Satellite Communications: Getting it Installed on your Boat

As you accumulate all of the necessary supplies for your next and ongoing voyages, you have undoubtedly already acquired or are planning to invest in a satellite communications package. The following are the critical points to consider when selecting equipment and preparing it for the installation.

Line of sight. This is the most important concept to understand with satellite communications. All satellite communications networks have at least one common fundamental: the satellite phone has to have a direct line of sight with the satellites. The satellite RF signal will not travel through dense objects (such as a bulkhead, ceiling, wall, etc.), so this means that to use your satellite phone, you must either be outside or have a remotely located external antenna in place. The former is pretty self-explanatory, so I will address the latter by outlining the necessary components for this type of installation.

  • External Antenna. Using your satellite phone inside while maintaining line of sight with the satellites is as simple as installing an externally mounted antenna. Both Iridium and Globalstar have orbiting satellite constellations, so the antenna should be positioned in a location that will offer it the most panoramic exposure to the sky. The antennas are passive, so they have no moving parts, rather, they are designed to cover a broad look angle in all directions for maximum satellite visibility. Antenna height is not important in and of itself unless it is for the purpose of getting it above a potential obstacle, such as a bulkhead. Also, you generally want to keep the antenna at least two meters away from any other RF antennas, particularly radar. A satellite antenna can me mounted on the mast, however, a rail mount is also very common. Most marine antennas have a standard 1” diameter female pipe thread, and there are many different 1” adapters to choose from at your local marine supply store. Marine rated satellite antennas are hermetically sealed and designed to be continuously exposed to salt-fog, moisture, and UV. The only point of moisture entry is the cable connector, so it is recommended to use a marine rated dressing on the connector followed by a good tape job.
  • Antenna cable. For an external antenna to work, you must run the correct type of antenna cable from the antenna to the phone or docking station. With Iridium, it is typically a single cable run. The exception is in the case of a dual mode antenna and a 9575 model phone. A dual mode antenna has both Iridium and GPS elements built in, giving you both signals off of a single antenna. A dual mode antenna requires two cable runs—one for the Iridium signal and one for GPS. The GPS signal feeds GPS coordinates to the phone for the purpose of using the SOS and tracking features on the 9575. Globalstar always requires two cables traveling from the antenna to the phone’s docking station. The overall length of the cable determines the cable stock required in order to remain within the dB loss spec for the satellite signal. A qualified satellite equipment provider will supply you with the correct cable and connector combination for your system, so all you need to worry about is mapping out your cable run and then determining the necessary cable length. And keep in mind – the shorter the cable run the better!
  • Docking Station. In the case of Iridium, when using a remote antenna, you have the option of using the basic antenna adapter that comes with the phone, or the much preferred option of using a docking station. There are several docking station models available for Iridium phones, but they all commonly provide the four basic functions: a secure place to dock the phone, power supplied to the phone keeping it charged, antenna cable connection to the phone, and a data port interface. Depending on the docking station model, some may include additional features such as an RJ11 port, audio input/output, and Bluetooth. With Globalstar, there is one docking station model available and it comes as a package that includes the antenna and antenna cable. When ordering a Globalstar docking station kit, all you need to do is specify the marine antenna and desired cable length. Most docking stations require a 9-32VDC power source and are typically hardwired to your boat’s DC power supply. The overall advantage of a docking station, besides the inherent purpose of using it with an external antenna, is that you have a clean, streamlined, and durable installation, yet within seconds you can deploy your phone from the dock for general use off of the boat or in an emergency situation.
  • WiFi. A wireless data connection from the satellite phone to a computer, tablet, or smartphone can be achieved by adding a simple, but specialized wireless access point. The Sidekick, by OCENS, is specifically designed to interface with satellite phones. It is an optional item for use with computers, but necessary for smartphones and tablets. With a computer, besides being a wireless connection, it is largely beneficial because it eliminates the need for finicky USB drivers since the computer only has to make a standard WiFi network connection. The Sidekick is “plug-and-play” and compatible with all satellite phone models, so to install it, you simply connect it to the USB port on the phone or docking station. For power, the Sidekick requires a standard 5VDC USB power source via its micro USB port.

Installing an effective satellite communications system is not a daunting task once you understand the core components of the system and how they interact with each other. A “do-it-yourselfer” can confidently take on this job him or herself or at least understand the process before hiring a marine electrician to perform the installation. Take your cruising to the next level by leveraging the power of modern satellite communications networks.

About OCENS. OCENS has been providing satellite communications, weather, and email solutions to the marine and other industries for the past 20 years and has established a reputation of providing consistently high-quality support to all of its clients. Please contact OCENS with any questions or concerns related to satellite communications applications.

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