Broadband speed and choice expand while costs contract

At the dock, inshore or offshore, your vessel and crew can always be in touch with the outside world. Cell phones and VHF radio will provide contact in the coastal area. Beyond their reach, you can use MF and HF radio for both voice and text, including email.

Or, since using radio can be a bit fiddly (the optimal communication frequency can be distance, time and weather dependent), you can also use one of a number of easy-to-use satellite-communication links. Services range from low speeds suitable for email and short-message signaling through higher speeds suitable for voice and data and, with more expensive equipment, for high-speed Web surfing.

Domes house the receiving antennas at Iridium’s ground station in Tempe, Ariz. Iridium has about 250,000 subscibers. The service is supported by 66 active satellites in polar orbit.

An Iridium satellite telephone is the most elegant solution for voice and relatively low-speed data communication, including email. The 66 active polar orbit satellites in the Iridium constellation provide communication from anywhere on any ocean at any time for about 250,000 Iridium subscribers. Making a call on the Iridium system is no different from using a conventional or cellular telephone. Voice quality is more than adequate, although it does not equal that of a landline or cell phone due to the data compression techniques used to economize on spectrum usage. The Iridium system’s relatively short communication distance to its low earth-orbit satellites minimizes the voice delay common to the systems that communicate via much more distant geostationary satellites.

Iridium equipment choices include a hand-held phone; the Applied Satellite Engineering docking station, which holds a standard Iridium phone and provides connections to other onboard equipment; or a small fixed-mount module, such as the ASE ComCenter that contains a built-in Iridium phone and provides connections to wired and wireless phones and computers and modems via an RS232 port. New and reconditioned phones can be rented or purchased. New phones are about $1,400 to $1,600. Voice-data docking stations are about $650.

Iridium introduced its new OpenPort enhanced bandwidth service in February 2008. The system combines three communication channels to provide three phone lines and one data port configurable from 9.6 to 128 Kbps. The omnidirectional shipboard antenna measures 22.5 inches in diameter and is only 9 inches high.

Iridium airtime is sold by various resellers and is priced depending on usage. Iridium service call rates are highly competitive; check the Web. For example, OCENS offers a 12-month, prepaid $699 agreement that provides 500 minutes of airtime, free incoming calls and Short Message Service (SMS) text messages and voice mail. Additional airtime is billed at $1.39 per minute, usually in 20-second increments. The more you buy, the less you pay per minute; charges can be as low as $0.85 per minute with 24-month, 5,000-minute plans.

The Iridium system provides a special landline phone number for use by those wishing to call an Iridium subscriber. Calls made to this number avoid the extra charges imposed on calls to satellite service numbers by some long-distance carriers.

Globalstar can provide an attractive alternative to Iridium for vessels that operate in areas served by the system’s bent-pipe satellites. Communication is achieved by using a satellite that is in position to “see” both the vessel and a shore station. The satellite constellation does not ensure continuous availability of a single satellite in the position needed for communication; therefore the call must be handed off to the next satellite, a process that on occasion can result in a dropped call.

Unfortunately the Globalstar system has experienced performance degradation in the amplifiers in the satellites, interfering with real-time communication (but not significantly affecting one-way data transfer). Globalstar reports that it is launching spare current-model satellites and will loft a new generation of improved satellites in the next few years. Check the Globalstar Web site for service availability updates.

If your communication needs don’t require voice or immediate response to email messages, the SkyMate satellite-based system will be very attractive. The system transfers messages to and from your vessel to the SkyMate land station using a VHF radio link to the Orbcomm low-altitude satellite system. The equipment is small, very easy to install and requires only a VHF whip antenna. A laptop computer is the usual user interface and provides two-way email, vessel-tracking and weather-on-demand service. The system can also be used to automatically monitor and report conditions on the boat, including when it is in port and unoccupied.

The system operates by uplinking messages to whatever Orbcomm satellite may be in view of the vessel, while simultaneously downlinking messages sent from the landside station. In the event an Orbcomm satellite is not in simultaneous view of the vessel and the shore station when a message is to be sent, the information will be stored on board the satellite for transmission when the necessary link is available. A number of service plans are available. For example, the Platinum UM Plan includes 50,000 characters per month for $70 (this paragraph contains 433 characters).

