Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Communications: Prices Drop and Services Increase

As advances in communications and navigation equipment technology change at a seemingly alarming rate, there is something to be said about mixing the old with the new to keep some semblance of the old familiar functionality for commercial fishermen.

In June, Inmarsat launched Fleet One, a new satellite phone service which provides voice, email, Internet, text service and features inexpensive equipment and installation. "Airtime is only 50 cents per minute for voice calls and the data rate starts at only five dollars per megabyte," says Dave Brengelmann, Maritime Sales, Western US. "These rates are considerably less than a cell phone when roaming overseas and are a third less than the other services we currently offer."

Of particular interest to fishermen is the ability to purchase pre-paid vouchers of time so they can initiate the service as they need it, no matter the fishing season. "All you do is go to your marine electronics dealer to activate the service and buy extra vouchers that feature a 16-digit pin. Whenever you want to re-activate the service, dial a toll free 3-digit number and you're back in business," he says.

Fleet One operates on Inmarsat's I-4 satellites which are rigorously tested and has a standard plug and play connection to a computer, works with mobile apps such as smartphones and tablets, and a wireless router enables multiple users. The system also offers real-time weather information. Also available is an AmosConnect email service for free with an account.

One can hook up a Fleet One terminal in about five minutes on a shop bench and users can find youtube videos that help visually through the process. On board, installation time will vary due to the cable run. The Inmarsat Fleet One terminal has the same mounting bolt pattern as the Mini M and MSAT antennas; users need only change out their existing one for Fleet One. Additionally, Fleet One supports Inmarsat's unique '505' safety service that immediately connects a fishing vessel in distress with the marine rescue coordination center.

Also in June, Globalstar, Inc. launched its new satellite technology offering. Called Sat-Fi, the device provides the clarity of a cell phone for voice-to-voice contact and also enables up to eight users to send emails and texts through their existing smartphone, tablet or other Wi-Fi-enabled device interface.

"We are expanding our hardware portfolio to provide customers access to a satellite network with their existing smartphones, in essence, making the user's current phone into a satellite phone," says Rich Galasso, Distributions Manager. "The real trick is that the Sat-Fi allows up to eight devices connected at any one time."

Once users download the free Sat-Fi apps on their existing cell phones, for example, they can compose an email or a text the same way and can monitor what it's doing and where it is in the process of sending and receiving.

When adding users to the Sat-Fi device, Galasso says it works much like extensions on a land line phone. Only one person can dial out at a time and the app shows any other users if the line is already in use.

For email, each user can create emails and have them queued on the app until they are ready to send and receive. From a text message standpoint, users shouldn't notice any kind of delays as these work in near real time.

The new Sat-Fi, in comparison to Globalstar's other sat phones, is a lot less expensive. The fixed GSP-2900 phone normally retails for about $1,400 to $1,700, depending on antenna set up and data kit. The Sat-Fi at $999 comes complete. There is nothing else users have to buy unless they want to extend the antenna cable, which will likely cost less than $100. Sat-Fi comes with a 14-foot antenna cable which for most operations is more than enough.

For fishing crews, there is the option of a three-day free email plan, or getting email direct for an additional $80 per year (including additional service fees on top of the air time). Users can obtain an unlimited voice and data plan through Globalstar at $150 per month which is comparable to today's cell phone plans.

"People already have their phones in their pockets so they're not buying any additional equipment," says Galasso. "And they get the benefit of putting multiple users on it at one time. Sat-Fi provides normal wireless connectivity, so it definitely has good range for small crew-type activity."

Technological advances in the next couple of years will soon increase raw data speeds that will bring satellite phones on par with cell phones. "It's not that sat phones are going to replace cellular but it will be very convenient and very simple to use and the price will be very reasonable in both the hardware and in the air time side of it," adds Galasso. "That's where the satellite world is going for Globalstar. As data speeds increase, we'll offer faster, less expensive products with more capabilities."

Ocens, located in Des Moines, Washington offers easy access weather data-gathering that can be downloaded via satellite phone. "The software is designed around the low bandwidth limited file size restrictions so that users can cost-effectively get in, get the weather information they need, and get that downloaded over their satellite phone," says Jeff Thomassen, Director, Sales & Marketing, Product Testing & Development.

WeatherNet 4 service allows the user to select the weather information they want, for instance, a text weather report from NOAA or a weather facts chart. All they need to do is hit the download button and the software connects them to the Internet over their satellite phone, which logs into Ocens' servers, immediately downloads the files and then disconnects the call when it's done. The files are downloaded in compressed formats so the user takes the minimal amount of air time possible to get the files.

"We employ some data compression as well as Internet protocols that are streamlined, and our servers are configured to work with the slow connections," says Thomassen. "Today's Internet is looking for broadband connections everywhere and sat phones are not, in general, that type of connection. They're much slower or still using older protocols, older speeds, so we have our servers configured so they can operate at that slower speed to deal with the slow data transfers without causing time-outs."

According to Thomassen, WeatherNet 4 comprises one of the world's largest databases of ocean information products; everything from standard weather information to ocean data such as surface temperatures, currents, salinity, plankton and as well as text reports and satellite imagery.

Each time the user hits the download button, the software downloads the most current version of that particular weather file. Many of the files are supported by many of the charting software programs so the files can then be imported into a user's navigation software or view them as stand-alone weather files. "Even if you have guys who are working multiple fisheries, it's all available in the same service so all they have to do is change their selections as needed," says Thomassen.

Ocens sells many familiar state-of-the-art satellite phone brands along with WeatherNet 4 service. Users with existing phones or computers can sign up for the WeatherNet 4 service which is $99 per year. File download costs vary from between five cents to a dollar, with some higher resolution products at $5 per download and are billed on a monthly basis.

"We offer the satellite phones and we offer email service as well," says Thomassen. "If the crew need to stay in contact back home or communicate with a buyer, etc., we have an email service that's designed around the same kind of compression and enhanced network protocols so that they can very cost-effectively send or receive email from the vessel, and they can subscribe on a monthly or yearly basis for that."

Furuno's family of NavNet TZtouch products have recently taken a step forward with a much-requested remote control unit that provides the old-fashioned buttons and tactile control for vessel captains and crew.

"The MCU002 Remote Controller is compatible for use with the entire NavNet TZtouch series, including the TZTBB Black Box, as well as theTZT14 and TZT9 MFD," says Jeff Kauzlaric, Advertising & Communications Manager, based in Camas, Washington. "The controller benefits installations where the displays are recessed and/or mounted a bit out of conventional reach. The design of the controller is compact and light, allowing it to be installed anywhere, even as an armchair controller, if desired."

The remote control accesses all NavNet TZtouch features, including Chart Plotting functions, like panning, zooming, and route creation. Users can control the Radar, Fish Finder, NavPilot autopilot (when interfaced), RotoKey menu functionality, as well as custom page displays. When this remote is mounted alongside a currently installed TZT14 or TZT9 TZtouch display, it will give the user direct, instant access to tactile controls, which can be critical in rough seas.

The cost of the unit is $180. "The only thing you'll need to do is make sure TZtouch MFDs are updated with the very latest operating software, version 3.12 or above," says Kauzlaric. This can be done easily by watching youtube videos.

Additionally, Furuno has recently released version 3.12 of their TZtouch Software which enables operation with the MCU002 remote control and offers new features, including optimized active route synchronization between NavNet 3D and MaxSea TimeZero software, auto transmission power setting for the DFF1-UHD CHIRP sounder, and enhanced on-screen DSC call and position indication.

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