Satellite Communications

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Satellite Communications News

Options for communicating on a boat and out of VHF & cell phone range include Satellite and SSB. SSB can get you some very cheap air time after the initial start up costs. However new developments in satellite technology is making this option cheaper.

To give you an idea of costs a cell phone call from the Bahamas to the US may cost more than a sat phone call. Satellite phone costs vary from close to $1/minute to $1.5/minute, so if you use the phone sparingly it’s not that expensive.

One new feature from satellite providers is free incoming text messages to subscribers via web site. This works by a party going to say the Iridium messaging site and entering their friends Iridium phone number and typing in a message. The text message then appears on the Iridium phone within a few minutes.

Features & Needs

Before we look into each of the satellite offerings it is important to understand the needs that you want. For example you may just need a phone to make calls, you may need to send and receive emails, you may want to look for weather forecasts, then you may want to browse the web or make Skype calls, and finally you may want to stream Video.

Each of these features requires more and more transfer of data. The phone is the simplest and cheapest, while Video is the other end of the spectrum. For the Phone the Iridium phone is the most popular with offshore cruisers. The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) for example had a survey conducted by Yachting World magazine where 69% of the participants used Iridium. Inmarsat was second at 33%. Next came SSB users at 54% while SSB with modem was 15%. Check Yachting World December 2012 for more. Many of these cruisers used a Iridium phone with SSB as a backup.

For a phone like the Iridium you can just have the Phone, although you may want to add an external antenna so you can make calls from below. But for large amounts of data you need an Omni Directional antenna, these are the domes you see on larger vessels.

Satellite Systems how they work  


Phones are obviously for voice communications; however some data transfer is available.

To aid in this data transfer you can use data compression services like MailaSail and Sailmail and provide E mail and compression services. In the last ARC Atlantic rally Yachting World reports that MailaSail and Sailmail were the two most popular services.

Phones need a line of sight and so for use below deck you should invest in an external antenna and wire it to down below

You can also rent Phones

Iridium Phone

Iridium uses a constellation of 66 satellites. The number 66 is the atomic number for iridium. The satellites use a LEO orbit.

Iridiums latest phone the 9555 comes with full global coverage and voice and data capability at a reasonable cost considering the benefits.

Iridium phones have their own numbers like they are their own country. The 12 digit numbers beginning with 8816. Calls from landlines or mobiles are expensive and to save on expensive calls use two-stage dialing. This involves calling a routing service in the USA and entering the Iridium phone number you wish to contact. The caller will pay the call to the routing service, and the Iridium phone-holder will pay for the satellite portion of the call.

The data speed is still only 2,400 bps, so surfing the web will be slow and e mails sent judiciously. However employing XGate or OCENS to compress data will be a great benefit. The new USB port allows easy connection.

Services Provided; Voice, slow data

Hardware Costs; Iridium 9555 retail around $1,500

Service Costs ; call costs of $1 for iridium to iridium and $1.5 for iridium to PSTN, (public switched telephone network).

Coverage; World wide coverage, due to 66 satellites



The new isatPhone Pro
Pro provides telephone, voice mail, text messaging and e-mail. Hands-free operation via Bluetooth is built in. Cost around $500 with airtime plans starting at $20 a month plus around $1/minute.

Services Provided; Voice, SMS and basic email

Hardware Costs; IsatPhone costs around $500

Service Costs ; calls cost around $1/minute

Coverage; Map

Satellite Antenna

For more data and ability to surf the web and even video you need an Omi Directional antenna. The reason for this is so you can get to the GEO satellites which are a long way away.

Iridium Pilot

Iridium provide data transfer beyond the phone. Open Port and Iridiums Pilot have a small antenna that can Iridium "Pilot keeps ships connected everywhere on the planet"

Service; Data Up to 134 kbps bidirectional with Iridium OpenPort broadband service. Antenna size; 9 Inch dia

hardware Cost; $4,900.00

Coverage; Global, pole-to-pole

Testimonial Round the World Vendee Globe racers use Iridium Pilot IMOCA 60 communications

MCLEAN, Va., May 30, 2012 -- Iridium Communications Inc. is providing vital satellite broadband communications for the IMOCA Championship. Twenty sailboats will be equipped with Iridium Pilot™ terminals, the new Iridium maritime broadband platform, as part of the telecommunications package provided by Geolink, a long-time Iridium partner and innovative race communications supplier. Relying on the world's only truly global satellite network, skippers and crews can access real-time weather reports, sailing conditions, benefit from an emergency communications safety link, and stay connected to family and friends via phone, email, Facebook and Twitter throughout the race.



