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Communications alternatives

Mar 30, 2017

From short range to long range to Internet access

Communications choices on a voyaging boat.

Communications choices on a voyaging boat.

Wayne Canning

In the grand scheme of communications for and on your boat, there are many options. There is no “silver bullet,” and most voyagers use a number of communications tools. You will find a combination most likely to meet your needs, but finding the right combination means first stepping back a bit and figuring out what you want to accomplish.

The various alternatives break down into long-range and short-range communications.

There are only two options for long-range communications. The classic choice is HF SSB radio, also known as shortwave. The addition of an SCS Pactor modem adds email capability to HF SSB.

While older than satellite systems, HF SSB/Pactor provides faster data connections than satellite. It requires a little (just a little) understanding but much less than what you have invested in understanding diesel engines, refrigeration, batteries, charging and watermakers. Sometimes new is not necessarily better than old. An HF SSB radio provides tremendous capability for connecting with other cruisers directly and through nets, and synoptic charts over weatherfax provide the best information available. Add a Pactor modem and you have email with anyone, anywhere, and some good position-reporting capability.

The second long-range option is a satellite-based solution. There is a wide range of choices from simple trackers such as the Globalstar SPOT or Garmin inReach to the Iridium GO!, satellite phones and terminals including the Iridium Pilot. The low-end trackers provide some confidence to family and friends at home. Some, such as the inReach, provide SMS (text) capability. Move up to a black box like the Iridium GO! or the Globalstar Sat-Fi and you can leverage your existing smart device, whether phone or tablet, to share your satellite connection across the boat for voice, email and text. You can configure those devices to keep teenagers and other crew from draining your wallet. Fixed installation of satellite phones provides outstanding service that begins to approach HF SSB/Pactor in speed, though still slower, and more convenient voice communications. High-end satellite terminals such as the Iridium Pilot are the fastest of the alternatives at a price point to match.

The tried-and-true HF SSB long-range radio.

Wayne Canning

My recommendation is for coastal cruisers to use a tracker (e.g. SPOT), for passagemakers and other voyagers to carry HF SSB, and for those with truly time-sensitive business demands or dependents in care (like elderly parents) to look first to direct-dial satellite.

DSC VHF a given
Shorter-range communications are more complex, but, first and foremost, no one should be out cruising without a marine VHF radio. Your radio(s) should have digital selective calling (DSC) capability with a properly configured maritime mobile service identity (MMSI) and a working connection for GPS location, either internal or external to the radio. Let’s take that as a given, shall we?

For the rest of short-range communication, most fall into one of two categories: Wi-Fi or cellular.

The best thing about Wi-Fi is that the frequencies are standard around the world. The challenge is that the radios (Wi-Fi is radio) have various performance levels and the antennas vary as well. Many devices including smartphones, tablets and computers have built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. They work fine in reasonably close proximity to the access point (AP) that provides connectivity to the Internet. Some access points provide open access, although the numbers of those continue to decline. Many secured APs at hotels, bars, restaurants and marinas have passwords available for the price of a room, a drink, a meal or a slip. That doesn’t mean you’ll be streaming Netflix or even surfing the Web. Installations often don’t meet professional standards. Surveys of other local systems aren’t well done and default equipment configuration leads to co-channel and adjacent channel interference. There isn’t anything you can do about that. In addition, the backhaul — the speed of the connection between the AP and the Internet at large — is the limiting factor for connection speed. A 54-Mbps connection to the AP doesn’t really mean much if 20 other boats have similar connections and you are all sharing a single 1.5-Mbps connection from the AP to the Internet.

An SCS Pactor modem (front and back views) for use with HF SSB can provide data speeds comparable or sometimes better than from a satphone. The main use for this is email via HF.

Courtesy SCS

The Wi-Fi radio and antenna in your phone and laptop are not the best in the world. The good news is that this is something you can address. The first step for most people is a USB-based device like the ubiquitous Alfa AWSUS036H in any one of its many variants. The radio is better and the antenna is better than what is built into your devices, and they are quite inexpensive. While you can only increase the range of one computer at a time and the device requires a USB port, it provides a very effective way to get a good signal in an Internet cafe, a bar or a restaurant at a nice table in the shade near a power outlet instead of being stuck somewhere less attractive.

Better yet is a fixed Wi-Fi range extender on your boat. These devices provide substantially better performance. You can connect over quite impressive distances, with consistently achievable ranges of three or four miles over water. Further, these devices, when coupled with a wireless router inside the boat, allow a single Wi-Fi connection to be shared across multiple devices. The major high-performance Wi-Fi range extenders are the Ubiquiti Bullet, the RedPort Halo and the MikroTik Groove. When paired with an appropriate wireless router inside the boat, any of these devices will provide impressive range extension and become a backbone for other communications in the boat.

