Mark Hawkins explores the options for guaranteed internet at sea and the new technologies for bluewater sailors

Mark Hawkins explores the options for guaranteed internet at sea and the new technologies for bluewater sailors

For many decades, radio communication was the only option for mariners to communicate with the shore, but now an increasing number of satellite technologies are available for getting internet at sea.

This growing choice comes with a large side order of confusion.

As a liveaboard, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to work from home, or in my case working from a boat, I had to quickly make the best use of remote internet access technology, to continue my role as global humanitarian technology manager for Save the Children International.

Like many other people, I needed a stable connection to join Zoom meetings, access email and many other online services which have become our modern workplace.

Mark Hawkins working remotely on his Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 30. Credit: Mark Hawkins

Mark Hawkins working remotely on his Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 30. Credit: Mark Hawkins

Reliable internet access is also helpful for passage-making. I use a tablet on board as a chartplotter.

The navigation app needs an internet connection to update charts and to download the latest weather data.

As an experienced mariner, I still consider existing technologies such as VHF radio as a mission-critical form of communication as internet access should not be regarded as the only source of information.

Whilst VHF is line of sight and limited to coastal areas, the routine broadcasts from HM Coastguard includes safety information which is almost real time and not available on websites or apps.

Further offshore, high-frequency (HF) radio is used mainly for voice communication, but with the correct sort of modem and a subscription to https://sailmail.org.

Mark Hawkins' Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 30 where he works from home in the Solent. Credit: Mark Hawkins

Mark Hawkins’ Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 30 where he works from home in the Solent. Credit: Mark Hawkins

Data over HF is not new.

In 2002, I established a network of radio stations in the Democratic Republic of Congo using Bushmail – which was the land-based version of Sailmail.

With a maximum data rate of 2.4Kb/sec, my experience was that this technology could only be used to send text only emails.

This is good enough for basic weather information, but live internet services like WhatsApp does not work on HF radio data networks.

Internet at sea: Shoreside wifi

Accessing the internet on board requires you to have appropriate technology and a nearby service.

There are a range of options to choose from, each with its own hardware requirements and cost.

The rule of thumb here is the further away the boat is from land, the more expensive data may cost.

Marina WiFi is not available on my berth, and even if it were, I have been quite disappointed with the performance of most free WiFi hotspots I have tried to use.

A Wifi hotspot for boosting internet at sea

Mark uses a WiFi hotspot to boost his reception. Credit: Mark Hawkins

In my experience, marina WiFi performs poorly because the signal is too weak, too many people are using the network or the network itself has not been set up with enough capacity in the first place.

The signal performance can be improved using WiFi adapters that have external antennas.

But before investing in new technology, it’s always a good idea to take a laptop to a place where the signal strength is strong and check the performance.

Some marinas also provide premium WiFi which performs better. There are normally extra charges.

4G Phone signal

My internet setup consists of a CradlePoint 4G router with a www.three.co.uk SIM card.

Unlimited data costs £20 per month which is enough to keep me connected and to run a security camera so I can monitor my boat for issues during any time away.

There is much debate on social media groups about the best 4G network.

Frankly, it is none of them as service quality depends upon where your boat is located at the time.

Location will affect service quality in two ways.

First, the further you are from the mobile base station, the weaker the signal. This will slow down connection speeds.

The Open signal app to check network coverage

The Open signal app to check network coverage

Second, in places with more population density, speeds will be slower when a lot of people nearby are online.

As service quality will change from location to location, it is a good idea to do some research to find out which might be the best networks for your normal sailing area.

There are websites like www.opensignal.com which provide signal coverage maps.

The data used is captured from signals measured by mobile phones that have the Open signal app installed.

This presents a more accurate picture of the service you are likely to get rather than the optimistic maps produced by the mobile networks.

Local knowledge is your friend.

There are plenty of online discussion groups such as the YM’s Scuttlebutt where you can ask others about their experiences with mobile networks.

VHF and SSB radios, as well as satellite phones are carried by many offshore sailors

VHF and SSB radios, as well as satellite phones are carried by many offshore sailors. Credit: World Cruising Club

I have found that no single network is good everywhere.

Three provides a great service in Portsmouth Harbour on my own berth.

In other parts of the Solent, I swap the SIM card to Vodafone as it has a better service in places than Three.

Using multiple SIM cards need not be too expensive as many operators have reasonable pay as you go options available.

Most networks are 4G which can perform at around 8Mb/sec.

Typically you will experience a good 4G service up to three miles from a mast.

Beyond this range, the signal will fade and the network will switch to a 3G service which is strong up to six miles and sometimes a little further.

