November 25, 2018
As I prepare for my cruise from the Med to North America, I am continuing my year long search for answers to equipment. I have made most of my selections, but I thought perhaps I would put down my ideas here for posterity and perhaps the benefit of others.
Over the past 18 months I have had the opportunity to communicate with James and Jennifer on Dirona about equipment issues. Their blog is extremely detailed regarding technology, and while there are lots of other blogs pushing products, James’ opinions are valued because of their technical prowess and his deep technical experience outside of yachting. Knowing the author’s capabilities (even in passing in this case) reduces uncertainty about the information at hand.
In any case, I will be making some adjustments to Home Free before the crossing, including some spare fuel tanks, a night vision camera and satellite communication.
I have spent years reviewing much of this technology on the internet, and really this is just a continuation of the same process because I won’t have these products in hand for 2-10 weeks. But I thought I would share my thoughts on Satellite Communication devices for those that may be going through the same process.
Boats and Cell Phones
To begin, it is worth noting that cell phone service on boats varies widely based on location. Being from Toronto, we often had adequate coverage for most of our sailing adventures. The major carriers seem to have good coverage to about 5 nautical miles from the coastline on Lake Ontario and frequently a signal to about 8-10 miles out.
Two of the most common routes for local cruisers are
- from the GTA to Niagara and coverage reaches almost the entire way across that route (8-10 miles out from each side).
- from the GTA to the Thousand Islands, where coverage is good to about 5 miles from shore and possible to that same 8 mile range or perhaps a bit more.
In Greece and Italy, I have found the coverage to be excellent. The only two times I was persistently without coverage was while travelling to Crete, when there were probably 20-30 nm between Santorini and Crete that lacked coverage, and a similar window (perhaps only 10-20 nm) between Corfu and Italy in the North Ionian.
Near all of the other islands themselves, the coverage has always been excellent and usually 4G/LTE. While I haven’t experienced the Western Med yet, I suspect there will be good coverage 20-30nm from shore, and then fail beyond that.
Can You Hear Me Now?
So why do I need a satellite phone? Well, to begin, nobody needs a satellite phone. People have been traversing these waters for centuries before satellites were even possible, so don’t confuse need with want. The realities of today’s world however are that we want to be connected to the people and information that support our lives. Further, the ability to communicate in an emergency situation has proven to improve decision making and save lives. Being a neophyte transatlantic cruiser, I will appreciate that ability, perhaps only modestly as much as my wife will appreciate the ability to check in.
To make that communication happen, there are options. Home Free already has a number of capabilities on-board to help with these things, and other cruisers may have them as well.
- Wifi Antenna – Wifi has a much shorter range than even cell phones, and is great when you are stopped at a Marina and pay for shared WiFi (although this solution can be horribly slow for anything except catching up on email). Perhaps when sitting at anchor this may also be a solution. Historically, many shoreside routers would share their wifi connection for free, but this is no longer the case, and passwords are often required, so unless you are in a single location for a long time and are paying for ‘good’ WiFi capabilities, this is not a reasonable solution.
- Cellular – Using a cell phone or a tablet anywhere you have cell coverage is a reasonable solution. There are three ways to accomplish that. I have all three solutions on Home Free, and will default to the router approach in future.
- Just use your cell phone (or tablet), either directly, or through a personal hotspot (this allows your phone to become a mini-router and other devices can connect to it just like any other router).
- Get a MiFi device. These devices are typically around $130 or 100 Euros and often come with 10-50Gb of data to use for a set period. They allow about 3-10 devices to connect to them like any other router, but may only have a range of 20-30 feet, so you have to move it around with you. They are light though and can be carried in a pocket for wifi on the go. (Here is a Canadian supplier that wants $200 for the hardware and $10/mo for two years (!!), but in Greece they are far less expensive at 99 Euros for the device which includes 50Gb of data)
- Get a dual mode router that supports a 4G/LTE SIM card. This allows your devices on the boat (or RV, car, etc) to log into the same network, but the signal will go through the cellular account on the router.
- VHF – Every boat going further than swimming distance from shore would be wise to carry a VHF radio, but this solution is for local communication (less than 26nm, but frequently lower) and uses regulated airwaves. Most readers will already be familiar with this solution and recognize that conversations are not private. This solution is not really appropriate for data transmission (although there is an effort underway).
- Single-Side-Band – SSB has been used for decades for communication over long distances. Home Free has a SSB radio, and this is an excellent way to communicate with others over very long distances, however the radios are expensive, use a lot of power, and requires more/special training than VHF. This solution has an option to send data using PACTOR modems, but they are also expensive, costing between $1000 and $2000 (and Home Free doesn’t have a PACTOR modem).
- Satellite Service Receiver – A satellite dish (those big white domes on top) allow for the reception of information via satellite. In the case of Home Free, there are two domes, one for television reception, and a second for telephone/internet. These devices are expensive to purchase, expensive to operate and may not work exceptionally well in harsh conditions.
