Members' Online Book: Weather Reception and Analysis, Chapter 13 of 15

HF SSB Radio or Iridium Satellite Phone?

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So far in this Online Book I have written about what weather information to get and what to do with it once you have it. In this chapter I’m going to look at the two main hardware options, when offshore or in remote places, for receiving that information as well as other communication needs. Or, to cut to the chase:

Should an offshore voyager fit a marine single sideband radio (SSB) or an Iridium phone with data kit, or even both?

Yes, I know there are other satellite options such as Globalstar—which isn’t global—but my purpose here is to compare satellite and SSB radio, not delve into the complexities of which satellite system is best, and Iridium is a good representative system.

Capital Cost

I’m not going to do a detailed analysis of purchase price simply because this is an overwhelming win for Iridium and also because any analysis I did would be out of date five minutes after I wrote it. But the summary is that you can put a full-on Iridium system together with external antenna and data kit for about US$1500, but a properly installed—if you do it yourself—marine SSB system with radio, tuner, and PACTOR modem is going to run you about two and a half times more (US$4000). And the new Iridium Go drops the price to US$1300.

Ease Of Installation

I was an early adopter of both HF SSB and Iridium and I can tell you, based on that experience, that installation is another big win for Iridium. Yes, things can go wrong with the software to connect to the satellite phone, but solving those problems, particularly if you use UUplus instead of Iridium’s native drivers, pales into insignificance when compared to the complexities of putting together a really good SSB installation: antenna, counterpoise, voltage drops, can all make you crazy, and don’t even get me started on the joys of chasing stray RF issues! If you don’t believe me on this, just have a read through some of the forums on HF SSB installation.

Data Transfer Costs

The cost of data transfer would, at first glance, seem to be a killer win for SSB since it is free for those with an amateur radio (ham) licence using Winlink and just $250 a year for Sailmail for those without. And since we recommend UUplus at $357 a year for use with Iridium, and Sailmail obviates the need for that, albeit with less features, the win is even bigger for SSB.

But before we get too carried away here, let’s not forget that the voyager who buys an Iridium has over $2000 worth of savings in hand as against SSB.

Based on our own usage while out voyaging, which is generally heavy due to the needs of this web site, I would say that saving will fund Iridium usage for at least five years of passaging, as long as the voyager uses cell (mobile) technology for voice and data when near land, an option that is getting easier in most countries with the increased availability of pay-as-you-go cards.

You can learn more about how to minimize your Iridium charges and still get really good weather information, both tactical and strategic, in this chapter.

Ease of Use

Ease of use is another clear win for Iridium: turn it on, click on the send/receive button on UUplus, and you are done. Even if the call drops out, UUplus will elegantly reconnect and pick up where it left off. If we contrast that to tuning a radio, listening for other traffic, and understanding the complexities for RF propagation, there really is no contest.

Safety

Traditionally, SSB was the preferred way to call for help or medical advice in an emergency when far from land. Back in the day before satellite phones there were hundreds of stations around the world staffed by professional operators that listened intently for radio traffic on many different bands because they made money from telephone patch calls by doing so. These same operators would hear and respond to even the weakest call for help.

Today most (all?) countries have shut down their commercial HF radio stations, and ships, while still required to monitor 2182 on SSB, use Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and so are no longer actually listening by ear.

And even if a station is still listening in theory, I’m going to guess that manual monitoring of HF radio is a pretty low priority. Or to put it another way, when an operator has not received a non-DSC HF call for hours, days, or maybe even weeks, how high do you think the volume is set on that HF radio next to him or her?

Contrast that to an Iridium phone, where you can do as we do and program all the applicable Rescue Coordination Centres’ (RCC) telephone numbers into speed dial, so you can be talking to someone in seconds with the press of a single button, without any worry about propagation or interference.

And with Iridium phones as small as they now are, you can even take yours with you into a life raft—waterproof case recommended for older models, new model is ruggedized—or ashore on a hike in a remote place in case someone gets hurt.

Further, an Iridium is self-contained with no reliance on an external antenna, that will come down with the rig, or ship’s power (as long as the battery lasts), that will probably fail in a flooding situation, as SSB is.

One advantage for SSB is that, if it is fitted with DSC and you activate it, an alarm will ring on the bridge of any GMDSS equipped ship within range. Sounds great in theory. But from what I hear, albeit anecdotally, the mechanism whereby most yachts in distress are rescued by a ship is that the yacht activates an EPIRB and the area RCC puts out a request to assist to all ships in the vicinity via Inmarsat, so realistically HF SSB doesn’t, in most cases, play a part.

Recommendations

Given all that, when faced with choosing between Iridium and SSB, what should you do? Here are my recommendations:

Starting from scratch

If you have neither of the two technologies installed, buy or rent an Iridium phone and data kit first and see how you like it before spending twice that on SSB.

Have an SSB

If you already have a good HF SSB installation but no PACTOR modem, as we do, the decision is harder, but I think that I would still recommend buying an Iridium first because of the ease of use and compelling safety benefits.

Have PACTOR

If you have a full SSB installation with PACTOR modem and are happy with it, by all means stick with it, although I would still consider an Iridium for the backup and safety benefits it provides. And if your SSB does not have DSC, I would up the Iridium to required status.

Not a Techie

No matter what you have installed, if you don’t actively enjoy messing with technology, go with Iridium every time. Heck, I’m an electronics technician by trade, and I’m happier with Iridium.

Have an EPIRB

If you do decide to forgo SSB then you should definitely fit an EPIRB since an Iridium phone is not a recognized distress device under GMDSS, but then I personally think that’s a sensible requirement no matter what other equipment you have aboard.

What about weatherfax?

