Web Surfing at Sea

Electronics — February 2003
By Ben Ellison

Web Surfing at Sea
GEOs, LEOs, and $50,000 phone bills.

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Once upon a time, before megayachts existed, a Yankee whaler heading out to the Pacific sent his last letter home via a "mail chest" located next to a commonly used Galapagos watering anchorage, and probably received his next news from family when he returned to that same chest a couple of years later. Nowadays, of course, that fisherman would be sailing under skies teeming with satellites enabling voice and e-mail connections, showering down GPS and weather data, and more. We can be blasé about sat technology; that is, until we try to provide broadband Internet access to yachts offshore. That's hard.

"Broadband" itself is vague. For many home users it just means a greater than 100-Kbps cable or ISDN connection that loads graphically busy Web pages almost instantly. Business users may be used to multiple Mbps fiber networks permitting the likes of high-resolution video conferencing. Regardless, most broadband users don't bat an eye at hefty e-mails with attached photos or work files; costs and technological details are fairly trivial.

But if we want some level of broadband onboard--be it for any of the uses above or offshore-specific tasks like super-fine weather imagery or video medical consulting--the details become quite important. Take the old bits and bytes confusion. A bit is your basic digital on/off signal, and eight bits make a byte, which might be a character of text or a particle of code. For reasons unknown, communication is measured in bits but file sizes are measured in bytes. In other words, a 1-megabyte (MB) file coming through a 56-kilobit-per-second (Kbps) modem--the old telephone line standard--does not move at 1,000 divided by 56 seconds speed, but rather eight times slower. And that's if the modem is operating at "optimal" speed, which is rare.

Now, as opined, if your broadband connection is always on for a reasonable flat rate, and the visual data speed doesn't frustrate you, the details don't matter much. However, picture yourself as a megayacht captain with a $30,000 Inmarsat B system only able to go online at a somewhat pokey 64 Kbps, yet costing about nine dollars a minute. Bits and bytes matter when that 3-MB music cut ka-chings at about $75. I sat in on a seminar where such captains shared war stories. Many have become their own network administrators or have specialists on-call, due to incidents like "the $50,000 satphone bill." Usually the culprit is some software that expects an "always on" Internet link and manages to dial out of the yacht, trying to be helpful, and leaves the line open. Apparently even megayacht owners blanch at such expenses.

While the hunt is on for more land-like value and speed, there are sound reasons for high hardware and airtime costs. Putting up a satellite constellation with its attendant earth stations does involve rocket science, not to mention dense international regulations and financial daring. A modern communications satellite might measure 100 feet across its 10,000-watt solar-generating appendages and contain $200 million worth of gear. And service calls are obviously a problem! Plus, each of the various distinct satellite schemes has its problems as well.

Next page > Web Surfing At Sea continued > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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