Fleet Broadband Small Vessel Plans: Curiouser and Curiouser

As Fishing and Leisure plans sunset this month, Inmarsat’s new Small Vessel Plans (SVP) represent the satellite provider’s attempt to both appease its Fleet Broadband (FBB) owners and impede the deployment of Fleet Broadband as the poor stepchild in VSAT/FBB failover marriages.  At first blush, SVPs will far more quickly squash sales of FBB as VSAT backups than will they give reason for pleasure yachts, workboats and fishing class vessels to pen ballads exalting their virtues.  There follows a description of these new postpaid and prepaid SVPs and their potential role in the constellation of Fleet Broadband airtime plans.

In their purest sense, SVP postpaid bundles pack 5 MB of Fleet Broadband airtime into $99 per month. Megabytes used during that month which are beyond the first included 5 are billed at $22 each. There is a one-month minimum on the plan.

While the $99 monthly rate is now the lowest monthly access fee available to FBB users, the imbedded and overage rates are the highest such rates offered by Inmarsat for background IP on any platform.  So yes, it’s the cheapest way to keep your terminal active. But in doing so you pay a dear price if you happen to exceed your allotted 5 MB.

Now for the kicker. Remember that go-kart you had as a kid? How no matter how hard you pressed the gas pedal it would only go so fast because Dad had messed with the throttle? Well, Inmarsat is dear old Dad. They have throttled the SVP plans to a maximum speed of 32 kbaud (See update on the ‘throttling’ issue in comments associated with this blog entry).  With any other package, your FBB 150, 250 and 500 are capable of 150, 284 and 496 kbaud speeds, respectively. But if you’ve activated under an SVP plan, Dad has you maxed out at 32 kbaud. Too bad.

For some reason, Dad also doesn’t want you running on a bigger chassis. Inmarsat requires resellers to ask you the size of the vessel on which the FBB will be installed and wishes to use the SVP. If that vessel is larger than 300 gross tons (GT) the SVP is off-limits. We can speculate Inmarsat has identified these larger vessels as the prototypical ones carrying VSAT and which may be looking for a failover service, such as FBB or OpenPort/Pilot. Of course, if failover does occur on such a vessel we’re talking tens if not hundreds of megabytes of overage. Why a plus 300 GT vessel would then be willing to risk paying the highest data rate Inmarsat can conjure up for a savings of less than $100 per month in plan costs (the Standard plan is $190 per month with an overage rate of $16/MB) is hard to visualize. More likely they would choose a Standard plan with overage costs which are 30% lower than SVP. Or they’d choose a Pilot.

Up to this point in the blog, everything we’ve discussed has focused on the postpaid version of SVP. A prepaid version of the plan is also available. With the extension of prepaid Inmarsat airtime to the entire world after the inclusion of the US market on September 1 this prepaid plan warrants closer inspection. Similarities between the post and prepaid versions of the SVP plan start and end with the 32 kbaud and less than 300 GT limits already discussed. Three prepaid SVPs are available: 60 units, 100 units and 200 units for $66, $95, and $170 respectively (Inmarsat sells prepaid airtime in bundles of  ‘units’ which are then converted to minutes for voice calls and megabytes for data according to specified conversion ratios). At the conversion rate of 10 units per 1 MB proscribed by Inmarsat, these three bundles offer 6, 10, and 20 mb of data each. Consequently, the $/MB cost of these prepaid plans is substantially lower than that of the postpaid. Megabytes from the 200 unit bundle, at $8.5/MB, cost just less than 40% of the postpaid plan’s $22/MB rate. So what’s the catch? Shouldn’t everyone be purchasing prepaid unit bundles under the SVP plan?

The answer is, ‘It depends’. If you are certain you are going to use the units, and use them quickly, most certainly consider a prepaid option. However, purchased prepaid units have a 60 day validity. That is, just as Cinderella’s glass slipper, after 60 days, all those units turn into a pumpkin. They are worthless. To exacerbate this point, Inmarsat will deduct 14 units from your pin balance each week if you have not used at least 14 units of voice or data traffic that week. Use zero units and Inmarsat will deduct 14. Use 7, Inmarsat takes another 7. Use 14, Inmarsat takes zero.