If you decide to forgo SSB, what about receiving weatherfax maps, something that we still recommend in addition to GRIB? Well, you can download the same maps from the internet using Iridium data, albeit at a cost of US$1.00 to 3.00 a chart, which can add up in a hurry. However, with data costs dropping, this may become the best solution soon. If not, you may wish to consider an HF receiver just for that purpose.

Don’t forget rental

If you only make the occasional ocean passage, renting an Iridium phone can be a compelling option that confers yet another advantage for that technology over spending $4000 on SSB that you only use occasionally.

Like to talk

First off,  you should know that I’m an old curmudgeon whose worst nightmare would be having my voyaging life structured by the requirement to sit in front of a radio at a specific time(s) of day, every day, to chat on a cruiser net, therefore you should factor that in as you read this chapter. (I share this not to claim any virtue for my position, but just so you can put my thoughts in context.)

Having got that admission out of the way, if you like to talk on the radio, you may want an HF radio (ham or marine SSB) just for that purpose but, even so, I would still look long and hard at Iridium for important data such as weather, before you add PACTOR. And it might be a good idea, in this case, to look at becoming a ham since, as I understand it, the radios available to hams are a good deal less expensive than marine SSB.

The Expert View

As part of the research for this chapter, I spoke with Steve Pegg, watch stander at Bermuda Radio, an RCC that handles many offshore yacht emergencies every year. I asked Steve what communications equipment he liked to see on yachts and his answers were:

EPIRB comes first

Not surprisingly, the first and most emphatic words out of Steve’s mouth were “all yachts should be fitted with 406 mhz EPIRB and it is vital that it be properly registered”.

Iridium or SSB

While in a perfect world Steve would like to see yachts equipped with both SSB and a satellite phone for redundancy, on a practical basis he stated that Iridium is more useful in an emergency because it is easier to use and the communication more reliable than SSB. Steve said they had often had problems communicating over SSB with yachts due to operator errors (at the yacht end), only made worse by the stress of an emergency.

He did qualify that with a recommendation that the Iridium be fitted with a permanently mounted external antenna as they have also had problems with people trying to use a hand held phone while sheltering below.

Summary

There is no question that there are benefits to SSB but, let’s face it, it is most assuredly yesterday’s technology and the future lies with satellite communications. If you still want an SSB for whatever reason, that is absolutely fine, but I would argue that SSB is no longer a need.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

56 comments … add one
  • David Magda Jul 4, 2014, 7:18 pm

    Just as another data point: some folks may remember the family who had a very ill one-year-old which was rescued in the Pacific a little while ago. They had an EPBIRB, HF, and a satellite phone.

    It turns out that the satellite company was changing the type of SIM cards being used around that time, and they mailed paper notices with new cards to all their customers ahead of time to their physical address of registration. Of course if you have a satellite phone you’re probably near a mailbox. The service on the ‘obsolete’ SIM card was cancelled at the worst possible moment: after they had managed to get an initial call in to the USCG and doctor about the situation and awaiting a call back for medical advice.

    They had a “long range” radio per interview (probably HF), but they had been taking on seawater and it got into the electrics.

    They lit up their EPIRB and then waited and hoped (as they had no idea if the signal was being received).

    Interview available at:
    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/525/call-for-help
    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/525/transcript (search of “satellite”)

  • Dick Stevenson Jul 5, 2014, 4:05 am

    John,
    I will be thinking about some of your points, but, on casual review, I think that your analysis is a good overview of the practical aspects of Iridium vs SSB.
    One element not emphasized that has been important to Ginger and me over the years is the community feeling that gets fostered in those areas where there are nets and during weather nets such as the former Southbound II. We have met some of our most lasting friends when, just after anchoring, a dinghy comes up and says hello and you find that they shared information on the harbor with you a few days ago. Or they just have heard you on the net.
    Your curmudgeon-ly side (or anyone’s for that matter)should never get activated as I actually know of no net where you are required to sit down and chat on the net every day, so that is a non-issue. For those of us who may wish to tune into a net in the morning, listen to boats all over your area give little reports, weather and so-on, be able to ask questions about possible future harbors: all while sipping a mug of tea in your home— this can be very pleasant. It is also a wonderful way of connecting with friends as many will be listening in and you can connect and move to a different frequency. All of this, I believe, also fosters an appealing (and at times very practical) community spirit in the more boater populated areas (Carib & Bahamas) that a phone could never accomplish.
    This community element is likely to be less appealing to those who frequent high latitude destinations and where practical aspects prevail. For many frequenting more boater-populated areas, the social aspects coupled with SSB’s many practical aspects, make SSB very appealing.
    My best, Dick (KC2HKW) Stevenson, s/v Alchemy, Bodo, Norway

  • Ben Jul 5, 2014, 9:12 am

    Good analysis John, I completely agree, in fact give me two sat phones over a single satphone and fancy HF anyday, that way the shore party and boat can keep in contact and there is always a spare tucked away in the grab bag.

    Just make sure you have spare chargers, we fried a couple and had to use an old cellphone with it’s charger and battery piggybacked into the phone to get it to work.

    Saying that old Ham sets and HF sets are very cheap if you just want to talk. I’ve got three old HF sets stashed away, and will definitely fit one of them back on the new boat when I head back offshore.

    In my experience HF always seems like another high maintenance item, with lots of components and sensitive connections to give problems in a damp environment and absolute reliance on lots of good quality battery power, whereas a satphone is low maintenance and low power, another big plus for the satphone.

    The biggest problem with satphones is that people can call you, I generally hate that even on land, so at sea its off except when I need to download my Gribs.

    I guess another issue if you have crew is that they can use it much more easily than a HF, so you always have to deal with them “Needing” to make that call home that then sucks up lots of money, and you have to try and get it back off them latter.

