Satellite phones have evolved a full ecosystem of gear and services
Now that many of us have learned the joys and perils of working from home (WFH) and the always-connected 24/7 life, you may have decided it is time to get away from it all and sail over the horizon. Sick and tired of receiving urgent text messages at midnight? Mad because there is no longer an excuse not to check in? Longing for the days when the phrase, “Sorry, I didn’t have a connection,” was a legitimate excuse? Thanks to the availability of satellite phones, being anchored in that fabled tropical lagoon in the middle of the Pacific is no longer an excuse for kicking back and relaxing.
Look on the bright side. Today’s satellite phones, devices, software, and accessories mean you can now reach mom on her birthday, like you are supposed to! Instead of blaming the midnight squall on the weather gods, you can now get the forecast in time to save the sail. And yes, you can check in with the boss, or make that important day trade, or ask for another weekend off, even when in some place where the only thing you can see is the horizon all around.
No doubt you’ve heard of Iridium, Globalstar, Inmarsat and some other satellite phone services. At first, most of these provided mainly voice communications. Then came options to download and upload text and data utilizing various cables, adaptors, and hardware. Now, we see a full ecosystem of wireless and wired devices, software, accessories, and apps that can make data, text, and the Web readily available throughout your vessel by utilizing the smartphones, tablets, and computers you already have and use.
Everyone with a smartphone, which is just about everyone, quickly finds that people have forgotten how to make phone calls these days. Instead, every type of communication imaginable is sent via text or email, and using today’s satellite communicators extends that capability to your boat.
Some of us learned the value of using textual communications via satellite phone long ago. For one thing, turning letters and numbers into digital transmissions that can be beamed back and forth to satellites tends to be less expensive, more reliable, use less battery power, and take much less time than voice communication. I was getting government text forecasts sent to my boat in the Southwest Caribbean via Iridium phone back in 2006. Utilizing email to receive these forecasts along with a data compression service meant I only needed a minute or two of airtime each day to download and upload email. Fast, efficient, and inexpensive even back then.
The process worked okay, but some recent advancements in software, hardware, and services make getting texts and email simpler and better than ever. A product called ZOLEO (about $200) is a palm-size square device that connects your smartphone or tablet to the Iridium network, allowing the sending and receiving of texts, email, and SOS alerts. Get the device, purchase a service plan ($50 a month for unlimited texts and emails), hook up to your phone or tablet via Bluetooth, and you can communicate anywhere in the world. There are less expensive monthly plans for less message volume, and the plans can be changed monthly. You get a special ZOLEO SMS number and email address to use with the service, and it also works with cellular networks and WiFi when that is available.
You might already be getting regular email and weather charts sent to your satellite phone without the use of an extra device, but that process can be improved via the use of satphone-optimized email such as XGate and OCENS, as described previously in Ocean Navigator (www.oceannavigator.com/two-suppliers-of-email-via-satellite/). These services use compression and other techniques to reduce the data transfer required and improve speed and reliability. In addition, these services provide weather information and reduced-bandwidth access to the Web using products like XWeb and OCENSWeb. I’ve used XGate email and it was well worth the price for reduced data use and greater speed when offshore. It is far superior than most web-based email for onboard use, and even when dealing with slow Internet connections ashore.
Once you’ve got that satphone hooked up, you might want to get one of the devices that provides easy access to data by creating a WiFi hotspot on your boat. The RedPort Optimizer router teams up with XGate to provide fast access onboard via WiFi to email, texts, weather information, the Web and more. It has Ethernet and USB ports for wired connections and works with Iridium, Inmarsat, Globalstar and other satellite networks. The company claims email is accelerated up to 20 times faster and can save you 85% on airtime costs. They also claim three to five times faster Web browsing. RedPort requires a certified data service like XGate to work. This makes it much easier to type, edit, send, receive and store important messages using the smartphones, tablets, and laptops you are familiar with. It can be very handy to have the latest weather forecast or email on your smartphone when you need to go ashore to take care of business, clear customs, etc. Much better than having to lug a laptop around.
Another option is the Sidekick Satellite WIFI router available from OCENS that allows you to hook up your older satphone and create a WIFI hotspot onboard. It features Ethernet and USB ports for greater connectivity. There’s an optional wired extender you can utilize to create a connection to a distant part of the boat not well covered by WiFi. This can be useful on metal vessels where the WiFi signal can be blocked by bulkheads or other structures.
Iridium makes the Iridium GO! Communicator that connects your smartphone to the Iridium satellite communication network via Wifi. To make it all work together, you need the Iridium GO! app, and you can also get the Iridium Mail & Web app. Similar to XGate and OCENS, the mail app uses compression and other techniques to reduce data loads and speed up reliable messaging sending using your smartphone.
Both of these apps and a variety of other useful satphone apps are available in the Iridium app store. For example, there is another venerable email app, SailMail, and several useful weather apps including PredictWind and SailGrib. The Squid Mobile app is another GRIB weather file downloader.