Evidently the 14 unit auto-deduction gymnastic is necessary for Inmarsat’s accounting and tax purposes. But it should also be a huge calculation in your decision to go the prepaid route or not. At 14 units per week, in 4 weeks a 60 unit card is gone (4 x 14 =  56) and a 100 unit card is more than half gone. Obviously, the fact that units are valid for 60 days on a 60 unit card is meaningless.  Moreover, wait 3 to 4 weeks to use any of the units you purchased with your 100 unit pin and that really attractive $9.5/MB rate you thought you were buying has now risen to an effective rate of $16 to $22/MB. So be careful. If buying into a prepaid SVP plan, do so knowing that you are going to be using units for your benefit from week one!

On the plus side, units can be bought in sets and combined together to increase available volume and extend the validity of the units. For example, a 100 unit and a 200 unit card could be activated together giving you 30 MB of data valid for 120 days. But the 14 unit per week ‘fee’ is still in play.  Users also may switch their SVP sim between prepaid and postpaid status as needed. However, Inmarsat charges a $50 activation fee each time you move in the prepaid direction.

So with all this said and done, for who is the SVP the right plan? The SVP customer is potentially someone who:

  • is not using their FBB but wants to keep their terminal active at the lowest possible monthly fee; or
  • is someone who is using their terminal for email and weather with accelerated email and weather services such as OCENS Mail and WeatherNet where the 32 kbaud filter is largely unnoticeable; or
  • is someone who typically uses less than 8 or 9 MB of data per month; or
  • is taking discrete, short trips or seasons during which they have clear plans for using their FBB and can put to immediate use the prepaid units they have just purchased.

Not the broadest cross-section of the broadband market is it? Which returns us to our original point. The characteristics and complexities of the SVP plans seem less geared toward promoting the use of Fleet Broadband in the small vessel market than the do to preventing its use elsewhere. Curious. Nevertheless, OCENS stands ready to help you make the airtime decision which is best for your individual needs. Don’t hesitate to contact us at 206.878.8270, sales@ocens.com or visit our website at www.ocens.com.

BGAN Prepaid Airtime is Now Available for Use in the U.S.

Inmarsat BGAN prepaid airtime is now available for use in the U.S. beginning Sept. 1st! The new coverage includes currently active plans as well as new activations. With BGAN prepaid, there are no monthly or maintenance fees, any size airtime bundle has a validity of 2 years, and any unused airtime rolls over with a refill before the expiration date.

BGAN prepaid continues to offer preferred rates for use in South America, China, Russia, and the Southern African countries (includes Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe).

Contact OCENS with questions or see the new BGAN Service Agreement and Airtime Plans here.

The Curtain Lifts: Inmarsat Opens Up Prepaid Service to US Customers

Perhaps Noah felt this way when the rains stopped and dry land began to appear. A mixture of ‘Thank goodness’ with ‘It’s about darn time!’  Who knows what or how much it took to break the long-standing impasse with Freedom Wireless over access to the prepaid platform. Regardless, Monday’s announcement from Inmarsat that effective September 1 prepaid airtime plans can be used in the US, its territories and coastal waters came as welcome news.

With the announcement, ISatPhone, BGAN, FleetPhone and Fleet Broadband customers can now benefit from the prepaid plans that have heretofore been off-limits in the US. For IsatPhone customers, prepaid plans can offer lower airtime rates without the overhead of a monthly service fee. Instead, money spent on airtime is used just for that.

Prepaid BGAN plans enjoy not only a low airtime cost but also 2 year validities on most such plans.  This means that customers have two years to use the airtime associated with their prepaid plan.

For the Fleet Broadband customer, the news is noteworthy because it makes accessible to US customers the 60, 100 and 200 unit prepaid Small Vessel Plans (SVP). Although the units linked to these plans only carry 60 day validities and a bandwidth cap of 32 kbaud, the cost per MB to the end-user is half of that associated with most other low volume Fleet Broadband plans, including the SVP’s postpaid sibling.

Disaster management, trip-oriented IsatPhone users and fishing operations working in short-term seasons are just some of the user groups which stand to benefit the most from these newly available prepaid options.  Not to be neglected, however, are those global customers who can now extend the use of their prepaid Inmarsat airtime to their business and pleasure trips to the US. Effective September 1, the units owned by thesee users will automatically begin to work in the US and its territories. One phone, immediately available worldwide at the lowest possible airtime rates.