    It also disrupts the important feeling of isolation on the voyage. This can lead to all sorts of problems especially if there are issues back home that can’t be dealt with at sea. It can potentially be very damaging to crew moral and team spirit, and can drag problems from ashore onboard. I guess it just becomes one more thing as skipper that you need to manage.

    Email at sea (either Pactor or satphone) has the similar issues so you need to have clear boundary’s on it’s use and the associated costs, and also a way to deal with confidentiality and privacy issues.

    Another thing along these lines is when crew have their own satphones and epirbs. If conditions get nasty they could make distress calls, or activate EPIRBS, or otherwise just concern friends and relatives without the skippers knowledge.

    I guess you cant do too much about this without being draconian except give some clear guidelines, and at least have all Epirbs linked to the ships details and emergency contacts, and if things get dire, make sure everybody is included in discussions and fears are addressed. Not always easy… That’s technology for you!

    Cheers

    Ben

  • Douglas Pohl Jul 5, 2014, 12:54 pm

    Good comparison but taking it one step further – is this the yacht’s primary long distance or safety comms system or is it for general or personal messages? I’ve used them all and today would recommend Inmarsat FLEET ONE. On a more practical and personal basis you cannot beat Delorme InReach device cost and air times. No matter which you select – IT ALL DEPENDS – so be sure to understand each system limitations and costs. Or put another way – what are your needs – one unit does not do it all unless you open a big wallet to kill the fly. Crossing oceans vs coastwise cruising makes a BIG difference.

    • Matt Jul 5, 2014, 7:21 pm

      One unit certainly does not do it all, and there are corporate politics to consider as well. While I’m very impressed with Inmarsat’s coverage and technology, they may not be the most predictable company to deal with and sometimes seem out of touch with the “low end” of the market. (An example here from Panbo; basically, it boils down to a lot of small clients like cruisers getting caught in the crossfire of a petty corporate turf war.) Iridium’s pricing and plans have, from what I’ve seen, tended to be somewhat more predictable. But you are still relying on a company that can unilaterally change its rules, prices and conditions at any time.

      SSB, I agree, is becoming a niche product but I doubt it’ll disappear completely anytime soon. When it does fade away, I suspect (hope?) it will be in favour of long range mesh networks, probably IPv6 based. Those are already being developed and are insanely successful where they’ve been tried, but so far they’re restricted to the unlicensed, low power, short range 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Just imagine what the Freifunk guys could do with a little chunk of over-the-horizon spectrum….

      (I’m posting this over a Ka-band link through a high gain dish pointed at ViaSat-1…. it’s not a true ‘broadband’ connection by any stretch of the imagination, but at 5Mbps RX / 0.5Mbps TX it’s passable once you figure out how to deal with the 650 ms ping times.)

      • Matt Jul 5, 2014, 7:28 pm

        All that said, I agree with John’s conclusion for now and probably for the next few years. If you’re going to be out of cellphone range for extended periods, a satcom unit (Iridium, Inmarsat or whatever else suits your budget and usage scenario) is the way to go. The second device, if you’re buying one, should be a different network’s satcom.

        (Up near shore, of course, use local prepaid SIM cards on the cell network, and have a *good* Wi-Fi repeater and antenna handy in case you can find a usable signal.)

  • ChrisW Jul 5, 2014, 2:45 pm

    John,
    When equipping for this phase of our life, we came to the same conclusions. One step we added to our assessment was looking at cruising bulletin board/forum monologues-dialogues on SSB/HAM comms.

    What we inferred from what we read was:
    a.) there is an HF sub-culture in cruising dedicated to keeping HF viable no matter what
    b.) postings about installation and performance problems with HF out-number benefits postings to a substantial degree and most of the benefits were the party-line telephony, not safety of operations.

    We opted for satphone and have not been unhappy.

    However, I would suggest if one is going to have two satphones, consider two different satphones for two reasons. First it is possible to have constellation wide/regional difficulties especially in upper latitudes when solar flare activity is strong. The three different orbital altitudes used by the major providers can respond differently to these environmental challenges. Second, for data transfer, some phone systems offer very much less expensive rates.

    Incidentally, the near to market WiFi hubs that will enable smartphone terminals can take advantage of quite a few digital WX products that have been compressed for smartphone apps. For instance, the Boston Surface Analysis Chart 40W-95W is only 98kb — a second or less of transmission time. One could bundle quite a bit and stay withing the minimum 1 minute charge.

    • Ben Jul 5, 2014, 10:14 pm

      Hi Chris, Interesting debate on if to go two satphones of different types, or get both the same. Getting two the same simplifies everything and gives redundancy of parts to hopefully keep one alive no matter what.

      Another benefit is that calls between them are often much cheaper. useful if you have shore parties that will be out of line of site. Guess it depends on your situation.

      The technology is changing so quickly who knows what coming up next, to be honest I am not really up with the latest. At the moment, these new Yellowbrick and Inreach systems look perfect. I suppose the ultimate for expedition yachts is two identical primary systems with voice. And a cheaper text only backup on another independent system…

      • Ben Jul 5, 2014, 10:26 pm

        Guess we need to get our terminology clear, maybe SatPhone for voice+data etc, and Satcom or Sattext? For just text options.

        Is the phone and data even needed? to be a devils advocate, for much less money 2 yellowbricks would provide redundancy, and if a third party could be found to compile and shorten gribs into a usable form using less than 1000 char you could still get your weather info.

        • ChrisW Jul 6, 2014, 11:11 am

          We use the sat phone for communicating with weather/oceanographic professionals, medical consultant/concierge services, law enforcement, family, etc. We pick up the phone and call them subject to operating hours — most of which are 24/7/365. We find that data comes into play only as back up or to provide a visual layer to the communications.

