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Work from Your Boat

Now you can conduct business aboard without missing a beat.

October 4, 2007

In today’s hectic business climate, extended vacations are quickly becoming impractical-even impossible. In response to year-round professional demands, more and more yachtsmen are equipping their boats with technology that enables them to cruise off the beaten path while making phone calls, exchanging e-mails and transferring files of all sizes. These communication capabilities, once enjoyed only by those aboard megayachts, are now available for midsize vessels. Though a good electronics installer familiar with a range of providers and products is an important part of getting the office you need, you’ll sail through the process more efficiently if you know exactly what you’re looking for.

Voice, fax and e-mail services have been available to yachtsmen for years, as have rudimentary means for browsing the Web. Now, though, you can choose from a range of services, including broadband Internet, that provide fast, full-feature browsing built to handle graphics, big-file e-mail, teleconferencing and other Web services vital for doing business on land.

Satellite-based services are the trend, and to access these services, you’ll need to purchase the appropriate hardware. This will include an antenna system and controller unit, which are connected to one or more of your boat’s PC workstations using an Ethernet or wireless hookup. Also, you’ll need a contract for the satellite service itself.

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A shipboard antenna and controller for a midsize yacht typically cost between $25,000 and $35,000, not including installation. Your boat probably already has PC stations and a network. If not, the cost for installation is the same as it would be in your home.

The cost of data services, typically spelled out in an annual contract, can be quite expensive, depending on your cruising area and online requirements. To give you a sense of what to expect, we’ll take a look at some typical hardware and service offerings.

HOW IT ALL WORKS

I spoke with antenna makers, service providers and two installers in the Long Island Sound area to get a better sense of today’s satellite-communications landscape. They all echoed this good, basic advice: Plan ahead and shop around for the setup that best corresponds with your needs. Here’s how it works:

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Satellite communications services begin with the companies that own or operate (and sometimes license) satellites. There are many who do, but the big names in the marine business include Inmarsat, GlobalStar, TelStar and Iridium. These companies do not provide receiving equipment, only the up-and-down links.

Antenna makers are a separate group. KVH, Sea Tel, Nera and Thrane & Thrane are the foremost in the marine industry. These companies manufacture stabilized antenna systems designed to complement specific services offered by satellite owners and operators. So, you should first consider the services you want. Then, you can shop around for an antenna system that delivers them.

Let’s consider, for example, Inmarsat’s Fleet 77, or F77, service. F77 is an integrated service that offers a range of communications, including a mobile integrated-services digital network (ISDN) for voice, fax, large-file transfers and facilities such as videoconferencing. Also, F77’s mobile packet data service (MPDS) allows subscribers to remain continually connected to the Internet. Billing is based on the amount of data transmitted, rather than the amount of time spent online.

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F77 offers global coverage, including distress and safety services. If speed and high-throughput are required, then the mobile ISDN option can be used. Alternatively, MPDS allows for standard e-mailing, Web browsing, transfer of small files and other common networking activity.

KVH, in turn, worked with Thrane & Thrane to develop a fully stabilized antenna that would be compatible with F77. The antenna and transceiver cost $23,995.

KVH also buys and resells blocks of F77 services from Inmarsat. This allows customers to buy hardware and ongoing communications services from one vendor. KVH offers various packages relating to data transfers and user time, similar to the way cell phone companies offer a range of minutes-per-month packages.

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You should understand that global services such as F77 are expensive-downloading a file using MPDS, for instance, will cost you $36 per megabyte. If you are in the middle of the Indian Ocean, though, and you absolutely must have that file, the investment will seem worthwhile.

LIFE BEYOND INMARSAT

While Inmarsat is certainly the biggest bear in the satcom forest, others offer interesting competing services, as well.

Sea Tel, through its subsidiary WaveCall, offers MCM3, a data and voice service that runs three modems in parallel to provide high-speed communication. Sea Tel uses GlobalStar as its primary satellite service provider.

WaveCall’s service is simply a satellite phone hookup to the provider’s Internet portal. The satellite phone link is via Globalstar low-orbiting satellites. To get online, connect your PC to the satellite phone and click an icon-assuming, of course, that you are within WaveCall’s service area, which the company says extends at least 200 miles offshore in the northern hemisphere. List price of this system is $9,995, with a choice of several monthly usage plans ranging from $150 to $2,500. The $1,000 monthly plan includes 500 voice minutes and 500 data-transfer minutes.

Most broadband systems cannot share antennae with other systems such as satellite TV. An exception is KVH’s TracNet. KVH contracts with Canada’s DirecPC satellite service to provide Internet access through a DVB-compatible satellite-TV antenna as far as 100 miles off the North American coast and throughout the Caribbean.

BITS AND BYTES

With satellite data services, you really get what you pay for. First-time maritime Internet surfers are often disappointed with their data-transmission speed unless they are communicating via top-dollar services such as that outlined above. Why? Because “entry-level services transfer data at a rate of only about 9.6 kilobits per second.

