Posted by Steve Dashew (April 18, 2008)
We have a love/hate relationship with our comms gear. We really do like to stay in touch, especially with family and friends, but we don’t like the complexity. And the options keep changing. Prior to leaving for Panama we went through an analysis of what was currently available, our needs, and played this off against our tolerance for hassle (low). Here is what we found. To begin with, BGAN is the format of the future. High speed throughput, relatively low cost for data ($6 to $15 per Mb), with the ability to be used for voice at around a dollar per minute. The aiming requirement tolerances are sloppy – two or three times as loose as Direct TV, so portable units should work at sea if the course is stable or we are using a FollowMeTV antenna tracker (which we have). We found Hughes units with hand sets used for $1800 and new for $2800. But this came late in the getting-ready-to-go process, so we decided to defer to next year. There are also several marinized packages available at $10,000 to $14,000 (why they are so expensive is hard to imagine) but we could find no consistently favorable info about these new units, which appear to be still having teething problems. This left us with our standby from the past ten years, Iridium satellite data. Costs on usage vary, as do terms. We found that WCC.com had a good deal with 500 minutes for $650. If you buy 1000 minutes, the time has a two-year expiration date. When we left New Zealand three years ago we had an Icom SSB (M802) and Pactor ll modem on board for use with Sailmail. We had problems getting connected and figured it was because the Sailmail system was so busy. So we defaulted to Iridium and UUPlus as a compression service (and service is the right word – these guys are great on tech support). With the assumption that by 2009 we would be using some form of BGAN it did not make sense to invest in a back up Iridium phone ($1000+) so we decided to give the SSB and Sailmail another try. Working with Troy Bethel to get the system reinitialized with a new computer Troy found that the radio had never been properly set up in New Zealand. The ground on the auto-tuner was insufficient and the radio output settings were incorrect. With these deficiencies sorted we were able to quickly connect to a variety of Sailmail stations from Seattle, to Central and Southern California, to Texas. The Sailmail program has come a long way and offers the ability to use its compressors with broadband and Iridium. Troy set us up so that if radio band conditions are weak and we are having a problem getting through on the com SSB, it is easy (and fast) to switch to Iridium. The Sailmail program also has a great weather fax receive mode, which we prefer to our dedicated Furuno Fax 30. So far, over the last three days we have been able to connect quickly to Sailmail stations and get our traffic through. On two occasions, out of eight, we have had to wait or switch to another station because the frequency was occupied. This may be worse in other areas, in which case we have the Iridium option to fall back upon. We debated buying the SSB in the first place because we rarely use the set for chatting. But decided that we need some form of SSB (ham or marine) as back up. Using Sailmail involves acquiring a Pactor modem, so you are looking at a minimum of US$2400 between radio, tuner, and modem. If you are going to have the radio anyway, then you are just adding the Pactor modem, and we really like the way Sailmail works with its suite of programs (including a GRIB weather file access system and Saildocs for weather forecasts). So this makes sense, with one caveat. You do need a degree of technical expertise to use the SSB and Sailmail. It is not that complex (hey, we can do it) but an Iridium phone connected to UUPlus is a lot simpler, and you have the Bonnet brothers there to lend tech support. In a future article we will go into more detail on how Sailmail works. And by next year this is all likely to change.