          Extra ground segment hardware is great for backing up the ground segment. When the total system’s overall availability and QOS is environmentally diminished*, extra ground segment hardware is just ballast.

          Each of the major providers is aperiodically environmentally diminished in different ways because of variably informed design choices made decades ago. Some of those design choices were driven by science and engineering data, some by anchor tenants, and some by constellation capitalization realities. [and some were flat out wrong] Each offers a different path for communications which is a higher level of redundancy than extra ground segment equipment.

          Admittedly the various boxes out there providing SMS comms are attractive because low rate data transmission is inherently more robust than even 2.4 voice, and they are relatively cheap. However, they approach dangerously useless if trying to actively manage an emergency rather than simply report status.

          *Solar activity is at its lowest in the last 100 years. We are at solar max right now, and it is lower than most solar mins since 1900. Actually no one alive (that we know of) has seen a solar cycle this weak. On the other hand… The Carrington (Solar) Event of 1859 actually delivered shocks to telegraphers from the massive amounts power absorbed by telegraph lines acting as antennas. The Aurora Borealis was observed in the Caribbean. A similar event occurred in 1921. Such an event today could render sat comm and HF discussion moot as it could destroy/seriously degrade about 90% of satellite functionality currently on orbit. The space hardware price tag alone could be $30-$70 billion. The societal cost to unprepared countries dependent on electronic technologies and an electric power grid is beyond estimating. Today events such as this can be culture destroyers. While HF radio might work for comms within 0 to 10 days (regionally dependent), the use of non-EMP hardened components in modern radios (and just about everything else) might well render the whole conversation moot.

  • Bob T Jul 5, 2014, 3:24 pm

    Good advice John just wanting to emphasize a couple of points you mention. I started years ago with Weatherfax and voice over SSB, which is easy on a metal boat but another thing altogether on a fibreglass vessel. Yes, I understand they have antennas today that will tune adequately no matter what the counterpoise be. Those antennas however need to be attached, dry, and not far from vertical to function properly. Even modern DSC equipped radios easily suffer from RF interference. My new DSC equipped SSB had to be disconnected from the data source (satellite compass) because the shielded cable was feeding RF to the radio receiver rendering it useless. It works fine now that the position data cable has been removed, not DSC capable however. Transmitting on the SSB still sends tank gauges , voltmeters and other sensitive devices into a tail spin. Having a SSB on board as a backup still makes sense to me but I wouldn’t advise anyone that hasn’t grown up with one to get involved now, life is too short. The other point to mention is the service and utility by the folks at UUPLUS. Those two guys have set up all my sat phones to date, without a single complaint or hesitation and I’m not the techie you are. The last setup was my Skipper 150 using Inmarsat. Jeremy set up my laptop remotely over a wifi connection while I sat and watched from the pilothouse chair. He installed compression software and files to manage unwanted incoming calls etc. all in an effort to keep the data bills under control. We haven’t had the time to analyze the bills for the heavy use months but my expenditures seem to be as predicted, higher than under the loyalty plan with GlobalStar but much less than advertised. They also have the hot key weather links programmed into their software along with a user friendly GRIB reader. No matter what the sat phone equipment I highly recommend using their service.

  • John Jul 5, 2014, 5:30 pm

    Hi All,

    As usual, great wisdom from the AAC brain trust that adds immensely to my post. All good points and not a thing I would disagree with.

    Thank you all very much.

  • Dick Stevenson Jul 6, 2014, 4:21 am

    Dear John and everyone,
    As I read the comments about SSB vs Sat something or other I feel a bit sad and wonder how much of a dinosaur I really am.
    Yes, there is a learning curve associated with the installation and use of SSB, marine or ham, and likely a few gremlins to chase down in the first year or two. After that, most have mastered the elements. To accomplish this thousands upon thousands have done it and I suspect most have felt the work worthwhile. Please consider that many/most of the comments said about SSB have been said by power boaters with regards to sailing: life’s too short, too much work, too complicated and esoteric etc.
    Those who are “expedition” cruising, will likely only opt for the sat phone/data. I would urge those who are living aboard full time cruising (or moving in that direction) to consider that, in many parts of the world, their lives will be much richer with SSB.
    Two examples come to mind. Before every long passage, one waits for a weather window in a place that others are likely to congregate and will leave on the same window. And every time we have set up an informal schedule to make contact on SSB underway. Bermuda, St. George, is one such place and 4 of us left for the Azores together. We established a schedule to talk once a day that was most enjoyable. We chatted about weather of course, also fish caught, problems encountered, astronomical events upcoming (partial eclipse that one person knew was upcoming), etc. Sometimes the talk was “practical”, most times it was just sharing and fun. We also “picked up” a couple of other boats who were benefiting from Herb and heading the same direction. Sat phones would be very different.
    On a more practical basis, some of the best weather supports in the world are marine and ham SSB. Very challenging areas such as getting around South Africa and managing the last thousand miles before New Zealand and Australia, many/most have benefitted from the shore side expertise distributed by SSB. Closer to home is Chris Parker in the Carib/Bahamas and, the now quiet, Southbound II.
    When we left in 2002, we anticipated many of the pleasures that full time live aboard cruising would bring to our lives, but did not know how important the cruising community would become, nor how many lasting friendships we would be lucky enough to develop. SSB was instrumental in some, facilitative in some others, while overall generating a feeling of community which we find quite special (and maybe a bit unique).
    My best to all, Dick (KC2HKW) Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • Marc Dacey Jul 20, 2014, 3:48 pm

      I concur strongly with Dick here on the remaining “value proposition” of SSB in practical terms such as weatherfax and routing or passagemaking contacts, etc., but also in the less measurable value of cruiser community via cruising nets and so on. Such nets, where better developed as is the case in the Caribbean, can get out information wildly and effectively about items of cruiser interest (sales, arrivals, crime reports). We are installing an ICOM SSB and modem because we are going to be educating our son aboard for several years (basically, his high school will be “at sea”) and SailMail is a reasonable method of handling the to- and fro of school assignments and reports “at a distance” via SSB. In addition, I can foresee continuing to write for at least part of a living, and text-only files are relatively simple to transmit and receive, particularly as we are approaching years of better propagation.

