Onboard satcom is now cheaper than cellphone service.
Did you know that it is now cheaper to phone home from the Bahamas or the Virgin Islands through a shipboard satellite terminal than it is through a cellphone?
Verizon, for instance, charges $1.99 per minute for calls from the Caribbean to the United States, while charges for Inmarsat’s Fleet Broadband service are less than $1.50 per minute. The same is true of mobile internet access, with Verizon charging just over $20/MB in some areas compared with Fleet Broadband at less than $14/MB. Satellite communications have become steadily more affordable, more practical, and more user-friendly over the past 20 years or so, and now—quite suddenly, it seems—we’ve passed the tipping point at which they have become a truly viable proposition for almost any boat with offshore potential.
When it was first introduced, satellite communications was definitely a thing for big ships and big budgets. Early Satcom A domes were the size and weight of garden sheds, and the price of the hardware alone—before you added in the cost of building a structure to support it and installing the dome and below-decks units—ran well into five figures. Now, Fleet Broadband domes are the size and weight of bowling balls and can be bought for less than $5,000.
This dramatic reduction in size, weight, and price would have been impossible without a significant upgrade to Inmarsat’s satellite constellation. Unlike its more recent rival, Iridium, Inmarsat has always used geosynchronous satellites, orbiting almost 20,000 miles out in space and taking almost exactly 24 hours to complete each orbit. Iridium satellites, by comparison, are less than 500 miles above the surface, and each one whips around the earth more than 14 times a day.
Being so far away gives Inmarsat the advantage that each satellite can “see” a vast swath of the earth’s surface. So the system doesn’t need as many satellites, nor does it have to overcome the problem of passing calls from one satellite to another, which has given it a great—and justified—reputation for reliability. But this configuration also means that the satellite and the onboard terminal have to be able to transmit and receive over vast distances. That’s why early Inmarsat terminals needed such big domes: they had to enclose six-foot dish aerials to receive weak signals from satellites and to focus their own transmissions.
In August 2008, however—possibly encouraged by competition from the likes of Iridium—Inmarsat launched the third satellite required to complete its I4-satellite constellation. Compared with the I2 and I3 satellites that went before them (and which are still in service) the I4 satellites are huge. Just under 24 feet long and ten feet wide, the main body of each is the size of a small bus, its reflecting dish is over 30 feet across, and its solar panels are about eight yards wide and generate 13 kW of electricity.
But the I4 aren’t just about size and power. One of the clever things about these new satellites is that each one has 120 separate transmitting aerials that can focus its transmissions into hundreds of high-power spot beams. Not only do such narrow beams focus the satellite signal more effectively than before, they can also be reconfigured and refocused to react to changing demand.
Best of all from your point of view, all this technology is easier to buy and to use than it has ever been. You can’t quite walk into Radio Shack and come out with a Fleet Broadband terminal, but there are literally dozens of companies that will supply the hardware and fix you up with an airtime package to suit your intended use. Inmarsat’s Web site includes a very useful partner search facility (www.inmarsat.com/Partners/Partner_search) to help locate a suitable supplier.
The biggest decision you need to make is which type of terminal you need. There are three to choose from, and two or three different manufacturers producing each type.
Fleet’s Broadband 150 is probably the best choice for owner-operated boats. Depending upon which model you choose, the dome is about a foot in diameter and weighs five to ten pounds, and including its below-deck unit, is priced at $5,000 to $7,500. It offers voice, text, and e-mail/internet connection up to 150 kbps, slow compared to domestic broadband but okay for e-mailing and occasional Web surfing.
Fleet’s Broadband 250 is the mid-range product. Its dome is two or three inches bigger than that of the FB150 and correspondingly heavier. It’s about twice the price of the FB150, too, but almost doubles the internet connection speed to a pretty healthy 284 kbps and adds fax and—if you really want it—streaming video.
The top of the range is Fleet’s Broadband 500, intended primarily for commercial vessels and offering 432 kbps internet, voice, fax, and text messaging through a dome that is roughly twice the size of the FB150 and weighs about 50 pounds. It’s priced at about three times the FB150.
Perhaps the best possible reason for choosing any of these options though, is a brand-new service, launched just last October, that we all hope never to use. Simply by dialling 505—a number chosen because it looks so much like “SOS”—the service connects you directly to the nearest coast guard search-and-rescue center, wherever you are in the world and without having to go through a shore-based telephone operator.
When you combine the affordability and added safety factor of having satellite communications aboard, it’s hard to justify not having it aboard, even if you never leave sight of land.
This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.