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.
- 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
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.
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.
- 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
- Message Center Inc
- 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.
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