There’s No Place Like Dome

Stay in touch and entertained, no matter how far afield you wander.

     Remember the old tagline once used by a major wireless carrier — “Can you hear me now?” — that was supposed to tout the virtues of its network? The phrase is still uttered today, especially when people are trying to converse over a not-so-stellar wireless network or when they’re on the fringe of their coverage area.

We all want to be heard, which requires that we be connected. What happens when we test the connectivity limits of our devices by cruising outside of our comfort zone and coverage area? Perhaps beyond the horizon?

Certainly, there are other options than the standard land-based hookups. But they are not all created equally, even though by virtue of their names one would think they are. Let’s create a cruising scenario to better explain the capabilities and limitations of “networked” communications on the high seas.

Picture this: You have worked hard your whole life and been successful in business and with family. Now’s the time to enjoy the fruits of your labor, and the trip of a lifetime will be soon upon you. Plans for a cruise in your boating palace, Sinbad, will take you down the California coast for a stopover in Mexico for the first leg before a long fetch to Tahiti in French Polynesia for a few months.

Communications and internet connectivity are high on your list of wants and needs. What if something goes wrong and you need to call for help? How about the need to check in with home base to report location and status? It seems like we can’t go very long without being connected to the internet, for social reasons and entertainment value. That can be a concern when cruising for weeks at a time too.

Within Reach
Cellular or wireless phone systems are great on land. The technology continues to evolve, from devices with 3G technology to now mostly 4G, and 5G is already in test mode for some level of rollout in 2019 by the major carriers.

On land-locked waterways such as lakes and rivers, boaters shouldn’t have too much concern for getting connected. Even boaters doing a little near-shore coastal cruising in the open ocean — and I do mean near-coastal — should be OK. Networks typically hone their antennas toward the population, meaning customers on land, but some carriers do point an array toward the ocean, especially in higher traffic areas such as inlets and reefs. Wireless signals can carry far over open water due to an absence of obstructions and a denser atmosphere. But it’s not guaranteed to offer continuous service.

Relying on a cellphone exclusively in times of distress links you to only the party you’re calling, and that’s if you find a signal. It’s not recommended to rely just on cellphones in an emergency. VHF and sideband radios offer much better opportunities for more boaters to hear you if you’re in distress and need help.

With Sinbad near the California coast and within sight of land, cell coverage is typically attainable near larger towns. Off the desolate coastal areas that line the coast, however, getting any bars on the phones can be tricky at best. Without communication capabilities, you really are out there on your own.

In the Southern California ports on down to San Diego, where you’ll go to provision, cell coverage may be decent. Shortly, though, you’ll be heading south of the border, and cell service isn’t the same in other countries as it is in the U.S. What’s a cruiser to do?

Bird’s-eye View
To be safe, Sinbad is equipped with a handheld satellite phone. But not all satellite phones or the services provided are equal. The types of orbits the satellites make, the number of satellites above earth, and the device itself can all have an influence on the coverage and connection capabilities.

Satellites fly in one of two orbits: low Earth orbit (LEO) or geostationary (GEO). Geostationary is what it sounds like. A satellite stays in one position over the Earth as observed from a point on Earth. Geostationary birds are typically located over the equator at around 22,000 miles in altitude.

Low Earth orbit satellites have an orbital period the same as Earth’s but are not fixed over the equator. They have an elliptical or figure-8 path and return to the same position over Earth each day. They travel about 500 miles above earth and offer a broader range of coverage.

The Players
The market includes several satellite communication providers, but three of the better known brands are Iridium, Inmarsat and Globalstar.

Globalstar flies 24 active satellites — a few spares up there too! — in a LEO with the base of their coverage over land and near-coastal. Globalstar’s main service is in satellite communications and low-speed data transmission over terrestrial areas and near-coastal. Coverage maps for Globalstar service show mostly North American and western European coverage for voice and data (Generation 2) services, with Gen 1 reaching farther into South America, Australia and the Pacific Rim.

Globalstar’s SPOT messenger service is a tracking device that also provides text messaging (41 characters). It has a much broader coverage area because it’s covered by 48 satellites and is typically used for rescues on land and sea but limited for regular usage.

Cruising Sinbad down the California coast toward Mexico, a Globalstar sat phone will work while off the U.S. coast but likely drop its connection south of the border. Globalstar satellites have to connect to groundbased gateway stations to tap into the public switch telephone network (cellular base stations) and so need to be in view of a gateway station to provide service. There are 24 Globalstar Gateways around the world, with seven in North America.

