Satellites, Systems & Software

By Tom Cooper

All owners should consider these key points, before getting into the technicalities:

Crew expectations

Requirement for connectivity?

Destination to explore

Where, remote or populated regions?

Communication needs

Emergency, weather and emails or highly active internet users?

There is no silver bullet to being connected unless you’re prepared to throw a lot of money at it, but by assessing the points above you’ll be able to focus on selecting communication equipment which incorporates a Satcom unit and service provider that’s relevant to your situation.

Everyone will require different contact support.

You may prefer not to be located or in touch except in an emergency, or for “core needs and  weather.” You may be a business owner who wants to cruise while staying in touch with the office, or you may want to stream Netflix in the Doldrums! Whatever the demand, there is equipment and a level of service plans that will accommodate your requirements.

My suggestion is to integrate a combination of technologies to take advantage of low-cost options when they are available.


On-board Systems

Marina Wi-FI

Free is always best! Great if available at the speeds you require. There are worthwhile WiFi signal boosters that can assist, but beware Marina WiFi networks can be patchy, limited, or overloaded and may require payment before you can log on.

Cellular Network

4G/4Gs/5G/ LTE via Sim card. Usually a better connection than WiFi, familiar, reliable technology assuming you’re in range. Signal boosters can extend the range and using local SIM cards in foreign waters reduces the costs, but 4G is not always suitable for bulk data.

Satellite comms

You’re about to explore the truly remote waters of blue water cruising and with Satcom you can stay connected.

Back to the key points – where and what connectivity do you require?

Simply:  

  • Time x Bandwidth speed (therefore equipment & plan) = Costs
  • Providers and equipment have a variety of different speeds, satellite types (orbiting or geostationary) and coverage areas.

It must be understood that the data cost is related to the equipment operating speed and the longer you are hooked up to the satelitte the higher your data cost will be per Kb.


Option levels of Satellite comms

  1. Omni/directional antenna systems
    Most cruisers requirements are covered by either:
  • Inmarsat Fleet One (not Fleet Broadband) Over 100x faster (150Kb) than handheld and data price per Mb will be approx 10% of a hand-held. Equipment price €2900-€4500.  
  • Approx average monthly airtime cost €60-€300 (courtesy of Ed Wildgoose of Mailasail)
    Good for email, weather, Whatsapp and small attachments – expensive if used for regular web browsing.
  • Iridium Certus 
    Almost 5 x faster than Fleet One (700 Kbit)
    Equipment price approx €7,500.
    Approx average monthly airtime cost €300-€1,500 (courtesy of Ed Wildgoose of Mailasail.
    Great for unlimited large weather files, business emails and attachments,and a bit of browsing in modest amounts.
    Requires care and cost to set-up and integrate well.

2. Handheld – The smallest of systems
There are a few competitive options in this sector, but Iridium Handhelds lead the market. Good for distress voice and can be used for small bytes of weather and text data. Ideal as an emergency back-up.

Priced between €650 to €2100 but beware it could take one hour to transmit or receive 1Mb of data…. @ €1.3 / min.

3. FBB Fleet Broadband
Similar performance to Certus, older technology but with the advantages of tracking antenna for pinpoint and faster signal – equipment and installation costs are more expensive. More moving parts so higher service/maintenance costs.

4. VSAT
The fastest broadband speeds with tracking antenna. More costly equipment and plans. The equipment can range from €15-20,000 and installation will double that cost. Can be paired with Certus for back-up when the VSAT internet is not available.

NB Its important to check system maps for coverage of where you’re sailing. Prices are industry estimates only and exclude installation.


Simple Integration & Easy Use

Now you have carefully selected a Satcom to suit your requirements and are ready to integrate it into a whole system – keep the installation simple and user interface easy.

Avoid spending your cruising adventure being “that IT guy”. You just want to get online and check on the weather, emails or friends.

There are good options for connecting and integrating a system with a reliable interface and plug and play equipment solutions. 

Example: Red Box Pro from Mailasail, as tested in world-wide cruising by Kraken Yachts.

Integrates:

  • WiFi (can be fitted with booster)
  • WiFi router, USB. LAN, Sat Phone, connections
  • 4G (can be fitted with a booster and accept multiple slots for local SIM)
  • You can have one SIM for owner and another for charter guests
  • Your own choice of satellite system 
  • Compatible with Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya XT, Globalstar, VSat, FBB
  • Inbound and outbound firewall and spam filters
  • Connect to NMEA Data – position
  • Pull up AIS on your devices
  • Auto self configures all – plug in your equipment and play
  • You select the cheapest connection
  • Mailasail ® Roam-Free email and weather communications
  • Simple cost control prevents expensive mistakes

You can either specify the system parts separately and connect to Red Box or have Red Box/Kraken Yachts (on new builds) provide a drop-in, whole of boat system.


Watch out for LEO!

“The New Space Race”, planned constellations of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites are in rapid development by companies like Elon Musk’s Space X, OneWeb, Amazon etc.

Assuming it doesn’t pollute the night sky, or replicate it as a Tesla dashboard, 

it may revolutionionise remote communications and hopefully will lower the costs of communication and hardware.

www.itu.int/en/myitu/News/2020/08/18/07/51/Uncertainties-high-speed-Internet-low-earth-orbit-LEO-satellite-broadband

Next month, Part 2

Grib file download programs for weather charting and onboard computer hardway solutions for displaying them.

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