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Tell It Like It Is

Satellite communications made easy

February 1, 2001
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With so many extraterrestrial marine communications possibilities, you shouldn’t have a problem staying in touch with your fellow aliens on the mainland. But which system is best for your long-distance needs? And will today’s investment become obsolete tomorrow? Before you lay down any of your hard-earned money, here are some of the ways you, too, can phone home. ****

CALLING LONG DISTANCE

It doesn’t take long for many boaters to skirt beyond the reach of a VHF or cell phone. Both are line-of-sight range instruments that can’t be relied on much beyond 20 miles offshore. A single sideband radio is a good alternative with world-wide range, but it’s costly and won’t solve all your communications needs. And Inmarsat B- and M-type marine satellite phones, which also give worldwide range, aren’t practical because they’re complicated, have large antennas, and sport high prices. The mini-M model, however, is more affordable, more compact, and easier to use. It offers nearly worldwide coverage, but it does have holes in the polar regions. Also, airtime for using the mini-M runs close to $2.75 per minute. Options? Try KVH’s TracPhone 25 ($6,295) with an antenna that’s 10″-by-9″. Nera World Phone’s portable is the size of a lap-top (including the antenna), uses a rechargeable battery or 12-volt source, and sells for under $3,000. The catch? Boat movement can disrupt the connection.

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If Inmarsat doesn’t meet your needs, check out MSAT-1 from Stratos. Formerly known as Skycell, MSAT-1 was created by the American Mobile Satellite Corp. The system is limited to North America and off-the-coast coverage varies, but you can be a couple hundred miles off either coast and maintain good reception. (There’s also a spot beam that’ll cover you in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Caribbean.) Airtime is $1 per minute. Two MSAT-1-compatible phones that cost around $5,000: Westinghouse’s D1000 Wavetalk (with a football-size antenna) and Mitsubishi’s ST131 (a higher-gain system with a 23″-by-28″ dome antenna).

FLOATING OFFICE

If you’re hoping to combine your pleasure cruise with some office duties, both mini-M and MSAT-1 will get you online, but expect Web pages to open at a snail’s pace and graphics to be unavailable. For your faxing needs, you’ll have to buy the optional fax module ($1,000) with the MSAT-1system, and not all faxes are compatible. You’ll have better luck sending a fax with the mini-M. For e-mail access, you can connect your laptop to either system. If you want only e-mail access, look into Trimble’s Galaxy Inmarsat-C ($3,800). It operates worldwide, has a transceiver the size of a hardcover book, an antenna that’s small enough to hold in your hand, and a built-in GPS. It’s the most economical in airtime since sending a prepared message takes only seconds.

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THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE

So what about these handheld satellite phones? Iridium first introduced them in 1998, but the company has since filed for bankruptcy. Fortunately, Globalstar picked up the slack. Its 7″-by-2″-by-1 3/4″ palm portable has a built-in cellular phone along with a satellite component. It’s aiming for worldwide coverage but, again, there’s no polar-region coverage. Globalstar phones sell for $699 to $1,195, depending on your level of commitment. Airtime prices vary, but packages start at $1.69 per minute. An optional marine docking station ($1,495) has a cradle to hold the palm portable, a handset, and an external antenna that can be mounted outside the boat. Globalstar is strictly for voice communication, but e-mail, fax, and data via personal computer is promised.

Which to choose? While mini-M is more expensive than MSAT-1, it’s also more reliable and has greater means of communication. MSAT-1 has an attractive direct-dial voice and e-mail mobile messaging system, while Globalstar is the system to watch. Naurally, satellite communications will cost less in the future. But, until then, let your needs dictate what you spend.

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For more information, contact: Inmarsat at 44/207/728-1000, www.inmarsat.org; Stratos at 800/250-8962, www.stratos.ca; Trimble at 800/827-8000, www.trimble.com; Globalstar at 877/728-7466, www.globalstarusa.com.

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