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Wi-Fi on board, part III

Oct 3, 2012

Well here we are on the part III and final iteration of our Wi-Fi on board series — the one you real bluewater sailors will be most interested in, because these systems provide worldwide coverage or almost worldwide coverage. The systems based on the Iridium system are good even at the poles, the other systems are good for up to 75 degrees north or south latitudes, so if you don't like cold weather they will do fine! The common denominator with all of these global systems is that they tend to be expensive, but when one considers that they fulfill not only your Internet needs, but your telephone, tracking, GPS, and even SOS needs, it doesn't seem like such an expensive proposition. All of these systems involve an initial purchase cost, a monthly fee, a data/telephone fee, as well as an initial one-time connection fee. The perfect system for your vessel will depend upon your com needs as well as monetary considerations, as you will soon understand.

Speaking about monetary considerations, it is important to know approximately how a megabyte (MB) can be understood in terms of end product, so I am suggesting the following comparison, which was provided me by KVH mini-VSAT broadband satellite system.
                   
1 e-mail (text only) = 0.01 MB                  
1 e-mail (with attachments) = 0.30 MB
1 web page load = 0.30 MB
1 Hi-res smartphone photo = 1.00 MB
1 30-sec YouTube Clip = 1.50 MB
1 3 minute song = 1.75 MB

Now that you have an idea of just what you can get for your MB of data usage, it’s time to compare a few representative systems, starting with the least expensive and working toward the more expensive. An excellent one to start with is the Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone, which can be purchased directly from Ground Control-Satellite Communications Solutions for $1,495. Add low-speed Internet with AxcessPoint Personal Hotspot for an additional $149 and the roof-mounted external antenna with 50 feet of antenna cable for $465 and your initial hardware purchase comes to a mere $2,109.

The most basic recurring fees are $45/month plus $1.50/minute, plus there is a one-time activation fee. The other end of the fee spectrum is the Iridium 5,000 Minutes Prepaid Service for $5,600, which works out to $1.12/minute. This system is, of course, worldwide but at 2.5 to 20 Kbps with compression, data rate is slow and will work best for e-mails and not surfing the Internet. One really handy feature of the Iridium Extreme is that it has an SOS button (under a protective cover) that when pressed sends out a distress message to a designated contact with your GPS coordinates, so it can also save your life in an emergency.
http://www.groundcontrol.com/Iridium_Extreme_9575.htm

Ramping up to a more permanent and capable system we now consider the Iridium Pilot, which was designed for the most extreme open sea conditions and offers a data rate of 134 Kbps Internet access. The good thing about this system is that it comes with three separate phone lines that can be used simultaneously. This means that you can get a crew's handset that can only be used with a prepaid, low-cost crew calling card, which is good for you as a yacht owner and good for the crew and their morale.

The purchase price for this sea going system is $5,363 with 50 meters of antenna cable, data costs start at $11.91/MB and a $595.30 monthly fee for the 50-MB plan and on up to the 250-MB plan where the cost per MB goes down to $9.05/MB but the monthly fee goes up to $2,261.90. The monthly phone plan fee is between $127.70 for 100 minutes at $1.28/minute up to $810 for 1,000 minutes at $0.81/minute. I can still remember the days when I paid $6/minute to use the Iridium phone on my ship, USNS Pecos (T-AO-197), and $12/minute to call home using the local satellite system on Mahe Island in the Seychelles, so the reader can see how prices have come down considerably.
http://www.groundcontrol.com/Iridium_Pilot.htm

For those of you who may need a system to do double duty, one that can be used on board your boat and also one that can be used for four wheeled expeditions, may I suggest the Wideye Safari BGAN Vehicular In-Motion BGAN Terminal. This system connects to the Internet at broadband speeds with data rates of up to 464 Kbps downlink and 448 Kbps uplink. This is a combination of Internet and phone for a traveling mobile office and comes with global coverage with the exception of the Polar Regions. The Wideye Safari is also a Wi-Fi access point that connects to any wireless devices up to 100 feet from the transceiver/controller. The initial cost of this system is $6,100 and phone calls from anyone in the world are $0.99/minute. (http://www.groundcontrol.com/Wideye_Safari_BGAN_Terminal.htm)

Now we come to the “crème de la crème” of onboard Wi-Fi systems, the KVH TracPhone V3. First of all, VSAT stands for very small aperture terminal, which is a nice way of saying that the actual parabolic dish is a lot smaller than they used to be. The V3 takes this to the extreme smallest form factor with a stabilized dish that is only 14.5 inches in diameter and a small radome of only 15.5 inches in diameter. In fact KVH calls this system the Mini-VSAT Broadband and it is perfect for small boats and yachts under 60 feet. The data rate is fast with 2 Mbps downlink speed and up to 128 Kbps uplink speed; this translates into 100 e-mails for 99 cents, three e-mails with attachments for 99 cents, three webpage loads for 99 cents, or a high-res smartphone photo for 99 cents. The world's smallest maritime VSAT system has almost global coverage, fast speeds, small antenna, and most important of all, affordable airtime.

The KVH Mini-VSAT Broadband network MSRP is $16,995 and the airtime service breaks down according to the monthly data plan you select, the least expensive being the M50 whereby you are allowed 50 MB of data/month for which you pay a monthly fee of $49 and the most expensive being the M1000 whereby you are allowed 1,000 MB/month and you pay $999. In both plans the basic in-plan data rate per MB is the same at $0.99/MB but the over-plan rate can go up to $1.99/MB. The system allows you to make land or cell phone calls anywhere in the world for only $0.49 /minute with their enhanced voice service. With this setup you can actually surf the Web and do the other things online that you do at home sitting in your living room! I would like to thank Nicole Mongillo of KVH, who was responsive to my requests and who helped guide me to her company's mini-VSAT. She also provided me with the following Web address for finding your nearest KVH factory-certified dealers: www.kvh.com/wheretobuy and if you want to talk with her further regarding this or any other KVH products, her e-mail address is: nmongillo@kvh.com.

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