We’re not quite there yet, but the era of Star Trek-like communicators is mostly here — though many of us are impatiently waiting for the day we can beam ourselves between home and the boat. In many ways, the smartphones we use every day are more sophisticated than the basic flip-phone communicator that Star Trek imagined, but most of us are still limited by the distance to the closest cellphone tower.
However, that tie to terrestrial towers may soon end. Hundreds of satellites for Elon Musk’s Starlink are in orbit and capable of providing limited Internet coverage. It is claimed that by the end of 2020 there will be some sort of coverage over North America. The company says, “Starlink will deliver high-speed broadband Internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive or completely unavailable.” That sure sounds good for ocean cruising and voyaging; of course, the system will be designed to focus on providing broadband to places where people regularly live.
In the meantime, there are already satellite communications systems in place that can provide limited voice and data services via Wi-Fi to our cellphones — though, these services require specialized equipment, apps and service plans. In the past, many of us have connected satellite phones to laptops and other devices using cables and connectors, which always required much experimentation and plain luck to work properly. I sailed around the Caribbean with a large bag of cables and connectors that ended up not working or failing for some reason. By utilizing Wi-Fi, these new products and apps eliminate one of the biggest hassles of satphone connectivity.
An Iridium GO unit gives voyagers flexibility in ways to connect.
There’s an app for that
Yes, there truly is an app you can download to be able to communicate while at sea, although it depends on making a Wi-Fi connection to an Iridium GO device that creates a hot spot on your boat. Needless to say, Iridium GO connects to the Iridium satellite system, which has been providing voice and data services to mariners for several decades. Back in the early 2000s, I used a hand-held Iridium communicator about the size of a large walkie-talkie to make calls and download emails while at sea, and I wrote articles about how to do that and connect to a laptop through an awkward rig of cables and connectors. Though slow and cumbersome, I found the system extremely useful for staying in touch and downloading weather information.
The Iridium GO portable base station measures only about 4.5 by 3.2 by 1.25 inches and can be powered by DC, so it may be used on almost any boat and it would be easy to carry around in the dinghy or ashore. An internal battery supplies more than 15 hours of standby time and around five hours of talk time. The unit is designed to be completely portable and includes a built-in antenna that doubles as an on/off switch.
The base station supplies Wi-Fi connectivity for up to five devices within a 100-foot radius. You can download an Iridium app (available for Android and iOS) that allows you to make voice calls as well as send and receive SMS messages up to 1,000 characters long. The Iridium Mail & Web app allows you to check email and do some limited web surfing. Unfortunately, both apps get relatively poor reviews in the app stores, but there are also third-party apps you can use.
Keep in mind that you will not be getting full web-speed broadband coverage with this system. Data speed maxes out at 2.4 Kbps. Those of you who can remember using dial-up modems back in the late 1980s might be able to relate to that speed. However, using the specialized apps and services, you can receive simplified text emails, weather reports, etc.
The RedPort Aurora radome. The Aurora unit works with the XGate app for supplying compressed email and grib weather files.
The RedPort Aurora is a permanently mounted Iridium device that provides Wi-Fi so you can use your smartphone to make calls, get email and weather information, and provide tracking. Unlike Iridium GO, RedPort Aurora provides an external weatherproof antenna unit that can be deck or mast mounted, but you don’t have the ability to utilize the system when off the boat. Power draw is a modest 1 amp when in operation, utilizing power over Ethernet for supply.
The Aurora unit is designed to work with the XGate app. XGate supplies compressed email (using less data), grib weather information, PredictWind Lite, and the capability to update blogs and social media. Utilizing compressed and specialized email service is critical when using Iridium because of the limited data speeds, which is governed by the Iridium network. Like Iridium GO, max data speed is 2.4 Kbps.
A really useful advantage is that Aurora is an NMEA 2000-compliant GPS Wi-Fi repeater, so you can share GPS location data with any device on board, such as an iPad or laptop running chartplotting software.
Available accessories include an analog phone adapter so you can hook up a regular telephone to make and receive calls, and there is an available Wi-Fi repeater to provide greater coverage on large vessels.
Not to be left behind, Inmarsat is also getting into the satellite Internet connectivity game with its IsatHub service. Like Iridium GO, the Wideye iSavi is a portable hot spot that can provide local Wi-Fi (up to 30 meters) at speeds up to 240 Kbps for transmitting and 384 Kbps for receiving. Due to the higher data speeds available, you have the alternative of controlling iSavi via a web interface or a downloadable app.
The Inmarsat system utilizes only three satellites in very high orbits, as compared to the current 66 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites used by Iridium. Consequently, there isn’t full coverage of the globe by Inmarsat, so if you are planning a voyage north or south of the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, you are out of luck. Also, with the small number of satellites in geosynchronous orbits, you will have to do some aiming of the device in order to get reception. Iridium and Globalstar, by contrast, will generally latch on to several satellites with little fiddling.