For further information on the newly available prepaid plans, Inmarsat, or other satellite solutions addressing your communication needs, contact OCENS at sales@ocens.com or 206.878.8270.

Basic Computer Networking Terminology

This blog post will go over some basics of networking terminology. To learn more, please visit the references listed at the end of this post or give us a call here at OCENS.

 

Network Designations – the following designations presented here explain networks in context with the Sidekick appliances, though these designations are used throughout Network Engineering.

LAN – stands for Local Area Network. This is the network of device(s) relying on the Sidekick network management appliance for connection, both to each other as well as access to your satellite service. A LAN can be as small as a single computer, or as vast as an entire building and accounts for all the computers, networking equipment, servers, printers, Internet phones, smartphones, tablets, PDAs and more.

WAN –Stands for Wide Area Network. This is the network the Sidekick uses to provide service to the Internet for its LAN. WANs typically refer to the Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) network.

Some other network designations to note:

GAN – Stands for Global Area Network. In short, this is the Internet.

BGAN – Stands for Broadband Global Area Network. Inmarsat primarily uses this designation to refer to their broadband satellite service (FleetBroadband and BGAN terminals)

 

IP Address – Stands for Internet Protocol Address. Every device, when connected to a network, is assigned an IP Address. This allows your device to communicate with other devices and available network resources. Think of this as your cell’s phone number, allowing you to receive and make calls, send text messages, and access other services.

 

DNS – Stands for Domain Name Service. DNS provides a means to attach a name to an IP Address making it easier for us to request resources. An example of DNS being used is when we try to access the Internet: Without DNS, to get to www.google.com we would have to remember the website’s IP Address (173.194.33.46 is google.com). The concept of DNS is similar to that of your Contacts List on your cellphone; it’s MUCH easier to remember your contact’s name then it is to remember their phone number. DNS functions in a similar way, storing network address information associated with the network’s name.

 

Server – a computer or application that is hosting a service. A Mail Server, for example, is generally a computer that is hosting, or providing, email services. If you use OCENS.Mail, the application you install to use our service (called the OCENS.Mail Gateway) is in fact a server application.

 

Client – Usually refers to the recipient, be it computer or application, of a server’s hosted service. For example, a mail client is a software application receiving its mail service from a mail server. iScribe, the mail client we provide for use with the OCENS.Mail Gateway, is a client of the OCENS.Mail Gateway server.

 

Firewall – a specialized type of server. ALL data transmitted over a network is assigned a specific port number, based on the type of data it is. For example, standard website traffic (http) is usually assigned port 80. Secure website traffic, like when you login to your bank account, is usually assigned port 443.

A Firewall controls what ports are open or closed for inbound and outbound traffic flowing through it. Some firewalls are also capable of routing specific ports to specific outbound or inbound IP Addresses. This is called Port Forwarding for inbound traffic, and Port Triggering for outbound. Say you wanted to host your own website from a computer at home. That website would reside with a server application (called a webserver). In order for people to be able to see the website, you would need to set your firewall to forward all inbound web traffic (port 80 typically) to that webserver’s IP Address.

Typically data types flow on their universally assigned port numbers, but it is possible to change those port number assignments, either locally on a specific computer or as a whole on a network, by use of the next term:

 

Proxy – another specialized type of server. Whereas a firewall controls the opening/closing of ports and where specific ports are routed; a proxy controls how data is used within those ports and can assign (and keeps track of) port assignment changes.

Proxy servers stand as an intermediary between their clients, and the resources they are requesting. As such, they are capable of controlling when, how, and if those resources can be accessed. For example: say you want to control what kinds of websites you want available to specific individuals, like children. You would employ a proxy server (called a web proxy) to control who, when, how, and if specific sites can be accessed by specific clients. Typically, when this is done, the web proxy changes the specific port used for outbound web traffic, and the firewall then closes port 80 for outbound traffic, thus disabling someone from trying to get around the proxy.

Proxy servers and their configurations are very complex, and it would be hard for me to explain EVERYTHING they can do in this post, but I will touch on some of the basics as they are used with the Sidekick appliances:

Compression – Compression is a function by which the data is squeezed, or compressed, as small as possible before being sent. This is done to help reduce transmission size and duration.