Being able to utilize these specialized marine apps can add tremendous value to your smartphone. One neat thing to consider is that the iOS apps would allow you to easily utilize the much larger screen of an iPad, and the Android apps can be downloaded and utilized on many newer generation Chromebooks. In the case of iOS apps, they tend to work quite well on iPads, but Android apps on Chromebooks are not always the best. They are usable with some workarounds, and the ability to view things on the big screen can be tremendous. I also find it much easier to use a real keyboard to type out accurate messages and emails. The ability to utilize a larger tablet or Chromebook can be important if you need to create and handle more complicated textual information. Both iPhones and Android can connect to “real” computers to aid in this.
Stay on track
There are several options to provide automatic GPS tracking services to your boat via Iridium. The previously mentioned RedPort offers an Iridium GPS tracking service that can send reports every 15, 30, or 60 minutes, depending on what service level you get. This service requires the use of RedPort Glow or Aurora ($1,500 to $2,000), which provide all-in-one-device Iridium communication services such as phone, voice, data, tracking, and onboard WiFi to get the data to your smartphones or computers. They utilize self-contained deck units that don’t require the use of extensive wiring except for a 12-volt, 1-amp power supply. In addition, Aurora provides a local phone connection for up to four devices via the boat’s WiFi, which might be useful on larger vessels. In my experience, avoiding troublesome wires, connectors, adaptors, and routers would be a tremendous boon to reliability and ease of use. In the marine environment, every physical connection avoided is a significant boost in reliability of electronic devices.
Iridium GO! also provides tracking options, and OCENS provides the SnapTrack service that for a monthly fee allows you to send GPS positions from the ZOLEO. Logged positions are placed on a map and you can send the link to your friends and family so they know where you are at all times.
OCENS also sells a small self-contained tracking unit called the SmartOne C that utilizes the Globalstar network as opposed to Iridium. Globalstar hasn’t forgotten about WiFi and smartphones either. The Globalstar Sat-Fi2 provides onboard WiFi connections to the satphone network and features a big SOS button right on the front. It sells for a reasonable $499, making it one of the less expensive ways to make worldwide connections. Globalstar coverage is not as extensive as Iridium, so be sure to check the coverage maps to make sure you get the right service. In particular, there are big gaps when well offshore in the middle of the ocean and at high latitudes.
One advantage of the Sat-Fi2 is that it is a self-contained, phone-like unit, with its own rechargeable battery and antenna. This means you could, for example, easily carry the unit ashore or to another boat for use, or possibly even into the liferaft! WiFi range is limited to 50 feet. One advantage is Globalstar provides you with a regular 10-digit US-based phone number, making it easy for family and friends to reach you. Globalstar also offers Sat-Browse to provide simplified and speedier browsing of the Web using the Sat-Fi2 or other Globalstar devices. One advantage is you only get charged an extra $5 per month when you are using the service. It does have some limitations. One is that you can’t use it to log in to https sites that require a username and password — meaning it is mainly for browsing text-heavy sites. I can imagine using this when looking up the instructions for some device onboard or when trying to find the address of a supplier in a foreign port.
If you are using another satellite device, OCENS offers a VOCO service for $10 per month that gives you a regular 10-digit local number, similar to the Globalstar unit above. That means people calling you can probably make the call for free, though you get charged $1.49 per minute for the incoming calls. Frankly, I find that on small pleasure boats the costs of satellite service are still high enough, so leaving a unit on to accept incoming calls is probably not worth it most of the time, but it could be a lifesaver at other times. For example, you might be waiting for an important call from your doctor.
There are many non-marine specific accessories that can be part of your satphone toolkit. First, be sure you have the right charging setup onboard so you have multiple ways of topping up the rechargeable batteries in your portable devices. I find the addition of a small portable charge block of the type that can jump-start cars in an emergency is extremely useful. Yes, you can use it to jump-start many marine engines too, but it is great to have a reliable means of charging your satphone, smartphones, and even your laptops that doesn’t depend on ship’s power. It could prove very useful too if you are on an extended trip in the dinghy or ashore.
There are all sorts of specialized waterproof cases to protect all this gear. I’ve found that Pelican cases, for example, are just about ideal for protecting gear like satphones and computers, and make it much easier to transport them ashore in a wet dinghy or when you have to throw everything in the liferaft. There are many other brands of waterproof case that work well for this. Plain old zipper style storage bags make for quick, easy water protection, with less complete security but certainly less cost and a lower profile. I keep some big two-gallon zipper storage bags for putting my laptops in when tossed into a backpack for an expedition ashore.
In my experience, some of the first things to fail are the cables and connectors used to link computers, phones, and other devices. Always carry spares and backups. If possible, try to limit the different types of connectors in use. For example, if your laptop uses a USB charge connector, you can have instant backups if your phone and your tablet also use the same connectors and charge blocks. Very handy to be able to swap around as needed, and at other times you can get by with only one charge block and cable when going ashore.
Sorry, but I do hope these ideas help you to stay in touch, even though you wanted to get away from it all. You’ll appreciate it the first time you’re able to order that special repair part to have it waiting in port on your arrival! n
John J. Kettlewell is the executive director of Sail Martha’s Vineyard, a nonprofit providing sailing education, Maritime Studies training, rowing opportunities, and high school sailing. He’s also the author of the Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook and has been cruising between Labrador and South America for more than 40 years.