Receiving the internet aboard – at sea!

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Once we move away from the coast, and above all a transmitting aerial, we lose the signal. If you have left for a passage of a hundred miles or a little more, you will be deprived of the internet for a few hours. In most cases, you will receive a signal again well before you catch sight of the coast where you are going to land. Unless you have professional requirements, you can therefore make do with your coastal means of connection. On the other hand, for long passages, or if you have to sail along a coast which is not equipped with transmitting aerials, equipping yourself with a system using the satellite networks, such as Inmarsat, Globalstar or Thuraya, or using the SSB, will be indispensable for receiving the internet. Although close to the coast it is easy to obtain a fast connection, allowing photos and even films to be sent and received for a reasonable communication cost, at sea things are more complicated, and therefore more expensive and sometimes more cumbersome, as surfing the net can only be envisaged with radome aerial systems. The most sophisticated are gyro-stabilized and have participated considerably in our dreams, by allowing us to view the images of ocean racers, but representing quite significant installation and communication costs. In the near future, our smart phones will without a doubt benefit from high speed global coverage via small satellites in low orbit, which are currently being studied by the big operators. For the moment, we have to be content with speeds in the order of 10 to 20 Kb/s, allowing e-mails to be sent and Grib files to be received via the satellite telephone or the SSB. The coverage of these networks must be closely studied, according to your cruising itinerary. Iridium covers the whole world, Inmarsat almost everything except the poles, Globalstar covers Europe, the Americas, Australia, North Africa, part of Asia and part of the Middle East. As for Thuraya, it covers Europe, the whole of the Middle East, the major part of Africa and Western Russia, and a large part of South-East Asia, along with China.

The satellite telephone

The satellite terminal is in fact a box with an aerial, which serves as a router and wi-fi access point. Globalstar, Thuraya, Inmarsat and Iridium offer different models with external aerial kits. This is today the simplest and most economical system for connecting at sea. Thuraya have recently brought out the Satsleeve for Android or iOS smart phones, consisting of a satellite base which turns your smart phone into a satellite phone. It’s an attractive alternative for using your telephone but it remains limited and doesn’t allow connection of other devices. Along the same lines, Inmarsat is offering the IsatHub, which has very good speed, but is not compatible with Windows or Mac OS.

To really connect your on-board computer to the world network, there is the Go model from Iridium. Up to five devices can be connected. It includes a downloadable application which allows you to make wi-fi telephone calls from your smart phone. The Sat-fi from Globalstar offers the same speed, around 10 Kb/s, which allows exchange of e-mails and downloading Grib files (not too big, of course). Thuraya has just brought out a hot spot box, which allows several devices to be connected via an XT satellite phone. The price of these systems varies between 1,000 and 2,000 euros, and it is better if you buy from a dealer-installer who will be able to follow the product during its inevitably distant use. As for the cost of communication, the networks offer subscriptions with a SIM card to be inserted, from around forty euros per month. But be careful not to exceed your limit, as the extra communication charge is around $4.50 per Mb, and can mount up very quickly.

The Single Sideband

We all remember the scratchy voice of the ocean adventurers we heard on the radio via the SSB. This means Single Sideband, and is a radio transmission mode.For sailors, when they talk of an SSB device, they are talking about receivers or transmitters operating on HF (High Frequencies), between 4 and 24 MHz. HF will allow communications over very long distances. By coupling your transmitter-receiver with a Pactor modem and a computer, you will be able to send and receive e-mails via an operator such as Sailmail or Airmail, and receive Grib files and weather charts.

The undeniable advantage is that communications are free, allowing it to be used without restrictions. The models are a little more expensive, but once the equipment is fitted, there are no further costs, apart from maintenance. The Icom Pack M801E (conforming to EU standards) and 802 (outside Europe), at around 6,000 euros offer an all-in-one system, as the Pactor modem is built-in, and all you have to do is connect the computer with a USB plug. The aerial (a 10-meter cable) can be fitted to a shroud, as long as it is isolated from 'earth’. The other solution consists of fitting a whip aerial on the rail, but it must be a minimum of 7 meters high.

High speed aerials and terminals

Let’s keep a cool head. High speed as we understand it at sea is nothing like that which we have ashore. The entry-level aerials reach just 124 Kb/s. The more powerful ones achieve 4 to 500 Kb/s. It’s only just enough to surf the internet. As a comparison, this corresponds to 3G, or early broadband speeds. Today, at home, we receive a minimum of 8 or 10 Mb/s. The most high-performance satellite systems, such as the Tracphone V7 HTS, promise 3 Mb/s upload, allowing consultation of current web sites.

But the price is as high as the speed – around 33,000 euros, plus communication costs. Most of the systems – such as the V3 IP from the same manufacturer, KVH, which uses satellite TV coverage, the Fleet One or the Fleet Broadband with Sailor aerials, which use the Inmarsat network, the Iridium Pilot, or the Thuraya Seastar – have a speed of around 100 to 160 Kb/s. The more powerful ones, such as the Sailor 500 or the Thuraya Orion IP, will achieve up to 430 Kb/s, allowing photos or short films to be sent, and viewing by streaming. Prices vary from 5,000 to 15,000 euros, depending on the power. Billing for communications is based on a subscription and on the actual consumption. Tariffs vary from $1 to $1.41 per minute, depending on the speed. A significant point, and one to be studied carefully before choosing the system of your dreams…

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