Iridium Update 2017

Spurred by a question from member Natalie, about whether there were any significant changes or updates to Iridium satellite phones and data devices since last year when I wrote extensively about how to buy and use them, I took quick a look at the latest news.

Don’t Hold Your Breath

After sifting through the corporate marketing BS (a process I’m pretty good at after some 40 years around the high tech business) and interrogating my favourite industry insider, my best guess is that there will be no significant upgrades to Iridium services available to us yachties until 2018 at the very earliest.

(Iridium only just lofted the first 10 satellites last month and need six more successful launches to have Iridium Next fully operational.)

And even then, it may be later as Iridium will focus on big revenue opportunities for these new satellites first, not nickels and dimes from us yachties.

Bottomline, as you decide how to spend your money on communications technology, focus on what can be delivered now and don’t get influenced by vague promises about the future. Not for nothing that we techies call promises about future technology “vapourware”.

Present Equipment Compatibility

For example, if you read the press releases on Iridium Next with care and a sceptical eye, it becomes clear that Iridium are not promising that existing hardware (particularly GO!) will be able to take full advantage of the new speed of Next; rather, all they are talking of is compatibility, a horse of a very different colour.

And I will bet dollars to doughnuts that when the new speeds are available (with our current hardware or not) there will be a hefty increase in charges for using them.

Cost Base

Or, to put it another way, it’s a mistake to assume that because terrestrial mobile communications get cheaper and faster every year, that satellite based ones will too.

Iridium has no real competition (at least for the next few years) and, on top of that, this new constellation of satellites is costing billions that Iridium is paying for directly…and us users indirectly. This is a very different situation than the old Iridium satellite constellation, which was acquired by the present Iridium company at something like five cents on the dollar (or maybe less) from the old bankrupt one.

Rocket Science

By the way, I’m not mad at, or disappointed in, Iridium for any of this or the recurring delays with Next. Rather I think we have to be really careful not to assume that because say Apple can refresh and improve a product like the iPhone each year, and produce really cool easy to use apps, that Iridium should be able to do the same, and then get disappointed when they don’t.

The point being that what Iridium, and their launch partner SpaceX, does for a living is exponentially technically harder to do than what Apple does. Just putting a satellite in orbit on the end of a rocket without anything blowing up is really hard, never mind getting the whole constellation working—it really is rocket science. Never forget that rockets are simply slow-exploding bombs…and sometimes they forget the slow part.

And Iridium doesn’t have Apple’s volume either.

Real World Updates

While on the subject, member Neil left a detailed update in the comments on using Iridium GO! that confirmed my thinking that nothing has changed since I wrote our in-depth guide to using GO!. He also agreed that the Iridium phone apps are primitive and hard to use, although he did say they were getting a bit better with each update—big thanks to Neil.

We also got an update from member David with more useful stuff—big thanks to David too.

Ouch!

Neil also points out a nasty gotcha. Apparently, many phone companies are charging the recipient of any voice call you make from your GO! a fee that can run around US$10.00. This despite the fact that you paid for the call, or at least it was included in your unlimited package. (Neil did get one cell phone company to reverse the charge, but he had a couple of birthdays while on hold before getting it done.)

This brings up a really nasty thought: How is a company that you might call for support on a vital piece of gear, or a government agency say Customs, going to react to these charges? What if they start blocking calls from GO!? Not a nice thought.

On the other hand, I have never heard of this issue with calls from an Iridium handset, which makes sense because we are paying big time per-minute charges, rather than bundled minutes as is the case with GO!.

Don’t Confuse Sizzle for Sausage

Just another reason (I have a bunch more in the articles linked to below) not to just assume that GO! is better than an Iridium handset.

Good News

Talking of which, while I was bugging John, one of the brothers that run UUPlus (our preferred satellite phone software provider and industry insiders), he told me they have their software working great with GO!.

And Not So Good News

But he also shared that GO! is way slower than an Iridium handset for data use, particularly initial connection—about 11 seconds for a handset set against 45 or more for GO!. Worth knowing as this will really sting if you are making a bunch of short data calls to check on email etc. (Note that, as far as I know, the fast connect time for the handset is only applicable with UUPlus software.)

Recommendations

Given all that, I stick with my previous recommendations that:

  • It’s better to use GO! with a computer, either with Sailmail, or better still UUPlus, for serious stuff (email and weather), and save the phone apps for the fun stuff like posting grinning selfies to Facebook.
  • A handset is a lot better solution when the chips are down than GO!.
  • Due to the connect time and data speed issue, GO! only makes sense if we are going to contract for Iridium’s unlimited data service. (See the links below for how to do this without having to take a year’s contract.)

All going well, we will be using Iridium (GO! and handset) quite a bit next summer and will provide another update, if warranted, after that.

Further Reading

We have lots of in-depth how-to information on buying and using communications equipment for email and weather reception while offshore:

 

Like what you just read? Get lots more:


Meet the Author

John Harries

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.

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