Using the Iridium GO - Update
03 November 2019 | Nuku Hiva
WARNING: Unless you are a current or potential Iridium GO user you should probably ignore this post.
NOTE: All content is my opinion based on my limited experience and is not represented as definitive fact.
I wrote about this a few years ago but we use it differently now so our impressions need an update. We have a love/hate relationship with the GO. On the one hand it is remarkable that we can communicate relatively easily from anywhere on the planet. On the other hand it is partially crippled by some of the worst software I have come across since the 1980’s. More on that later. The following is a summary of how we use it and how we get round some of the limitations.
The GO tools that we use come in three parts:
1. The basic GO app that we use to configure the device, send and receive texts, make phone calls and set up tracking.
2. The Iridium mail and web app that we use to access our Iridium mail account and access the Internet. It has other tools that we have no need for.
3. Our add-on Xgate account that we use as an additional mail portal and to download weather from Weathertrack.
The Iridium mail and the Xgate mail are basically the same software, written by Global Marine Networks (GMN), with some puzzling differences. More on that later.
Initially we used the native email accounts but that resulted in chaos with people having to send to different addresses depending on where we were. Now we just auto-forward emails from our personal account to Xgate and from our business account to MyIridium. Both are configured with the appropriate reply-to address making this transparent to the senders. We set a bigmail filter limit of 50kb on the business account and 300kb on the personal account to catch egregiously large emails. As we know there is still a copy on our native email accounts we normally delete bigmails unless it is something we need to see quickly, in which case we start the download and go have a cup of tea (using the GO requires a LOT of tea....).
There is a good reason not to use the native MyIridium account. The Xgate account can be accessed over any network such as wifi. In their dubious wisdom Iridium have seen fit to have this capability removed in their version of the app, presumably to force more airtime use in the days before ‘unlimited’ plans. This means that if you have bigmail on the account and you are sitting in Starbucks using their wifi you can still only download the email over the satellite link. This limitation was why we got the Xgate account in the first place but using the forwarding strategy deals with this as well.
The Xgate email software is seriously buggy. There are some addresses that it refuses to reply to. The app crashes as soon as you try and send the response to the outbox or save an edited response. Once it takes a dislike to someone thats it. It will always crash. After losing many replies we have taken to composing responses in a text editor, in our case Google Keep, and pasting them into the response so that we don’t lose the whole effort. The only way to deal with these recalcitrant accounts is to cut and paste the received email into the text editor, compose your reply and paste the whole lot into a new email message. What fun.... I have a group email from the SSB net admin that I simply cannot respond to without resynthesizing the address list - yuk. This is an enormously frustrating bug that I have communicated to GMN with zero useful response.
More seriously It sometimes goes through the complete download process, apparently normally, only to find that there are no new messages in the inbox. There is no way to either recover the missing message or find out who it was from. This is very disturbing and a major no no in an e-mail app. Again, I am getting no useful response from GMN. This lack of responsiveness to significant failings that I know others are experiencing is very strange. I am beginning to wonder if the original software author has departed and they have no idea how to maintain it. It needs a rewrite from the ground up anyway.
Strangely, we seem to have less of these problems with the MyIridium version of the software but we probably use it less. I might try switching apps for some tasks to see if it is actually more stable.
We use email as follows:
1. As normal email
2. To retrieve GRIBs into WeatherTrack (we have a backup Predictwind account but we really do not like the PW philosophy or software. That needs to be a separate post)
3. To retrieve weather data such as synoptic charts from Saildocs
4. To post blog posts to Sailblogs (with image - subject to the limitations below).
The following is not a bug; it is a ‘feature’. When downloading a larger file/image there are occasional random timeouts. Most of the time the software recovers from them automatically but very occasionally you need to manually restart the process. Sending even a small image is a different challenge altogether. During send there are fake timeouts. The first occurs at (as I recollect) 90secs, it might be 30secs but it is always the same, the second after another 60secs and the third after another 60secs. At that point the transmission always shuts down and has to be manually restarted. These are not timeouts. They are programmed break points. This artificially limits the send to small chunks before a manual restart is required. The impact of this is that you might need to monitor the send and restart it dozens of times over several hours just to send one file. It is difficult to see a technical reason for this as it ends up using much more airtime with repeated restarts. Given this, in my opinion, it is hard to see this as anything other than a mechanism to make the process as difficult as possible to discourage use. It does this well but it is utterly infuriating. This definitely occurs in Xgate but I need to test more with the MyIridium account.
