Satellite-savvy Sailors Get the At-Home Experience At Sea
Cosmic Communications Satellite-savvy sailors get the at-home experience at sea. By Zuzana Prochazka Wi-Fi aboard? Why not? All the comforts of home while cruising today is less about granite countertops and cushy bedding and more about staying connected no matter how far you roam.
Connectivity is everything, whether you work while cruising, need to keep in touch with family or just don’t want to miss the big game on TV. But offshore satellite connectivity seems a bit of celestial black magic, and the pace at which it’s changing can leave boaters scratching their head. What to buy, the latest features, the cost and if it will mimic the at-home experience are real concerns.
“My number one question at boat shows is ‘how do I get Internet aboard,’” said Paul Comyns, Intellian’s vice president of global marketing.
In the past decade, the domes atop yachts have multiplied as stabilized communications and TV antennas have shrunk for use on smaller vessels and the data speeds have accelerated for a better connection. Voice and data communications for yachts come in two forms:
1. Fleet Broadband (FBB), which is an Internet/voice/text network based on three geosynchronous (GEO) satellites developed by Inmarsat (I-4 network) with global coverage except at the poles.
2. VSAT, short for very small aperture terminal, uses higher frequencies that move data at more than 10 times the speed of FBB. Coverage is global but, again, limited at the poles.
Each technology has its benefits and issues. The lower the band, the less affected it is by weather but the lower its data-carrying capacity. For example, FBB uses the low-frequency L-band (1 to 2 GHz). It is fairly resistant to rain fade, and the antennas don’t have to be tuned as precisely (maybe to within five degrees vs. one degree), but data-carrying capacity in terms of bits per second (bps) is lower.
On the other hand, VSAT works on the higher K-band — Ku and Ka (literally meaning under and above). It is affected by weather but has a high carrying capacity with download speeds (shore-to-ship) at roughly twice the upload speeds (ship-to-shore). Traditionally, VSAT hardware has been higher priced but more robust.
Most VSAT yacht communications and TV connectivity today are carried on Ku-band (12 to 18 GHz), which has more bandwidth (a bigger pipeline) so it’s less expensive to move larger amounts of data than on the L-band. Rain does affect the Ku-band, and because of its narrow beam, the pointing accuracy of antennas must be much tighter.
The Ka-band (26.5 to 40 GHz) is extremely high frequency and is popular for high-definition TV and also VSAT service, because it has double the speed and capacity of the Ku-band. Ka-band bandwidth is plentiful, and once it is implemented fully— it will become more prolific starting in 2016 — it should be quite inexpensive compared to Ku-band. It is expected to revolutionize communications as high-throughput satellites (HTS) come online.
Most FBB and VSAT hardware is manufactured for the yachting market by three main companies: Intellian Technologies, KVH Industries and Cobham Satcom, which acquired the Danish company Thrane & Thrane and markets the Sea Tel and Sailor brands.
Intellian manufactures VSAT, FBB and TV antennas. The v60 is its smallest VSAT communications antenna, roughly 24 inches in diameter and 130 pounds. Intellian touts its ability to not need an onboard gyrocompass for the antenna to acquire and lock onto a satellite. It operates on the Ku-band with speeds of 1.5 Mbps and retails for $21,000. By comparison, Intellian’s smallest FBB antenna, the FB150, is 18 inches and 25 pounds and starts around $5,000 but moves data at 150 kpbs (kilobits vs. megabits). Intellian markets the hardware but for connectivity packages and pricing, you’ll need to work with a provider/dealer.
KVH builds Inmarsat-compatible TracPhone FBB antennas but also has a global mini-VSAT network, which is carried by Ku-band satellites, and, according to Jill Connors, KVH’s media and communications manager, KVH sells both airtime and hardware for one-stop bundled shopping.
The TracPhone V3 mini-VSAT is popular for small yachts. It retails for $14,000 and will deliver 2 Mbps with airtime ranging from $49 to $999 per month for 50 MB to 2 GB plans. KVH also offers FBB antennas: FB 150, 250 and 500. The labels denote their carrying capacity.
Cobham’s Sailor brand may be best known for its FBB (again 150, 250, 500) antennas, but it, too, offers VSAT with its Sailor 900, a 24-inch ultra-small aperture terminal. The unit weighs nearly 100 pounds and the price is around $28,000. Airtime charges range from $400 to $1,300 per month.
Coverage is nearly universal these days and strongest at the equator, since that’s where GEO satellites have the clearest view. Regional satellite networks sometimes have an edge in other parts of the world.
So what have been some recent developments in satellite technology, and what’s next?
First, there’s been significant progress made in the design of dome hardware. Antennas track better even at high speed and with more extreme motion in rough water. Furthermore, there is no more need to change out LNBs (low noise block), down-converters that receive the microwave signal from the satellite, amplify and change it to a lower frequency band, and then forward it to the vessel’s receiver. Even for a traveling yacht, switching is now automatic for both VSAT and TV without the need to physically adjust the antenna.
