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Sailing with E-Mail

Think you're out of touch? Think again.
Maintaining e-mail communication with friends, family, and business has become one of the most ardently discussed issues among sailors. Because there are several types of systems from which to choose and the technology changes so fast, the discussion can rapidly get confusing. To add to the bewilderment, more options that may possibly be less expensive will become available soon.

Budget considerations not withstanding, your current choices for e-mail, or text, communications are satellite, HF radio, and phone systems. The right choice for you will depend on the type of sailing you plan to do. Long distance offshore cruisers with plans to circumnavigate will require a different system from sailors wishing to spend their time in the Caribbean or coastal cruise the US.

Satellite systems currently available that provide data transfer are Inmarsat, American Mobile Satellite/Skycell, Magellan, ComSat, SevenSeas, Globalstar, and Orbcomm. Iridium is deceased. Because rates change they're not quoted here, but a brief description of the types of charges are noted, if known. The required equipment will usually be an antenna, a transceiver, and a handset, and it is sold as separate hardware or as a single piece of equipment about the size of a laptop or briefcase.

  • Inmarsat is now a private company that provides mobile satellite communication services worldwide. Because of their higher orbit, the geostationary satellites used cause voice delays between the speaker and listener. Other companies like ComSat use the Inmarsat system network to provide services to subscribers. Generally the "hardware" is provided by other equipment manufacturers, like Magellan, Nera, Panasonic, or Qualcomm, and is relatively expensive. While there are no monthly service or access fees, the per minute charges come at a high cost.

    - Inmarsat A and B system antennas are too large for most sailboats to be considered.

    - Inmarsat C offers data-only transmissions at 600 bps for faxes, but cannot handle voice.

    - Inmarsat M offers voice at 4.8 kbps and data transmissions at 2.4 kbps.

    - Inmarsat Mini-M provides voice at 4.8 kbps and data at 2.4 kbps. The terminal itself is laptop sized, and data and fax transmissions require a separate laptop computer.

    Inmarsat's newest product is called the Capsat Messenger Service (M4). It is a high-performance data system at a 64 kbps transmission rate offering both voice and fax. The hardware system is compact and lightweight similar to a laptop, and the antenna is a manageable size. Through the Inmarsat Packet Data Service (IPDS), charges are only for the amount of data transmitted and not the time connected to transmit the data.

    • Orbcomm uses low earth orbiting satellites (LEO) and provides two way e-mail communication with an option called "positioning interval," which can forward your position to a predetermined recipient. This is a text-only system without voice capability. The system currently uses the Magellan GSC 100 for both communication and GPS positioning. The base station, relative to Inmarsat equipment, is inexpensive and the antenna is a whip which mounts to the stern rail. Orbcomm also offers an interface to a laptop computer if there is a need for more than a handheld system. There is a monthly service fee for a limited number of message transfers and e-mail box checks.
    • Globalstar also uses low-earth orbiting satellites and is a wholesaler of its services. They currently provide limited text services called "short messaging service" (SMS). They are primarily a voice system but have plans to offer expanded data and fax services in the third and fourth quarters of 2001. A handheld phone transmits the text at 9600 bps. Pricing structure depends on the Globalstar service provider you choose.
    • Magellan now provides data and voice transmissions via the Inmarsat satellite system on its World Phone and a handheld model, the GSC 100, delivers voice and two-way data through the Orbcomm system. The Magellan charges a one-time activation fee for the GSC 100 system and then a monthly access fee for a limited number of messages. Also available is a service allowing anyone to contact you by using a toll-free number. The message is dictated to a dispatcher and transmitted. Another feature, ORBWeather, is available to the user by relaying their GPS position to an "inbox" and a current and two day forecast is sent back.
    • American Mobile Satellite/Skycell provides limited coverage, but might be a good choice for the sailor not requiring worldwide coverage since it limits cruising destinations to the US East and West coasts and the Caribbean basin. The transmission rate for text is 4.8 kbps and is also a voice communication system. This company, with a onetime activation fee, offers a low per minute airtime rate for voice with a reasonable monthly service fee based on the hardware type, and an additionally reasonable monthly service fee for e-mail. Once again though, the purchase of the hardware is where cost may be a drawback because an antenna with electronics connector, transceiver, and handset are required. Skycell is now available thru Stratos Global Corporation as part of its LandSat/MarineSat system.