Sailor 500 on Volvo 70

Inmarsat Operates four GEO satellites to provide phone, fax, and data to anywhere in the world, the poles excepted. Originally built by a consortium of countries, Inmarsat was privatized in 1999.

FleetBroadband; is the latest from Inmarsat. FleetBroadband antenna come in FB500, FB250 and FB150. FleetBroadband 150 is the smallest service from Inmarsat, with 150 Kbps, the data speed. Antenna sizes are around 11 inches diameter and weigh only 9 lbs. The stabilized antenna rotates 360 degrees, and down for pitch and roll. The picture shows a Volvo 70 round the world racer which uses a Thrane & Thrane Sailor 500 to provide not only communications, but streaming video.

Services Provided; phone, fax, and data

Hardware Costs; Cost of the FleetBroadband system is varied. The sailor costs around 5,650 Euros, or close to $8,000 US. Skipper 150 has a price under $5,000 and also claim better features check them out at Skipper 150 FleetBroadband solution

Coverage; Worldwide the poles excepted.

Hardware Providers; KVH, Thrane & Thrane Sailor, Skipper from AddValue

FleetBroadband 505 emergency call
Good news for Inmarsat and FleetBroadband users is the new 505 emergency call service. Due to come into effect on October 1st 2009 the new service allows users to connect directly to a coast guard rescue center. These centers are called RCC for rescue co-ordination center and operate 24/7


VSAT terminals are very sophisticated and hence expensive. They cost more than Inmarsat and Iridium or sat TV, but do offer unlimited airtime and data reception rates as fast as 2 Mbp.

The picture shows a KVH Trackphone V7 (24" dome) setup on a 130ft Westport. This is the personal boat of a NFL football team Owner. He needs lots of data communications so he is OK with the very high startup costs and the monthly fees he gets with the V7 VSAT antenna.

Press Release; "KVH Industries, Inc. today introduced a new type of satellite communications service that enables small, 24" antennas to provide affordable, "always on" broadband data connections to vessels. The new mini-VSAT Broadband service uses sophisticated spread spectrum technology to provide vessels with data reception rates as fast as 2 Mbps and data transmission rates as fast as 512 Kbps via a 24" KVH-developed marine terminal. To support this service, KVH, under a joint development agreement with ViaSat, Inc. , developed the TracPhone(R) V7 two-way broadband satellite terminal.

Services Provided; E-mail, Multiple voice lines, Internet browsing, Instant messaging, (VPNs)

Data Speed; 2 Mbp.

Hardware Costs; V7 hardware costs $32,995 including voice. Cheaper options do exist like the KVH V3

Service Costs ; data will run more starting at $995

Harware providers; KVH, SeaTel,

Coverage; KVH Trackphone Map


Email Service

Skymate is a "store and forward system" and charges by character. In addition to text only skymate offers the ability to send faxes and even voicemail, Weather downloads are also a benefit. The outgoing message is read by computerized voice and delivered to a phone number. Skymate is not GMDSS capable. The antenna is a 38 inch whip.

Services Provided; E mail

Hardware Costs; For $1,200 you get silver box e mail system, which connects to your computer. and VHF style antenna.

Service Costs ; Pricing is per character transmitted, ranging from a $18/month plan for 8,000 characters sent and received, to $70/month for 50,000 characters.

Coverage; Skymate map showing large coverage but not Poles or lower South Africa

Text Messaging, Distress and Tracking


Globalstar has been around for a while, but have had problems with their satellites over the past few years. However for the future Globalstar has funding which will help it launch new satellites to get them back in the game. Press release from Globalstar. The French government is behind this and with Thales Alenia space providing the satellites

In the meantime Globalstars Spot satellite messenger is making inroads in the tracking field. Spot is not a voice satellite but a tracking device. The advantage of the Spot messenger is that friends can follow your adventures online with your position plotted on Google earth.

Spot inc is a subsidiary of Globalstar. Spot personal tracker is a more than a tracker it allows messages other than distress to be sent. Spot uses the simplex side of the Globalstar network so may not be influenced by the poor duplex Globalstar coverage of late. See for more on that. For more on SPOT and Globalstar and look for SPOT.

Services Provided; Text messenging, Rescue and GPS tracking.

Hardware Costs; The cost is $150 for the device

Service Costs ; $99/year subscription.

Similar to Skymate, most of the world buy not close to the poles or lower South Africa. Map here


Reading the Yachting World report on the ARC rally you got the impression that people were having problems with perfectly good equipment. The problem many encountered is installation or operating problems. This can be teething issues because this equipment has specific installation issues.

The lesson to be learnt is to get the equipment well before a big passage and make sure the installation is working and you can test the gear and get used to it before you depart on your big cruise.

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