This is a long one. Again, when we bought Leela, there was an SSB radio installed but it was a rusting antique hulk that did not appear to work and would not inspire confidence in any event. I was really unsure whether to go the SSB route or the satphone route. We went the satphone route for a number of reasons including, reduced complexity, reduced capital cost, more reliable communication, etc. but I am still not convinced that this was a good move as it has been a major pain and definitely not good value at this point.
Our first attempt was a Globalstar GSP 1700 phone with an Optimizer modem and OCENS services. This worked great, where it worked at all, which turned out to be anywhere north of Nassau, Bahamas. South of that NADA. Tech support was negligible and I was very disappointed by OCENS who, having advised us that this would be good for us with the full knowledge of our cruising area, essentially walked away from the problem. I eventually managed to terminate the Globalstar contract, sold the phone for a couple of hundred bucks and had to eat the annual fees from OCENS. I will not work with either company again.
So, year two. This time we went Iridium with the new Iridium GO. What can I say? It sort of works. Coverage is good. Voice quality is excellent, if pricey. Email works (this is the sort of). Web browsing is a complete bust and has not delivered a web page in three months of increasingly sporadic efforts. The unlimited data plan is a cynical joke by Iridium given that it is almost impossible to use any data but it is the only plan that does not sell data by the minute whereby you cover the cost of timeouts and dreadful data rates. The most perfidious thing Iridium have done is cripple the email software (a branded copy of Xgate) so that, unlike Xgate, email cannot be downloaded over a network connection. This has serious implications. Every email sent to you, no matter how large, HAS to be downloaded over the satellite link - even if you are sitting in Starbucks with a WIFI connection. Even with the unlimited data plan this is almost impossible in practice as the data rates are normally well below the snail-like 2kb/min. Why is it that telecommunications companies seem to actually go out of their way to hack customers off??? It would appear to be an attempt to drive up usage / revenue but, if so, it is an astoundingly stupid one as it is a major hurdle to usefulness.
The solution? Get an Xgate account as well and essentially ignore the Iridium mail. The Xgate service can be accessed by the fastest available connection which is great if you have some huge attachments sitting in the bigmail folder. The Xgate software is far from perfect. The apps crash with some regularity and I suspect we have lost messages in the process, there are frequent time-outs with no auto-restart so you have to nurse it along with constant supervision, you cannot change the reply-to address so that when you are replying to a message forwarded from another account the recipient replies directly to the Xgate address (a bigger pain than you might think as you tend not to look at the xgate account when you have direct access to your email so messages get missed), it cannot handle PDF attachments at all. and on and on..... you can make it work but it is not really ready for prime time.
So, our communications model at the moment is as follows:
1. Multiple VHF radios for local boat to boat communication
2. An unlocked iPhone with a Bahamas Telecom SIM and tethering capability at $30 for 2gig and 83c/min voice. This is expensive but not dire. We also have a Wilson 3G amplifier that certainly seems to improve coverage incrementally.
3. The Iridium GO with a supplementary Xgate account which we use, when option 2 is not available, to:
a) Download and respond to forwarded copies of most of our emails
b) Pick up NOAA synoptic charts via a subscription call to Saildocs
c) Pick up GRIB files for the weathertrack app
d) download Predictwind routing data (I will talk about weather info in another post)
e) Send and receive text messages (send them to people's email address as direct SMS to Iridium is VERY expensive when they reply to your 'free' text)
f) Post to this blog direct from Xgate
g) Make voice calls (rarely) at $1.17/min
This is all very useful even if it can be a painful process but I have to remind myself that it is pretty remarkable to be able to do this at all so doing it easily might be too big an ask. Probably the single reason I do not begrudge the ridiculously named 'unlimited data' plan is the ability to reliably get high quality weather information at any time enroute. This single capability is worth a LOT.
The Iridium GO has some other capabilities which are potentially useful including:
1. The ability to toss it into a liferaft or take it downtown
2. An emergency call button that provides both information and position (this is not, in my view, a replacement for an epirb) with an optional emergency response service.
3. Social networking apps (not tried)
4. Weather (point forecasts are not really enticing when GRIBS are widely available)
So - bottom line. This stuff is hard with a satphone but I suspect it is harder with an SSB radio and all I have on the boat is a tiny black box and an antenna. That is worth a lot. I just wish the software was more mature.