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Hand-held satellite communications

Sep 13, 2016

Satellite technology in telephone communications has evolved into an option that is virtually de rigueur on the contemporary cruising yacht.

Of course, die-hard cruisers will stick to their HF SSB-based SailMail, which gives them email access to the entire world. But a satphone, as an adjunct to marine SSB or ham radio, is an easy way to communicate with folks back in the U.S., and you do not need a Pactor modem to run it.

Among the various types of satphones on the market, the text-only and voice/text devices offer easy inexpensive communication from any point on the globe. The hand-held text-only models and monthly service fees are so reasonable these days, I must admit it is hard to find a reason why not to enjoy this simple communication capability.

The DeLorme inReach SE Satellite Communicator is a fully waterproof, dustproof and impact-resistant text-only satellite device that uses the Iridium satellite network. The inReach SE gives you the opportunity to share your current GPS position, weather conditions, ETA and health with friends and family back in the U.S. 

DeLorme’s free Earthmate app allows you to turn your laptop computer or smartphone into a global satellite communication tool for an easier and more ergonomic means of exchanging messages. The unit weighs a mere 7 ounces and measures a diminutive 5.75” by 2.4” by 1”.

At roughly $300, the inReach SE lies at or near the bottom of the price range for a text-only satellite communication device. The inReach SE also requires an annual subscription fee for satellite communication and tracking. At only $12 per month, even the humblest sailor can enjoy texting capability anywhere on the planet.

The SPOT Global Phone is actually that: a telephone that operates much like a land-based cellphone. The SPOT is a global phone featuring both voice and text, and is among the least expensive satcom phones currently available in terms of initial price, monthly fee and per-minute costs. Priced at about $500, this phone allows you to call U.S.-based telephone numbers with automatic roaming, which is included in the monthly service fee.

If a full-fledged satphone like the SPOT Global Phone is too much, you can opt for the SPOT satellite tracking and communications unit (seen at left). Small enough to fit in your pocket (5-5/16” by 2-3/16” by 1.5”) and weighing only 7.1 ounces,  SPOT is totally self-contained, requiring no installation of an antenna dome or base station. However, an external antenna may be purchased in order ensure stronger receive and transmit signals.

An added feature of the SPOT is its short message service (SMS), which offers quick brief text messages of up to 35 characters. The SPOT is not waterproof, so you will need a waterproof pouch or Ziploc bag for trips ashore. The lithium-ion battery provides a 36-hour charge on standby, or four hours of voice. 

The third option, a fully functional satellite phone, provides all the services of a land-based smartphone: voice, text, voicemail and Internet access with download speeds of two megabits per second.

As you might expect, a satellite smartphone system, along with dome antenna, will set you back a daunting sum. As of this writing, that comes to roughly $15,000 — more than the price of some very fine cruising boats. And that doesn’t include the monthly service fee. But we’ll leave that until next time.

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