Captive Portal – Captive portal is a means by which you can control who has access to specific services. For example, if you wanted to control who can access the Internet, you would enable captive portal on a web proxy that would require a login before the Internet can be accessed. Ever been to a Starbucks and used their free Internet service? If so, do you recall their initial page requiring you to agree to their service terms? That is a function of captive portal on a web proxy.

Traffic Shaping – Traffic Shaping, or Quality of Service (QoS for short), is a means of prioritizing specific types of traffic over other types of traffic. For example, suppose you have Internet Phone services on your network. Because of how Internet Phone services function, it’s extremely important that their data reaches its destination as quickly as possible. Utilizing QoS functions in a proxy, you are capable of making sure any Internet Phone traffic is handled and routed the moment it comes in, regardless of whatever else is happening on the network.

Caching – Caching stores commonly used resources at the proxy server for faster access. For example, how often do you access www.google.com? With caching enabled on a proxy, instead of your request to www.google.com going to the internet and waiting for the reply back, the proxy will store the www.google.com page and present it to you when requested. Over a satellite system this also means a cost savings since the proxy, which is local to your network, is providing the requested site instead of your satellite Internet connection.

Whitelists/Blacklists – White/black lists are a means of controlling what kinds of services individuals can access. For example, say you’re a Packer’s football fan and you despise the Vikings. You could set your proxy to allow the Packer’s website through, but block requests to the Vikings site or even re-route requests for the Vikings website to the Packer’s utilizing the functions of whitelists and blacklists. Because of the complexity and the vast amount of sites out there, generating your own blacklist can take quite a long time. Because of this, there are services available that provide a pre-configured blacklist for you. Some are free while others require a usage fee based on what proxy server software they support and the complexity of the list.

Usage Reporting – All proxy servers provide reporting of who did what and when. These reports are useful when evaluating what your satellite airtime is being spent on as well as troubleshooting connection issues when they arise.

 

Least Cost Routing/Failover/Load Balancing

I’m group these topics together because they function similarly and are related; they all are a means of managing and optimizing multiple WAN connections. Some functions can be utilized at the same time, while others are an either/or setup.

Least Cost Routing (LCR) – This is a means of utilizing the most cost affective WAN connection available at the time. For example, say you have a FleetBroadband terminal and Cell Data receiver. Because Internet service is less expensive over the Cell Data receiver you want to route all your Internet traffic over it when the service is available, and switch to the FleetBroadband when it isn’t. This is called Least Cost Routing.

Failover – Failover is VERY similar to least cost routing. Basically, it means that if connection A isn’t available, switch to connection B. Since Least Cost Routing and Failover are pretty much the same function, most setups that utilize one will utilize both at the same time.

Load Balancing – While load balancing is similar to failover and LCR in that it utilizes multiple WANs, how it uses those connections is different. With Load Balancing, the Sidekick takes the inbound/outbound data traffic and spreads the load among the different WAN connections, thus effectively improving service. Load Balancing can function along with Failover since it would switch to the available WAN if another goes down.

 

VPN – Stands for Virtual Private Network. It’s a means of joining two networks together, when they aren’t physically together. For example, say you want to have access to your work network (giving you access to it’s supplied resources like printers, servers, ect) from your boat? You would need to setup a “VPN Tunnel” linking the two networks together to act as one. An individual can link to the VPN, or a LAN management appliance (like the Sidekick) can link the entire LAN.

 

VoIP – Stands for Voice over Internet Protocol (IP) this is an emerging service that has been growing and developing quite a bit as of late. The old traditional telephone systems haven’t changed in many many years; but with the increasing demand for additional features like video calls, teleconferences, multimedia presentations and more they just are not capable of keeping up with the newer demands. VoIP however, uses an Internet connection to supply those services and more. Some examples of VoIP technology are Skype, Google Voice, and Vonage. Also, most cellular smartphones provide the ability to utilize VoIP services.

 

References:

If you would like further information regarding the topics in this post these resources can explain more:

Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) – http://www.iana.org

The IANA is the governing authority for maintaining official assignments of port numbers and their uses. They are also the governing authority managing the IP Addressing assignments that make up the Internet. If you are ever interested in how the Internet as a whole functions, IANA and their documentation is a great place to start.

