Features May 15, 2002 Issue

Communications Options

Alongshore, you're good to go with a VHF plus Net-ready cell phone. Offshore, keep the SSB, and for heavier use include an Inmarsat system or sat phone. The Globalstar/OCENS package is pretty swift.

As much as sailors like to get away from it all, there's never been a time when we haven't wished at least for the option of keeping in touch with the shore. It's important for safety, for business, for news of family and friends. What if Odysseus had been able to phone home once in a while on his way back from Troy? ("Hi Penny, ran into a one-eyed monster today...") It might have saved quite a bit of trouble back in Ithaca. 

The simple PocketMail Communicator which
can send and receive e-mail through any kind
of phone, may end up playing second fiddle
to e-mail-capable PDA/cell phones.

Besides increasing safety and helping sailors stay in touch with home, the relative ease of worldwide communication these days enables some cruisers to make a living afloat. It's now possible to run your business "virtually" by means of an e-mail connection and occasional voice line. One friend took her sailboat down the ICW and ran her business from her cell phone and laptop. None of her clients was aware that she wasn't in her land-based office.

While some of us want to stay in constant touch at the highest speed and with the greatest possibly clarity, others just want a communications back-up, or the ability to put through an occasional call or bit of e-mail. And everyone wants to connect from different distances offshore.

When you combine the number of possible need profiles with the number of possible solutions currently available, then try to factor in the technologies that are emerging, disappearing, being refined, being expanded, and falling or rising in cost and efficiency, you end up with a truly bewildering miasma of options—far too many to sit still for a group portrait.

How then, to provide a bit of useful advice here, especially considering that the gamut of knowledge on this topic among PS readers will range from willfully ignorant to fanatically well-informed and expert? Well, we did what we usually do when we find ourselves between those extremes: We hit the phones, docks, and Internet, and did a market survey of the core technology today. We restricted our survey to systems that would be used on a typical reader's boat, leaving out some of the more specialized options, like ham radio (although that, too, is getting more mainstream).

We worked from one assertion and two premises. The assertion is that everyone who can't pretty much wade ashore ought to have a VHF radio on board. If you think that's obvious, it's not. It used to be that only seagoing hermits would forego carrying a VHF, but today we regularly hear from or about people who assume that if they take a direct line on board—a cell phone near shore or a satellite phone offshore, it's all they need. This is not good thinking. It ignores the concept of the "broadcast," which is something we frequently use on the water to convey important information to all within earshot, like "Mayday," or "There's a large tree trunk floating mostly submerged at the following position..."

Offshore, neither a sat phone nor SSB can replace the VHF for simple line-of-sight communications. So the VHF is a must.

Premise No. 1 is that most cruising people these days will have not only a VHF, but probably a cell phone, and quite likely a notebook computer.

Premise No. 2 is that all people gravitate toward their own levels of complexity and cost, and are quickly disappointed and annoyed when they get in over their heads in either area. So we won't be saying, "Here's what you should do." We will, instead, provide the handy guidelines on the opposite page, and include here as many pertinent notes as we can fit in, with more to follow in coming months.

Cell Phones (Internet Capable)
On boats, just as on land, cell phones generally work fine as long as they're in range. If they're at or beyond the limit of their range, they're not dependable. It's as simple as that. The same friend mentioned earlier, who made her way down the ICW doing business, experienced plenty of dropped calls and cellular holes.

Cell phone communication range is determined by line of sight to the cell antenna. This limits communications while in the coastal waters to about 20 miles offshore, depending on your location, phone, and the local cell provider.

You can connect to the Internet using the cell phone. In the bad old days, this required the purchase of modems and cell phones that were compatible with each other. Then, you had to make it work. Nowadays, most new digital cell phones are "Internet ready." This significantly reduces the equipment cost. The stated communication rate is approximately 14.4 Kbps.

If cruising with a cell phone, whether for voice or data, be careful of roaming charges. These can turn your $29.99/month plan into a $300 plan.

VHF radios are also limited to line-of-sight communication distance. A simple formula to calculate the maximum line-of-sight distance between two antennas is to add together the square roots of the two antenna heights in feet, then multiply by 1.17 to find the distance in miles.

For example, two sailboats with antennas at 40 ft. can theoretically communicate up to 14.8 miles apart (for the sake of this discussion, we're ignoring atmospheric effects). If the sailboat with the 40-ft. high antenna wants to communicate with a shore station 20 miles away, the shore station antenna needs to be 116 ft. high.

VHF communication on our boats is limited to voice only. DSC is changing that, but it is not a big part of the picture, yet, in the US.

The FCC has set aside certain VHF channels for "public correspondence." These are channels where we find the "marine operator."

In the past, with your VHF and the marine operator, you were able to place phone calls using the public telephone network. The system worked, but there were some problems. For example, each "public coast station" charged whatever it wanted. Some were reasonably priced, some were $10 per minute. In addition, anyone could listen to both sides of the conversation. This made for interesting Saturday-night soap operas on the radio ("Honey, I’m going to be late." "No s%&t, Sherlock!"). It also invited theft of telephone credit card numbers, which had to be given on the air.