It is important to understand the difference between kilobits (Kb), which are used to measure satellite data transmissions, and kilobytes (KB), which typically measure the size of files containing elements such as graphics.

Most of us are accustomed to handling files measured in kilobytes-big B. So if you miss the little b in your satellite-system specifications, you might expect your system to download information about eight times more quickly than it actually can. (This misunderstanding reportedly generates a lot of calls to complaint desks.)

One partial solution offered by antenna-makers is data-compression software. The technology is similar to Zip-type programs, which compress files for storage in personal computers. The difference with compression software for satellite communication is that it works in real time. In other words, it compresses information going into the pipe and decompresses it as it comes out. The result is an apparent increase in the speed of data transmission.

Each antenna maker offers low-cost voice and fax services, as well as low-speed data-transmission services. KVH, for example, manufactures two low-cost antennae (and service packages) based on Inmarsat’s mini-M, which provides global voice, fax and low-speed-data services. These antennae, about 12 inches high and across, are appropriate for boats in the 40-foot range and cost between $5,000 and $7,000, not including installation. Nera and Thrane & Thrane offer similar antennae that also work with mini-M.

Though you’d drive yourself nuts (and broke) attempting to browse the Web at mini-M speeds, the service is certainly fast enough to provide decent e-mail messaging. The company says that the cost of using mini-M is often considerably less than the cost of placing a cell phone call. So you can expect to pay about $1.50 or less per minute.

Sea Tel’s offering in this market is the small-dome Model 3000. The Model 3000, which costs $2,295, uses an omni-directional antenna enclosed in a compact, 10-inch dome. It provides low-cost voice communication and e-mail and Internet services at a speed of up to 56 kilobits per second. Coverage includes most well-traveled parts of the world, and multiple service plans are available.

SIZE MATTERS

Clearly, the choices among services and equipment are broad enough to require some serious pre-purchase planning. Begin by determining exactly what you plan to do with your satellite service. Will a couple of calls to the office and a fax here and there take care of your daily needs? If so, a small system should be fine. On the other hand, if you must transfer files stuffed with graphics, you should definitely spring for broadband service. Will you be cruising remote areas of the Pacific and Indian oceans, or do you make only occasional excursions to out-of-the-way spots in Europe? Your answers to these questions will ensure your installer matches your new office to your requirements and budget.

One practical consideration (and limitation) is the size of your deck, mast or arch, where the antenna will be mounted. Typically, the more bandwidth, or Internet speed, you need, and the more remote your operation, the larger your antenna must be. If your yacht is larger than 60 feet, you probably have room for a large, commercial-grade antenna, which can be about 40 inches tall.

Space gets scarce, however, as LOA drops. Therefore, the smaller your boat, the smaller your antenna. The smaller your antenna, of course, the narrower your communications options. Keep in mind that you need space for more than the antenna itself; you must keep it clear of radar, GPS antennae and structures that may overshadow it.

KVH’s F77 antenna, for example, has a dome 33 inches in diameter and 35 inches tall. Due to its size, this antenna is generally limited to boats 60 to 100 feet LOA. Those with smaller boats might consider Inmarsat’s scaled-down Fleet services: F55 and F33. Both offer mobile ISDN and MPDS. F55 requires only a 27-inch dome, and F33 requires a 20-inch dome. These smaller antennae depend on “spot beam satellite transmission rather than the global zone coverage offered by F77. Nevertheless, coverage provided by F55 and F33 includes global voice communication and regional data services, which cover most of the world’s cruising areas.

Figuring the cost of hardware is straightforward. Small antennae with basic voice and low-speed data transmission services cost between $5,000 and $10,000, including installation. Antennae designed to handle the most robust broadband Internet services cost between $25,000 to $40,000, including installation.

Calculating your ongoing usage costs is an entirely different matter. We already know that some plans charge by the amount of data you send or receive, while others charge by the amount of time you are online. Still others, though, use a mix of these approaches. With smaller services, a voice call can run from $0.35 to $1.50 per minute. On the other hand, transferring large files using a global system can cost hundreds of dollars. This is where you want to seek the guidance of a good installer, one who will help you understand what your real costs will be.

WHAT’S COMING

The marine satellite-communications industry is highly competitive, so innovative folks are putting a lot of energy into developing smaller antennae that deliver more bang for the buck (or data for the dollar, if you will).

Fiber-optic technology is enabling their production. Also, software compression schemes are making complex data available to a broader range of people. Marketers, seeking to entice subscribers, are coming up with some clever service packages.

With such advancements, the industry is beginning to focus more closely on broadband and the advanced capabilities it offers: corporate intranets, VPN services, video conferencing and high-speed data monitoring-all great ways to get your boat down to business.

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