There are exciting developments from big new brands in the satcom scene, but what might suit your sailing? Rupert Holmes reports
Until recently, developments in satellite communications were painfully slow, but the pace of change started to quicken a few years ago and is today accelerating rapidly. There’s now a wider choice and vastly improved data speeds, driven by new generation satellites and a growing number of market players, including big brands such as Apple, Amazon and of course Elon Musk/SpaceX’s rapidly expanding Starlink service.
At the same time there’s still space in the market for low cost existing devices that provide mostly text-based comms and a data connection to allow weather GRIBs and GMDSS weather forecasts to be downloaded. The original Iridium GO!, which launched almost a decade ago, quickly became the most popular device for long distance passagemaking, partly as the result of an unlimited data plan, even though downloads are at a snail’s pace.
Iridium GO! exec
The new Iridium GO! exec, launched this spring, will be sold alongside the original device. It’s borne of a similar ethos, but with data speeds 40x higher and the addition of a microphone, loudspeaker and touchscreen. This allows voice calls to be made and received without pairing the unit to a smartphone – potentially useful if you have to take it to the liferaft. Like the original it can also be used as a wifi hub to connect phones, tablets or laptops to the Iridium network.
At its core is the Iridium Certus 100 hardware, which gives download speeds of 88kbps and uploads of 22kbps. The download speed is only 50% faster than old school dial-up internet, so it’s still a narrowband product.
Nevertheless it’s a marked improvement that allows satellite weather images showing the exact location of fronts or storm cells to be downloaded, or for medium-resolution photos to be sent to social media.
Unless a satellite system is only used for a one-off ocean passage, airtime and data prices have a much bigger bearing on long term costs than hardware costs. What made the original Iridium GO! unit a no-brainer for many was the offer of an unlimited data plan for US$140 per month (since increased to $160-175).
Of course, you can’t eat much data at only 2.4kpbs, but the knowledge you’ll never run out at sea, or get saddled with an unexpectedly big bill, is hugely reassuring.
Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this offer isn’t carried forward to the new device. Still, monthly and annual plans are at a lower price than most sat comms, with a 50Mb monthly package that would suffice for basic weather forecasting and text only comms, including email plus occasional voice calls, priced at US$160 per month – less than half the current price of equivalent Iridium Certus plans.
Musk’s latest alternative: Starlink Roam
The Iridium GO! exec’s data prices and bandwidth are still a long way from those offered by Elon Musk’s Starlink service, which provides full broadband data speeds of up to 50-250Mbps (thanks to using thousands of low orbiting, low latency satellites). At the time of writing, for UK customers the hardware with a standard antenna costs only £460 plus £75 per month for airtime, with the new Roam service priced at £95 monthly. However, the Flat High Performance antenna is the only one approved for in-motion use and costs £2,400.
Starlink appears to be a no-brainer for many and in the two and a half years since launch has been fitted to a growing number of yachts and fishing vessels. A geofence 12 miles from the coast originally precluded use offshore, but following its removal users could get broadband internet on ocean passages.
Historically most have used the RV (Recreational Vehicle) plan afloat, which was renamed Roam in early March this year. At the same time there’s a clear warning to users that it’s only intended for use on land.
It’s important to recognise that many of the evangelists for using Starlink afloat have been successfully using it outside the terms of service, which are constantly evolving. To date this doesn’t seem to have created problems, but that could change with minimal notice at any time in the future. There is a dedicated Maritime version of Starlink, but it’s aimed at commercial vessels with a monthly subscription for UK-based users costing almost £5,000. At the time of writing however, Starlink just announced an additional Maritime plan at £997 per month for 1Tb of data. That is still a very expensive annual bill, but may be very attractive for those running a business who need to be able to stay in contact.
While Starlink has been a game changer for many, it comes with a risk that geofencing could be implemented again at any time to deny vessels at sea access to the Roam service. On the positive side it seems less likely, at least in the short term, that harbours and anchorages will be routinely excluded from coverage, due to the risk of nearby users on shore also being cut off.
An important benefit of both Iridium and Inmarsat systems is that they are stable and dependable platforms that are compliant with GMDSS. While Starlink suits some cruising yachts well and may continue to be ideal for use in remote anchorages with no 4G data connection, it does not yet appear to be suitable for yachts to rely on for safety related purposes mid-ocean.
Amazon weighs in
In March, Amazon (boss Jeff Bezos, left), announced further information about Project Kuiper outlining details of three antennae, including a small mobile device weighing 450g that will give 100Mbps speeds – ie 1,000 times faster than Iridium’s Certus 100. A larger 11in square standard antenna will deliver up to 400Mbps and will cost $400 to produce.
Mass production of Amazon’s low-earth orbit satellites will be in full swing later this year, with the system scheduled to accept its first customers in 2024.
Sat comms for smartphones
Given the small size of some black box satellite messaging devices it seemed only a matter of time before similar functionality was built into some smartphones.
That’s already a reality, albeit in a very limited sense, for iPhone 14 users in the USA, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, and the UK, via the Globalstar constellation. It’s intended as a fallback emergency system to alert emergency services and is only available when there’s no cellular or wifi coverage available from any carrier.
Two new ruggedised Android smart phones, the CAT S75 and Motorola Defy 2, include the Bullitt Satellite Connect service that offers 30 two-way satellite text messages for a subscription cost of US$5 per month, operating via geostationary satellites.
Samsung’s latest Galaxy S23 smartphone was widely tipped to ship with a satellite messaging function but, to the surprise of many industry insiders, that didn’t happen. Nevertheless, later this year a wider range of Android phones will have two-way satellite text functionality using the Qualcomm Snapdragon Satellite service that was announced in January and uses the Iridium constellation.
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