Six steps to satcom


Satellite telephone airtime pricing has dropped considerably since Inmarsat launched the first communication satellites more than 30 years ago. In the 1980s, voice and data calls used an analog channel that was billed at $10 or more per minute. On board, crewmembers using a payphone to talk with loved ones had to pay $30 for a three-minute minimum. Now, however, most services are data based and prices have fallen. You still need to know what various services provide to make the right choices in satcom for your boat.

The move toward data started with the rise of low-bandwidth data services like AOL, and commercial customers were able to take their messaging to sea using 2,400-baud modems at $8 dollars a minute. Taking advantage of this messaging convenience but trying to save money, users would compose their messages offline and then complete batch transmissions online. Times have changed, and so have technologies, services and costs.

In the 1990s, Inmarsat, Iridium and other carriers introduced new digital services and the rates slowly started to drop. Price models changed from per-minute billing to pricing by the bit. Service providers adopted technology that used satellites more efficiently, allowing users access to greater bandwidth. Even with improved technology, high-speed data had only progressed to speeds of 64 Kbps and was still expensive. There have been megayachts that spend $7 dollars per minute for high-speed data with a monthly bill exceeding $300,000.

Today, satellite data rates have come way down while data speeds have increased. Users on leisure boats are able to add satellite connectivity for greater safety and communication. Even with these price and speed improvements, one should never expect the same 4G speeds at sea that are achieved on land.

How do cruise ships, commercial vessels and megayachts receive faster speeds and greater bandwidth? They have VSAT (very small aperture terminals) services utilizing C-, Ku- or Ka-band networks. While VSAT systems offer lower airtime costs and unlimited data packages, huge expensive radomes (antennas) are required. These large domes, ranging in size from 60 cm to 1 meter, are not practical for recreational/long-range cruisers. Using L-band terminals and networks such as Inmarsat and Iridium can save long-range cruisers thousands and still provide connectivity anywhere.

Using a satellite Wi-Fi hotspot/firewall like the RedPort Optimizer allows for using satcom data with a variety of devices.

Stacy Payne/Network Innovations

Most satellite airtime plans still charge by the megabyte, not the minute, and can exceed $25/MB. You need to take measures to protect yourself from unwanted data use. If you’re not careful, you will spend $75 dollars to send that selfie or thousands of dollars for an automatic computer. Follow these steps to minimize your risk:

Step 1: Get the right satphone
Both Inmarsat and Iridium offer inexpensive phones, from hand-held to radomes. You may be fine with a hand-held phone and docking station, giving you flexibility to take the phone on the go. If your communications needs are more important, consider an external antenna mounted in your rigging. Look for hardware that features favorable service plans like the Iridium GO for global unlimited messaging or the Inmarsat Fleet One for the new unlimited data plan for coastal cruisers.

Step 2: Find the right airtime plan based on anticipated usage
The more you pay, the more you can play! If high data usage is anticipated, larger plans can be a smarter investment. The larger the plan, the less charge per bit and byte. You need to work with a trusted service provider so that plan can save hundreds of dollars.

Step 3: Talk to your service provider and keep track of usage
Many service providers can send usage alerts and cap your monthly spending. Have your service provider set a monthly maximum amount by volume or dollars. When the monthly limit is reached, service will be suspended. Some items to consider:

  • Make sure that voice service is not included in the automatic suspension or you won’t be able to call and reactivate.
  • Once the monthly cap is set, have the service provider send a couple of test alerts to see how the reminders work. For example, for a $300 cap, set a reminder alert at the $150 threshold and another at $200 as reminders before the final suspension at $300.
  • Find a service provider that has online access to review bills, make payments and order airtime products.

Warning: Some service providers will not stop a data transmission that is in progress. If you are not careful, your computer will be online for hours using the active connection to update software.

Step 4: Install a firewall
One of the most important safeguards is the installation of a firewall to prevent unwanted data usage. A firewall, if properly configured, will stop rogue data usage. Newly installed computers are pre-programmed to install automatic updates. Data traffic without a firewall can turn a simple afternoon software update into a $2,000 airtime bill.

An Inmarsat satellite phone.

Stacy Payne/Network Innovations

In the satellite communications industry, two firewall providers are very popular — the Optimizer from RedPort and Sidekick by OCENS. Both offer built-in Wi-Fi and are compatible with most smart devices. Install one of these firewalls in between your satphone and computer, tablet or smartphone.

Step 5: Web acceleration/passwords
Web acceleration is provided using on-the-fly data compression and can significantly reduce data volume. A compression service will strip out advertising and reduce picture resolution. Remember to secure your Wi-Fi with a password so neighboring vessels cannot hop on your network and run up bills.

Step 6: Set up email
Most satellite service providers provide email clients that are efficient and automated. These programs work well with modern smart devices, tablets and laptops. Email will be compressed prior to transmission, and email polling will be automated. For more information, check out SpeedMail (free for Network Innovations’ customers).

With a little research and the right partner, satellite communications at sea are no longer just for commercial vessels. Anyone can have connectivity on the water just like on land. With the proper compression, acceleration and security processes, hundreds of messages can be sent and received without destroying your cruising budget. Satellite Wi-Fi devices enable the access of personal smart devices for greater convenience and ease of use. For long-range cruisers, weather, email, texting, voice and tracking connectivity lets you get away from it all without leaving it all behind!

Dave Brengelmann has worked in the satellite phone industry for 25 years. He actively cruises with his family on his Beneteau 411. Email for more information.

By Ocean Navigator