Stay Connected
Ocean Navigator|July - August 2021
Satellite phones have evolved a full ecosystem of gear and services
JOHN KETTLEWELL

Now that many of us have learned the joys and perils of working from home (WFH) and the always-connected 24/7 life, you may have decided it is time to get away from it all and sail over the horizon. Sick and tired of receiving urgent text messages at midnight? Mad because there is no longer an excuse not to check in? Longing for the days when the phrase, “Sorry, I didn’t have a connection,” was a legitimate excuse? Thanks to the availability of satellite phones, being anchored in that fabled tropical lagoon in the middle of the Pacific is no longer an excuse for kicking back and relaxing.

Look on the bright side. Today’s satellite phones, devices, software, and accessories mean you can now reach mom on her birthday, like you are supposed to! Instead of blaming the midnight squall on the weather gods, you can now get the forecast in time to save the sail. And yes, you can check in with the boss, or make that important day trade, or ask for another weekend off, even when in some place where the only thing you can see is the horizon all around.

No doubt you’ve heard of Iridium, Globalstar, Inmarsat and some other satellite phone services. At first, most of these provided mainly voice communications. Then came options to download and upload text and data utilizing various cables, adaptors, and hardware. Now, we see a full ecosystem of wireless and wired devices, software, accessories, and apps that can make data, text, and the Web readily available throughout your vessel by utilizing the smartphones, tablets, and computers you already have and use.

Sacred texts

Everyone with a smartphone, which is just about everyone, quickly finds that people have forgotten how to make phone calls these days. Instead, every type of communication imaginable is sent via text or email, and using today’s satellite communicators extends that capability to your boat. Some of us learned the value of using textual communications via satellite phone long ago. For one thing, turning letters and numbers into digital transmissions that can be beamed back and forth to satellites tends to be less expensive, more reliable, use less battery power, and take much less time than voice communication. I was getting government text forecasts sent to my boat in the Southwest Caribbean via Iridium phone back in 2006. Utilizing email to receive these forecasts along with a data compression service meant I only needed a minute or two of airtime each day to download and upload email. Fast, efficient, and inexpensive even back then.

The process worked okay, but some recent advancements in software, hardware, and services make getting texts and email simpler and better than ever. A product called ZOLEO (about $200) is a palm-size square device that connects your smartphone or tablet to the Iridium network, allowing the sending and receiving of texts, email, and SOS alerts. Get the device, purchase a service plan ($50 a month for unlimited texts and emails), hook up to your phone or tablet via Bluetooth, and you can communicate anywhere in the world. There are less expensive monthly plans for less message volume, and the plans can be changed monthly. You get a special ZOLEO SMS number and email address to use with the service, and it also works with cellular networks and WiFi when that is available.

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