    There are also companies, such as Stratos Global Corporation, that offer a mix of subscriber services provided by other satellite service networks such as Inmarsat, Globalstar, and LandSat/ MarineSat, as part of the American Mobile Satellite/Skycell network.

    HF radios like this Icom can be SSB, HAM, or both, and all can handle e-mail by adding a modem, a provider, and software.
    High Frequency (HF) radio
    e-mail is available through shore-based e-mail service companies like SailMail, SeaMail, CruiseEmail, PinOak Digital, Globe Wireless, WinLink 2000, MarineNet, AirMail 2000, and Message Center Inc.

    There are two types of HF radios, Marine Single Side Band (SSB) and Amateur (HAM). SSB offers a smaller number of frequencies but the required license is a matter of filling out a form. HAM operators enjoy a much larger number of available frequencies and unlimited talk time but must pass fairly stringent licensing requirements. The type of license determines which frequency ranges a HAM operator can use.  A General Class License offers the minimum in useful frequency ranges.

    The other major difference between the two is that HAM operators cannot conduct business on their frequencies, but business can be conducted on the SSB on a limited basis. So you must consider whether your communication is for personal use or whether you will need it for business purposes. This may determine your choice of radio. There are some radios, that operate on both SSB and HAM frequencies if you are licensed to operate both. This allows you to move back and forth, moving off the HAM bands and onto the SSB if you need to conduct business. But this plan might require using two e-mail services, one for SSB and one for HAM. If your needs are primarily for business it might be more cost effective to look at a satellite system.

    Equipment requirements will be either SSB or HAM radio, an antenna with insulators for the backstay, a tuner which can be either internal or external, a modem, a computer, and a shore-based e-mail service. There are two modems available: one is Pactor which is a digital radio protocol, and the other Pactor II which has a higher baud rate and a transmission rate of roughly 140 characters per second more than Pactor. Signal propagation in all cases will determine the rate of transmission.

    • SailMail has become one of the more popular SSB e-mail services. They are a nonprofit group with stations located in Australia, Hawaii, California, and North Carolina. There is a very reasonable yearly fee, which is based on a ratio of expenses to the number of members. If at the end of the year, expenses are less than fees collected, members will receive a pro-rated refund. Transmission rates vary between 10 and 140 characters per second depending on propagation. A half-page text of 1,000 characters would take roughly 90 seconds to send or receive. The user is limited to 10 minutes per day.
    • CruiseEmail and SeaMail have joined forces and extended their reach worldwide. Both these services are for SSB users only. The cost for this service is based on 12 months at 300 minutes a month. Any time over 300 minutes is billed at an additional per-minute rate.
    • PinOak Digital, for the SSB user, also carries graphics and photos in addition to sending text data. The user purchases its proprietary modem and software and pays a reasonable monthly access fee. Included in the base system cost are 25 file transfer units (FTU), which is up to 1,000 bytes of data per FTU. The data costs are characterized in kilobytes in lieu of kilobits as other systems are. There are 8,000 data bits in one compressed PinOak kilobyte.
    • Globe Wireless no longer lends itself toward the recreational marine market and currently has no dealers or outlets for their service except in the larger commercial shipping industry. They stopped being a strictly HF radio service provider to become an HF radio and satellite systems provider.
    • MarineNet is another SSB e-mail service provider. They offer a low flat monthly rate for five hours per month (300 minutes) with no per character or per message charges. Discounts are offered to members of organizations such as the SSCA. Also offered are complete equipment packages and installation for the novices or the not so technically inclined.
    • WinLink 2000 is the newest digital version of the WinLink software package, that services the HAM radio user as a radio mailbox (similar to an Internet Service Provider). It provides automatic transfer of messages between HAM operators worldwide and the Internet's e-mail system. WinLink provides text-based e-mails with JPG, TIF, GIF, BMP, XLS, RTF, and DOC capability attachments. Also, position reporting with inquiry accessible from the Internet and radio and graphic and text weather downloads.
    • AirMail 2000 is the software that interfaces with the HF radio services. Think of it as "Outlook Express" on your PC. It manages the e-mail system between the hardware and the Internet Service Provider and operates on Windows 95, 98, and NT4.0. This software is free to SSB and HAM e-mail service users.
    • Message Center Inc. provides HF SSB and VHF ship-to-shore radio communications, as well as a message center for incoming shore-based calls via a pre-assigned personal phone number. The messages are stored until the user calls into the message center to retrieve the stored messages. SITOR (Simplex Teletype Over Radio) equipped modems will permit the sending and retrieving of text via the Internet. Radiotelephone calls can be placed to shore or from shore with only a connect charge and no per minute charges.