Internet at sea: Roaming charges

For those who sail overseas, there are more things to consider before using data.

So far, Brexit has had no impact on roaming charges.

Many networks will allow users to use their data bundles overseas at no extra cost.

A sailor using internet at sea to access weather routing

Internet at sea: Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) sailor, Fenice Auer, using weather routing while making the Atlantic crossing. Credit: World Cruising Club

Three is very competitive and their data bundles allow roaming in 71 countries – including the EU.

Roaming can lead to some unexpected charges if you do not pay attention to how you are roaming and the terms and conditions for your service.

Globetrotting sailors may need to take a different approach as SIM cards purchased in the UK may not be the best option.

An alternative approach is to buy a local SIM card or global roaming SIM from specialists like www.telna.com or www.globalsimcard.co.uk.

Tips to avoid ‘bill shock’

  • Look at your contract and know which countries you can roam with your existing UK data plan.
  • Set a daily spend cap with alerts.
  • Cruise liners at sea often run mobile networks which are powered by satellite technology. While near cruise liners try not to connect to their networks as they are not likely to be part of discounted roaming bundles.

Internet at sea: Fifth generation technology

5G technology is starting to appear on the market, offering the promise of greater internet speeds.

Faster speeds are achieved by using higher frequencies in the radio spectrum.

This has the consequence of signals having a shorter range of 1,000ft, significantly less than 3G and 4G. All 5G systems can receive 4G and 3G when 5G is not available.

I do not recommend upgrading to new 5G technology now unless you intend to spend a lot of time in harbour where 5G is provided.

Internet at sea: Satellite technology

If you spend a lot of time offshore or your mooring is in a remote location where there are no mobile signals, then satellite technology could be an option to consider.

In the past, internet access via the satellite has been too expensive to consider, but things are changing and viable services are just over the horizon.

New tech players are entering the market to provide satellite data services which are cheaper than services provided by the long-established satellite operators.

Using internet services to access weather and routing information supplements paper navigation for most sailors offshore now

Using internet services to access weather and routing information supplements paper navigation for most sailors offshore now. Credit: World Cruising Club

Inmarsat has been providing broadband services via its BGAN (previously R-BGAN) products since 2003.

But at $5 per megabyte, it is too expensive for many sailors.

Other ways to access the internet include VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) which can cost £30,000 upwards and then more than £1,000 per month to operate.

StarLink fleet

With the current technology well beyond the reach of most sailors’ budgets, the tech sector is starting to disrupt the market with new products.

Over the past year, SpaceX has launched thousands of small Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites as part of its StarLink service.

At an altitude of just over 500km, StarLink’s fleet is well below the 36,000km orbits used by other satellite operators.

Starlink app on Apple iPhone screen

Internet at sea: Starlink app on Apple iPhone screen

The advantage of these lower orbits enables systems to operate with smaller and less powerful antennas.

SpaceX has started to roll out its new StarLink service with coverage now available in the UK.

Currently the StarLink technology is designed for shore-based subscribers, but I cannot see Elon Musk ignoring the opportunity to break into the maritime sector with technologies designed for boats.

The price tag for a StarLink system is around $499 plus around $99 per month for a subscription.

Reports from people who have bought this technology is encouraging, as performance is currently better than the average ADSL speed on a landline in the UK.

Up-and-coming rivals

Over the next few years, even more networks will enter the market to compete with StarLink.

OneWeb was bailed out by the UK government and Bharti Airtel and will also operate in the LEO orbit.

In addition to telecoms and data, OneWeb may also use the same satellites to deliver a UK government supported alternative to GPS navigation.

Recently Jeff Bezos announced that he will step down from Amazon to focus more on space technology.

As a person with a record of disrupting retail, can we expect a similar shake-up to happen with space telecoms?

As we are presented with many options to stay connected at sea, our traditional methods used for communication by voice will not escape disruption either.

Satellite phones

There is a significant shake-up unfolding which will have an impact on the technology we use to make phone calls at sea or send distress calls.

Inmarsat was once the only satellite network available for civilian use.

Founded in 1979, until the early 2000’s Inmarsat had a monopoly over voice telecoms for more than 20 years which includes the satellite part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).

Iridium and Thuraya came to the market with hand-portable satellite phones and cheaper tariffs.

Sailors using internet at sea to get weather routing

Internet at sea: Sailors taking part in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers often use routing software, informed by weather data. Credit: Tim Bishop/TimBishMedia

In the aid sector, these operators have mostly replaced Inmarsat as the system of choice, since it took Inmarsat a few years to catch up with a new handset to replace its old bulky systems.