Beginning in 1988, MariTEL started purchasing and standardizing the public coast stations. They brought to the marine operator business a standard pricing scheme, plus some security in the communications from a boat to shore (but not vice versa). In addition, they filled in the gaps in the public coast station coverage throughout the US. MariTEL is an operator-assisted service.

MariTEL's coverage extends farther from land than does the cell phone network. Presently, the system will work up to 30 to 50 miles offshore, with the distance determined by your antenna height and the total height of the shore-based antenna, including the topography.

MariTEL uses the existing towers and there's no standard for the communication range. You can signup with MariTEL and become a subscriber with an annual fee. If you elect not to do this, you can still contact them on your VHF. However, you have to give them a credit card number over the airwaves.

MariTEL has launched a new service, called MariTEL Network, which is designed to allow a DSC-enabled VHF to function just like a cellular phone, without operator assistance. The system is up and running in the Gulf of Mexico area and is supposed to be operational around the US by the end of 2002.

As the MariTEL Network expands throughout the country, the old operator-assisted MariTEL system will be folded into the new network. According to Jim Tindall, vice president of sales and marketing, boat owners will still be able to use their non-DSC VHF radios with the new network, using the same familiar operator-assisted format.

This is a popular option for cruising sailors within easy reach of a land line or a cell tower. It's a "Communicator" that looks and hefts like a standard keyboard-type organizer, but it has an acoustic modem inside. You type up your e-mail, call a toll-free number (U.S. and Canada) and hold the Communicator against the phone. The device uploads your outgoing mail and downloads your incoming. Then you put it back in your pocket and continue shopping for mangos.

PS exchanges a lot of e-mail with PocketMail customers. It seems a particularly good alternative for those who don't want to pack a full computer system, or who just need to check in occasionally. Some other PDAs are compatible with the system.

Globalstar is both a cell phone and a satellite phone; it uses whichever service is cheaper for completing the call, either land-based cellular or satellite-based. It uses a low earth-orbiting (LEO) constellation of 48 satellites, which you can think of as repeaters or even mirrors. To make a satellite call, your antenna must be visible to a satellite, and the satellite must also be able to "see" a ground-based "gateway." Once these conditions are met, the call can go through. As the call transpires, the satellite will hand off the call to another satellite when the signal starts degrading.

Globalstar requires a monthly service contract. The contract includes a set number of minutes plus a charge for every minute past the contract amount. The plans include anywhere from 0 to 500 minutes per month.

The satellite-based delivery of both voice and data is impressive, as is the new cooperative program between Globalstar and OCENS, called Millennium Gateway. With OCENS software on your machine, you can cable the phone to the serial port on a notebook computer, log on to the Net, go automatically to the OCENS website, and batch-download a variety of the latest weather-related and navigational information. Weather map downloads are much faster and somewhat clearer than what you get via SSB/weather software or dedicated weatherfax, and the whole deal can be carried in a briefcase at under 10 lbs. The OCENS subscription is $30 a month, and includes an e-mail account at ocens.com.

Globalstar coverage is good, but not global (see chart on page 13 and the Globalstar website for current coverage areas.) The company recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but is continuing operation and working on a new business plan. It seems likely that, one way or another, the constellation and service will keep going.

The other satellite phone company that has been riding the thin edge of financial existence is Iridium. The difference is that Iridium is now supported, for the near term, anyway, by the U.S. government. Iridium has full global coverage, including all oceans and both poles. The satellite constellation consists of 66 LEO satellites in near-polar orbit.

The Iridium system works by creating a signal pathway from your Iridium phone to a satellite. The satellite will then either send the signal to a ground-based gateway (if visible) or onto another satellite. Eventually the signal makes it down from a satellite to a gateway.

The phone looks like a larger cellular phone. With it, in addition to voice calls, you can connect it to a computer or PDA to send and receive e-mails or surf the Internet at a slow speed.

We haven't had a chance yet to use an Iridium phone, but hope to compare Iridum and Globalstar in the next few months, if not at the far corners of the earth, at least somewhere offshore.

While both Iridium and Globalstar see a value in word-of-mouth appeal in the recreational marine market, pleasureboaters are small change. In order to survive, both companies are aiming for bigger commercial and government clients—large groups of specialized people who need reliable sat-comms in order to do serious business, manage disasters, wage wars, and so on.

We last looked at ORBCOMM in the December 1999 issue ("Inexpensive E-mail: Magellan GSC 100 vs. SASCO OceanMail 2000"). ORBCOMM uses a LEO constellation of 35 satellites to provide store-and-forward data messaging. The system has no voice capability. Its charges are based on the number of characters sent.

Even though this is a data packet system, don't confuse it with a traditional e-mail system. Message sizes are limited to just a thousand characters or so and the longer the message, the more it costs.

An interesting adjunct to the ORBCOMM messaging system is that the vessel's position is reported back with each message, by means of a built-in GPS receiver.

SASCO is still supplying their OceanMail system, but Magellan (now Thales Navigation) no longer makes the GSC 100. The pricing and information in the table comes from Charles Ashbaugh of SASCO.

