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One way to measure the cost of offshore e-mail

Jan 1, 2003

The recent article about communications in this year's Ocean Voyager ("Keeping in touch offshore," Issue No. 89) made the statement that HF messaging is generally a less expensive approach than satcom. While that may be true in terms of hardware cost (assuming you have a compatible SSB), I certainly don't think it is the case in terms of operational cost.

As a Globe Wireless, Inmarsat, and American Mobile Satellite Corporation (AMSC) dealer, it wasn't until I did the math last year that this became evident to me. Additionally, there are other issues that may make the choice even easier.

Because of lower airtime and faster data rates, mariners in the coastal waters of North and Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Hawaii have another satcom option. They can use AMSC services available with hardware like Wavetalk (not the only hardware available for use with AMSC) at about one-third the operational cost of Mini-M. Also, the hardware is about 20% to 30% lessnot much more than a new SSB and e-mail system.

Let's take Globe Wireless's HF e-mail system as an example (note that PinOak charges about four times less than Globe) and compare it with Inmarsat Mini-M.

Globe now offers GlobeMail service only at $39.95 per month with 120 kilobits included. Their modem has a list price of $1,500.

Globe charges $0.49 per kilobit (128 characters) beyond the 120 kilobits included. Mini-M runs data at 2400 baud, or 2.4 kilobits per second, or 144 kilobits per minute. At $3.00 per minute that translates to about $0.021 per kilobit. PinOak charges $0.95 for 1,000 characters (eight kilobits) or just under $0.12 per kilobit.

There is a slight catch in that there is some message-handling overhead and network delays that will cause the actual transfer of that kilobit of characters via Mini-M to cost more than $0.021. As the amount of traffic per session increases, the overhead cost is spread out over the total amount of traffic. When comparing AMSC services to Globe, because of the lower airtime rates ($1.19 per minute) and faster data rates (4800 baud) it gets in the neighborhood of 100 times less expensive.

A new e-mail/Internet service came on-line in April (www.gocruising.net) especially created for satellite users with slow connections such as Mini-M and AMSC that will address that issue. It will also provide text weather information that can be quickly downloaded, as well as other services useful to mariners.

Let us say that we want to send a 3,000-character letter to our three children at separate e-mail addresses. PinOak will charge for three 3,000-character messages, or $8.55. Using Mini-M, if we send the same message to multiple recipients, the additional cost is very littleif any. There is no extra charge with GlobeMail.

What if we come home for a couple of months? Globe will forward our mail at the regular airtime rate just as if we were still aboard. For a charge of $20, PinOak will forward mail at to a separate dial-up e-mail account that we must maintain at additional cost from another provider. With Mini-M or AMSC, we can generally use the same Internet service provider we now use, which means we can also access it from a land telephone. Additionally, we can most likely use the same e-mail software we now use, not some service-specific software that is used for Globe or PinOak.

Let's also address a couple of operational issues. PinOak operates from a station location in New Jersey with three transceivers scanning 22 frequencies. A maximum of three users can be on-line at any given time.

The PinOak transceivers are designed to cover different parts of the world: one for the Med and Caribbean, another for the Atlantic, and another for the rest of the world. Even if you choose the right band for connection from your location, the station may be busy on another band with another user. Because of propagation, you may not be able to determine if the station is busy, because you cannot hear the shore station or the user. This can lead to a great deal of frustration with trying, but failing, to connect.

Globe does not suffer as much from this problem in that it has multiple station locations with separate radios on each band. It also broadcasts a free signal to indicate that the station is not in use, and its GlobeMail system uses this signal to automatically determine which band and station to use to establish the connection.

Inmarsat Mini-M and AMSC, on the other hand, can handle many users simultaneously. And because they are satellite based, they are not subject to propagation issues.

Unfortunately, the GlobeMail system is really designed to be on 24 hours a day, something not usually practical on a small vessel (SSB e-mail systems are also very power hungry).

Globe will only hold your mail for 72 hours unless you inform them otherwise. After 72 hours, if you have not picked up your mail, it is returned to the sender as undeliverable. In some cases this could cause undue concern on the part of the sender.

Satellite voice calls are more reliable, have greater clarity and security, and are less costly than SSB through the marine operator.

The projected handheld transceiver cost for new satellite phone systems is about $3,000 for an Iridium phone and $1,000 or less for Globalstar, with airtime rates of $4 and $1.50 per minute, respectively. With the relatively blazing data rate of 9,600 baud for Globalstar (Iridium is 2,400 baud), both SSB and the current satellite systems like Mini-M and AMSC face some tough competition. An underlying issue will be monthly fees in the neighborhood of $50 for Iridium and the unknown cost of long-distance charges (Inmarsat Mini-M has neither) that muddy the waters a bit.

There is one area where SSB-based e-mail does make sense, and that is on Ham radio. Using modem technology similar to PinOak's, there are numerous stations around the globe that offer free Internet e-mail services and weather information. The catch is they can't be used to conduct personal business, and you must have at least a general-class amateur radio license (Mexico is one exceptiona no-code technician-class license is sufficient to get a reciprocal permit for use in Mexican waters). Complete Cruising Solutions is sponsoring such a station at Oakland Yacht Club by providing the necessary modems and radio equipment. Check the web page and links located at www.netlink.org for more information.

This same concept has been applied for the Pacific Cup race this year on the marine SSB frequencies (see www.sailmail.com). This non-profit station may remain on the air after the race for use by registered users. A club may be formed that collects minimal annual dues to cover basic operational costs and station improvement. This concept could spread to other entities, such as yacht clubs, that could provide e-mail services through a private shore station for their members.

SSB isn't dead by any means. There is a lot of life left in the old technology, such as boat-to-boat communications over long distances and the gathering of weather information in verbal, text (via telex receive), and image (wefax) formats. Inexpensive hardware and software for wefax/telex reception and computers make that possible. And don't forget safety communication with agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard and their equivalents around the world.

But for e-mail and telephone calls, SSB may indeed not be the best, or least expensive, choice when all the issues are examined.