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!
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.
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?
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.
- SSB or Iridium, which is the best value?
- Strategic Weather Analysis with GO!, step-by-step (first 6 chapters).
- Iridium GO! bullshit busted.
- The Ultimate Guide to Using Iridium Handsets and GO!.
- The best software to use with GO! reviewed.
- A great book about Iridium and how the tech can be awesome but still lose shiploads of money. Hey, Elon…Dude, you need to read this.