The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Iridium NEXT Update 2019

There has been a lot of excitement in the offshore cruising world about Iridium Next, the long promised and now completed new constellation of satellites for the system that has, for the last 20 years, been the only viable worldwide satellite communication system for yachts owned by anyone other than the super-rich.

Let’s take a look and see if this Next thing is useful for us yachties with limited budgets.

Two-and-a-half years ago I predicted that Iridium Next would not change anything for us, and particularly not increase the data speed of existing equipment or reduce the price of data appreciably. It looks like I was right.

Only With New Gear

As I guessed, Iridium have rolled out a whole new system to take advantage of the Next satellites called Certus, but those considering it better have deep pockets!

Hardware is in the US$7000 range.

Not Cost Practical For Web Surfing

And if that makes your eyes water, wait until we look at airtime. A gigabyte a month is $1129.

Let’s put that in perspective. Phyllis and I, when out cruising, use about 6 GB over cell phone a month to run this site and use the internet pretty much whenever we want. But, to keep it down to that, we must be very careful not to view any video and make sure automatic updating of software is disabled.

Let’s say we could fit our needs into the Certus 5 GB/month plan. We would be spending…US$2105 a month or $25,000 a year. Holy bankruptcy, Batman.

What About Weather and Email?

That said, the smaller airtime packages do, at first glance, look attractive for say email and weather downloads, assuming we can swallow the capital cost for the equipment. For example, we can get 30 megabytes for $110/month, which would cover off our strategic weather analysis system (see Further Reading) and some email.

But wait, scary stuff lingers in the wings. If we inadvertently go over our limit, the rate is $4.75/MB. Connect a computer and have it do a couple of software upgrades by accident, say a GB, and we get a bill for $4750!

Hopefully Certus has some sort of firewall to prevent that from happening, like GO!, but if it is so equipped, that means the dream of just using our devices as we do on land goes away. Rather, there will be clunky purpose-built apps like those for GO!.

Not That Fast

So, while I’m pissing all over our dreams, how fast is Certus anyway? Answer: 704 kilobytes/second (Kbps). How fast is that? Bloody slow when we compare it to the 4G cell phone data we are used to. For example, that’s about as fast as the old 3G that we have all come to hate because it’s so sluggish. But wait, it gets worse. Certus is maxed out at 704 Kbps; the services actually available are way slower than that.

GO! Still The Winner

So, given all that, Iridium GO! is still by far the best deal—yes, better than SSB (see Further Reading)—at least for those of us who are not seriously wealthy. There’s a lot to like, and much to hate, about GO!, but the deal-closer is unlimited data—no worries about bankrupting screwups.

And for those who need less data, an Iridium handset is still a great option. (See Further Reading for how to choose.)

What about the benefit that stuff will download faster with Certus gear? True, but given that those of us without big-time wealth will still only be using it for downloading GRIBs and emails, not web surfing, who cares if GO! takes an hour to do what Certus can do in a minute? After all, we don’t have to stand around and watch the GO! do its thing, and reconnects are dead reliable as long as we use good software.

See Further Reading for how to use GO! efficiently, and how to get the best out of the other hardware and software you select.

Is It Ever Gonna Happen?

So what about the dream of worldwide cheap and fast data that has been just around the corner since way back in 1994, when Craig McCaw and Bill Gates promised it would happen in five years?

Ain’t going to happen any time soon. In fact, I will stick my neck out—I’m on a forecasting roll here—and say 10 years at least. Maybe never.

Why? Because this is seriously hard and expensive shit to do. It really is rocket science. And given the build-out of ever-faster terrestrial-based cell phone networks, the market for data outside cell networks will always be too small to support doing it inexpensively. In fact, it’s just that market fundamental that bankrupted the original Iridium Company, and nothing has changed in the intervening 20 years.

A Different View

Could I be wrong…me…are you kidding? Of course I could. So, for another view, we have an article from Matt on the technology behind the latest crop of promises from billionaires.

Further Reading

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Andrew Reddon

Does anyone have any information, or even an educated guess, about how long GO! might be supported now that CERTUS is live?

