We feel the need for some method of long-distance communication. Currently, we lose access to weather forecasts as soon as we leave Wi-Fi and VHF range, both of which are very short, about 2 and 20 miles respectively. We’re fair weather sailors and depend heavily on weather forecasts when traveling. We also like to get off the beaten path, but feel the need to stay at least somewhat connected by email.
There is much debate about whether a marine HF radio (called Single Side-Band, or SSB) or a satellite phone is best to fill this need. Of course, each has its own strengths and weaknesses:
- SSB radio supplies broadcast or “party line” communication where one station can talk to many. The satellite phone is point-to-point just like a regular phone.
- SSB can transmit and receive over thousands of miles and potentially halfway around the world (depending on atmospheric conditions). The satellite phone can call any telephone from almost anywhere on the globe (depending on provider).
- SSB can only communicate with other stations, while the phone can only communicate with other phones. So you need the satellite phone to call mom on her birthday, and the radio to talk to another boat.
- SSB is far more technically complex to install and operate. The satellite phone is as simple to use as a terrestrial cell phone.
- SSB transceivers (transmit & receive) are very expensive, probably $3000 for a new unit with installation. Handheld satellite phones are available for under $1000.
- SSB is free to operate, while the satellite airtime costs upwards of $1/min.
- An SSB radio can receive synoptic weather charts that are faxed from various met offices around the world. A computer or dedicated weatherfax machine are required. The satellite phone could receive the same information electronically via email.
- Satellite phones can send and receive text messages. Texts can typically be sent to the phone for free from the provider’s website.
- Both can transmit and receive data. The SSB requires an expensive Pactor modem to communicate with shoreside radio stations for sending and receiving email. A satellite phone works like an old-school dialup computer modem, effectively putting you directly on the Internet. Both are very slow and greatly benefit from services that filter and compress email messages.
- It is technically possible to get higher data speeds and always-on access from a satellite system, but the equipment is very expensive and then the bandwidth pricing is about $10/MB. Maybe someday.
- Both are susceptible to atmospheric weather, but SSB moreso. Both would likely be useless in the event of a major disruption like a volcanic eruption or solar storm.
So which to choose? The scenarios we envision using long-distance communication (in order of priority) are:
- Emergency calls. Getting shore-side medical advice or communicating with Search and Rescue agencies. Advantage: satellite.
- Email. Staying in touch with work, friends, and family from remote areas. Advantage: satellite.
- Weather data. Getting forecasts and data from electronic sources. Advantage: satellite.
- Weather forecasts. Receiving voice broadcasts, specifically from Chris Parker for the Bahamas and Caribbean regions. Advantage: SSB.
- Routine calls. Making regular phone calls for any purpose. Advantage: satellite.
- Keeping in touch with other boats. Advantage: SSB.
Clearly we can see a use for both SSB and satellite. Satellite receives the priority, and as the simplest to use, is almost a no-brainer. Most of the proponents of the SSB appear to be older, more traditional cruisers, who put the investment into radio back when that was the only choice.
A previous owner of Take Two made the SSB investment. The radio itself was gone by the time we took possession of her, but the hardest parts of the installation are done. She has an insulated backstay for an antenna, and a submerged ground plate for a counterpoise. Getting good RF on boats is a lot like voodoo, but it looks like we should be able to get a pretty clean signal.
Taking all of the above into consideration, a used ICOM 710 and AT-130 tuner to complete our SSB installation seemed like a good idea. We’re having some new cables made up, so we haven’t installed it yet, but we’re pretty excited just to have it. Replacing the SSB has been on the “someday” list for a long time and crossing it off will give us a feeling of progress.
A satellite phone is still high on the list. The major decision points there are choosing a provider and a plan. That will be the subject of another post.