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Internet access for voyagers

Oct 25, 2013

An overview of the options for setting up a voyaging boat

For better or worse, we live in a connected world. When we set off voyaging, our access to connectivity changes. How much it changes depends on where we’re going, what kind of access we want, and how much we’re willing to pay — measured both in cash and in energy consumption — to get it.

Let’s say you’re fitting out the typical voyaging boat for some bluewater adventures. What’s the spectrum of choices available to you?

Fortunately, that spectrum is pretty broad these days and you are likely to be able to find a solution that reasonably matches your intentions, needs, and budget.

Let’s start with the intentions on where you’re going. Basically, the split is — are you going global or not. If you are going global, you need a global solution, whether it is terrestrial-based or satellite based. If you are intending to cruise the coasts of North and Central America, with occasional forays into the Caribbean, there are a few more options available.

Courtesy Globalstar

Coverage for Globalstar’s data services.

And what are your needs for access? Will simple text-based e-mail suffice or must you have access to other Internet-based services from the boat? Are you willing to restrict your Internet access to limited times and circumstances or do you want availability 24/7?

Finally, what’s your budget for equipment? There are three considerations here: purchase and installation costs, access fees, and energy consumption requirements to operate.

Wi-Fi
One thing that every boat can benefit from for starters is improved Wi-Fi access. More marinas are adding Wi-Fi all the time and hot spots are cropping up in popular anchorages thanks to restaurants and bars that want your business.

Even if you have a laptop with built-in wireless, you will benefit greatly from adding an external Wi-Fi antenna or access point. The biggest impediment to getting a good signal for Wi-Fi on board is the clutter of equipment and metal structure between the computer and the land-based Wi-Fi antenna. Plus the fact that below decks, your computer is probably sitting right near the waterline.

Courtesy The Wirie

The WirieAP unit is a Wi-Fi booster for latching onto Wi-Fi networks at greater ranges.

If you just want occasional access and you’re not too concerned about performance, a simple USB wireless network adapter (like those from Alfa Network) are available for less than $50. They can be suction-cupped to a port for use and stowed when not needed. While very convenient, they will be limited by similar line-of-sight issues to the computer itself. Still, they offer a significant improvement over the computer’s built-in antenna.

If you want more reliable Wi-Fi access while in marinas or hot spot areas, consider an Ethernet-based wireless access point with an external antenna (the Xtreme products from Bad Boy are one example). This is a more permanent solution with a waterproof antenna and electronics that you mount somewhere with a clear view (masthead, or radar arch). The access point electronics will consume a small amount of power, but only while you need it.

In any event, keep in mind that Wi-Fi is a two-way street and there has to be some land-based hot spot available to you for this equipment to be of any use. Some vendors may claim ranges of up to five miles for their equipment (doubtful), but even so this is not a solution offshore or even while underway coastal. Also, you may have to pay an hourly or daily access fee as well, but in general this will be the lowest cost option for Internet access from the boat.

 

Smartphones
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’re well aware that smartphones provide some pretty advanced Internet capabilities. If you’re traveling within the domain of your own service provider — say coastal U.S. — then by far this will be the most consistent and cost effective method of Internet access for the boat.

Courtesy Icom

HF SSB radio is still a good choice for sending e-mail offshore. To be effective, you’ll need a solid radio like this Icom M710 and a strong battery bank.

You can subscribe to whatever level of data service you choose, and with “Internet sharing” (or your phone’s equivalent) you can even use the phone as a Wi-Fi hot spot on the boat. Now your laptop has instant access to the Web and all of its features.

When you travel outside your service area — say to Canada or to the Caribbean — the smartphone may still be your best bet for Internet access. Verizon, for example, has a $25 per 100 MB data plan that works throughout the Eastern Caribbean. It’s not as cheap as home broadband by any means, but it is fairly priced and relatively seamless. Smartphones are very energy efficient as well and will use little additional power on board.

E-mail offshore
Wi-Fi and smartphones may be good solutions for some coastal or other near-land voyaging, but what about offshore and remote locations? For any sort of access more than a few miles from home shores, you need to look at satellite or long-range radio solutions.

One of the most common forms of offshore communications is e-mail via single-sideband (SSB) radio using a global service like SailMail or Winlink. Any of these services assumes as a prerequisite a good quality SSB radio and installation. If you have an older radio or if your current radio is modern but you get intermittent, poor reception, you will need to upgrade your installation (and possibly your radio). [For more on HF SSB from Jeff Williams, see “Still holding its own,” July/August 2012 and “Reducing radio noise and interference,” Ocean Voyager 2013.]

You will also need to purchase a custom radio modem. The most popular brand is SCS and they have a range of modems that start at around $1,000. You may be able to find older, less capable devices on the used market as well.

You can choose to install a radio e-mail system yourself or have it done professionally. Once installed properly, however, SSB radio e-mail will give years of service for little or no ongoing costs. SailMail costs $250 per year; Winlink is free for ham radio operators.

Courtesy Iridium

The Iridium Pilot unit is a high-end solution to gaining Internet access for large yachts and commercial vessels. An alternative is a single Iridium satphone with an external antenna.

SSB radios are power hungry when they’re transmitting — on the order of 100 watts or so. You will need a healthy and well-charged battery bank to support SSB transmissions, but, of course, while you’re not operating you can charge that bank using solar, wind, or diesel energy.

Global Internet access
Radio e-mail services, although global in reach, do not allow for general Internet access. To achieve this, you need a satellite modem. There are numerous satellite services available and again they come in a range of capabilities and costs.

If you are planning for global operation, there are only a few satellite services that can give Internet access: Iridium and Inmarsat are probably the two best known. If you are planning for only coastal cruising (or maybe just trans-Atlantic), then Globalstar offers an alternative. The proven approaches are Iridium, Inmarsat, Globalstar and value-added satellite systems like KVH Industries’ TracPhone Mini-VSAT broadband product.