Rob Gill

Good question Andrew – I think the existing GO (and all 1st gen equipment) could be working as long as Iridium have their older geo-stationary satellites in the sky. But as I understand it, the problem is these older satellites will eventually fall from orbit and burn up. A radio engineer told me at the time of the first Motorola network launch, the satellites would only have an operational life of around 20-25 years, so the business case would be very challenging (re-building your whole infrastructure from scratch every time). So it may be a matter of when Iridium takes the older satellites out of service – Iridium run a huge reputation risk if the old network starts to drop out without warning, given the public safety role their network has for most users, particularly their corporate users. I suspect we will see a transition for everyone within 7 years, but I expect that Iridium will announce their transition plans for users when they launch their new network and devices. Operators hate running two networks, particularly when the earth based equipment will be reaching obsolescence issues for spares and repairs.

Stefan Smith

Correct, the NEXT network is backwards-compatible (source: Iridium rep).

In addition, it’s unlikely that consumers like cruisers will see a better deal than the GO! in the next 5 years or so, as this kind of market is just not a priority for the company and not where the revenue is. The Iridium NEXT priority is clearly going to be shipping, aviation, out-of-the-way extractive industry operations, military and various IoT applications such as asset tracking.

Bear in mind that it took the company many many years to start trickle-down solutions like the GO!, so expect the same wait for newer consumer-friendly solutions.

Matt Marsh

Most of the original Iridium constellation has already been de-orbited. If you are currently using an Iridium GO, you are using it via the Iridium NEXT constellation. Support may eventually be cut off as a business decision, but will certainly not be cut off for technical or compatibility reasons.

Rob Gill

Hi John,
Thanks for the update – did this come from the boat show you are attending? I was at the Auckland boat show this week and spoke to a marine comms dealer who sells Iridium products. I asked him when we could expect new gear from Iridium to use the new satellites and he said Iridium were being very tight lipped with their channel. His view was we will see new products in the 2nd quarter of 2020 – but they (Iridium) are still in testing mode. He also believed there will be a new GO and when pressed, he expected the data rate increase to be “significant” but wouldn’t guess how much. Given the current data rate is only 12 Kbs – nothing remarkable then and as you say, for most of us – not web-surfing stuff.
PredictWind who promote the GO and an airtime package on their web-site, are predicting (sorry) a ~ 50% boost to download speed to ~ 18 kbs. More importantly I think, they are expecting better global coverage with less drop-outs and so less re-connects. Re-connects accounted for much of the download delays we experienced in the Pacific. Apparently this will also mean better quality voice calls which will be a very positive outcome. The most interesting news from my perspective was the boat show dealer HAD been told that the new Iridium gear would be backwardly compatible, so all ariels and power supplies etc would work , so just a unit swap out. Let’s see.
br. Rob

Lee Corwin

Got rid of the globalstar and use the Go rarely. Continue to use a Spot for breadcrumbs. Put in a Fleet One Sailor when first offered at 30% off. It works always unlike the other products. Weirdly but fortunately could get SSB when sat phone was intermittent. But now just use the Fleet one on passage for weather and key communications using the SSB for verbal chatting. Verbal phone service on the Sailor is good and we’ve yet to run over allowance. The Fleet one is a huge expense if you use it for anything beyond emails between you and your weather router and occasionally for gribs. Still if used only for passage expense is manageable. When within receiving distance of towers go old school just hotspotting a local phone. So given expense and due to the fact there’s no way with moderate expense to stay on the Internet expect we will continue with this set up. It’s sufficient as you’re coastal a lot and on passage rarely. Enduring problem is recreational boating is a small market and passagemakers a small minute sliver of that group so there’s little incentive to develop services. Don’t expect that to change. Rather we will always be the tail on networks developed for commercial maritime and shipping.

Philip Copeland

Keep your eyes on Elan Musk – Starlink is a game changer and is happening very quickly. Musk has a big advantage over all the other vendors as he owns his own rocket launch company. With any luck – we should be seeing some major breakthroughs in price / performance by 2021. Do some googling on Starlink – very interesting!’

Philip Copeland

I disagree. As an owner of a Tesla Model S – it’s completely disrupted the car industry and been years ahead of its time. SpaceX has also delivered major changes to the Space industry – long ahead o fits rivals.

What I find super exciting about starlink for us sailors is a) low cost antenna – target $200 b) thats possible due to thousands of low orbit satellites (500 kilometres) which results in very low latency comms.

As for when let’s all cross our fingers that it’s well before 2025.

This is a neat video that does a good job explaining their progress and technology.


