The other day Charlotte asked me about Internet access while underway on a sailboat. I had always known it to be expensive even for a slow connection, having worked for a satellite company early in my career.
A very brief primer about satellite constellations might help to explain this. Currently, there are over 3,000 satellites buzzing around the planet. A satellite like the one pictured on the left can sit in orbit in a few different ways. The orbit, altitude, capabilities, quantity, and transmit power define the constellation's profile.
Step 1: Identify a service provider (these are the people who own or lease the satellites in orbit).
One provider, Wild Blue offers satellite Internet access but only to the lower 48 states of the US. Normally when people think about satellites they think of global coverage. Most satellite constellations, such as Wild Blue's are only covering a (relatively) small area of the world. The reason for this is basic economics: it takes significantly less satellites to cover the primary areas where people live than to have sufficient quantity to be buzzing over Siberia and the North Pole (where no one might need access for weeks or months).
Even a company like GlobalStar, which you would be forgiven for expecting to be "global" in its coverage only covers most of the populated land masses and a small amount into the water.
So beyond simple "satellite internet", most sailors are looking for a true global solution or at least one that will cover the vast majority of their sailing grounds.
Inmarsat, simply put, has the best combination of prices and global coverage. But take note that several areas are still missing. A few-hundred square mile patch in the Eastern Pacific, Drake's Passage off Cape Horn, and in the Indian Ocean near Oman.
Step 2: Identify the "solution" that they offer.
A product designed specifically for small pleasure craft is the Fleet 33. On first glance at Inmarsat's website you might see their entry level (~$500) IsatPhone, but that doesn't work for data applications unless you consider using the phone's keyboard to send emails as "data" (which technically it is). There are more powerful options than the Fleet 33, but the pricing gets astronomical.
Step 3: Identify the hardware you'll need to install.
Since we narrowed our search down to Inmarsat's Fleet 33, most of the recommendations point towards the KVH TracPhone FB150 (pictured left). For roughly ~$6000, you can find these available at Amazon.com and Jamestown Distributors. Power consumption (12v) ranges from 2 amps at idle to 20 amps during transmission.
Although the price is obviously quite high, remember that a new SSB installation can also set you back a good few thousand dollars depending on what you buy and where you buy it.
Step 4: Pick a service plan based on your estimated usage.
Most satellite companies don't bill you directly, instead you'll need to go through another reseller. Since we're looking at the Fleet 33, we'll hop over to satellitephonestore.com's service plans. Their "Entry" plan boasts the following profile:
- A minimum 12 month contract at $863/month. Just over $10,000 a year ($16,000 for the first year, including hardware).
- 126MB/month. For the casual Internet user, this is very little data. As an example, the average smartphone data in the US (as of July 2011) is 4x this amount. To achieve what would be even a spartan usage of regular Internet service (1GB/month), your costs will be roughly $36,000 a year.
- 9.6Kb/s (which is roughly the speed of a dialup modem from 1994).
Summary: Yep, it's still very expensive.
There are certainly some people out there who can justify the costs or have a need for it. And for those of us who suffer varying degrees of Internet addiction, like a heroin junkie perhaps the withdrawals are just too painful and worth stealing your mother's television to help subsidize your habit. If you have the money pay for it and perhaps more importantly you want to invite the potentially maddening experience of trying to conduct business via satellite this might work for you.
And a note regarding costs: the $16,000 - $32,000 numbers represent the cheap side of the equation. For folks demanding DSL level speeds know that they are achievable, but the prices quoted hear will seem like pocket change.