Satcom coming on strong
Ocean Navigator|Ocean Voyager 2020
Satellite based communications choices continue to grow
John Kettlewell

We’re not quite there yet, but the era of Star Trek-like communicators is mostly here — though many of us are impatiently waiting for the day we can beam ourselves between home and the boat. In many ways, the smartphones we use every day are more sophisticated than the basic flip-phone communicator that Star Trek imagined, but most of us are still limited by the distance to the closest cellphone tower.

However, that tie to terrestrial towers may soon end. Hundreds of satellites for Elon Musk’s Starlink are in orbit and capable of providing limited Internet coverage. It is claimed that by the end of 2020 there will be some sort of coverage over North America. The company says, “Starlink will deliver high-speed broadband Internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive or completely unavailable.” That sure sounds good for ocean cruising and voyaging; of course, the system will be designed to focus on providing broadband to places where people regularly live.

In the meantime, there are already satellite communications systems in place that can provide limited voice and data services via Wi-Fi to our cellphones — though, these services require specialized equipment, apps and service plans. In the past, many of us have connected satellite phones to laptops and other devices using cables and connectors, which always required much experimentation and plain luck to work properly. I sailed around the Caribbean with a large bag of cables and connectors that ended up not working or failing for some reason. By utilizing Wi-Fi, these new products and apps eliminate one of the biggest hassles of satphone connectivity.

There’s an app for that

Yes, there truly is an app you can download to be able to communicate while at sea, although it depends on making a Wi-Fi connection to an Iridium GO device that creates a hot spot on your boat. Needless to say, Iridium GO connects to the Iridium satellite system, which has been providing voice and data services to mariners for several decades. Back in the early 2000s, I used a hand-held Iridium communicator about the size of a large walkie-talkie to make calls and download emails while at sea, and I wrote articles about how to do that and connect to a laptop through an awkward rig of cables and connectors. Though slow and cumbersome, I found the system extremely useful for staying in touch and downloading weather information.

The Iridium GO portable base station measures only about 4.5 by 3.2 by 1.25 inches and can be powered by DC, so it may be used on almost any boat and it would be easy to carry around in the dinghy or ashore. An internal battery supplies more than 15 hours of standby time and around five hours of talk time. The unit is designed to be completely portable and includes a built-in antenna that doubles as an on/off switch.

The base station supplies Wi-Fi connectivity for up to five devices within a 100-foot radius. You can download an Iridium app (available for Android and iOS) that allows you to make voice calls as well as send and receive SMS messages up to 1,000 characters long. The Iridium Mail & Web app allows you to check email and do some limited web surfing. Unfortunately, both apps get relatively poor reviews in the app stores, but there are also third-party apps you can use.

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