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.