FEATURE - Satellite communications

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Turning your boat into a floating office may not be every sailor’s dream, but it’s a reality now thanks to the recent advances in satellite technologies

FEATURE - Satellite communications
FEATURE - Satellite communications

Technology continues to change the way sailors’ voyage. From the early days of navigation systems, such as Decca to the advent of satellites that heralded GPS and onto the present day, where satellite communications is high on the list of many recreational boaters.

And the reasons are becoming increasingly compelling as we demand more information in every aspect of our daily lives, so why not at sea where the ability to download real-time weather data, for instance, gives that added safety margin?

Marine communications were traditionally the domain of long-range radio transmitters such as SSB (single side band), but recent statistics from American researchers TMF estimate that mobile satellite devices will rapidly grow from 1.5 million to 3.1 million by 2013.

The key drivers are convenience and price. With entry-level handsets from dominant industry player Iridium selling for well under $2000, the peace of mind that allows you to make a call from offshore, or that hidden creek is becoming well worth the cost. Adding a data download capability opens up the power of the internet, allowing weather GRIB file access, emailing and web browsing.

For the consumer this technology may be bewildering, but sorting satellite communications into three broad categories is a good start — handheld systems (phones), fixed-broadband, and emergency messengers.

Understanding your requirements should tell you which category is relevant — if you only want the occasional phone call, a portable handset with voice only is fine. Or if you simply want to text a short message, the new messengers such as Spot satellite receiver could do the trick for only a few hundred bucks. But once data downloads become a consideration then a fixed system is advisable, giving faster download speeds, streaming broadband with Skype and more reliable connections.

The handset market, where the entire system is fitted into what looks like a chunky mobile phone with an antenna, has allowed satellite phone calls to become viable for many sailors. The big news in this arena is that industry leader Iridium is likely to face a strong challenge from the other satellite heavyweight, Inmarsat, with the upcoming launch of its IsatPhone Pro in June. The tiny handset comes with Bluetooth for hands-free use, as well as voicemail, text and email messaging and is reputed to have GPS built in. Cost could be a factor as the company says this first offering is targeted at "professional users in the government, media, aid, oil and gas, mining and construction sectors".

Fixed satellite systems with broadband are the solution for the power users at sea and historically the territory of the big-budget sailor. Comprising a large satellite receiver dome and installed handset, superyachts and commercial vessels were the platforms for these expensive systems. However, this fast moving market is changing.

The recent range of smaller Inmarsat Fleet systems can now be fitted to vessels under 40 feet. Young circumnavigator Jessica Watson set off in October with a compact Fleet Broadband (Sailor) 250 perched on the stern of her Sparkman and Stephens 34 yacht. Giving data speeds of 284kbps and with increasingly competitive user plans, it is no longer solely the domain of the superyacht.

Again competition is helping drive the market with Iridium about to launch a satellite receiver in June that is the size of a credit card. According to the company, the Iridium 9602 will be a data communication engine for a wide range of portable tracking and monitoring devices, leveraging Iridium's global coverage.

Basically, it will be a black box fitted into many systems, and with GPS capabilities it could really shake-up the market. KVH is another major player in this technology and its TracPhone products such as the TracPhone 252 now cater for smaller vessels while using Inmarsat’s mini-M satellites. It also plays in the emerging satellite TV market, a strong growth area for boaters.

Yet another expanding category is simple messenger devices, which has included EPIRBS but now has handsets with additional message-sending capabilities. These include products such as the Spot device, which allows users to send out a short message using the company’s Globalstar satellites. Wirelessly linking it to the DeLorme satellite receiver gives this hand-sized orange device full GPS capabilities — impressive and cost-effective.

The bottom line is that the choices for your floating office are incredibly varied and emerging. With charges approaching mobile phone costs; and streaming broadband that allows the Jessica Watson’s of this world to video conference their mothers while off Cape Horn, sat comms has become mainstream.

Photos: Satellite communications are no longer the preserve of the big boys like this motoryacht captured at Jervis Bay over summer; The latest KVH offers fast downloads in a yacht friendly radome; The new Satmate from local company ASTA sells for $3400.


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