Matt Marsh

Iridium signed their contract with SpaceX, spending $492M for 7 flights, in 2010. NEXT was already well into the final design phase by that point, Iridium’s corporate entity had just nine years of post-bankruptcy operation behind it, and the Falcon 9 had made just one flight, on the heels of Falcon 1’s three-in-five failure rate. SpaceX hadn’t even come up with the idea for Starlink yet. Flying with anyone else would have cost Iridium a billion dollars that it simply didn’t have.

Now, in 2019, Falcon 9 has a 97.5% lifetime success rate (100% over the last 50 flights and 3 years), and 40% of all commercial launches worldwide fly with SpaceX. Iridium has not announced any plans for a next-gen constellation to replace NEXT; while it might want to toss its six spare satellites up there at some point, it’ll probably never be a major rocket launch customer again.

SpaceX is a 6400-person company; an organization that size can do more than one thing at a time. Musk may be its public face, and “Elon time” is definitely a thing, but Gwynne Shotwell – a brilliant executive by any standard – is in charge of actually getting the important things done, and she does deliver.

Petri Flander

The thing with SpaceX Starlink program is that it is an integral part of their Mars mission funding strategy. So, there is plenty of internal pressure to get it cashflow-positive ASAP.
“Cruiser-friendly global sat-data service on 2025 earliest” is a good bet, but we might be surprised.

Chuck Batson

I’d be very happy with a satellite-based weather broadcast service, kind of like satellite TV, something that on a regular repeating cadence transmits GRIBs, surface analyses, forecasts, etc. As a one-way broadcast, it would be much higher data rate than a bi-directional service. Something like but available worldwide, and containing world wide weather data. I always think, “This would be so great, why hasn’t someone done this already?” Then I remember those pesky “market fundamentals.”

Matt Marsh

At first glance, that idea would appear relatively easy & cheap to implement via UDP Multicast over existing ViaSat, Hughes, and/or Inmarsat satellites. Data integrity via UDP is not guaranteed, but for a one-to-many satellite-to-ground protocol, it would appear to be remarkably efficient, with an actual operating cost (in bandwidth and dollars) roughly equivalent to one high-end yacht terminal to serve an entire hemisphere of the globe. I wonder why nobody’s done it yet?

Frode Rognstad

A small startup, Othernet (previously known as Outernet), has been broadcasting since 2014. No indication they will be including data of value to us cruisers, but their content selection is, at least in theory, crowd specified. Check them out on

Chuck Batson

Ooh that is interesting!

Richard Phillips

“Data integrity via UDP is not guaranteed” – true, but you can ‘layer’ an ARQ protocol over the top of UDP to solve head of line blocking and other such problems. I have been working on some proof of concept ideas in this space.. are you in this industry?

Robert Muir

Too bad about Iridium NEXT, but it’s about what we expected. For Billionaires, it’s a lot better than other global Internets.

I’m not counting on Starlink either. In fact, I believe the primary purpose for Starlink is to provide constant communications for Tesla cars. Especially if/when they become full self-driving robocars.

Gene Millard

Aaarrgghhh! You guys are terrifying me. I am sick of hovering next to the SSB and writing down my shorthand weather forecasts at all hours of the freaking day and night – especially when I want some sleep off watch. So we planned to go with GO! (cute, huh?)
but all I hear on this site is bitching and complaining about it and then (sighs) that it’s the only reasonable game in town for easy weather forecast reception and basic satellite communication. NOW you’re telling me the satellites are going to fall out of the sky and I’ll be forced to buy into a system that costs more that my boat did? Here’s what I want – to be able to receive weather forecasts and to have my bookkeeper be able to text me if there’s a financial crisis or my brother to be able to text or email me if one of my rental houses has burned down killing all occupants so I’m being sued. Otherwise I really don’t want to communicate with anyone when I am out here. That’s why I am out here!!!! Will the GO! handle this for me? Signed the subscriber’s really aggravated wife who also happens to be his marginally competent IT person because he is totally incapable of being an IT person. He’s a mechanic which is ultimately more important. Someone help me out here!!! Hugs and kisses, Molly.

Gene Millard

Thank for your quick, calming response, John. I truly do appreciate it. Note to myself: don’t try to research these things and comment on articles when you’re out of estrogen (permanently A.D.D. as a result) and the better part of the way through a bottle of rose. – Molly

Ramon Pla

This service is looking to operate LEO satellites that can communicate with everyday phones made in the last several years – no special hardware needed. They’re starting this year in the Bahamas and are set to expand afterward. It will not likely be offered as a standalone service, at least initially. Speeds are about 3G level, so Starlink is still a desirable option.