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.