PF Sense – http://doc.pfsense.org/index.php/Main_Page

This is an Open-Source Firewall and Router suite, and their wiki has a lot of useful information regarding their functions.

Squid Proxy – http://www.squid-cache.org/

This is an Open-Source Web Proxy Server, with great documentation and support.

Wikipedia.org  – www.wikipedia.org

Wikipedia it is a great resource for learning and provides useful information and resources. RFC documentation regarding different topics from network designations, TCP/IP functions, DNS and more can be found here. RFC (Request for Comments) documents are the governing documentation for Computer Network Engineering and their underlining technologies.

HowStuffWorks – www.howstuffworks.com

This site is owned by the Discovery channel, and is a great learning resource for explaining how specific things work.

Inmarsat Adjusts FleetPhone Plans and Pricing

Inmarsat has announced changes to its FleetPhone airtime plans and pricing.  The two FleetPhone models (Oceana 400 and Oceana 800) provide a fixed phone service where voice communications is the primary requirement or on vessels where additional voice lines are needed for crew or guests.  The solution consists of below-decks equipment which is connected to a small external antenna.

Oceana 800 with antenna

Effective October 1st, 2012 Inmarsat will be closing new activations to the FleetPhone Standard, Allowance and SCAP plans. Users who have not already done so will be automatically moved to the Fleet Phone Small Vessel Plan (SVP) on January 1, 2013. The action collapses all FleetPhone users into either a SVP postpaid option of $120 per month with 200 minutes of included airtime or three SVP prepaid plans of 60 (79), 100 (131) and 200 (263) included units (minutes to PSTN). Prices for these prepaid bundles are $60, $100, and $200 and minutes purchased carry a 60 day validity. As with other Inmarsat systems, prepaid packages for the FleetPhones are not available for use in the United States or its territories.

In a new and puzzling wrinkle, Inmarsat automatically deducts 14 units from a subscriber’s prepaid balance each week if that amount or more is not used in the week. If a subscriber’s balance reaches zero, further usage is blocked until the account is ‘topped-up’. Inmarsat does allow a free phone call from the unit to request a top-up but as soon as the account is topped up, 14 units are again auto-deducted followed by the next applicable weekly charge of 14 units. Finally, if prepaid vouchers are purchased and activated as a batch, all vouchers in that batch must be redeemed within 365 days of batch activation or they will expire.

For further insights on the FleetPhone changes and other options available to address your needs for communication via satellite, please contact OCENS at sales@ocens.com or 206.878.8270.

FleetBroadband Fishing and Leisure (FL) Plans to be Discontinued

After August 31, 2012 Fleet Broadband users will no longer be able to activate their terminals under Inmarsat’s Fishing and Leisure (FL) plans. The FL plans, of which there are three options (5, 25 and 50 MB), have unique rules that cap usage beyond the included bundle. While the cap can curtail runaway usage, the fact that the service could be suspended mid-voyage created a risk for vessel operators and thus has been a less than popular plan.

The Fleet Broadband Standard plan with 10 MB of bundled data will remain available after August 31. Users who have not migrated from the FL plan before January 1, 2013 will be automatically migrated to the Standard plan.

Meanwhile, OCENS has introduced three variations of the Standard plan which provide additional savings for bundles of 25, 50 and 75 MB per month.

On August 1st, Inmarsat also introduced its Small Vessel Plan. Details regarding this plan will be covered in a separate blog post.

See the current FBB airtime plans and service agreement here: http://www.ocens.com/FleetBroadband-Airtime-W12C31.aspx

 

Is There a Fit for Fleet Broadband?