Inmarsat has long been the predominant provider of satellite communications for the world’s merchant marine. Its most basic service provides relatively slow but highly reliable communication using equipment such as the KVH eTrac mini-C/GPS to provide email plus position reporting and position polling, using a 6-inch-high, easy-to-install antenna. System cost is about $3,000. Message cost is about a cent per character.

(It would cost about $3.62 to send the preceding paragraph.)

Communication requirements that exceed the capability of Iridium or one of the data-only systems will usually require a system that communicates with a geostationary satellite through an antenna that automatically tracks the distant satellite. Advances in both the equipment on board the satellites and the shipboard equipment have reduced the size, weight and cost of such systems. The new KVH TracPhone V7 mini-VSAT Broadband system, a non-Inmarsat solution, is an excellent example of the latest technology. The antenna dome is only 24 inches in diameter, 85 percent smaller in volume and 75 percent lighter (it weighs 60 pounds) than the previously required 1-meter-diameter antenna dome. Belowdeck equipment is housed in two small enclosures, the control unit and the system modem. Most installations will also include a data-switch module, a VOIP (voice over internet protocol) router and a wireless router.

Data rates can vary considerably but can be as high as 512 Kbps for ship-to-shore uploads and may reach 2 Mbps for shore-to-ship downloads. Signal coverage will be expanded to cover most of the North Atlantic during 2008 and 2009.

Mini-VSAT Broadband airtime plans include unlimited voice, data and megabyte-based plans. Per-month prices range from about $1,300 for 128 Kbps two-way communication upward to $5,300 per month for always-on communication at 512 Kbps ship-to-shore and 2,048 Kbps shore-to-ship. Per-megabyte service plans begin at $4.99 per megabyte for 512 Kbps/1,024 Kbps with no fixed monthly charge to $2.99 per megabyte for up to 500 MB with a monthly charge of $1,495. VOIP phone on these plans is at an additional cost of $9.95 per month plus 75 cents per minute (calls also add to the MB count).

The Inmarsat Fleet broadband system can provide voice and data service using a variety of shipboard systems, beginning with the very compact F33. The KVH TracPhone F33 communicates via the Fleet dial-up data channel and the higher speed Mobile Packet Data Service (MDPS) using the satellites’ global spot beams. The sharply focused spot beams provide additional signal-to-noise-ratio performance for high traffic-density areas, allowing use of smaller and less costly shipboard equipment. There are no monthly fees associated with this service. You pay for only what you use. Speeds using the always-on MDPS service can reach 140 Kbps uplink to the satellite and 320 Kbps downlink (with acceleration software). Data service speed can reach 48 Kbps both ways with fax service at 9.6 Kbps.

The antennas are compact, either 18 or 14 inches in diameter (larger antennas provide more robust signal integrity). KVH and other manufacturers offer larger antenna options that can communicate at higher data rates. The TracPhone FB250 can use a 26-inch or 35-inch-diameter antenna to support 4 Kbps voice, 3.1 kHz digital audio, standard IP at up to 432 Kbps and streaming IP at between 32 and 256 Kbps. Typical prices for these services for low-volume users are $1.50 per minute for phone calls, $13.50 per MB for data and 59 cents for a 16-character SMS. Inmarsat Mini M service charges are $1.75 per minute for voice/fax or data and are discounted by some sellers when new equipment is purchased. A complete display of the many service plans and prices can be found on the Internet.

It’s important to view all claims of data-transfer or Web-surfing speeds as the best you may achieve, not as a guarantee. However, the typical performance and the cost of communication using any of these systems would amaze anyone who sailed more than just a few years ago. And the story of onboard communication and TV entertainment has only begun to be written. For example, ICO Global Communications (Holdings) Ltd. recently launched the first of its DVB-SH (Digital Video Broadcasting-Satellite services to Hand-helds) mobile TV and mobile media satellites, the largest and most powerful of their type ever placed in orbit.

Regardless of which of today’s communication systems you select, you can be certain that the speed and flexibility of communication will increase, the size and complexity of shipboard equipment will decrease and the cost of all services will continue to decline.

By Professional Mariner Staff