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Tech Tip: Satellite Phones for Offshore Safety

Having a cellular device in our hands has become as common as sunscreen on boats in recent years, but your cell phone is usable only within close distance of a cellular tower. After venturing more than a few miles off the coast, we generally depend on a VHF base-mount or handheld radio to communicate with other local vessels. But what do we do when we need to call home?

Today’s coastal and offshore cruisers typically carry a satellite communication device, or “sat phone,” to stay in constant contact with family and friends. Sat phones, as the name suggests, communicate through satellite repeaters more or less the same way cell phones transmit and receive via earth-bound towers.

In the early days of sat phones, monthly plan charges were prohibitively high, leaving these devices for only the wealthiest of offshore sailors. Today, prices for both the device and monthly service are well within reach of the average boater.

One very popular sat phone is the Garmin inReach Mini2, which retails for as low as $300, roughly the price of a handheld VHF radio. This text-only device measures 2 inches x 4 inches x 1 inch, snug enough to fit in the palm of your hand or in your pocket. The phone features a rechargeable, internal, lithium-ion battery, plus GPS, inReach Weather, texting and email.

The Garmin inReach also includes compatibility with the Garmin Messenger app, permitting access to smart switching among Wi-Fi, cellular and satellite communications. The inReach also offers Bluetooth and ANT+ connectivity. And since you will be on a boat, you can count on the IPX7 waterproof rating to keep your little phone operating even if you forget to pull it out of your pocket when you go for a swim. At only $15 per month and 50 cents per brief message, this is a potential lifesaver we can all afford.

The Globalstar SPOT is another small, handheld Android device enabling text communication from any point on the globe. As a small yet aggressive competitor in the low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite internet industry, Globalstar has 48 low-orbit satellites around the globe providing worldwide service. Pack one of these devices aboard your boat or in your ditch bag to ensure being able to reach emergency services from any corner of the globe. For full voice and internet service, you will need to install a satellite dome aboard your vessel. No doubt you have seen these on larger vessels in your local marina.

Starlink, a leading competitor in satellite communication, now offers full internet service for both land-based and maritime access. “The world’s first and largest satellite constellation,” Starlink uses a LEO array of satellites to provide larger, faster downloads (up to 350 Mbps) than ever before.

After ordering your antenna and other installation equipment, you will need to subscribe to a monthly Starlink plan, such as that offered by Network Innovations, a global leader in communication solutions and services. This provider boasts a long list of services, starting with professional installation and technical support.

KVH, another prominent communications provider, is a leader in marine internet services offering three grades of service through its KVH ONE “hybrid network.” Each KVH installation consists of “integrated satellite, cellular and Wi-Fi technology,” including intelligent, automatic switching designed to keep the user connected around the clock.

If you walk over to the “big-boat section” of your local marina, you will see the familiar, white TracNet domes from KVH. These domes are available in three sizes: the TracNet H30, H60 and H90. The H90 features “a tuned carbon fiber dish” and includes integrated satellite, cellular and Wi-Fi technology with “intelligent, automatic switching.” The H90’s data speeds can reach 20/3 Mbps.

With the dome measuring a full meter in diameter and weighing 189 pounds, heavier than the typical crew member, this system is recommended for vessels measuring over 90 feet on deck. At the humbler end of the scale, the TracNet H30 offers data speeds of 6/2 Mbps and features a dome diameter of 14.6 inches and weight of 24.6 pounds, a much more manageable load for smaller vessels.

Just as with any other relatively young and rapidly evolving technology, we can expect continually better performance with smaller, lighter sat phone systems at lower prices over time. As an example, in early 2022, Starlink was charging $10,000 for their antenna and receiver system plus $5,000 per month for service. Only two years later, the price for a Starlink offshore-capable antenna has dropped to $2,500 with a service plan as low as $250 per month. This still isn’t exactly cheap, but certainly within the range of many cruising families.

Bottom line: to acquire affordable satellite offshore communication for your vessel, set aside your desire for chit-chat and invest in a text-only device. If your boat’s batteries are submerged and no longer capable of powering your VHF and shortwave radios, you can still summon help with your inReach, SPOT or similar text device.

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