    Using portable e-mail devices like the Pocket Mail is easy if you're near shore often.
    Phone e-mail
    systems fall into two basic categories: cell phone based and landline. Cell phones, such as Nokia and Qualcomm, interconnected with a laptop are common. Other self-contained portable e-mail devices like Pocket Mail and Airmail do not even require a computer.
    • Nokia offers cables and modems that interface with a laptop and antennas for greater range. The cell phone service provider, such as AT&T, may not have full coastal coverage or may be subject to roaming or other charges for certain areas. There are numerous plans, so you must research them to find one that fits your needs.
    • Qualcomm has a new technology which allows either handsets or laptops to support e-mail or web browsing. It's called HDR, High Data Rate Technology, and will support voice and data services. It's optimized for packet data systems by a protocol used by digital VHF/UHF stations.
    • Airmail, not to be confused with AirMail 2000, is another short messaging service (SMS) e-mail service provider that is unique because it uses the cellphone's own keypad to type in the message, no computer or other device is needed. Sent text is limited to 160 characters but received text is unlimited. The coverage is reportedly worldwide and subject, of course, to roaming charges if you stray out of the local coverage network.
    • Pocket Mail uses a handheld device similar to a Palm Pilot or a personal organizer that "connects" with a telephone handset to send e-mail over either cellphones or landlines when a toll-free number is dialed. The Palm Pilot type unit is compatible with analog and digital cell phones while the organizing type unit is not compatible with digital cell phones. The company charges a small monthly fee, has unlimited phone calls, and operates worldwide. Type your message into the Pocket Mail device, locate a landline or cell phone and transmit. You can also receive e-mail from your land based Internet Service Provider. The data transfer rate is about 20 characters per second.
    • Landlines are still widely used by many cruisers. Type your messages into the laptop, dinghy ashore, find any telephone connection, dial your ISP, and send a week's worth of mail. Some cruisers have become very inventive at locating telephone connections in restaurants, the credit card connections at marinas, and the lobbies of hotels. A waterproof computer case for the trip ashore is advisable. With the increase in waterfront e-mail cafes and office mail services that offer connections and computers, simply taking a disk ashore is an option. Or you can just use their computer while you enjoy a cup of coffee.

    If you opt for the ability to send e-mail from the water, determine what the per character expense of an e-mail system will be. Break down not only the cost of the service, which may include monthly fees, yearly fees, activation fees, and per character or per minute fees, but also the cost of the equipment, and if required, any professional installation of the system. Keep in mind that the average e-mail message is 1,000 characters.

    Before signing up, fully investigate what is included in the service and understand what the limitations are to you, the user. Determine what the true coverage of the service is and ask what the system availability is in terms of time and location. Decide if it's important to you that e-mail is unavailable when signal propagation is bad or heavy use of the frequencies requires waiting for access.


    Kathy Barron is offline  
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