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August 12, 2010

Make Sense of Sat Com

Understanding marine satellite communications options can be tough.
100-0710satcom iridum

The next iteration of navigational equipment will move toward Internet connectivity for updates of software and cartography and for service data like marina information or fuel prices at the next port. The logical link for this, especially when you fish beyond cell phone range or where marinas may not be fitted out with Wi-Fi, is a reliable satellite link.

Comparison-shopping the gear and the service plans is like comparing bluefin tuna to bonefish. There is little that each of the companies offering them has in common, save the satellite connection. For example, let's look at a particular Inmarsat arrangement. Inmarsat has been in the satellite business since the late 1970s and supplies communications service to a broad swath of the marine industry, commercial and recreational. This company's newest entry into the recreational boating market is the FleetBroadband 150, a 12-inch dome, light enough to mount anywhere, that provides a full range of satellite services, from telephone to broadband Internet access. Inmarsat has licensed two companies, Thrane & Thrane and Addvalue Communications, to manufacture antennas for the service.

Intellian, known for sat TV receivers, recently announced that it's in the broadband Internet, e-mail and sat phone business, offering Inmarsat service with its own FleetBroadband-series antennas (starting at $7,495) and cooperative service deals with Vizada, which buys bulk satellite time and repackages it. So when you go to an Intellian retail outlet for one of its antennas and phones to install on your boat, you'll get an Inmarsat FB150, built by one of the approved manufacturers and branded with the Intellian name, with a service plan purchased from Inmarsat by Vizada and wholesaled to Intellian, which may either lease or sell you the equipment, which will also affect the cost of a service plan. See why it gets confusing?

The simplest Intellian package allows you to buy the antenna and phone and then pay nothing until you use them. Phone calls run about $1.50 a minute, and an e-mail and photo will cost around $5. "Inmarsat is like buying a mobile phone with a phone card," says Intellian vice president of sales John Minetola. "You pay for each transaction. It is a good solution if you aren't using it all that often." Inmarsat has released a new wireless handset, the IsatPhone Pro ($699), that allows eight hours talk time and up to 100 hours on standby and supports Bluetooth. Retail airtime rates will be competitive at around $1 per minute.

Intellian is also offering VSAT (very small aperture terminal) service, a different animal entirely, based on low-orbit stationary satellites. VSAT allows huge amounts of data, such as music and movies, to be handled, but it's prohibitively expensive for most fishing boats. It requires an Intellian V-series antenna, which starts at about $25,000. Monthly service plans start at $550 but typically run more than twice that, so this is not for the casual user. "It's best for people with high data needs," Minetola says.

KVH offers similar options; known for sat TV as well, the company provides both sat phone service and VSAT broadband connectivity. The TracPhone FB150, with Inmarsat FleetBroadband, is a 10½-inch antenna with a retail price of $7,495. VSAT is also available as an annual service package (again, think $1,000 a month) for e-mail, web browsing and two phone lines via broadband connection.

"This is not for every angler," says Chris Watson of KVH. "But if you use more than 75 megabytes or spend $1,000 a month, it is worth looking at our TracPhone V7 VSAT system, from which you can get more service for the same money."

More realistically for most of us, who are likely to use our phones sporadically, KVH offers a block of minutes that are good for a year for as little as $60 a month. Service-plan pricing programs offered by KVH are numerous.

The other notable satellite constellation currently is Iridium, whose OpenPort ($6,995) is a competitor to the Inmarsat FB150. OpenPort delivers up to three phone lines for simultaneous use and features always-on data with speeds up to 128 kilobytes per second with per-megabyte rate plans. "You would use it for some Internet connectivity and e-mail, certainly - for those things it is fast enough - but web surfing on a FB150 or Iridium OpenPort is going to be slower loading and slower to work," says Jim Rhodes for Iridium.

He explains there is no reason to worry about comparable Internet service at sea: For tasks that require massive downloading, such as complete chart updates, it makes more sense to do it dockside with Wi-Fi. It's both cheaper and quicker. Any system that would do the same downloading at sea currently requires big antennas and large fees. "In terms of replicating the Internet at home, you couldn't do that with a satellite antenna that would fit on a fishing boat," he says.

What has proven itself on a fishing boat is Iridium's 9555 satellite phone ($1,295), which is available with airtime starting at $154 for 75 minutes valid for one month. You can also plug the standard Iridium phone into a computer and run data through it, for sending text messages and e-mails, Rhodes explains.

Finding the satellite communications system best suited to your boat is  a matter of explaining your needs and budget to a dealer you trust. None of it is bargain-priced. You are going to pay for what you get. The good news is just about any type of service is available, restricted only by the size of your boat and the depth of your pockets.