Second is sound. Antennas used to make noise as they hunted constantly for the celestial signal, which is not what you want to listen to in a peaceful anchorage. “Intellian’s sub-reflector spins but the main antenna is still,” Comyns said. “And that makes for peace and quiet aboard.”
But perhaps the greatest technological leap is about to change onboard connectivity forever. High-throughput satellites (HTS) provide at least twice (though maybe four or more times) the total throughput of existing satellite systems for the same allocated orbital spectrum. They do this with spot beams that are narrowly focused and allow for frequency reuse. While they make multiple beams from one, they lower the cost per bit. The Ka-band is where most of these satellites will operate, but Ku-band projects are also in the works, since these new satellites are in orbit now.
Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) network of three I-5 generation HTS satellites (and one spare) were built by Boeing and are expected to come online this year. This new technology will increase the amount of data moving about, so expect to get a lot more for the same money soon.
Are You Not Entertained?
Satellite is not just about communications. Television access aboard is no longer only about playing movies from DVDs. Today, live TV with news, sports and streaming movies is possible. In the U.S., Dish Network and DirectTV are the providers, and airtime packages and channels are purchased much like with cable access in the home. A yacht cruising internationally will need to explore options with regional providers and perhaps get a set-top box for each cabin. Local access may be lost as the yacht moves, since channel provision is based on ZIP codes, so a San Diegan will continue to get the national feed but may lose San Diego news and weather as he sails to San Francisco.
Intellian’s smallest TV antenna is the i2, which is 15 inches in diameter, weighs 10 pounds and starts at $2,200. KVH calls its TV series antennas TracVision, the smallest of which is the TV1 with a 13-inch antenna that weighs eight pounds and has an MSRP of $2,695. Prices arc as the antennas get bigger. KVH’s TV3, which can venture 100 miles offshore and still keep its signal, starts at $3,995. Cobham offers a Sailor 60 Ku-band TV antenna that is 27 inches and 88 pounds. Depending on accessories and the dealer, the price fluctuates between $8,000 and $12,000.
Intellian and KVH manufacture high-def TV antennas that are bigger, so they will track better farther away from land, and substantially more expensive. Think $15,000 vs. $3,000. Entertainment package charges vary but expect $300 to $600 or more per month, depending on usage.
The best way to find the right solution is to clearly identif y your boating habits and define your communications and entertainment goals. How often do you use your boat? How far will you be traveling? Do you need to keep in daily touch with the office or family? Who will be aboard and what are their needs? Then, visit one or two dealers who specialize in satellite communications and TV to educate yourself on the options. If the boat sits for several months of the year or the programming offered is of limited interest, a dealer can help come up with the most appropriate packages available. Don’t over-buy, ask how to retain control of usage and never think your vessel is too small to be satellite-enabled.
Prices Come Down
A small VSAT setup can cost $3,000 to $30,000, plus installation and usage charges. Data and voice rates vary depending on what and how much you buy with prepaid or pay-as-you-go plans.
Typical Prepaid FBB Plan (25 MB data)
$300/month + $0.60/minute voice + $0.40/text
Typical VSAT Plan (Unlimited data)
No Dome Will Travel
There’s more than one way to skin the communications cat. If you simply don’t have the room or budget for a fancy dome, there are other, more portable ways to stay in touch, including voice and limited data capabilities. Satellite phones have come a long way, shrinking in both size and cost. Portable devices cost from $600 to $1,200, and service plans vary from $0.50 to $1.50 per minute. And remember, you can rent phones for a passage, so ask your satellite communications and electronics dealer for pricing.
For a truly portable solution, Iridium offers its 9555 and Extreme 9575 phones ($1,000 to $1,600) that will fit in a jacket pocket. They have four hours of talk time, 30 hours of standby and will do basic text and email messaging — no attachments or images.
You can also use your smartphone with a satellite hotspot. Iridium Go ($800) is a small global connectivity device that will allow you to use your cellphone for voice, text, email, social media, photo sharing, etc. Airtime pricing varies, but for unlimited data and text and 150 voice minutes, expect to pay around $130 per month with $1 per minute for voice thereafter.
Inmarsat’s Isat Phone 2 also does voice, text and basic email and retails for $800 to $1,000. Inmarsat says the phone registers the network within 45 seconds and has eight hours talk time with 160 hours of standby time. It operates on the I-4 network and airtime varies from $40 to $500 per month with a one-year contract.
Two other satellite phone providers are Globalstar and Thuraya, a company based in the United Arab Emirates. Globalstar’s GSP 1600 and 1700 work with its network, and Thuraya offers the XT Pro satellite phone that uses GLONASS, BeiDou and GPS satellite networks for coverage in Europe, most of Africa, Asia and Australia. Thuraya also has a version of a smartphone hotspot called the SatSleeve. Airtime prices vary.
Finally, a robust but less portable device, the Iridium Pilot is a broadband antenna for voice and data communications and offers three phone lines, high-speed data capability and some flexibility on per-megabyte rather than per-minute airtime pricing packages. Presumably, the mushroom-shaped antenna needs no stabilization and can support simultaneous voice and data transmission. It won’t save a lot of space, though, as its footprint is roughly nine by 22 inches, and it starts around $4,500.
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