Huge advances in satellite communication and a price crash in airtime are making it easier for your boat to become a floating office.
There was a time that using a sat phone involved carrying a suitcase the size of Jodrell Bank, and running up a huge bill for just a few minutes of airtime.
Now, you can have the same technology in a handset the size of a mobile phone, and with a similar tariff to a cellphone ‘roaming’ abroad. It’s incredible how things have moved on, and more is yet to come.
With the ability to send large files and even HD video clips via your boat's satellite link, you will never be out of touch - providing you stay away from the polar ice caps (a different system is needed there).
Inmarsat is a major provider of satellite infrastructure that it leases to a wide network of service providers. Satellite communications has grown over the last few years, driven by the need for commercial ships to send data back to offices all over the world.
Today blue water yachtsmen are increasingly finding it invaluable for staying in touch with loved ones when in mid ocean, or just relaying back a position.
Spectrums, satellites and giant reflectors
Demand for these services has resulted in a new series of hugely expensive satellites being made ready to be sent into orbit. As a result, the electromagnetic spectrum is becoming so crowded that Inmarsat are planning to use the 25 GHz band; one of the few frequencies still relatively untouched.
Unlike gold, diamonds or oil, we are unlikely to discover any new frequencies, so the spectrum is a rapidly dwindling resource. Instead, we’re finding more ingenious ways to use what is already available.
Inmarsat currently has 11 satellites parked in geostationary orbit at a height of 36,000 miles, far enough up to avoid most of the space junk, and providing an impressive overlapping coverage of the earth.
Each satellite uses a giant reflector to project a series of 89 ‘spot beams’ onto the Earth’s surface, a bit like the coverage of a mobile phone mast.
Within each cell, transmissions from satellite phones can be received, and their data bounced back at 2/3rds the speed of light to a relay station, and from there into the phone network. Anything you can get in your home PC can now be sourced on your boat.
It gets better. A new generation of satellites, the I5’s (fifth generation) will blast off during 2014 to improve the capacity still further, adding 20 times more traffic volume to the existing network.
Latest phone technology
High-traffic phone sets use a satellite dome, which houses a gyro-stabilised tracking antenna. This is then connected to a base station within the boat, but can also be used wirelessly with a roaming handset.
If you want to send large amounts of data, and even receive TV signals, then you’ll need this accurately pointed antenna. However, for voice or text only, some of the mobile handsets simply use a fold up or built-in aerial instead, allowing total portability.
Keep connected whilst at sea
It’s still a comparatively expensive way to stay in touch compared to mobile phones, and unless you intend to spend several days out of reach of land-based phone masts, and don’t want the expense of running a Medium Frequency (MF) radio aboard, it probably won’t be worth it for occasional use.
However, with careful management of your data bursts, you don’t need to be connected for long to pick up all you need for the next few days. A whole range of tariffs is available to suit your requirements, from a few simple emails (blue water cruisers on a budget) through to a multitude of TV channels (superyachts without a budget).
What is really impressive is just how accessible this technology has become. You will never be out of coms range again, and wherever you happen to be between 70 degrees north and 70 degrees south, you can transmit and receive very large packets of data.
For many of us who don’t need to be tied to a desk in central London, and whose work can go with us, this is a great solution to keeping connected at sea.
Jake Kavanagh, marine journalist.
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