Single Sideband (SSB) Radio
The combination of SSB radio and laptop computers has created an easy and relatively inexpensive way to send and receive e-mail from your boat, whether gunkholing or cruising on the open ocean. To use your SSB radio for e-mail communication, you'll need a laptop computer, an HF-modem, software, and an e-mail account.

SSB e-mail transmission is dependent on atmospheric and installation conditions. Transmission speed is between 100 and 1,400 bits per second, which makes it the slowest of all these options.

The SSB installation on your boat will be the biggest factor in whether you can get an e-mail system working for you. Digital transmission will quickly point out flaws in your installation. The two primary problem locations will be in the power feed to the radio and in the grounding of the system. Shortcuts with either of these will cause you many problems in trying to make this system work. Make sure you check out this system in plenty of time before leaving the dock.

For the HF-modem, the clear choice appears to be the Pactor-II modem from SCS of Germany. All the SSB e-mail systems we looked at recommended using this modem with the SSB radio.

The four principal SSB e-mail system providers for the recreational market are CruiseEmail, MarineNet, Sailmail, and SeaWave (formerly PinOak Digital). Each service provider uses a different software package. CruiseEmail, MarineNet, and Sailmail use the standard Pactor-II modems; SeaWave uses the Pactor-II modem with modified firmware that you must purchase from SeaWave.

Sailmail is a non-profit group that limits your connection time to 10 minutes per day. CruiseEmail is a commercial service that limits your time to 300 minutes per month (about 10 minutes per day, too). There's an extra charge for each minute that you exceed your monthly allowance. MarineNet is a commercial service that allows 600 minutes a month. SeaWave has a monthly minimum charge and assesses charges based not on time but on message length, which is advantageous to high-usage customers. As you would expect, each system has different features in addition to different cost structures.

SSB radio offers an obvious safety advantage over direct-line devices, and it's a versatile, trusted tool offshore—even if quirky, many sailors know its quirks. For occasional light e-mail, it's OK, but it won't do for people who need more bandwidth.

Inmarsat Mini-M
The London-based company, Inmarsat Ltd., owns and controls a constellation of geostationary satellites that provide almost global coverage for a variety of land-based, aviation, and maritime applications. Its Mini-M service is a good choice for cruising sailors who need ironclad voice and data service for the commonly traveled areas of the globe, but who are less concerned with bandwidth and transfer rates. It offers only spotty coverage in the waters in the Southern Hemisphere, nor is there coverage at the poles. Voice is full duplex, just like a home telephone. Data service is slow compared to what we're used to with computers nowadays, with a rate of 2.4Kbps. This is acceptable for short messages, but would be expensive for longer messages. To put this data rate into a familiar context, it would take about 75 seconds to send the text of this article at 2.4Kbps.

The marine satcom units use radome antennas approximately 12" tall and 12" in diameter, depending on the manufacturer. The antenna mounting requires a clear view of the sky.

KVH is a leader in Inmarsat-based sat phones, with several models like the 50 and 252. Other phones are made by Nera (www.nera.de) and Thrane & Thrane (www.tt.dk).

KVH recently announced TracNet high-speed Internet access up to 100 miles offshore via their TracVision satellite TV receiver and DirecPC ($6,000 system price, monthly charges steep). It's a bit over the top for most PS readers. but maybe not forever.

We should also at least mention the venerable Inmarsat-C, which, although it won't carry voice, is still the gold standard for global marine data communication. KVH, for example, offers the e-Trac mini-C/GPS system for Inmarsat-C ($2,700 system price).

There are a lot more options and details you'll need to consider before deciding on a system. Aside from the websites of the communication purveyors (see guide, p. 13), there are online forums where you can search out the advice of fellow sailors. Go to the Seven Seas Cruising Association (www.ssca.org) and the General Messages bulletin board at Cruising World (www.cruisingworld.com). Visit www.marinecomputer.com, an excellent site run by communications consultant Daniel Piltch.

Our advice? Don't fill your plate with more than you need. You can get more later. And call your mother.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "Communications Options."

Contacts- CruiseEmail, 954/786-8411, www.cruiseemail.com. Globalstar, 877/245-6225, www.globalstar.com. Inmarsat, +44 20 7728 1000, www.inmarsat.com. Iridium, 866/947-4348, www.iridium.com. MarineNet Data Systems, 561/747-5686, www.marinenet.net. Nera SatCom AS, +47 67 24 47 00, www.satcom.nera.no. PocketMail, 408/689-1920. S.P. Radio A/S, +45 96 34 61 00, www.sailor.dk.. SailMail Association, www.sailmail.com. SASCO, Inc., 813/247-6448, www.sasco-inc.com. SCS GmbH & Co. KG, +49 6181 85 00 00, www.scs-ptc.com. SeaWave, LLC., 401/846-8403, www.seawave.com. Thrane & Thrane A/S, +45 39 55 88 00, www.tt.dk. WJG Maritel Corporation, 888/627-4835, www.maritelusa.com.

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