For the internal wireless router, there are a number of products available. One of my criteria for cruising boats is the ability to power your devices off 12 VDC. The Linksys WRT54GL has long proved its mettle in this application. The RedPort Optimizer is specifically designed to match the Halo and provides some really attractive capabilities for satellite and cellular services. Cradlepoint makes some great products that bridge Wi-Fi range extension and cellular data.

Cellular choices
Cellular technology continues to become more complex. There are data formats (GSM and CDMA — think languages) and frequency bands (think channels). Most of the world uses GSM. In the U.S., we use both GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile) and CDMA (Verizon and Sprint). At the risk of gross over-simplification, if you will only cruise the U.S. then you will find Verizon to have a slight edge over their competitors. If you plan to cruise further afield, whether adding Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Eastern Caribbean or planning to foray toward farther anchorages, AT&T is likely to be a better provider. Keep in mind that you will still want an unlocked GSM phone for local SIM cards. It is nice to have a consistent telephone number and the ability to text and call immediately on landfall; AT&T does that better than others.

The inReach unit from Garmin is a tracker that can also send text messages.

Courtesy Garmin

LTE and 4G just make compatibility more difficult. Most cruisers have at least heard about dual-band, tri-band and quad-band devices (phones, tablets and data sticks). The U.S. and U.S.-dominated countries use 800 and 1,900 MHz. In the rest of the world, 900 and 1800 MHz bands are mostly used for cellular. Worldwide LTE now exists on 22 different band segments. In most cases, and certainly for voyagers, the most straightforward approach is to buy something reasonably flexible and accept that you will have to buy local hardware in some areas.

You may find a dedicated USB cellular data stick that provides its own Internet connection to be useful, and there are many alternatives for that capability. I personally use an unlocked Huawei E397, which is reasonably priced, works with my AT&T SIM card and also accepts local pre-paid SIM cards from wherever I wash up on the beach. Unlike most of the alternatives, including using a smartphone as a hot spot, that particular stick has the provision for an external antenna that moves the cellular “two-bar” line well offshore. That can be very convenient on coastal passages, keeping your vessel in range for weather and email without getting into shallow water. It is good to avoid tacking back toward the beach just to maintain a signal. It is great when engaged in an “innocent passage,” such as a transit of the New Providence Channels through the Bahamas between Florida and the Caribbean.

As I intimated at the beginning of this article, the well-connected cruiser carries a range of communications technologies. All boaters should carry marine VHF, and a cellphone is well advised. For hand-held devices, a means of charging on board is a good idea. For coastal cruisers and others who spend a lot of time aboard, a means of reliable Internet enhances safety and quality of life. That Internet connection may come from Wi-Fi range extension, cellular data or both. As you venture over greater distances, long-range communication, whether HF SSB or satellite, becomes more valuable. While I am clearly an advocate of HF SSB, there are situations where satellite is a better solution.

Safety considerations
None of these communications technologies provide the life-safety function of an EPIRB or a PLB — do not kid yourself. That does not mean that locator technologies such as the SPOT, inReach, YellowBrick and others don’t have value. They do. However, they simply are not life-safety devices.

The SPOT unit is also a tracker that can send basic preprogrammed status messages.

Courtesy SPOT

If I were to start from scratch, I might carry something different than I do, and I might carry something different on deliveries than I do. I don’t think they would be greatly different, but there might be a few adjustments. On Auspicious I carry an AT&T iPhone 6 (GSM quad-band phone), an unlocked Motorola Razr quad-band GSM phone, a Huawei E397 data stick and external antenna, an Alfa portable Wi-Fi device, both RedPort Halo with Optimizer and Ubiquiti Bullet and Linksys WRT54GL (overkill, but you do want me to be able to report on side-by-side performance), Icom IC-M802 SSB radio for marine and ham with SCS PTC-IIpro Pactor modem, and a SPOT II. On deliveries, with some adjustments for what is on the boat, I carry a Kaito KA1103 for weatherfax and a Spot II. I’ve left out the myriad of VHF radios.

There are two other means of communication to consider. Television is one way of getting information, especially local information if you understand the local language. For those trying to add a language, television is a good tool. Over-the-air television, while limited, is still widely available. Satellite radio, within the footprint of the satellites, provides a huge range of programming and, in some limited areas, digital weather information that can be displayed on chartplotters and computers. Of course, over-the-air entertainment radio in local languages is available nearly everywhere.

The broad spectrum of communications technologies nearly defies an overview. There is just too much to talk about with anything more than the most superficial treatment. If there is an element of greatest interest to you, please get in touch and let us know. We, someone else or me, will address it for you. For specifics on your boat, you can write me directly.

Dave Skolnick is a naval architect and marine engineer with decades of experience in the office, in the yards and afloat. He current works in Annapolis, Md., on communications and electronics, yacht management and deliveries. He can be reached at dave@auspiciousworks.com.

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