In December 2020, Iridium was approved as a new GMDSS provider joining Inmarsat which was the only GMDSS service provider since its inception.

This new technology will allow sailors to send distress calls and receive SafetyNet messages – a satellite version of NAVTEX.

To date, GMDSS satellite cover was limited to latitudes less than 70⁰North and South.

Iridium is fully global which means that full GMDSS is now available to sailors in the high latitudes.

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The new Iridium GMDSS system is made by Lars Thrane.

The LT-3100 system has the same GMDSS functions you would expect from an Inmarsat system.

It is now licensed for sale in many EU countries. The entry of new players into the GMDSS market will help to bring the costs of systems down over time.

Typically, the LR-3100 system costs £3,500, and there are a range of contract and pay as you go pricing for airtime from companies such as Applied Satellite Technology: www.theastgroup.com.

Another benefit of the Iridium network is that the GMDSS features can still be accessed without a current airtime subscription.

Push-to-talk

Iridium has been innovating in other areas as well.

In the last few years, it launched the push-to-talk (PTT) service.

This technology looks like and operates like VHF radio and comes in two formats.

The mobile version can be hardwired into a yacht with an external aerial fitted.

The Icom IC-SAT100 is a two-way satellite system that operates exclusively on Iridium

The Icom IC-SAT100 is a two-way satellite system that operates exclusively on Iridium

The portable version is about the same size as a standard VHF walkie-talkie style handset.

Iridium PTT is not yet GMDSS approved, and users are not able to communicate with coastguards or able to make normal phone calls.

So, this system will not be useful to the wider yachting public as the PTT channels operate like a private and secured VHF channel.

Iridium PTT could become a useful and reliable fleet communications tool for boats participating in ocean sailing events.

If all yachts and control centres in the event are equipped with Iridium PTT, event managers can quickly share weather and other information through fleet broadcast.

Whilst not on the Iridium roadmap, it would be great to see some form of the Iridium PTT channels adopted into GMDSS so that voice distress calls can be made from a small handset anywhere in the world.

The new Iridium GMDSS system, made by Lars Thrane, will allow sailors to send distress calls and receive SafetyNet messages (satellite version of NAVTEX)

The new Iridium GMDSS system, made by Lars Thrane, will allow sailors to send distress calls and receive SafetyNet messages (satellite version of NAVTEX)

Typically, a subscription to PTT costs around £100 per handset per month which allows for unlimited talk time.

Readers of a certain age will remember the days when we used to use our VHF radios to contact BT coastal radio stations hoping to patch sailors to landlines ashore.

The spread of mobile phones brought about the demise of coastal radio stations.

Satellite telephones disrupted the HF coastal stations like Portishead in the same way.

The disruption to the way we communicate is likely to continue further.

From 2023, we are likely to see the start of a new era where mobile phone technology begins to disrupt satellite phones.

Game-changing technology

AST & Science in the USA is a new start-up company and has teamed up with Vodafone to build a new fleet of satellites to complement existing mobile phone networks.

In a few years, they will start to launch a service where mobile phones can access 4G and 5G services directly from a satellite.

This will be a game-changer as this approach eliminates the need to invest in existing satellite technology.

In a few years' time, Vendee Globe skippers like Louis Burton and other mariners are likely to be using mobile phone technology offshore.

Internet at sea: In a few years’ time, Vendee Globe skippers like Louis Burton and other mariners are likely to be using mobile phone technology offshore. Credit: Stephane MAILLARD

It is not likely to enter the GMDSS arena for some time, but in the future, I would not rule this out.

From a standard smartphone, people will be able to subscribe to satellite networks when they are outside of normal land-based cover.

The likely commercial model is that traditional mobile operators will offer satellite functions as additional options.

Mark Hawkins

Mark Hawkins’ role for Save the Children International is responsible for radio and satellite communications in over 40 countries. He also leads a disaster response team and was a Yachtmaster Instructor before joining the aid world.

Mobile networks are designed to serve customers who are no further than 20km from a base station.

The satellites are much further away, and I think there will be a few technical challenges to overcome.

I believe this new approach to global communication will be a game changer when the technology is launched.

In my dealings with the satellite industry over many years, I have consistently been impressed with the levels of innovation various companies have delivered.

I have met some of the AST & Science board members during my role to secure satellite communications for Save the Children International.

They have many years’ experience in delivering satellite-based innovation.

The prospect of being able to use a standard mobile smartphone anywhere in the world is something which will make the cost of communication for bluewater sailors much more affordable