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Remote marine telecom: boat-based communications.

Ocean Mayo is a second-generation longliner whose family has fished for halibut and black cod in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea for decades. Their fifty-eight-foot vessel, the Coral Lee, is homeported in Sitka, as is the large Mayo clan. When the Coral Lee is far out at sea beyond the range of cell phones and even VHF radio, Ocean Mayo relies on satellite phones to stay in touch.

Mayo says there is another black cod fisherman who works the same areas in the Bering Sea as Mayo, and the other fisherman uses baited pots to catch the prized groundfish. If Mayo sets his longlines where the pots have been deployed, his expensive gear might get entangled and could be lost. So the longliner and the pot fisherman coordinate by satellite phone to avoid doing just that.

Mayo employs satellite phones to communicate with processors to determine who will pay the most for his latest catch. He can also talk with other vessels so they can make reports and plan strategy on a secure channel that can't be overheard by other boats. And he can call home for both business and personal reasons.

Avoiding tangled gear, finding fish, and getting the best price at the processor--these are all reasons why Mayo is happy he made the investment.

"The satellite phones pay for themselves," he says. "Even with high startup costs, they pay for themselves in a few years."

Although satellite phones have a reputation for expensive hardware and ruinous per-minute rates, the situation-- like other segments of the electronics industry--is evolving rapidly, says Harold Whittlesy of Satellite Technical Services, which serves the Alaska fleet from offices in Anchorage and Seattle.

"More and more of the fleet is converting to satellite-based communication equipment for reliability," says Whittlesy. "As the volumes continue to build, the price point continues to come down. Today, people are able to enjoy the benefits of satellite communication for as little as $300."

Whittlesy is referring to a DeLorme inReach, a new portable satellite device that allows mariners (and those on land or in the air) to text anyone in the world inexpensively, to get maps and charts, and to issue enhanced distress calls.

Alaska Net

The system on Mayo's boat (and on about one hundred vessels in Sitka's busy harbors) is known as MSAT, for Mobile Satellite, a technology developed in Canada that has been in use for about twenty years. MSAT has become very common on medium-sized and even some smaller fishing vessels in Alaska, allowing fishermen private voice communications between vessels and to shore.

MSAT systems work with a "push-to-talk" technique like CB radios: hold up a microphone, push the button, talk, sign off, and then let go of the button and listen for the other person.

"In Sitka, our market with just the [salmon] trailers alone has grown more than six-fold," Whittlesy says. "We probably have seventy trailers that are running them. Five years ago we had none. [MSAT] allows these guys to confidently and confidentially communicate their business activities [with] each other and talk to their processors and others. It's made a world of difference in their operations."

Whittlesy's firm has set up a convenient system for Alaska MSAT users called AlaskaNet. lust by punching in a four-digit code, MSAT users can make a private call to another vessel or a shoreside processor or boatyard.

At Radar Marine Electronics, with offices in Bellingham, Washington, and Kodiak, Sales Manager Rob Hisey says MSAT systems like Mayo's cost about $5,500 to install. Unlimited calling plans come in at about $70 per month.

"It's a dispatch communication system, so the more people that have it, the more beneficial it becomes," Hisey says. "Most commercial fishermen and processors in Alaska are on Harold [Whittlesy's] network, so they can communicate with anyone on the network, along with making cell or landline calls anywhere."

Hisey says Radar Marine Electronics has receivers in both their Bellingham and Kodiak offices, putting them only four digits from their customers, and that an MSAT system on AlaskaNet "is the most popular system and the first line of communication for most commercial fishermen." He notes that most boats have backup satellite systems as well.

Streaming at Sea

Aboard the Coral Lee, Mayo can send emails from his MSAT system. But MSAT operates at speeds where Internet access is not practical.

For that, fishermen can to turn to VSAT, or Very Small Aperture Terminal technology. VSAT systems use a stabilized marine antenna to connect directly with satellites that are in geosynchronous orbit (designed to remain over one terrestrial position as the Earth rotates).