Rightfully so, there is much gnashing of teeth in regards to Inmarsat’s new Small Vessel Plans for Fleet Broadband and the disjointed path it seems to be pursuing in the marine marketplace for any boat other than a supertanker.  Consequently, interest in Fleet Broadband by fishing vessels, workboats, and pleasure yachts has waned to something in between awful and poor.  Couple this with the thunderstorm of VSAT marketing and promotion and its not too difficult to recognize that Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham presented less of a challenge than that faced by an Inmarsat reseller making another FBB sale into the small vessel market.  Is such an attitude warranted? Is there a place for FBB any longer in the small vessel market?  Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

This contrarian perspective was reinforced yesterday during an enjoyable conversation with a prospective customer who called to discuss his plans for satellite communication on his soon to be commissioned sailing yacht. His opening comments about the new Fleet Broadband MB plans and rates demonstrated he was someone who had been doing his homework and because of them had decided to explore other alternatives that could more cost-effectively address his communication needs.  He indicated those needs were primarily data driven and those along the lines of email, weather and one or two web sites. After a bit we transitioned into a discussion of Iridium, docking stations, external antennas and antenna siting and data rates and he seemed to be committed to the Iridium path.  It all made for a very productive and enjoyable exchange.

But before we ended the conversation, I asked him to revisit his data interests with me. Was he interested in Internet browsing, (no), what kind of email (on the small side with an attachment here and there), what types of weather (charts) and web sites (an ftp site he had crafted to pull files he needed each day).  Given that mix, why had he rejected the Fleet Broadband option? The reason given was that he felt the new per MB rates for data were just too high. He just couldn’t justify spending $15 to $20 per MB on FBB service.

Can you blame him? $15 to $20 per MB does seem high (let’s not kid ourselves, it is high). Isn’t it much easier to stomach $1.29 per minute on the Iridium network for those data sessions? Maybe it is. Or maybe it is until you do the math.

Iridium runs at a speed of 2400 baud (this translates to about 300 bytes per second or 18,000 bytes (18 kb) per minute; for further context this blog entry is about 6000 bytes (6 kb)). At that speed its going to take you almost 56 minutes to move a MB of data through the Iridium network which, using the not uncommon Iridium charge of $1.29 per minute, is going to cost you $72. Add some additional overhead for dropped calls and connect/disconnect delays and you are probably closer to $80/MB. How much did we say it was to move a MB through a FBB? That $15 to $20/MB number now looks incredibly cost-effective.

Let’s look at it a slightly different way. Inmarsat’s Standard FBB plan costs $190 and includes 10 MB of data.  Moving this 10 MB through the Iridium network would run you close to $800. Or taking the perspective of actual usage, I could send 1000 normal (5 to 10 kb) emails through my Fleet Broadband every month without running out of ‘included’ data. If I’m compressing those emails through OCENS Mail, I’m capable of doing something on the order of 5000 or more emails each month with my Standard plan on FBB. And I’m doing this without drops, disconnects and restarts.

Of course, the VSAT interests correctly argue that this same 10 MB would cost just $50 on a V3 system. But in order to get to that first $50, I’ll need to have invested over $14,000 in hardware (and be providing my VSAT hardware a continuous AC feed as there is no DC option with VSAT).  That’s eight to nine thousand dollars more than what I’d be paying today for an FBB 150. If I’m sticking with my 10 MB a month or less plan, its going to take me over 8 years before the additional investment I made in my VSAT begins to pay off. If past practice is any indication of future behavior, I’ll have either sold my boat and bought another or be looking to invest new money in 2020 communication technology that is far superior to what I have available in 2012.

Could I apply the same reasoning to my decision to purchase Iridium instead of FBB? That is, certainly I’ll spend much less on my Iridium setup and I can apply this savings to the ‘extra’ airtime charges I’ll be paying each month.  Well, yes and no. I can spend as little as $1200 or so and be able to run data through the Iridium network. But since I’m going to be transferring data pretty regularly, I’m probably going to get tired of sticking my satphone up the hatch every time I want to check email. So I’ll end up adding an external antenna, cabling and a docking station. In other words, I’ll end up adding another $1000 for a total cost of $2200 for the Iridium package I’m going to go to sea with. That’s a $3000 savings relative to my FBB hardware and only going to buy me about 5 months of usage at my 10 MB standard of living.

In short, returning to our original question and in the context of Iridium (handhelds; the OpenPort/Pilot to FBB contrast is a story for another time with a whole different line of reasoning) and VSAT, FBB can make a great deal of sense.  It does so if my primary applications are email, weather and occasional web access. It does so if I estimate my usage will top out at less than 50 MB per month. And it does so despite the absence of a cohesive Inmarsat strategy for the small vessel market or the tantalizing flirtations put forward by the VSAT marketing machine.