      I also have a steel boat with extra masttop sheaves to hoist aloft a nice antenna. Amateur radio friends have assured me I stand a better shot than most at getting decent performance from my rig.

      That said, I would consider an Iridium phone for the ditch bag or point-to-point calls otherwise impossible to do, like getting medical information 1000 NM out. But as others have said, I would tend to leave it off. There’s a real abhorence in me to being “too contactable”: getting away from the shore and its issues is part of the point of cruising for us in the first place. So here’s to “both”: each method has, for us, its place. I can let you know in five years if we were misguided.

  • David Nutt Jul 6, 2014, 8:21 am

    Great article and follow up discussion. We used ssb on our circumnavigation on Danza and found it incredibly valuable. The nets were there for the taking from and contributing to. my wife Judy, a physician, was often sought after for medical advice following that call for ‘medical emergencies’. We connected with boats with whom we had lost contact and met boats with kids. And there were days and longer we simply were off the air. Our choice. Today as we get ready for another arctic trip I will tune up the ssb but I will undoubtedly go to the sat phone as our primary source for weather info and communication. Technology marches on. In response to an old fellow growling about how no one knows how to navigate with a sextant and cannot plot a dr claiming that it is not like the good old days my 12 year old son turned to me and said ‘but dad, for me these are the good old days’.

  • Hoftman Jul 6, 2014, 10:04 am

    Ok! For community-related reasons, I now know I “want” SSB. For safety-related reasons, I know I “need” Sat. Perfect!

    Can I bother you guys? Thanks to what finances my dreams, I still have to be available 24/7 if I’m thinking of sailing 300 miles away from Bay Area Houston. An Iridium, and its backup, gets me to talk to someone. Awesome! But if I have to download 1GB of data for analysis, am I uncommunicated? (Let’s say the office crunches it to 125 MB?)

    Thanks for helping me to understand!

    • Hoftman Jul 6, 2014, 10:58 am

      Just got my answer here:

      http://www.mailasail.com/Support/Iridium-Bandwidth

      Definitively incommunicated 😀 The guy at the other side of the line must be really good!!!

      • Douglas Pohl Jul 6, 2014, 12:37 pm

        125MB of data over satellite…. lol After starting and stopping many times you can get it downloaded… but for a price… which will break the bank! Better to move the boat closer to shore and use cellular else even closer to shore and locate an open WiFi Internet connection.
        Boating is for relaxing… not reviewing client x-rays files sent to you over satellite…. lol Today, people cannot even leave on a short vacation without a wireless tether to work… sure glad I’m retired and have left that mentality behind with a course clearly set which only requires a $300 Delorme InReach SE and $49/month unlimited e-mail messaging. IF MANUFACTURERS WANT TO KEEP SSB/HF ALIVE THEY WOULD BE OFFERING LOW COST “ALE” ALSO CALLED “HFLINK” TO MAKE CONNECTING AND TRAFFIC MOVEMENT NEAR AUTOMATIC.

        Thanks for listening.

        • John Jul 6, 2014, 6:57 pm

          Hi Douglas,

          Hoftman asked a useful question that many people who are not familiar with the technology might be interested in. You are of course right in your answer, but I would ask you to read our comment guidelines and couch your comments in a little gentler way in the future.

      • Douglas Pohl Jul 6, 2014, 12:39 pm

        125MB of data over satellite…. lol After starting and stopping many times you can get it downloaded… but for a dear price… which will break the bank! Better to move the boat closer to shore and use cellular else even closer to shore and locate an open WiFi Internet connection.
        Boating is for relaxing… not reviewing client x-rays files sent to you over satellite…. lol Today, people cannot even leave on a short vacation without a wireless tether to work… sure glad I’m retired and have left that mentality behind with a course clearly set which only requires a $300 Delorme InReach SE and $49/month for unlimited e-mail messaging. IF MANUFACTURERS WANT TO KEEP SSB/HF ALIVE THEY WOULD BE OFFERING LOW COST “ALE” ALSO CALLED “HFLINK” TO MAKE CONNECTING AND TRAFFIC MOVEMENT NEAR AUTOMATIC.

        Thanks for listening.

      • John Jul 6, 2014, 6:58 pm

        Hi Hoftman,

        That is indeed a very good resource and I can confirm that his numbers are about what we have seen in real world Iridium use over the last 12 years.

        • Hoftman Jul 6, 2014, 11:06 pm

          This was something I had never thought about, and after posting the answer to my own question: I though that was the end of the “broadband” discussion.

          I didn’t mean no disrespect to the forum. Very sorry about that.

          • John Jul 7, 2014, 8:29 am

            Hi Hoftman,

            Nothing for you to apologize for. My concern was the harsh tone of one of the answers to your original comment, not your comment itself.

  • Keith Jones Jul 6, 2014, 8:48 pm

    Hi John,

    I think my friend Dick has hit the nail on the head – HF Radio – Marine SSB and Ham foster the cruising community whereas sat phones are individual devices.

    It is fair to mention that Ham/Marine SSB gear of good quality holds its value – I just sold a bunch of gear with an average age of 10 years for 60% after fees, something that could be figured into the economic analysis.

