Internet access for voyagersOct 25, 2013
An overview of the options for setting up a voyaging boat
(page 2 of 3)
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.
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.
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.
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.