These providers — Iridium, Inmarsat, Globalstar and value-added providers like KVH — provide a comparison of technologies and fundamental capabilities. For instance, Iridium primarily offers satphones for voice communication, but those phones can also be used to send data as well. Or, for higher bandwidth applications, Iridium offers a standalone dome antenna for use with the company’s OpenPort service. These ranges of capabilities will apply to the other satellite networks as well.

 

Inmarsat — Geosynchronous (“geostationary”) orbits (GEO) — Inmarsat satellites orbit the Earth directly over the equator at an altitude of about 22,236 miles. The period of their orbits exactly match the rotational period of the Earth and so they appear to be stationary over one spot on the Earth at all times. This is why all the Dish Network TV dishes in your neighborhood point in precisely the same direction.

Courtesy Furuno

Another satellite option is Inmarsat’s Fleet Broadband service using a unit like this Furuno Felcom 500.

GEO satellites always have a consistent view of the Earth below, and with control of onboard antennas they can increase capacity in some areas while reducing it in others. Most voyagers would never reach the polar limits of Inmarsat’s coverage. Because GEO satellites are so far away, antennas here on Earth need to be high-gain and highly directional.

For this reason, dishes are the most common form of antenna and for use on board boats these dishes need to be actively steered to always point at the selected satellite. As a result, the antennas tend to be larger, heavier, and more power hungry than most 40-foot boats care to carry.

But, the payback is consistent Internet access — and telephone access — with relatively high speeds (128 kb/sec - 4 Mb/sec). The cost will be high — entry-level terminals cost on the order of $10,000 and per-call or per-megabyte costs can be $0.50 to $1.00.

Iridium — Low Earth orbit (LEO) — Iridium satellites orbit the Earth at an altitude of only 485 miles. As a result, lower power and omni-directional antennas can be used on board. Also as a result, any given satellite will only be in view for a short period of time from a fixed point on the Earth’s surface. This is why the Iridium spaceborne fleet consists of 66 satellites in six different planes of orbit — in this way one or more satellites should be visible everywhere on Earth at any given time. (In the original concept, there would have been seven orbital planes with 11 satellites each. The name Iridium reflects the 77-component concept — the atomic number of iridium is 77. Later it was determined that six orbital planes were sufficient. The name was never changed to Dysprosium.

The Iridium network offers true global coverage because of its ability to relay data from satellite to satellite in real time. Since a satellite 485 miles above the Pacific Ocean is not going to be able to “see” a ground station at the same time, in order to establish its connection from your boat to the Internet, it needs to relay your data to another satellite nearby that can communicate with a ground station.

Courtesy KVH Industries

KVH Industries offers a value-added service called Mini VSAT using their TracPhone V7 and V3 antennas. Coverage is extensive.

Iridium phone calls and data connections can be reliably established from anywhere on Earth, but they have a tendency to drop out after a short period. In one test by Defence Canada, 70 percent of calls were dropped with the average drop time of just over four minutes. Still, four minutes is a lot of data and, in my own experience, 10-minute calls are commonplace.

Iridium modems operate at low speed — 10-20 kb/sec — and generally cost about $1.00 per minute or thereabouts, based on available calling plans. Modems cost on the order of $1,000. You won’t be sending friends pictures of your freshly caught tuna at these rates, but downloading tomorrow’s weather would be reasonable.

Globalstar — LEO “bent pipe” satellites — Globalstar satellites are also in low Earth orbit at an altitude of about 850 miles. Unlike Iridium satellites, the Globalstar birds cannot relay messages from satellite to satellite. Therefore, in order to establish a connection from user to network, the satellite must be simultaneously in view of the user and a Globalstar ground station. For this reason, Globalstar’s coverage — while far reaching — does not include the world’s oceans, or indeed even the southern African continent. Globalstar does offer competitive rates for North and South America, and in between. Like Iridium, its modems are smaller and the antennas are omni-directional.

Value-added services — In addition to the satellite network operators, there are numerous value-added services and companies out there who have tailored solutions to the maritime service. SPOT is a form of (almost) global voice and data service. KVH Industries, on the other hand, is an end-to-end satellite communications company that offers a full range of size and performance voice and data terminals. KVH’s TracPhone V7 and V3 units have antennas small enough for larger yachts. Both units can download data at 2 Mbps and can provide telephone services. The cost for data is less than an dollar a megabyte, but can add up fast with large downloads. Telephone charges are based on the plan you purchase. In the case of the TracPhone V3, the price is almost 50 cents a minute. Using a combination of Ku- and C-band signals, these TracPhone products provide voyagers with Internet connectivity in most areas around the world.

Offshore communications are not yet a trivial commodity for small voyaging boats. There is a commitment of money and energy that must be made to bring the Internet — and its benefits and services — to a small, offshore platform.

If you are contemplating a voyage, consider these alternatives, talk with other voyagers, and do your homework before you go offshore. With today’s breadth of technologies, you will find an appropriate mix for your ambitions, your budget, and your boat.

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Jeff and Raine Williams circumnavigated (and then some) in their J/40 Gryphon. They now live and cruise in New Zealand.

Dec 19, 2013 10:48 am
 Posted by  Yachtdaemon

Excelkent advice thanks, just a couple of comments to add:
- When looking at Winlink v Sailmail, remember Winlink cannot be used for business. Also we have had several fellow cruisers who use Winlink complain that it is getting more difficult to get access as shore stations are closing
- One very cost effective way of having Internet access in foreign ountries is to buy a local prepaid SIM card and use that as required for data on a computer, smart phone or tablet. Access in developing countries can be quite inexpensive, although coverage may be patchy.

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