    The ham community is very helpful and instructional – my experience has made me far more confident working on electronics in general, not just radio.

    As a last point, you may be right about “dial a freighter” here in the North Atlantic, but I’ve heard that in some places without an organized emergency response infrastructure the ability to broadcast a DSC distress signal to all commercial ship traffic is far preferable to even an epirb.

    Cheers,

    Keith Jones, N4KDJ

  • Bill Attwood Jul 7, 2014, 3:29 am

    Hi John.
    An excellent post, although I believe it tends to undervalue SSB. I am also probably also like Dick S. a throwback to the age of the giant lizards.
    I recall your advice on installing equipment/technology on offshore boat; a 20 year period from introduction so that all bugs can be worked out; go for at least one size larger than manufacturers recommend. Not sure that satellite comms meet either of these criteria. I know that sat phones have been around for about 20 years, but the rapid changes in technology mean that they are continually new. The investment required for the Inmarsat big ship systems means that the technology is relatively mature and is unlikely to chnage so quickly.
    I have also searched the internet diligently for some official indication of the future of MF/HF radio comms- so far without success. One can see this as positive, as I have also found no indication that the IMO is considering removing the requirement. One of the ground principles of Solas is that there must be at least two separate and different systems for distres and safety communications – this would seem to indicate that MF/HF will be retained. However, there is concern at the very high level of DSC false alerts over SSB, which needs to be addressed.
    I feel that your post does a good job of setting out the pros and cons for people who are considering the investment, but probably won´t influence the opinions of those who have already made it.
    The tone of the debate on AAC continues to amaze me, thanks to your policing of comments. It´s clear how much time you and Phyllis invest in the website.
    Yours aye,
    Bill

  • Petter ;-) Jul 7, 2014, 12:06 pm

    Firstly, yesterday I had the fortunate opportunity to meet two long term – and distance cruiser for a pleasant lunch. One has been out about on a seasonal basis since 1992 and another one of the had 10+ Atlantic crossings under his keel. I questioned them on the merits of SSB vs. sat.phone, and they both agreed with your writing here John – if starting from scratch – go with the sat. phone for all the reasons you argued. So in full support of this post – for what it is worth.

    Secondly, I am still considering an SSB, but lack installation knowledge. Have posted an invitation to share knowledge here https://www.morganscloud.com/2005/01/01/hf-radio-installation/comment-page-1/#comment-236898 for those that would like to share.

  • Dick Stevenson Jul 8, 2014, 4:06 am

    Petter,
    Installing SSB is not difficult. Where are you doing the work? ICOM instructions for installation are not bad, but their usage instructions were (and maybe are) terrible. For usage find someone who has a few years under their belt and works Sailmail or Winlink and have them go over the basics. It has been a while, but Gordon West used to give good solid advice (installation and usage) and had a web page, I believe. Please note that the people you talked with are (from brief description) more part timers or expedition cruisers (10 Atlantic crossings) who would be more interested in the practical aspects of communication. Those who intend full time live aboard life, I believe, will find their efforts rewarded if they go to the effort of getting SSB going, especially if they get their ham ticket.
    I neglected to mention, another joy (for us) is to cosy into a nice secluded anchorage and, after a few days, realize how out of touch we were and tune into the BBC or American Armed Forces Radio or others and catch up. This was more common in Central America, than our present cruising grounds where cell phone/internet is so good. But we won’t be here forever…
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • John Jul 8, 2014, 9:04 am

      Hi Dick,

      I guess we will have to agree to disagree on “Installing SSB is not difficult”. I’m an electronics technician by trade and I had a terrible time with installing a new SSB some years ago, even though I was just replacing an old one. I got it working well in the end, but only with the help of one of the most knowledgeable people in the business.

      In my opinion, installing an SSB so it works really well is a very challenging project fraught with opportunities for frustration, particularly for the non-technical. It is also important to note that the is danger involved too. I have never had an RF burn, but I gather from those that have that it’s pretty nasty.

  • Dick Stevenson Jul 9, 2014, 4:03 pm

    John,
    I am sorry you had so much trouble installing your SSB. I have installed SSB on 2 of my boats over the years and I am far from any engineer of any sort. And I have looked over the shoulder of a couple of others. From my experience and observation, the installation is fairly straightforward and then one usually has a couple of trouble shooting challenges that relate to the particular boat (metal for ex.) or to the other gear on the boat (SSB work in 4 megs turns on the inverter for ex.). And maybe a gremlin of some kind to sort out. These are usually the teething pains over the first couple years of operation and after that things usually go smoothly. Please do not get me wrong, there is work and attention to details, but it is neither rocket science nor a black art.
    RF burn can be serious, but I personally can think of no-one who has suffered in this way, tho I am sure they are out there as many do not pay attention to instructions.
    Assuredly plugging in a sat-phone is much easier in installation and operation.
    I am curious what in your installation caused such difficulties.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Petter ;-) Sep 11, 2014, 1:44 pm

    Just got myself an Iridium satphone, so I guess I woted with my feet. But then again, during an overhaul of the standing rigging, the aft stay was isolated, just to keep options open. So to say that the feet are completely certain would be a gross exageration.
    Anyway here is something that is nice take on the SSB vs SatPhone dilemma
    http://web.globalmarinenet.com/blog/bid/316264/HF-Radio-vs-Satellite-Phones-What-is-Really-Free

    Enjoy!

    • John Sep 11, 2014, 5:23 pm

      Hi Petter,

      Thanks for the link. Nice to see that the writer came to almost exactly the same conclusion we did.

      • Enno Nov 24, 2014, 10:57 am

        Don’t forget that the writer’s business is selling satellite phones and airtime.