Limiting this conversation to just the telephone solution, Home Free was purchased with a TracPhone FB150, but the service for this hardware has been discontinued, so an investment in a new system (hardware and service) is required.
It is worth noting that Home Free also has other gear on board for informing the greater world of a problem, but these are not really communication devices, they provide limited information about position, and in some cases, only during an emergency.
Choosing A Solution
That is a lot of overview, but here is a shorter list of pre-conditions and requirements to understand the decisions for Home Free.
- A long off-shore passage is being planned, with multiple days out of cell phone range
- Need access to weather updates
- Should have ability to communicate with family
- Current solution is no longer viable
- Need is infrequent but critical
- Minimal communication is needed
- Availability is most important
- Speed is less important
- Key features
- Internet (assumes access to weather, email)
- Sharing among crew would be good, but not mandatory
- Capital Budget should be minimized (assume hardware prices decline over time)
- Operational budget should be directly related to use
- Avoid long term contracts (assume short term necessity)
- Portability is a nice to have
Using this list, I looked at a number of systems, including the following:
- KVH TracVision V3/V7
- Having the Fleet Broadband solution on board was supposed to be an awesome thing, but I didn’t realize the system was almost obsolete. This solution was reviewed, but the capital costs are around (U$) 11,000/28,000 + installation and then service plans start at around $400/$1,200 per month with lower priced contracts requiring 3 year commitments. For casual communication this is far too expensive.
- KVH LTE-1
- This is a nice solution for near shore US usage. At just U$1,700 for hardware and about $100/month for 10Gb of data and $10/Gb for additional data. This solution would be awesome in local/US water, but is not effective for an Atlantic crossing or Med cruising. This may get further consideration when the boat returns to US waters where access to the 2 US cell carriers is available.
- KVH Fleet One
- This solution looks to be a replacement for the FB150, but the hardware is still expensive at around $3000 (discounted), coverage for data does not extend into the Atlantic (although voice does) and service is still quite expensive. For comparison purposes, $150/mo provides about 25Mb of data, 100 minutes of talk time and SMS cost $0.45/message. This solution was excluded due to the lack of coverage and high service fees.
- SPOT X
- The SPOT products have now been around for about 8 years, and they offer an inexpensive way to track location and let the world know if you are in dire need of assistance. The new SPOT X provides texting capabilities anywhere on the globe, and is a great way to send messages and track location. The hardware is about U$250, and while there are many service plans, unlimited texting is U$40/mo with no contract and U$30/mo with a 12 month contract. There are other systems offering similar capabilities, and they all offer some tracking ability, some offer texting ability, but they end there. There is no phone service, and no internet data capability however and this whole class of device has been excluded for that reason.
- SPOT Global Phone
- For U$499, this device can solve most of my needs. I didn’t look at the solution in depth despite attractive hardware and service pricing because there is poor phone coverage in the mid-Atlantic region. Further, the company appears to be eliminating the solution.
- Iridium now has the best private satellite network in the world and global coverage for their service. This is a big plus, and is likely to result in continuity of hardware and service, along with competitive (and hopefully declining) prices as adoption rises.
- I didn’t look at all of their solutions, but here is a snapshot of hardware costs and some service pricing
- I reviewed the Iridium Certus (Hardware ~U$7,000) solution briefly, but the system is new and service pricing is similar to KVH/Inmarsat . . . fast, but too high.
- Iridium Pilot (Hardware ~U$$5,000) . . . similar to above for service.
- Handsets (Iridium 9555 ~U$1,000) . . . not selected due to complexity of data access and need for base station and antenna for use inside the boat.
- Iridium Go! (~ U$660/C$1089)
- I have selected the Iridium Go! solution because it allows all three forms of communication (Text, email, voice) anywhere in the world. Service is offered for C$170/month (C$130 for first three months) or less and allows unlimited data (super slow though, but hopefully okay for weather/GRIB files), unlimited SMS and some voice communication).
- The solution also allows for an external antenna (which is another U$400), but that improves reception.
- The solution is also portable (300g) and has 5 hours of talk time and 15 hours standby on an internal battery.
This post has become much longer than I had planned, but I have spent a lot of time reading and analyzing product information, pricing, feature sheets and more. Ideally I would put my product manager hat back on and simplify this even further for a more effective comparison, but I won’t do that today.
My key requirements look to be easily satisfied by the Iridium Go! and at a price point that is below what I was expecting to pay. To review, I selected this solution because:
- Coverage all the way across the Atlantic. Travelling at six knots could result in being out of reach for many days with a large break in coverage.
- The ability to download weather information
- The ability to make an emergency call
- The ability to communicate with family (the capability of sharing on 5 devices is a bonus for crew).
- An external antenna to improve reception
- Portable and battery powered for use away from the boat, or in an emergency situation
Next up, trying to find the best price!