— February 2003
By Ben Ellison
Web Surfing at Sea
|PMY Tested: MiniWEB Satellite Communications|
Boaters MiniWEB seems like an ironic name for this interesting new hardware/service product, as it's not remotely capable of Web surfing (or even phone calls). Instead MiniWEB manages to wring a host of other useful, and fairly thrifty, marine communications from the low-power, small-data-packet architecture of the Orbcomm LEO satellite network. The transceiver is a ruggedly built, book-size box, which only needs a VHF-style antenna. It draws little power and can be left on continuously to automatically download incoming e-mail, send your GPS position out as desired, or even to deliver alarms when you're ashore.
Wiring the MiniWEB communicator to antenna, power, GPS, and laptop sounds more complicated than it actually was. In less than an hour, I was loading the system's straightforward software and communicating via satellite. I was impressed. With data limited to--and billed by--text characters (bytes), it's important that the service make the most of each one. MiniWEB does this in numerous ways. For instance, it has rigorous but simple-to-implement e-mail filtering so that you don't find yourself paying to read spam. And you can access your e-mail, including the filtered-out stuff, when ashore via the Web to further minimize airtime costs. MiniWEB also offers easy ways to turn a basic text e-mail into either a fax or voice message on the land end, and has two options for getting location-specific text weather forecasts.
If the transceiver is wired to a GPS, you can send positions with any message or automatically at regular intervals with a link to the appropriate chart on Maptech's Web site. The optional boat-monitoring kit is fairly rudimentary, only watching bilges and voltages, but MiniWEB is darn clever to let you make use of the sat connection whether you're on or off the boat.
Orbcomm satellites will not always be in sight of both you and a ground station, but the resulting five- to 20-minute transmission lags won't matter much to the sort of narrow band services described here. The good news for adventurous cruisers is that coverage includes almost all of the Americas, Europe, the Far East, and a lot of blue water. MiniWEB hardware starts at $799 before options, and the premium service plan offers 8,000 characters of messaging per month for $30, with added characters at $0.15 per 100. The software nicely keeps track of characters used, and MiniWEB is a rare communications service that offers a low maintenance charge when you don't need to use it for months at a time. At presstime, MiniWEB decided to fix the confusion over its name by changing it to Sky-Mate.
Sky-Mate Phone: (866) 646-4932. www.sky-mate.com.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.