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Satcom Options

A new service offers fixed billing

April 13, 2020
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A boat captain in a communications tower.
Satellite communcations offer added safety and security while out of range of conventional cellular phones. © Scott Kerrigan/www.aquapaparazzi.com

If you have avoided the convenience and safety of satellite communications on your vessel, it’s probably because you thought it was too costly and the equipment too bulky. I checked out Inmarsat’s Fleet One service as a possible solution, and here’s what I found.

First, some background. Inmarsat says Fleet One is a coastal service for sport-fishers and cruisers from North America to South America. It’s carried on its L-Band global constellation of satellites. Inmarsat says Fleet One is coastal, but when you look at its coverage map, it covers the entire Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast­—out to 200 miles or more in some areas. And if you’re one of those whose boat finds its way down to Central or South America, the coverage there is comparable.

Avoid Unpleasant Surprises

If the safety of the Fleet One coverage is comforting, so is its plan. Exactly how much it costs depends on which service provider you choose: Intellian and KVH are two popular makers of Fleet One antennas, and, as a practical matter, they retail the Inmarsat service to you when you buy their equipment (Inmarsat sells it wholesale to companies like these). So, the exact monthly fee varies by provider, but it’s in the comfortable ­neighborhood of $229 a month for unlimited data. For the even more frugal, KVH offers a ­limited service for $49 per month.

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Unlimited is a tricky term though. Most captains and owners on the billfish circuit have heard stories of fellow boat owners lamenting the “oh, hell no” moment when they open their satellite-provider bill and find their crew have downloaded movies to their smartphones, uploaded fishing videos to YouTube or had long, romantic calls with significant others back home. That “oh, hell no” bill could be in the thousands of dollars.

Watch: Stay on a hot bite with your electronics.

That doesn’t happen with Fleet One service. The bill is fixed and the data is unlimited. But, there’s always a but. After a certain point your data is throttled—from up to 150KB per second to 32KB per second. You can still use it for email at 32KB and upload that hero shot of your marlin to Instagram, but pour a cocktail while you wait because 32KB is about half the speed of the old dial-up modems we used to use. The system isn’t designed for social networking or entertainment, but rather to give seamless communications for safety while out of range of standard cellphones.

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Installation and Uses

Intellian is an early adopter of the Inmarsat product, and produced its Fleet One antenna and router ($6,900 manufacturer’s suggested retail price, plus service fees), which is compact enough that it can fit comfortably on boats around 30 feet or sometimes smaller. Once the service is aboard, you can connect direct via an Ethernet cable, or install it with a wireless router (not included) and make your vessel a hotspot. Just be sure to warn your guests about that throttle-you-back clause. Of course, you can password-protect your satellite access and keep the data for yourself.

So, what can you do with it? First, and most important, you get free emergency calling.

  • Dial 505 (which resembles SOS) and you’re connected to the US Coast Guard’s Norfolk station. They’ll direct the rescue resources nearest to you.
  • Dial 32# to get a local hospital for professional medical advice—a blessing when you have a long cruise home with an injured passenger.
  • Dial 38# if your injured passenger needs extraction. You’ll be in touch with the USCG or other rescue agencies, and have an ambulance awaiting at the port.

For routine communications, VOIP and data is included for that one fixed charge, and your emergency calling isn’t counted against your data use for ­throttling purposes.

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KVH is both a ­communications ­network and an equipment provider, as well as a competitor of Inmarsat, providing full-data services via its proprietary constellation. Yet, the company opted to also resell Fleet One to accommodate recreational users. There are several Inmarsat Fleet One systems, including Cobham Satcom, Addvalue and SpaceOn, but they don’t market Fleet One’s ­service, just the equipment to access it. On deck, the equipment weighs just a ­little over 6 pounds, with a compact dome and a ­single-wire installation. Below, you’ll have a 4.4-pound device with a handset. The equipment is as compact as the monthly fee, and there is no contract, so you can put the service on hold if you’re not using the boat for an extended period of time. If you’ve been avoiding ­satellite communications, this just might be an ­attractive alternative.


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