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Satellite Communications For You

Satcom For Everyman

Thanks to powerful new satellites, nearly anyone can now afford to stay in touch from anywhere in the world.

Last August, Inmarsat placed a billion-dollar contract with Boeing for three new satellites. Using higher frequencies than any existing commercial satcom system, they will provide land users with data transfer at a rate of 10MB per second through portable units the size of iPads. Marine users will need stabilized dish antennas and are expected to be more concerned with performance than portability, so for us, Inmarsat is predicting data services at 50MB per second through a typical two-foot dome. To put that in perspective, that’s more than ten times faster than the average domestic broadband signal. It will be a few years yet before these new satellites are up and running, but when they are, they will constitute the next step in a process that has seen satcom develop from requiring receivers the size of garden sheds to handheld phones.

Prepping an I-4 to be mounted onto a Russian Proton rocket.

Inmarsat was in at the very beginning of marine satcom, set up by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to provide a distress communications service. Using leased facilities on commercial satellites and ground stations, it went live in 1982. But although the original Inmarsat A offered voice, fax, and telex service, along with a low-speed data service that was roughly comparable to an old dial-up modem, it required big, expensive domes and terminals and was costly to run. With onboard hardware running about $60,000 and airtime charges upwards of $13 per minute, it was never going to find its way onto your average recreational boat—especially when the average U.S. home price was only $82,000 and a gallon of gas cost $0.91.

No, small craft would have to wait a few more years before Inmarsat launched its own smatellites, called the I-2s. For big-ship folks these satellites opened the door to a service called Inmarsat B, an upgraded, faster, cheaper version of Inmarsat A using slightly smaller domes and with airtime charges around just a couple of dollars per minute.

For small craft, there was Inmarsat C. Instead of big-dish antennas and expensive, heavy gyro-tracking systems, Inmarsat C terminals have omnidirectional antennas housed in radomes that are about the size of coffee mugs, making them small, light, and affordable. And Inmarsat C is part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), which provides boaters with a direct link to search-and-rescue authorities around the world.

For globetrotters Inmarsat C is probably the most cost-effective safety system around, but its limited capabilities—no voice and e-mail limited to 600 bits per second (almost 100 times slower than a dial-up connection)—make it about as sexy as a woolly vest. The next-generation I-3s were an improvement, offering a new technology called spot beams, which allowed satellites to focus their transmissions and receive weaker signals and opened the door to smaller, less expensive domes and lower airtime rates.

A new I-4 satellite undergoing testing at Boeing in California.

But then came the I-4s. Although the I-2s and I-3s are still in operation, it is the constellation of three I-4 satellites, completed just two years ago, that are the backbone of what Inmarsat calls the Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) family of services. Compared with their predecessors, the I-4s are huge—just under 24 feet long, six tons in weight, and 150 feet across from the tip of one solar panel to the other. Each satellite has a reflecting dish that is over 30 feet in diameter to capture even weaker signals than could be received by the I-3 satellites, and to focus its transmissions into over two hundred spot beams. The end user, of course, sees nothing of this: The I-4s, like all their predecessors, are in geostationary orbits more than 22,000 miles above the ground. But what it means is that on land, you can now send and receive voice and broadband data—even video—through a $1,500 portable terminal the size of a laptop computer and exchange voice messages through a handheld mobile phone (left) that costs about $600, with call charges of less than $1 per minute.

FleetBroadband is the marine member of the BGAN family, offering the same services at the same prices but requiring a stabilized dish antenna instead of the simple laptop-size version used ashore. Of course that pushes the price up—but with the smallest domes available for less than $5,000, the price is, at last, low enough to contend with those offered by younger competitors such as Iridium.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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