        • Marc Dacey Nov 25, 2014, 1:47 pm

          I find the debate between SSB and satphone no “dilemma” at all, as they are complementary technologies in my view, much as AIS is complementary to RADAR. But as I stated elsewhere, I am likely going to be using my SSB more than most, and my satphone less. There’s a certain virtue in being only moderately easy to contact.

  • Douglas Pohl Sep 11, 2014, 2:59 pm

    21 yachts started a 2014 Northwest Passage but only six appear to be near finishing… of those six five have SSB/pactor but only two remain operating and exchanging traffic while all six have some form of satcom… three of the six are using Delorme InReach/Explorer and the other two Iridium Pilot. I recommend two comms systems on such an isolated voyage where messaging can mean the difference between success or failure because of missing an ice opening route. Today – I’d never leave home with my Delorme InReach – great economy and rock solid after three years of “at sea” use. SSB/Pactor? Hard to recommend because of expensive price, unreliable propagation and ineffective to exchange messages with buddy safety boat. Run a fault-tree analysis and satcom wins.

    • John Sep 11, 2014, 5:22 pm

      Hi Douglas,

      Thanks for the stats, very useful, and I agree with your conclusion.

  • Petter ;-) Dec 3, 2014, 4:04 pm

    On the issues of SSB installation and use, the fellows over at practical sailor magazine are running a series of interesting articles.
    If you paste this search string in your browser, many of them will surface:
    http://www.practical-sailor.com/search/index.html?zkDo=search&sort_field=story_date&all_words=ssb&x=5&y=5

    Enjoy the day!

  • Bob Jan 28, 2015, 12:11 pm

    Is it me or is part of the high cost of SSB and PACTOR installations related to the ridiculous “monopoly” pricing from the German company SCS which owns the patents for PACTOR II, III, and IV. They seem to control the way the things are distributed and available in the market and therefore the cost is stupid for this technology. I believe that if the PACTOR technology was available in the free market we would see better devices for cheaper. As well the technology would likely advance in leaps and bounds. So, I totally support your article on the use of sat phone technology and maybe if their PACTOR devices get increasingly ignored, something will change.

    Bob Webb
    S/V Goose

    • John Jan 28, 2015, 12:17 pm

      Hi Bob,

      That’s interesting. I did not know about the monopoly, although I do wonder if the high cost of PACTOR modems is not also a lot because of the very low sales volume.

    • Jim Kevern Aug 2, 2015, 2:24 pm

      Calling Pactor a “monopoly” with all the negative connotations is, to me, unfair. As can be seen from Pactor 2, 3, 4 with ever increasing bandwidth they continue to come up with better and better ways of communicating over a channel that’s often weak, noisy and very difficult. And they have opened their older technology, so if you don’t want the latest and greatest and would rather have it free you can. (full disclosure, I have no interest in Pactor and don’t own one, the reasons for which will be made apparent below.)

      As it turns out, textbook digital modulation techniques have been around for a long time and are used in a wide variety of communication applications (think Gigabit Ethernet, bluetooth, cell phones, etc.). The Winlink folks John mentioned created Winmor, a way of modulating SSB that is done in software on the PC rather than a DSP chip like Pactor uses. Speeds are probably somewhat less than Pactor 3, but if you have a ham license and SSB the added cost is minimal. The suggest $35 contribution which to me is well worth it.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winmor

      Generally it is recommended to add a second sound card of which Tiger’s SignalLink is the best known – goes for around $130 now I think, much less than a Pactor modem. On my last boat I installed a used ham SSB rig, hoisted a piece of wire taped to messenger line for an antenna, and installed a KISS counterpoise. Worked well to get GRIB files via Winmor as well as weatherfax.

      The next boat has copper screen glassed into the hull, and will have the Icom 802 (ham rigs don’t have DSC) but I will again use Winmor. The software that implements Winmor (RMS Express) is about as easy to use as Sailmail, but there is a bit of setup of the sound card involved, particularly getting modulation levels right. But then I tend towards the geeky end of the spectrum. And also modulation needs to be set right on Pactor’s too.

      A final note about HF DSC, the Icom 802 that most folks use has TWO antenna connectors on the back. I learned recently the second one is for a second HF receive antenna but I’ve never met anyone who actually uses it. This is dedicated to receiving DSC emergency signals, and apparently works independently, sort of in the background. So if you have an Icom 802 but don’t have an antenna connected, you are not monitoring DSC emergency channels unless you have actively tuned one in.

      http://www.ssca.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=17183&p=81212&hilit=HF+dsc+antenna#p81211

      Of course, now that I know about it, I still haven’t figured out exactly how/where I’l put yet another antenna & coax cable. Boating is full of dilemmas.
      Jim
      All that said, for long passages I rent a satphone as the time overhead finding open SSB stations makes it less desirable when my off watch time is better spent sleeping. Plus we carry both a Spot to let family and friends know where we are, and an EPIRB just in case.

      • John Aug 3, 2015, 8:38 am

        Hi Jim,

        I agree with Dick, great information from someone who clearly knows of what he speaks, thanks so much for taking the time to share your knowledge.

      • Marc Dacey Aug 4, 2015, 4:06 pm

        Great comments and some insider ken as well. Thank you.

  • Terry Mason Feb 18, 2015, 8:56 pm

    I’m going the way of SSB, mainly because I already have a Icom M802, and I find the hole thing fascinating (still working on getting my ham license). As Bob says, it’s the Pactor modem that is way overpriced to my way of thinking. So after doing some research, I found that, as John had already stated in the weather postings, the Weatherfax 2000 has a USB sound card device that apparently avoids the need for the Pactor. Winlink 2000 USB (fairly new, I think), has a similar device. Has anyone had experience with these devices, and are they the same or do I need the specific one for each application?