Flying in a geostationary orbit, Inmarsat’s fourth-generation global mobile satellite communications (I-4) network has 13 satellites at 22,236 miles above Earth. Founded to support merchant maritime communications, Inmarsat covers the globe’s sea lanes, including the Pacific Ocean region.

Iridium has a satellite constellation of 66 crosslinked LEO stations, approximately 485 miles above Earth. Covering Earth’s surface from pole to pole, the Iridium satellites communicate with neighboring satellites on the Ka band, resulting in continuous visibility and service coverage.

Data, Data, Data
For extensive offshore cruising, a satellite service provider has to be chosen carefully.

Globalstar will not cover Sinbad’s telecom needs across the Pacific or even in Tahiti. Inmarsat and Iridium will, so how can cruisers break the tie? Broadband data service needs and package price, for the most part.

Broadband connectivity is possible on the high seas. Cruisers just need to know who can supply it and for how much.

Pricing for data streaming from a satellite is becoming more competitive between the satellite carriers, which typically means better pricing and/or airtime for consumers. But depending on data usage, the service can still be costly. Downloading favorite videos, books and photos from a land-based service prior to casting off would be prudent, to minimize sticker shock.

High-speed internet is offered by Inmarsat and Iridium through a number of services, keeping Sinbad online and posting along the way. They both offer several packages for voice, high or low data usage, and seasonal demands.

“Satellite technology has evolved to the point where we can access high-quality voice and data on demand from anywhere in the world,” said Adam Eckstein, mobile business development manager with Atlantic Radio Telephone in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and SatPhoneStore in Miami. He noted the ability to monitor video surveillance on your yacht or other remote locations, to tap into weather services and to make emergency calls as a few needs that rank above standard movie streaming. “Package options are beneficial, especially if service is not needed on a long-term basis.”

I saw a side-by-side comparison of the coverage maps (go to satphonestore.com and click on “Coverage Maps” on the top line, if you want to see a comparison) and it showed Iridium has full coverage around the globe and from pole to pole. Inmarsat also displays good coverage over most of the oceans except those areas on the northern and southern fringes. Globalstar offers complete coverage for North America and most of South America, as well as other countries.

Gaining Strength
Picking up a satellite connection requires a good antenna. Most portable voice sat phones have a flip-up or extendable antenna, suitable with clear line of sight to a satellite but also on pretty steady footing. Luckily, Sinbad is equipped with a satellite dome antenna up on a mast spreader, for improved voice and continuous broadband connectivity.

Usually seen on yachts and large sailboats, the domed antenna basically contains a motorized satellite dish that can tilt and rotate on two- or three-axis configurations. The dish will lock on to the satellite signal, and then as the boat swings, rolls or pitches, the satellite receiver remains locked on the signal by tilting and rotating.

One of the best known manufacturers in sat dome antennas is KVH, which builds the antennas but doesn’t have its own satellite service. It resells services from providers such as Inmarsat and others. Its TracVision and TracPhone domes are ubiquitous in marinas everywhere, as yachts big and small seek to stay connected.

Intellian’s VSAT line keeps communications on track, with the V60 dome being the smallest at about 30 inches wide and 33 inches tall. For satellite TV, its i-series antennas and domes, ranging from 15 to 47 inches tall, have a size and solution for most any-size boat, and a few of the models have worldwide capabilities.

Satellite TV is the strength of Raymarine’s STV systems, which range from 13 inches to almost 24 inches. They’re specialized to regions of the globe, so boat owners with ocean-crossing ambitions might want to look elsewhere. What is convenient is that a vendor such as Atlantic Radio Telephone can match the service you need with the right phone and antenna that will supply the desired services. Other players in the sat dome market are Raymarine, Intellian and a few more.

With early planning for communication and entertainment needs during an extended cruise, boat owners should be well aware of their needs before they leave shore. Not all satellite services are equal, and knowing that is a great first step to conducting the necessary research and finding the equipment, service and plan that fit the crew’s need. Nobody want to be halfway between here and there and yelling into his phone, “Can you hear me now?”

To the Web
AtlanticRT.com
Globalstar.com
Inmarsat.com
IntellianTech.com
Iridium.com
KVH.com
Raymarine.com
Satphonestore.com

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