Unlike shore-based email accounts, Xgate email is POP3 so only received once, then it is no longer available on the server so it can only be downloaded to one device. in order to prevent Xgate emails being scattered across different devices we use the iPad as the primary email device. We have found the Android software even less stable than the IOS version and no longer use it. We keep a backup IPad configured for all our critical tasks.
The unlimited texting capability seems very attractive but we use it less than expected as there are caveats.
The problem is that we can send and receive texts at no additional cost to us but if the recipient texts back from a land service to the iridium phone it can be very expensive and it is difficult to find out the actual cost. If there is someone you particularly want to hold text conversations with then it might be worth them contacting their provider and determining the actual cost. They can send a text from an Iridium website. This is good for emergency communications but it does not allow the normal flow of texting because they cannot just reply to your response without incurring charges.
Text conversations with other boats are somewhat useful but Inreach users and those without an unlimited plan may incur significant costs. Text conversations are most useful between two iridium GO users with an unlimited account as both have free unlimited texting (you need to make that clear on your boat card).
We mainly get weather data via email but occasionally via the Predictwind Offshore App. If we want to use a Predictwind GRIB in a different app such as getting a European model into WeatherTrack we just request the file through the app but via email. It can then be used elsewhere. We used to do this a lot when the Euro model was more reliable than the GFS model but since the launch of the completely rewritten GFS model this year we think it now has the edge over the Euro model and use it exclusively. We have never had much luck with the PW models.
This has definitely exceeded expectations but is a little complex and may not always be possible. With the setup described below we can access and interact reasonably well with a surprising large number of websites including Facebook, the Bing search engine, Wikipedia (DONATE PLEASE), The Guardian, NYT. Sailblogs (including the console which works remarkably well) and many others. No Google sites seem to work.
Our setup is as follows:
We do not use the built in browser in the Mail and Web app. It is very clunky and works with very few sites. It does not work with Facebook.
We use the IOS Opera Mini browser configured for maximum savings, no images. A connection can be established in one of two ways:
1. Using the (very clunky) connection control in the Iridium Mail and Web app.
2. Using the menu options on the GO itself.
The latter seems to be more stable but you need to go into the wifi settings and set the proxy to automatic then restart the wifi.
We have images switched off normally but occasionally we need to download them, often because buttons cannot be identified due to poor HTML coding. In that case we just modify the browser settings to download low quality images and reload the page. This will need another cup of tea.....
Here are the catches:
1. There is no automatic proxy option in Android and I have not been able to find the actual proxy address.
2. Starting the connection from the Android Mail and Web app does not appear to allow access from the Opera Mini browser. I’ve not been able to make this work at all.
3. If you have a US Apple account the Opera Mini browser is no longer available in the App Store unless you have previously downloaded it.
TIP: If a page is loading correctly the screen will go blank before the green bar extends to 50%. If this does not happen restart the browser and start again (more tea.....).
I am still trying to find another browser to replace the capabilities of the Opera Mini browser but no luck so far. I have also written to them imploring them to restore it to the App Store with no response - surprise surprise.
MAKING PHONE CALLS
We have 150 minutes a month of voice calls that we rarely seem to use. One inhibitor is that it is impossible to monitor usage from offshore and overages are expensive. This is frustrating because the phone knows how many minutes it has used but will not tell you. Another ploy to limit use or encourage overages?
IMPORTANT: Do NOT make voice calls from a device with the wifi proxy set to automatic as all the voice traffic will route through the proxy server. We use a phone for voice calls to avoid this issue.
When we are on passage we set up tracking for every four hours and send it to followingsea.net (previously cruisersat.net). They autoforward it to our Sailblogs tracking. This needed some help from both support services but works well.
AIRTIME ACCOUNT CHOICE
At the moment Predictwind seems to have the most flexible account options. Most importantly the account can be suspended when not in use without either losing your number or incurring ridiculously high costs. They can also send a notification email when you have used up 80% of your allotted minutes.
Predictwind have a satellite portal allowing you to monitor usage but it cannot be accessed via the satphone - go figure......
Summary? A great device but much harder to use than it should be.
If I have missed the point anywhere or you have additional information please do let me know. I certainly don’t consider myself an authority on using this device and would like to know more.