    Thanks, John for the weather series, it was a real education for me as regards forecasting at sea. I have Chesneau & Chin’s book, I’ll get into it more seriously now.

    • John Feb 19, 2015, 12:57 pm

      Hi Terry,

      Glad the weather series helped.

      On the Weatherfax 2000, sadly, I’m near-certain that their demodulator will not work in place of a Pactor modem, although it would be way cool if I’m wrong about that. Any of you SSB experts have any insights on that?

  • David e Bell Mar 14, 2015, 12:26 pm

    When I am not sailing (in this case writing a book) I do shore support for my sister and her husband (currently off the west coast of Africa).

    One of the things I do is track their position via texts from their iridium phone. We ran into a problem the last couple of days where the phone was sending texts but I wasn’t able to receive them. They were unaware of this until I contacted them to check. Not a big deal, but it did expose an open loop in our system.

    My solution was to program my email system to echo back their texts so they get a confirmation of receipt and we can deal with the problem before it becomes an issue. It took ten minutes … once I thought of it, and I have been doing shore support for them for years.

    Hope this is helpful..

    • John Mar 15, 2015, 8:21 am

      HI David,

      That’s a good tip. What were the mechanics of making it work?

      • David e Bell Mar 15, 2015, 8:52 am

        I run OS X and use Apple’s mail client. Using the mail client it was very easy to write a rule that recognized incoming messages from that particular iridium phone, to generate a local notification, and to generate the the reply. Generating rules with Apple Mail is very easy, several selections from drop down menus and away your go.

        Though I do recommend that you do this before you set out, then it is easier to test. My biggest challenge was to test the rule without drowning my sisters phone in texts. I ended up using my own phone, then changing the address.

        Another way to do this would be to set up a Google Mail account specifically for this purpose and use the “out of the office” auto-responder to generate the echo message.

        I hope this helps.
        D

      • David e Bell Mar 24, 2015, 8:25 pm

        An Addendum – one of the iridium phones on the Mabel Rose is starting to go flakey (again). It was detected early (by an alert crew not my fancy software script), they verified the operation of the backup phone and then called on the primary phone to acknowledge the problem (and test the extent of the problem). Also, they have the SSB to fall back on.

  • Dick Stevenson Aug 3, 2015, 2:07 am

    Hi Jim,
    That was a nice piece of writing and information. Thanks.
    I have been cruising areas where SSB and ham are a rare sight and, being one who learns stuff often by word of mouth, I had heard about some of these new ways of communicating, but not in any detail and clarity.
    Dick Stevenson, KC2HKW, s/v Alchemy, Kungso, Sweden

  • Neil McCubbin Sep 19, 2015, 11:04 am

    We are long term HAMs (on boat only) and are considering a satphone/data modem. A few hours of high pressure pushing by Iridium pushers at the Southhampton boatshow yesterday was a turn-off, but ignoring the BS, I learned a lot.
    Our rented satphone gave us reliable Email last year on a voyage to Spitsbergen, but we never really used it because the HAM rig worked fine, every day, and is more convenient for us.
    I agree 1000% with Dick Stevenson and Mark D’s comments. For long term cruising away from Europe, SSB (best a HAM modified for marine bands ) is great to have, but requires time and effort to learn. If our HAM rig (a low-end ICOM and old Pactor) quits, I will replace it.

    • RobertB Sep 19, 2015, 4:22 pm

      There is a caveat to the above….there is a difference between modifying a HAM rig for Marine SSB transmissions and opening the HAM frequencies on a type rated Marine SSB. Transmitting on Marine bands with the former is illegal, with the exception of being in a true emergency. Also, you still need to have the right licenses for both HAM and Marine SSB.

      Robert

  • Neil McCubbin Sep 19, 2015, 6:08 pm

    Robert, you are absolutely correct.

  • Larry Caillouet Jan 10, 2016, 6:42 am

    Great article, John. It succinctly addresses the questions I’ve had regarding comparing sat phone vs. SSB. Unfortunately for me, the World ARC requires that all boats participating in it have SSB, so the decision is out of my hands. I will have both (“cha-ching”). From what I’ve read, the ICOM IC-M802 is the state-of-the-art unit on the market today. It may resolve or improve some of the issues that have plagued SSB in the past. Do you know if that is true? Do you have any advice for someone who has to purchase an SSB?

    • John Jan 10, 2016, 9:17 am

      Hi Larry,

      I don’t have specific experience with the M802, but we do have the predecessor model and it has always worked well for me, although these days we hardly use it. Like all SSB, the secret to good performance is good installation. Also I have been using Icom gear for close to 40 years and have never had a failure.

  • Jim Kevern Feb 22, 2017, 3:58 pm

    Another observation a friend’s recent experience reinforced, though maybe it’s so obvious it goes without saying. He was dis-masted a couple hundred miles SW of Bermuda. Obviously no rig, no SSB, so the sat phone was invaluable.

    • John Feb 23, 2017, 9:03 am

      Hi Jim,

      That’s another good point. Back in the day we used to carry a spare long wire antenna, the idea being we would string it to the a set-up spinnaker pole, not sure how well it would have worked though. Just another reason to like sat phones.

  • Bill Attwood Feb 23, 2017, 3:45 pm

    Hi Jim,
    I have installed the DSC antenna for our M802 on the pushpit. The M802 can also have a GPS antenna connected – also mounted on the pushpit! I wonder why we are trimmed down by the stern?
    😉
    John´s idea for an emergency antenna in case of mast loss could be “elevated” by using a dipole. Basically a long wire, but with the feed in the middle, and the antenna forming an inverted V.

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