VSAT systems can cost $15,000 or more for hardware capable of speeds up to 2MB/sec. Usage is then purchased in data plans, usually priced at around $1 per MB.

"The big boats are going to have $15,000 terminals and spend $1,000 or more per month for data," Hisey says. "Bigger boats have crew calling to multiple stations aboard the boat, so the crew can call out or connect to the Internet."

Hisey says the most popular VSAT brand is KVH. Thrane & Thrane's Sailor brand and Add Value Technology's Skipper brand are also popular.

Inmarsat offers another option for data and voice--Fleet Broadband network service--which is capable of high speeds and lower hardware costs. Fleet Broadband normally runs at 128-512 kb/sec--numbers familiar to those who remember early dial-up modems.

Inmarsat gained prominence earlier this year when the company registered the first "pings" from the missing Malaysian Airlines plane on equipment not designed for GPS positioning.

Voice and Text

For those most interested in affordable voice communications, the two main services are Iridium and GlobalStar. Iridium handsets cost about $1,300, while GlobalStar offers a handset for $500.

For medium or small boats, GlobalStar's so-called "slow data"--9.6 kb/ sec (up to 50 kb/sec)--is sufficient for voice communication, but ponderous for other applications.

"We're selling a lot [of GlobalStar] phones," Hisey says. "They have good coverage in Alaska and provide exceptional voice quality. We set up Alaska customers with a 907 area code to avoid long distance or international call fees."

The smaller boats are mostly interested in voice. "They really don't care about speed," says Hisey. "They're paying for data by the amount, not the speed. Most of these guys don't have the need for a lot of data." Because of the high data costs, fishermen use the devices mostly for email, weather reports, and time sheets, rather than data-rich activities, like Internet browsing.

Hisey says GlobalStar's reputation took a hit in the past, but that the company's popularity is rebounding since they launched new satellites, lowered usage prices, and improved reliability. Hisey's company provided GlobalStar phones for the 2014 Iditarod.

At Satellite Technical Services, Whittlesy says he is concerned about the older portions of the GlobalStar network eroding reliability gains. Instead, he is a booster of--and distributor for--DeLorme inReach, a satellite tracking, texting, and Emergency Locator Beacon device that brings the cost of satellite communication near the cost of a cell phone service.

"In my opinion, there is no alternative to it at that price point," he says.

The $299 DeLorme inReach can be used as a handheld or dash-mounted device that can send and receive texts from anyone on the planet. Emergency locator beacon calls sent from the device can be accompanied by texts describing the nature of the distress. GPS satellite tracking is built into the device. Wireless connection to smartphones or tablets opens the device to even more applications.

At DeLorme's headquarters in Yarmouth, Maine, Vice President of Marketing Kim Stiver explains that company founder David DeLorme started the company thirty years ago after being frustrated by the paucity of backcountry maps. DeLorme created a Maine atlas which became enormously popular. The company still sells printed maps, but now delivers their maps--along with a wide range of NOAA charts and other charts--in electronic form for use on their devices.

DeLorme offers a menu of service plans that include the ability to subscribe for only part of the year, an advantageous arrangement for seasonal industry, like fishing.

"There is a lot of use [of our device] in Alaska--and it's the fastest growing [region]," Stiver says, noting that Alaska has poor cell phone coverage, high outdoor use, and a large number of pilots--as well as many commercial and recreational mariners. "Alaska is a priority for us."

At Comfish Alaska 2014, held in Kodiak in April, fishermen and pilots bought dozens of the devices. Whittlesy says their enthusiasm for the device mirrored what he has seen in Alaska, on the West Coast, and in Hawaii.

"For the average guy, this is the most attainable satellite product," says Whittlesy. "Satellite communication is where things are really getting shook. There are new, really cool things coming that are going to reshape what we're doing in the world of satellite communication."

Alaskan author and journalist Will Swagel writes from Sitka.
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Comment:Remote marine telecom: boat-based communications.(TELECOM & TECHNOLOGY)
Author:Swagel, Will
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 28, 2014
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