Satellite phone questions:
The field of satellite communications changes so fast that I feel this question is relevant even if it's been dealt with before. I can't find a recent discussion and I apologize if I simply missed it.
We're in the process of planning a multi-year offshore cruise. This will include the need for good communication to enable our teenage (high school) age kids to communicate with their teachers. As a result of the required robustness of the needed communications, I don't think our winlink (Ham) and sailmail SSB email will be sufficient.
I've been searching for answers but would appreciate opinions. The ability to email and upload as well as download attached files (assignments and marked reports) will be key as will phone calls as required when not able to Skype with shore based Wifi.
I've been reading about the various Inmarsat systems but I'm completely confused by now. Fleet 33? Sailor fleetbroadband 150? 250? Iridium handheld? Goodness, it is so confusing. Any help will be appreciated.
Also, I'd appreciate information regarding cost, from people who have used it.
I have used Iridium on two major voyages and I would not do an other voyage without one. They're really good.
But they would be my last choice for e-mail or internet of any sort,. They will financially cripple the average cruiser if used for going on line for any reason
For voice communications with data capability the Iridium system is your best bet. The other telephony systems don't have worldwide coverage and the new broadband technology is quite expensive both to install and to run. I get pretty slow data transmission rates with Iridium but sufficient for text e-mails and grib files.
In my personal experience with HF Pactor e-mail, Iridium, and Globalstar the system you already have may be most effective. Note that the overwhelming majority of my experience is well offshore and may not apply if you are island hopping or lingering in anchorages.
I have found HF e-mail to be extremely robust and reliable if a bit slow. If you are having difficulty easily making connections perhaps a "tune-up" on your installation and some attention to the ICEPAC add-in to Airmail is appropriate. Iridium is more reliable than Globalstar (and accordingly more expensive) but even so does not meet the standard of Pactor. The actual connection may be faster but the time one spends getting a connection that holds long enough may end up being a greater burden than HF.
My Inmarsat experience is quite dated so probably not relevant.
If you are island hopping in the Bahamas and Caribbean you may find an investment in good wifi gear to be more cost effective than satellite equipment.
Thanks everyone. Just one more question: Does the Iridium service have an attachment size limit and how does the upload/download speed compare to the HF/pactor III speed? The point being that if it takes the Iridium setup 10 seconds to upload/download 100k (just as an example, since this is the largest file I've ever up or downloaded over airmail and my HF), it is one thing, but if it takes 30 min, it's quite another and has no benefit over the HF.
I have had my entire HF grounding system replaced this summer, and am looking forward to see how that will improve my connections.
Iridium advertises their data rate as "up to 2400 bps" and generally runs 1/2 to 3/4 of that.
Pactor III will deliver up to 5200 bps in ideal conditions. In my experience they are a good bit slower than that, but not terrible. Good choice of shore station has a tremendous impact on getting a fast connection.
Thought I would give you a rundown on the options...
Iridium is good for voice and limited data - you NEED to use compression services to make this cost-effective. OCENS offers weather and email services that are designed specifically for this type of use. With our email service you would see around 6-10 emails per minute of iridium airtime. This would vary depending on the attachments - but this number is based on average emails.
The Fleet 150 would be a great system for what you are looking for as the voice airtime is pretty much the same as the Iridium, but the data is MUCH cheaper - not to mention WAY faster. If you do the math the Iridium comes out around $75 per megabyte vs. the FB150 at around $13.50 per megabyte. And this system will let you surf the web! OCENS email and weather services can save you $$ here as well by compressing the data and reducing the amount the goes through the system.
Another option is a portable BGAN system. This unit offers the same highspeed data and voice as the fleet but with lower airtime costs, and the equipment starts at only $1495 vs. $6500(for the FB150). The only drawback is that you have point this little guy (bout the size of a small laptop) at the satellite - thus your platform needs to be stable. But for the cost it can be a great complement to any communications setup.
Do you know how much bandwidth your kids Internet applications will use during your trip?
Where will your mulit-year cruise take you (route)?
Through much experience I would say a Inmarsat Fleet Broadband terminal and service would probably do the job but the bandwidth and route are to be considered. FYI: A Inmarsat BGAN terminal being used not from land is shunned upon by Inmarsat and by default you will recieve zero support from them.
Our plans are flexible. I also have to state that they are still preliminary and nothing is certain.
From our previous extended Caribbean cruise we know that Wifi internet is relatively widely accessible in the Caribbean so we might stay there for a while. We have concerns regarding WiFi availability in the Pacific and although we'd like to go there eventually, we might postpone that till the schooling is done. I hoped a satellite option might give options, but it does seem the cost might be a serious deterrent. The problem is I simply don't know exactly what the data upload and download requirements will be. We are in the process of arranging appointments with the distance education authority to sort this out. We'll almost certainly not need to surf the net through the satellite link (that can wait for WiFi availability), but if one can upload and download scanned work projects (math, science, ELA essays), for reasonable cost, it might be worthwhile.
I'm sure I'm not the only one confused by all of this. Cam kinda made it easy: It's expensive; Iridium or nothing... Now some others (apparently with industry affiliation but as a result also a lot of up to date knowledge) have chimed in. I'm confused again.... Am I just stupid?
My impression so far is that my best option would be:
1) Use WiFi if available. This might cause us to "linger" in ports and places with better WiFi
2) Use the SSB HF radio with airmail (Ham or sailmail). Cheap (well free in case of HAM) but a bit of a pain.
3) Iridium for emergency voice really with a secondary possibility of sending data (not sure yet how much it will cost to say send a file containing say 50k)
4) Go with a fancy SAilor Fleet system: From what I've gathered so far I don't want to pay the amount this will cost.
So: It will likely be #1 and #2. Is #3 worth as a backup? Maybe when one considers the safety aspect, but then only when we venture further afield, like into the Pacific, not necessary in the Caribbean...
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