An interesting option with iSavi is the ability to connect to a few, limited, terrestrial 3G cellphone networks using a SIM card. Once hooked up to a signal, you have a Wi-Fi hot spot that can be shared with over 20 users at a time.
Continuing the theme of techy products with confusing names, Globalstar’s Sat-Fi2 will allow you to turn your cellphone into a satellite phone. Globalstar coverage is not global, but it does offer data speeds up to 72 Kbps. Wi-Fi range is limited to about 50 feet.
Sat-Fi2 is a portable unit, but it is also wall mountable. Needless to say, there is a special Sat-Fi2 app you need to download (available for iOS and Android). Like Iridium GO, there is an SOS function that can contact the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC).
Going one step further, Thuraya has created a dedicated satellite smartphone. The Android smartphone is dual SIM, meaning you can utilize both Thuraya’s satellite network and a land-based cellphone network at the same time. Special features of the phone include navigation that utilizes GPS, GLONASS and BeiDou. Thuraya satellite coverage is mainly over Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia, with GSM (cellphone) roaming available over North and South America.
The OCENS Sidekick unit provides a Wi-Fi hot spot.
The OCENS Sidekick is a neat device if you already own a satellite phone and want to create a Wi-Fi hot spot to allow tethering of your smartphone and other devices. It connects to your Iridium, Globalstar or Inmarsat satphone, and there is an optional USB-to-serial port adapter for hooking up to older devices.
OCENSMail is a service like XGate that offers compressed email, weather and web connectivity with a reduced data footprint. Even if not using satellite services regularly, I have found these services that reduce data can be very useful while cruising when connecting to the Internet via shaky and often slow Wi-Fi in off-the-beaten-track locations. I was able to check and download my email in places where other people were waiting and watching for graphic-intensive web pages to load.
Check it out
With all of the satellite systems that create hot spots, it is important to do the setup and initial testing long before you are well offshore. It is best to use land-based Wi-Fi for downloading the specialized apps, setting up the various subscriptions for services, and configuring your regular email and other Internet accounts to work properly with the slower and less reliable satellite connection. If your setup requires cables and connectors, make sure they all work properly (and reliably), and if anything requires an unusual connector, be sure to carry backups. A few hours of setup will save a lot of pain later, and some online processes may not be possible when at sea.
When using satellite-based email, I set it all up well before heading offshore and begin a routine of checking email and weather for days and weeks prior to heading away from land. Inevitably, you will find many things that need to be tweaked to make it work the way you want it to, and reaching out to the companies for support will be much easier when you can use regular phones, email, etc.
Your dry runs will also provide some indication of what service plan will fulfill your needs. I have found it very difficult to judge how much data I need without actually doing whatever it is I do on board on a daily basis, and due to the high cost of satellite plans it is very important to optimize how you will use the very limited buckets of data and talk minutes you will have available. For example, when I was offshore and utilizing my satphone, I often only downloaded weather once a day, and only checked email when absolutely necessary. Yes, you can do a lot more — but it will cost you!
Service plans vary greatly in price and are not cheap compared to land-based cellphone plans you are used to. For example, the Globalstar Advantage 100 plan for Sat-Fi2 provides 100 minutes of talk time, 15 MB of data and 75 SMS messages per month for $64.99. An Iridium GO plan with 100 minutes of talk/data time and 100 SMS is $89.99 a month. For $89 a month, you can get an Inmarsat plan for the iSavi that provides 25 MB of data, free incoming calls and outgoing calls at $0.89 per minute.
The voice and data coverage areas for Globalstar Gen2 devices.
One great advantage of satellite communications systems that utilize Wi-Fi and smartphones is that you will inevitably have multiple backups on board. You probably already sail with one or more smartphones, a laptop or two, and maybe a tablet. Each one can connect to Wi-Fi and become a very useful onboard communicator, weather device, navigation instrument, chartplotter, etc. You can easily replace these devices in any port around the world. Keep in mind, these satellite services mean you can utilize smartphones even without a cellular plan.
Even if you also have a dedicated chartplotter, it is extremely useful to have a smartphone near the helm that can be used as an additional chartplotter while also allowing you to check regional radar, get weather reports and make calculations. Now, with satellite connectivity, that smartphone can become your link for calling mayday, updating the offshore weather, getting wind and current predictions, and receiving important messages like hurricane warnings.
A further advantage is that there is no learning curve for operating the tech devices you already know and love. Last summer, I had the pleasure of delivering someone else’s boat that came equipped with some nice electronics, but despite having the operating manuals, I just couldn’t figure out how a bunch of things were supposed to work. I never did get the radar going. But, I had my smartphone along and it provided everything I needed for safe coastal navigation. It would be great to have much of that functionality offshore!
John Kettlewell is the executive director of Sail Martha’s Vineyard. He has been cruising from Labrador to the Caribbean for more than 40 years, and he is the author of The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook.