Pen­nies for Your Thoughts

Satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions you can af­ford.

Cruising World - - Contents - Elec­tron­ics by David Sch­midt

I’m lucky to have a wife who is in­cred­i­bly sym­pa­thetic to my sail­ing and writ­ing habits, but I knew I was push­ing it when I an­nounced a last-minute ed­i­to­rial as­sign­ment that would take me from my Seat­tle home to the north­ern tip of Van­cou­ver Is­land and back, just as we were clos­ing on our first house. The itinerary in­volved am­ple wilder­ness punc­tu­ated by spo­radic cel­lu­lar or Wi-fi cov­er­age, and the boat didn’t carry a satel­lite-com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem, giv­ing my wife a great op­por­tu­nity to be­came well ac­quainted with our real es­tate agent and the finer points of home buy­ing. Fortunately, a new breed of low-band­width satel­lite-com­mu­ni­ca­tion op­tions now ex­ists that can de­liver the lat­est weather fore­casts and news from ashore.

Satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions first be­gan to ap­pear reg­u­larly on recre­ational sail­boats in the early 1980s, start­ing with C-band fre­quen­cies (6 MHZ) and pro­gress­ing to Ku-band (12 to 14 MHZ) and Ka-band (26.5 to 40 gi­ga­hertz) fre­quen­cies. While ef­fec­tive and re­li­able, these sys­tems re­quire ex­pen­sive gy­rosta­bi­lized an­ten­nas that can be hard to fit aboard mod­est cruis­ing boats, not to men­tion the cost of data plans that are pro­hib­i­tive to all but the well-heeled yachts­man.

A decade later, in the late ’90s, satel­lite phones ar­rived to give mariners a much smaller, less ex­pen­sive com­mu­ni­ca­tions op­tion; how­ever, these de­vices can still gen­er­ate eye-wa­ter­ing bills, de­pend­ing on how much data is con­sumed. To­day’s sailors, though, are able to tap into a num­ber of de­vices that pro­vide much lower- (and slower) band­width satel­lite con­nec­tiv­ity to ac­cess the in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions they need with­out crush­ing their cruis­ing kitty. Here’s a look at the types of tech­nol­ogy out there, how they work and the ben­e­fits they pro­vide.

One of the new­est low-band­width play­ers is mazu by Sky­mate. Mazu is an app-based weather and email sys­tem that uses mazu’s fixed­mount mseries black-box mod­ule, hockey-puck-style an­tenna and key­pad to de­liver con­nec­tiv­ity via Irid­ium’s global Short Burst Data (SBD) satel­lite ser­vice. On board, the Sky­mate gear is net­worked with an ipad that’s run­ning mazu’s Ma­rine app (free). Mazu users can send and re­ceive email and text mes­sages glob­ally. When avail­able, Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion weather alerts and Nexrad graphic weather are also ac­ces­si­ble. Users can also ac­cess NOAA raster charts and Navion­ics vec­tor car­tog­ra­phy (this

re­quires a sep­a­rate Navion­ics sub­scrip­tion) to nav­i­gate with mazu’s app. In all cases, mazu users send and re­ceive small pack­ets of in­for­ma­tion over Irid­ium’s SBD net­work; should the con­nec­tion be dis­turbed mid-up­load/down­load, the sys­tem restarts where it left off rather than restart­ing from scratch. This fea­ture re­duces data-trans­fer fees.

Crit­i­cally, mazu con­nects users to Sky­mate’s servers, not to the in­ter­net di­rectly, which al­lows Sky­mate to ap­ply a pro­pri­etary com­pres­sion al­go­rithm to make the data pack­ets as small and as cost ef­fec­tive as pos­si­ble.

“It typ­i­cally takes 30 sec­onds to a minute to send an email, and maybe five min­utes to down­load a GRIB file,” says Craig My­ers, mazu’s prod­uct man­ager. “We’re not talk­ing about megabytes or gi­ga­bytes here. We use com­pres­sion and do enough work with the data that we’re only send­ing kilo­bytes.”

For ex­am­ple, ex­plains My­ers, a 200-nau­ti­cal-mile GRIB file that’s down­loaded from Sky­mate’s server might weigh in at a feath­er­weight 300 to 400 bytes, mean­ing that cruis­ers can down­load a lot of fore­casts and send or re­ceive a ton of email us­ing the 8,000 bytes of data that are in­cluded with Sky­mate’s mi­dlevel monthly data plan. All Sky­mate sub­scrip­tion ser­vices can be win­ter­ized, mean­ing they can be sus­pended when the boat is not in use.

Ad­di­tion­ally, mazu pro­vides users with an SOS but­ton that con­tacts GEOS World­wide’s pri­vately op­er­ated In­ter­na­tional Emer­gency Re­sponse Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­ter, which in turn passes emer­gency in­for­ma­tion to the cor­rect res­cu­ing author­ity, such as the U.S. Coast Guard. The SOS func­tion­al­ity sup­ports twoway com­mu­ni­ca­tion via email or texts with the emer­gency cen­ter or Coast Guard. How­ever, sailors should not rely on it (or any of the other de­vices men­tioned in this ar­ti­cle) to re­place a prop­erly reg­is­tered EPIRB.

Fi­nally, users can also pur­chase Sen­try, Sky­mate’s ves­sel-mon­i­tor­ing and track­ing hard­ware and ser­vices (sold sep­a­rately), which uses the mseries’ con­nec­tiv­ity to send alerts should an on­board sen­sor get tripped.

Af­ford­able Email

Given that most satel­litecom­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems’ air­time bills are a func­tion of the amount of data used, one clever prac­tice in­volves us­ing third-party soft­ware to shrink the amount of data that’s be­ing trans­ferred. Xgate’s suite of apps and ser­vices al­low users to re­duce the size of their in­com­ing and out­go­ing email by up to 95 per­cent by di­rect­ing it through Xgate’s email servers. Cruis­ers can ei­ther use an Xgate email ac­count or for­ward their reg­u­lar email through Xgate’s servers, which ap­ply sig­nif­i­cant com­pres­sion, thus re­duc­ing the amount of trans­ferred data.

Xgate pro­vides virus scan­ning and spam fil­ters to all emails while also em­ploy­ing its Big­mail fea­ture that searches in­com­ing mail for large and ex­pen­sive-to-down­load at­tach­ments and images. Big­mail gives users the choice of in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion or the op­tion to wait and open those files un­til they’re on­line us­ing a less-ex­pen­sive in­ter­net con­nec­tion. Users can also em­ploy Xgate’s ad­di­tional Xweb ser­vice, which en­ables fast and af­ford­able Web ac­cess by scyth­ing ads and pop-ups and com­press­ing web­pages by three to five times their orig­i­nal size.

Xgate is avail­able as a Web ser­vice that users can sub­scribe to for as few as seven days or for as long as two years, and it comes bun­dled with Pre­dictwind’s Off­shore weather fore­cast­ing at no ad­di­tional charge. Sailors can down­load GRIB files and use the de­tailed re­port within Pre­dictwind’s GRIB viewer for weather rout­ing and de­par­ture-time plan­ning.

Users can share this ser­vice with mul­ti­ple wire­less de­vices by us­ing Xgate in con­cert with Redport’s Op­ti­mizer, which takes any in­ter­net-pro­to­col­based satel­lite-data sig­nal and shares it via a hotspot with mul­ti­ple net­worked An­droid and IOS smart­phones and tablets, and com­put­ers run­ning Ap­ple OS X, Linux or Win­dows. Redport’s Op­ti­mizer fea­tures a ro­bust fire­wall that blocks all satel­lite traf­fic ex­cept that which is sent over Xgate (or other Redport-cer­ti­fied data ser­vices), as well as a fea­ture that sig­nif­i­cantly ac­cel­er­ates the email trans­mis­sion speed. And, be­cause this is 2018, Redport’s Op­ti­mizer also al­lows you to up­date your so­cial-me­dia feeds while en­abling ves­sel track­ing via Redport’s track­ing site.

It’s Per­sonal

De­vices such as Garmin’s in­reach or the SPOT Gen 3 give users a huge amount of op­er­a­tional flex­i­bil­ity within their small, lightweight, por­ta­ble bun­dles.

Garmin in­reach de­vices al­low users to send and re­ceive texts glob­ally via Irid­ium’s SBD net­work, and to down­load the lat­est weather in­for­ma­tion (sub­scrip­tion lev­els in­clude ba­sic, pre­mium or ma­rine) based on in­for­ma­tion from Ocens, Garmin’s con­tracted ma­rine-weather provider. Ad­di­tion­ally, in­reach can be used for nav­i­ga­tion and for two-way SOS com­mu­ni­ca­tions with GEOS ’ In­ter­na­tional Emer­gency Re­sponse Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­ter or other res­cue au­thor­i­ties. On

a daily ba­sis, sailors can send pre-scripted or cus­tom-writ­ten texts to any phone num­ber or email ad­dress, such as an “all’s well” mes­sage to friends and fam­ily. Al­ter­na­tively, users can use Blue­tooth to pair their in­reach with their An­droid or IOS mo­bile de­vice equipped with Garmin’s free Earth­mate app. This de­liv­ers all of the in­reach’s func­tion­al­ity to a smart­phone or tablet and al­lows users to down­load NOAA nau­ti­cal charts and nav­i­gate us­ing the in­reach’s shared GPS in­for­ma­tion.

“It’s ca­pa­ble of send­ing a track­ing mes­sage with the sailor’s lo­ca­tion to a Map­share page so that peo­ple can fol­low along on their voy­age and par­tic­i­pate from home,” says Chip No­ble, Garmin’s se­nior prod­uct man­ager for in­reach. He adds that in­reach is de­signed to keep data costs low. “The ma­rine weather fore­cast is an SBD mes­sage that gets for­mat­ted on the de­vice. It’s the same size as stan­dard text mes­sages, so there’s no dis­cern­able dif­fer­ence in down­load speed. With clear views of the sky, we’d ex­pect the turn­around for a weather fore­cast to be mea­sured in min­utes.”

Garmin makes two ver­sions of its com­mu­ni­ca­tions tool, the in­reach SE+ and the in­reach Ex­plorer+. They share fea­tures, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to nav­i­gate, but the Ex­plorer+ goes a step fur­ther and in­cludes full-fea­ture GPS ca­pa­bil­ity and maps and charts. As men­tioned ear­lier, both will pair with smart de­vices, let­ting you nav­i­gate on a larger screen. In­reach de­vices carry an IPX7 rat­ing, which means they are de­signed to with­stand sub­mer­sion in up to 3 feet of wa­ter.

A SPOT Gen3 will also let friends and fam­ily track your progress re­motely. You can use it to send mes­sages that are pre-scripted on a com­puter, along with GPS co­or­di­nates, to pre­s­e­lected con­tacts. How­ever, SPOT Gen3 of­fers lim­ited nav­i­ga­tional and com­mu­ni­ca­tions util­ity com­pared to an in­reach de­vice. That said, SPOT Gen3 users can send SOS mes­sages, along with their GPS po­si­tion in­for­ma­tion, to GEOS’ emer­gency re­sponse cen­ter. Like in­reach, SPOT re­quires an ac­tive satel­lite-ser­vice sub­scrip­tion. It is also made to with­stand the el­e­ments and car­ries an IPX6 rat­ing.

High-seas Hotspots

Satel­lite hotspots con­nect to the in­ter­net and then pair with other wire­less de­vices on board in the same way as you might con­nect your smart­phone us­ing Wi-fi while sit­ting at your lo­cal cof­fee shop. The three big­gest play­ers in this mar­ket are In­marsat’s Isathub, Irid­ium’s Go and Glob­al­star’s Sat-fi.

