Remote Data Communication Costs

When near land, 802.11 is the cheapest and fastest form of communications there is. Around the Pacific North West, BroadBandXpress offers a fast, reliable service. BBXpress has a point of presence in 104 marinas in the area from Portland, Oregon to Sitka, Alaska (coverage map). We spend most of our time at Bell Harbor Marina which unfortunately doesn’t have BBXpress coverage, so we use Clearwire.

 

802.11 coverage can be expanded with an external antenna mounted on the mast of the boat but, even then, coverage is limited to area near the access point.  When out of range, we use cellular.  However, when cruising north, almost everywhere we go has no connectivity. Some argue this is a good thing, but I really would prefer to be able to stay connected. Once past cellular coverage, the choices are limited.  At very low data rates, Single Side Band (SSB)Marine radios and Ham Radios can be used to transport data using the PACTOR protocol. But there are limitations.  First, ham radios are not to be used for commercial traffic (not a problem with SSB). And data rates are limited to 200 baud “when conditions allow” and 100 baud otherwise (Pactor Primer).  In 1982 I actually did find a way to work over 300 bps, but I’m not sure I want to run at 1/3 this speed.

 

What to do when out of range of 802.11 and cellular when you don’t run at Pactor speed? Satellite is the common choice, but antenna prices range to more than $30,000 and the offerings are difficult to compare. Thinking through what we will want to use on the new boat, I narrowed down the search to three offerings: Inmarsat Mini-VSAT, Inmarsat Fleet Broad Band, and Iridium OpenPort. Antenna prices for these options range from $5k to $30k. To normalize across all the variables, I amortized the antenna cost over 5 years at a 5% annual cost of money and looked at the cost to move different amounts of data over a month. I also looked at the cost of not using the system (idle).

The offerings are very different. Iridium is cheaper to idle and is the cheapest at low data rates, but it is also the slowest at 32kbps.  At higher costs, rates up to 128kbps are supported but, on plans less than $800/month, only 32kbps is supported. Fleet Broadband supports up to 128k but is using background  IP (streaming IP and other services have priority). If there are enough competing guaranteed bandwidth customers or enough background IP customers, speeds considerably slower than 128kbps are likely. Mini-VSAT supports very high speeds but I only show 64k and 128k here since the prices on higher communication rates escalate quickly. Mini-VSAT is unquestionably expensive, but it is the only satellite data communication service offering unlimited data (with a fair use policy).

 

I would love to get Mini-VSAT, but it’s a tough system to afford. We’re leaning towards Iridium Open Port  due to lowest cost antenna, lowest cost airtime, and the ability to idle the unit when sat data isn’t needed at lowest cost. It’s also the only one of the three services that doesn’t require a complex, gyro stabilized antenna and I like simple. Let us know if can think of other options worth considering.

 


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8 comments on “Remote Data Communication Costs
  1. Michael says:

    Hi James,

    Just curious what solution you are currently running? Assuming there was some trial and error?

    -Michael

    • Not much has changed. We sill run WiFi first, then cellular, then KVH V7 Mini-VSAT, then Inmarsat BGAN, then Iridium. We only use BGAN where there is no mini-VSAT coverage and Iridium is only there for as last level of redudnancy protection. We really like the KVH V7 system and it continues to be our primary solution. It’s most of what gives us the ability to operate away from population centers while I’m still working. The only change over the last couple of years is we moved from one of the KVH fixed cost plans to a metered plan selecting the OP5k which bundles in 5GB of data each month and then runs $200 for each GB after that. Overall, it’s a better user experience and, in our usage model, it runs around the same cost. During high use months, it’s considerably more expensive and, in low use months, less expensive but it averages out to about the same.

  2. Sure, VOIP is fine and often a very good choice for voice communications. But Voice Over IP is only an option if you have IP. Basically, without a data connection VOIP is not an option. The challenge is getting a data connection in remote locations and that is what my posting is about. Once you have a reliable data connection, VOIP only requires 4kbps so will work OK on most solutions as long as the networking latency isn’t too long. Latency can be a problem with low priority packet systems like MPDS when they are busy.

    VOIP is a good option but you need a data connection to use it.

    James Hamilton, jrh@mvdirona.com

  3. Cristian says:

    You can always try a business VoIP solution. It seems that VoIP services are gaining more and more terrain instead of other major online related services.

  4. I agree, the TracPhone FB150 is attractively price with the Antennae running just a bit more than 1/2 the cost of the 250. This weekend I compared the cost of FB150 with Iridium OpenPort at low data rates. Iridium is cheaper but slower. At comparable speeds (which costs more), the Iridium was somewhat more expensive than FB150.

    Another option is Mini-VSAT with the per megabyte plan. At $4.99/MB, its considerably less than Fleet Broadband at $13.50/MB but the Antenna is expensive. If you amortize the antenna over 5 years, data transfer rates as low as 500MB/year are most economically handled by Mini-VSAT, then down to the FB150, then Iridium at the lower end. At the very highest end, Mini-VSAT on an unlimited plan is a win.

    I’m working a lot of hours right now so I’ve decided to hold off on the SatData when rigging the new boat and get a sat system in a year or so when I have more time to use it. I’m looking forward to seeing the new Fleet BroadBand rates. Thanks for the comment and the data Chris.

    James Hamilton
    jrh@mvdirona.com

  5. Chris says:

    Hi James,

    If you need heavy duty data use and VoIP phone, I certainly recommend the KVH TracPhone V7 and the mini-VSAT service. However, you might also be interested in the KVH TracPhone FB150, our new compact voice and data system, which uses the Inmarsat FleetBroadband service, offers data speeds as fast as 140 Kbps,and the reliability of Inmarsat’s new I-4 satellite constellation rather than older, less reliable satellites used by other lower-cost solutions. While the MSRP is $7,495, we’ll also be announcing some new hardware/airtime plans that will allow you to buy hardware and service at significantly reduced prices. Complete details will be coming soon to http://www.kvh.com.

    Chris

  6. Thanks Rusty, I’ll check it out. I’ve heard it pretty close to an all Nordhavn edition.

    James Hamilton
    jrh@mvdirona.com

  7. Rusty says:

    James –

    If you haven’t seen the August PassageMaker magazine be sure to take a look. It has a fairly detailed article reviewing the different options.

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