and generally display on high-end GPS units (and some newer chartplotters), rather than on the PC.
In contrast, Omnisat is designed from the ground-up for the mariner (targeting sail and power vessels in recreational and commercial markets). Initially, data will include GRIB forecasts (gridded weather data presented in an interactive graphic format) for wind speed and direction, surface pressure, precipitation, lifted index and sea height, direction and period, and sea surface temperature, available at a temporal resolution of three to six hours, and a spatial resolution of 0.25 to 1.0 degree of latitude and longitude. Omnisat is partnering with OCENS for weather content, so just about any OCENS WeatherNet content could be available someday from Omnisat.
Data is received by a small antenna, decoded by a small receiver box, and then fed to your on board computer via a USB cable, which also powers the receiver. As soon as power is supplied to the receiver and the software application is opened, it begins accumulating incoming weather data. In fewer than 30 minutes your computer will accumulate a full data set for the entire area. You open the product launcher, choose the region you want to examine, and the product you wish to see, and it displays instantly. All the data is stored on your computer, so you can refer to it at any time, and use the data in any other computer program (such as charting, navigation or routing software) that uses GRIB data.
Weather broadcast via satellite is an efficient way of delivering an array of data products to niche markets, such as boaters. Instead of costly satellite telephone airtime and per-product charges, satellite broadcast data is all you can eat at a fixed price (there may be several content and price levels — this is like allowing you to choose from the salad bar, or soup and salad, or the entire buffet).
Importantly, users tend to access and use satellite broadcast data exactly the same way whether they are in port or at sea, and there is no extra cost to access the data every day. Many voyagers experience difficulties and confusion when they have one set of communications and weather tools in port, and another at sea. The at-sea communications are typically expensive or cumbersome, and the mariner’s skills may be rusty just when they are needed. Not so with Omnisat.
Though pricing has not been finalized, the hardware/basic antenna/software package is likely to be less than $1,000, with annual content subscription probably under $600. The program runs under Windows XP. Vista and Windows CE/Mobile should be supported soon.
We are in exciting times again in marine communications, with new products and services to fill many needs for connectivity while away from conventional Internet connections. Stay tuned for more complete details on these new systems as they become available.