Fortunately you won't have to fuss much about data protocols, as most current cells will automatically switch to the fastest available on your particular network. You can also skip the handset-to-laptop hassle by getting a data-only, PC-card-style "phone." I saw a lot of these stuck in cruising-boat computers last season, some tricked out with amps and external antennas for better range. Whereas data plans are generally separate from calling plans, it doesn't really matter if the hardware is separate, too, except that you won't be able to go online from, say, a marina bistro, Jeff Siegel-style.
Cellular data cards also lend themselves to boat networks. Some cruisers use them with routers like Kyocera's KR1 or Junxion Box, which can serve the Web to multiple computers via both local WiFi and Ethernet. That's also the architecture underlying KVH's TracNet 100, a whole marine system that includes not only an EVDO card, WiFi router, amp, and antenna, but also a wireless keyboard and TV connection, so that you can go online using the super-simple MSN TV service. Then there is Shakespeare's new CruiseNet, which uses an industrial cell modem and techniques like antenna diversity to maximize high-speed wireless data, purportedly even 50 miles offshore.
But, wait—wasn't WiFi all the rage for Web-wanting cruisers, as enthused about here in July 2005? Well, cellular now has much better coverage, at least in the States, and is easier to use once you're set up with your single provider. But WiFi can still be significantly faster and less expensive. Plus the fine print in many cell plans reveals that the term "unlimited" does not include Web cameras, voice-over-IP calls (VOIP), and several other Internet activities cruisers might enjoy. Hence many boats use both, and at least one company, Syrens Onboard, is working on a marine WiFi-cell hybrid that will use the best available connection, even both at once when possible.
Speaking of hybrids, SkyMate has shown a prototype that combines its original slow-but-bluewater satellite messaging, tracking, weather, and monitoring with GPRS cellular data, the most pervasive protocol outside the United States. The Skymate One also squeezes a Sirius weather/audio radio and a GPS into its single antenna/case—and the company promises unified subscription and e-mail management—but this ambitious product is still very much in development. I'm sure that we'll see more schemes that use coastal cellular as part of a total marine e-mail/Web solution. Then again, I'm onto a new custom yacht that's somehow equipped with Inmarsat's Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN), even though it's supposedly not yet marine-ready. That's a story worth pursuing, as BGAN promises reasonably priced, reasonably fast online all the time almost anywhere afloat with just a small stabilized antenna. Thus a cruising boat might have Web surfing as fast as a huge-domed megayacht, though—the funny part—not nearly as fast as today's home.
I'm considering a Standard Horizon chartplotter; should I be worried about what happens to C-Map?—R. I., via e-mail
Ah, so you've been listening to those nabobs of negativism who fear that Jeppesen, C-Map's new owner, might compete with the various hardware manufacturers whom C-Map has long supported with charts and plotter software. "Absolutely not," says James Detar, introduced as the new head of Jeppesen Recreational Marine at a Miami International Boat Show press conference. Detar is an American who has worked at C-Map in Italy for more than 15 years, first producing charts, then working with OEMs, which seems reassuring. He also sounded excited about the possibilities of applying Jeppesen's huge data collection and management resources to C-Map's existing cartography. Meanwhile, Jeppesen's Nobeltec division will take over the job of helping companies like Standard Horizon present those charts well, which, in fact, a Standard manager I later talked to seems thrilled about. I think, then, that the answer to your question is, "No worries."
Readers may also be wondering what it may mean that Norway-based Navico has added Northstar, Navman, and MX Marine to Simrad, B&G, and Lowrance to form what's arguably become the world's largest marine electronics company. I spoke with Navico CEO Jens-Thomas Pietralla at the Miami show, but the deal was so fresh he could only outline general principals. He said Navico will function as a "family of brands" and is not overly worried about overlap among them. Navico's hoped-for competitive advantage will be shared research and development as well as shared distribution. There will be some "brand and platform focusing," but exactly what that means remains to be seen.
Got a marine electronics question? Write to Electronics Q&A, Power & Motoryacht, 261 Madison Ave., 6th Fl., New York, NY 10016. Fax: (212) 915-4328. e-mail PMYElectronics@primedia.com. For fastest response, visit the PMY Electronics forum. No phone calls, please.
This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.