In­marsat’s Isathub ter­mi­nal con­nects to In­marsat’s I-4 satel­lite and ground net­work, which pro­vides global 3G con­nec­tiv­ity pretty much ev­ery­where ex­cept the re­mote high lat­i­tudes. The hub then uses its built-in Wi-fi ac­cess point to de­liver voice, data and texts to smart de­vices equipped with In­marsat’s Isathub con­trol and voice apps. The Isathub ter­mi­nal fea­tures a fire­wall and mul­ti­ple se­cu­rity lev­els, and al­lows users to con­trol each net­worked de­vice in or­der to man­age satel­lite costs. The ter­mi­nal sports an in­ter­nal lithium-ion bat­tery, a DC power-sup­ply con­nec­tor and an AC power adap­tor, as well as an IP65 wa­ter-re­sis­tant rat­ing. While the Isathub’s ad­ver­tised data-trans­fer speeds (384 Kbps down­loads, 240 Kbps up­loads) aren’t com­pet­i­tive with satel­lite domes, it’s the fastest satel­lite hotspot dis­cussed in this ar­ti­cle.

The Irid­ium Go con­nects up to five wire­less de­vices to the in­ter­net via Irid­ium’s global satel­lite net­work. Sailors can make voice calls, send and re­ceive texts and emails, and make SOS calls ir­re­spec­tive of their lat­i­tude or lon­gi­tude; how­ever, Go’s stan­dard data-trans­fer speed of 2.4 Kbps re­quires some pa­tience when down­load­ing larger files, such as weather GRIBS. If you’re plan­ning a trip to, say, Antarc­tica, the Go will keep you con­nected.

As with the other two hotspots, Glob­al­star’s Sat-fi al­lows users to place and re­ceive voice calls and texts and use email, and it can si­mul­ta­ne­ously sup­port up to eight wire­less de­vices. The Sat-fi de­liv­ers data-trans­fer speeds of 9.6 Kbps, and it sup­ports reg­u­lar 10-digit call­ing. Ad­di­tion­ally, Glob­al­star’s Sat-fi sup­ports caller ID and gives users the abil­ity to use each mo­bile de­vice’s stored con­tacts. Those go­ing to re­mote ar­eas, how­ever, should con­sider Glob­al­star’s cov­er­age map. Un­like the Irid­ium net­work, Glob­al­star has gaps in its cov­er­age foot­print.

For sailors who need higher band­width but who don’t have deck or mast space for a fullscale satel­lite dome and sys­tem, there is a more ro­bust op­tion, Ground Con­trol’s MCD4800. Some­times called the “Foot­ball,” be­cause it trav­els in its own case, sort of like the nu­clear foot­ball aides to the pres­i­dent carry, the de­vice links to In­marsat’s Broad­band Global Area Net­work (BGAN) to be­come a por­ta­ble, global in­ter­net hotspot. It de­liv­ers up­link speeds of 448 Kbps and down­link speeds of 464 Kbps to nearby wire­less de­vices. The Foot­ball com­prises a Hughes 9450 BGAN In-mo­tion C11 An­tenna, a SIM card, nickel-metal hy­dride bat­ter­ies and other com­po­nents that are housed in a ro­bust Pel­i­can 1450 fly­away case. Col­lec­tively, these pieces, plus Ground Con­trol’s pro­pri­etary elec­tron­ics and soft­ware, cre­ate a fin­ished prod­uct that de­liv­ers con­nec­tiv­ity in all but the high­est of lat­i­tudes.

Ground Con­trol’s MCD4800, some­times known as the “Foot­ball,” is a por­ta­ble, self-con­tained unit of­fer­ing nearly world­wide cov­er­age.

mazu by Sky­mate

Redport Op­ti­mizer

Spot Gen3

in­reach Ex­plorer + 1

In­marsat Isat Hub

Glob­al­star Sat-fi

Irid­ium Go

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