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Sat Phone 101

Date: Fri, 15 Sep 2006 13:04:28 -0400 (GMT-04:00)
From:
Milt Baker
Subject: T&T: Sat Phone 101

Basically, there are two kinds of satellite communications for boats: high earth orbiting (HEO) and low earth orbiting (LEO).  The HEO satellites are geostationary and require fewer satellites to cover the earth; the LEO satellies fly in a much lower orbit and zip around the world rapidly.  The HEO satellite service (INMARSAT) requires a dome, while the LEO satellite services (Iridium and Globalstar) need only small antennas right on the phone as long as your phone has a full view of the sky.  Iridium offers global coverage, while Globalstar's coverage is more limited.  People cruising the Bahamas have mixed reviews on how well Globalstar works there. 

I have been using Iridium service for voice for six years and for e-mail for the past 14 months, and I am highly satisfied but that's because I understand its limitations and manage to keep my e-mail to my Iridium phone down to essential, short communications.  Other Iridium users I know are also very happy with the service.  Globalstar seems to have an unusually high number of unhappy customers, though their rates are lower, their voice quality is better, and they seem to be improving.  Still, I require rock-solid communications rather than something that "might work" but costs less so for me Iridium was a no-brainer.

The bad news:

  • Iridium service is a native 2400 baud--very slow
  • The data rate is too slow for true Internet use
  • Voice quality on Iridium is only slightly better than marginal
  • Calls are dropped but not as often as with most cell networks
  • You need an external antenna if you want to receive calls when the phone is inside
  • You need a data kit to use Iridium for e-mail
  • The service is expensive; rates were just raised, and the best I have found is $1.35/minute
  • Iridium equipment is more expensive than that from Globalstar

The good news:

  • Unlike Globalstar, Iridium coverage is global
  • The best value for Iridium time is to prepay and buy minutes in large groups with no monthly service charge
  • Iridium can be used effectively for e-mail but not large attachments
  • Ocens.net and UUNet offer service which speeds up e-mail service
  • You do not need an external antenna if you don't mind standing outside for your calls
  • Iridium equipment is less expensive than HEO equipment which mainly comes from KVH and SeaTel.

Using software written by Luis Soltero, a former cruising sailor who understands the needs of cruisers, both Ocens.net and UUNet offer e-mail packages that take maximum advantage of the slow data rate and make it easy to use Iridium for e-mail.  I have no personal experience with UUNet but have been using Ocens.Net for more than a year and am very satisfied.  Whenever I have had a problem (and there have been some, mostly hardware related), they are right there with excellent support. 

I buy my Iridium time in 500-minute packages, good for one year.  (Buy additional minutes just before your minutes expire and the remaining minutes are extended for a year.)  Using Iridium for e-mail and some voice over the last year and 7,000 miles of cruising from Florida to Venezuela to the Virgin Islands to Bermuda to Maine, the service worked almost perfectly.   I've used about 800 minutes during that time.

The way things work in the Iridium world is that Iridium sells minutes to major companies like Stratos and France Telcom, and they, in turn, re-sell the minutes through dealers.  There are many dealers and competition consierable.  Be careful in selecting your dealer.   Likewise, make sure your service provider is one that's easy to deal with.  I've used Stratos as my provider since the beginning, and their 24/7 customer service has been terrific, though I've rarely needed it.

A good source for both Iridium minutes and Iridium equipment is Andy Cool at Explorer Satellite in Fort Lauderdale.  I've used Andy since I began using Iridium, and in my experience he's a straight-shooter and knows the satellite communications business from a user standpoint as well as anyone I've ever spoken with.  He does what he says when he says at the price he says, and his Iridium rates are the lowest I've found--plus there are no extra charges for taxes, startup, SIM card, or anything else.  If you care to, you can contact him:

Andy Cool
Explorer Satellite Communications Inc.
1975 E. Sunrise Blvd. #414
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304
Tel. 954-763-8650
www.explorersatellite.com
Usual caveats: no business or other financial interests in any of the companies mentioned above, just a satisfied customer.

--Milt

Milt Baker
Nordhavn 47 Bluewater
http://www.bluewaternav.com/index.html

Terry wrote:

I will be cruising the Bahamas and the Caribbean and I am considering a Satellite Phone in order to provide us and family with urgent or emergency contact source. I was also thinking it would be a more consistent source to use for email and or web access when nothing else is available.

I am interested in hearing what experience others have had using the Sat Phones. What recommendations are there?

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