Satellite Tracking Platforms

An attribute inherent in most satellite communications devices is the ability to use them for asset/personnel tracking. I will discuss the various satellite communications platforms and how to implement tracking with each one.

First is a brief summary on how tracking works. The device used for tracking needs to be able to perform two basic functions: 1) acquire a GPS position and 2) send the position report to the internet. Of course, if the position report is being sent, it also needs to be received on the other end. The internet makes this possible and most tracking platforms are web-based, including our own OTrak portal. The portal will receive the report, and plot each position report on a map, and can also perform a myriad of other functions such as geofencing, alerts, speed changes, altitude, heading, etc.

There are many GSM devices that can be used for tracking, but satellite tracking devices are used when GSM is not available or when an asset moves in and out of GSM coverage in order to provide consistent and contiguous reporting. Satellite devices have coverage virtually anywhere since all they need is a line of sight to the sky.

Within satellite platforms there are many different options, but we can break the whole group up into two broad categories: 1) Tracking as an “add-on feature” and 2) Dedicated tracking devices.

Tracking as an “add-on feature”

Several of the handheld satellite phones and most of the larger satellite terminals have built in tracking capabilities.

Handheld Satellite Phones

The Iridium 9575 Extreme is the only handheld satellite phone that can provide stand-alone automated position reporting. It has a built in GPS engine and uses the Iridium SBD (Short Burst Data) service to send position reports. It can also send reports manually via SMS. The Iridium 9555 is capable of sending position reports, but only in conjunction with a docking station that has a built-in GPS engine, such as the Beam 9555SD-G.

The IsatPhone Pro from Inmarsat, on the other hand, can send manual GPS position reports via SMS as a standalone operation and can perform automated reporting when used with a GPS enabled docking station, such as the Beam IsatDock Drive.

Fleet Broadband

Any of the Thrane&Thrane Fleet Broadband terminals can send automated position reports with the latest firmware version. You simply have to go into the tracking menu  in the User Interface (UI) and configure your terminal to report to the tracking portal and then register your terminal’s IMEI in the portal.

BGAN

Similar to Fleet Broadband, any of the Thrane&Thrane BGAN terminals can provide position reporting simply by setting it up in the UI. The Wideye Safari vehicular terminal can also provide reporting directly via the terminal.

 

Dedicated Tracking Devices

Iridium SBD

Iridium can provide dedicated tracking via its SBD service. Terminals are available from both ASE and Beam. The terminal requires an antenna, of which a large variety exist, and an antenna cable which connects the antenna to the terminal. The antenna needs to be installed so that it will have visibility to the sky and the terminal requires a DC power source.

Isat Data Pro

Inmarsat’s small packet data platform, the IsatData Pro, is also frequently used as a dedicated tracking device. The IsatData Pro is a one-piece terminal with a built in omnidirectional antenna and is available in three configurations: Marine, Vehicular, and Dual-Mode. The Marine terminal is slightly taller and provides lower look angles to account for pitch and roll, whereas the vehicular version has a lower profile antenna. The dual-mode terminal incorporates least-cost-routing with GSM as the primary service and satellite as the failover. The IsatData Pro is highly configurable so can be set up to receive and transmit a large variety of data input.

For whatever your tracking needs are, there is most certainly a solution to fit them. If you already have a satellite device and are not using it for tracking, then there is more than likely a way to utilize it as a tracking device in addition to any of the other functions it performs.

Please contact OCENS for more information and to get help with setting up your tracking services.

 

 

“Be Prepared” Satellite Phone Voice Services: What does it cost to save a life?

The cost-of-ownership for Iridium, Globalstar and the IsatPhone Pro’s handheld voice services are compared. IsatPhone Pro’s hardware prices and newly available prepaid airtime plans establish it as the lowest cost option for always-ready emergency voice communications.

Perhaps it’s simply because you like to be prepared, just in case the car gets stuck on the way home from this winter’s ski trip. Or just in case the next hurricane knocks out all the phone lines and cellular service between here and who knows where. Or maybe just in case you break a leg on your next back-country hiking or hunting trip. Whatever the reason, you’ve realized the only way to talk to someone to ask for help in a crisis without conventional communications is to have a mobile satellite phone handy. Now what do you do? And what is the least expensive means of satisfying your passion for preparedness without having to pinch every other penny in your possession?

Before diving into our analysis of available options for “just-in-case” satellite voice systems, one simple truth needs to be addressed. Like any cell phone, a satellite phone that isn’t activated under an airtime plan is nothing more than an expensive paperweight. Furthermore, if you’ve waited to activate your satellite phone until your emergency actually happens, you’ve waited too long. The whole reason you’re considering a satellite phone is because you’re concerned about losing communications during a natural disaster or personal emergency. What do you need to activate a satellite phone? Yes, communications.  What have you just lost with your regional, local or personal emergency? That’s right, communications. So indeed, you’ve saved yourself from paying a monthly service fee for your satellite phone’s airtime plan by purchasing that satellite phone and putting it in the drawer inactivated. In so doing, you’ve also emasculated the potential of this phone to possibly save your life. Consequently, any meaningful analysis of the costs-of-ownership of a life-saving satellite phone has to consider up-front hardware AND on-going airtime costs.

Three competitors presently vie to provide you with your just-in-case voice solution. There’s Iridium, the seasoned veteran with its 9555 and Extreme 9575 phones. Globalstar, injured and out of commission for five years but returning in 2013 with high hopes of climbing back into the mix. And then there is the IsatPhone, new to the handheld game but aggressively priced and carrying with it Inmarsat’s heritage of success in fixed phone installations.

Iridium

Of the three competitors, Iridium is the only truly global satellite phone. Pole-to-pole coverage grants to the Iridium network unprecedented reliability and access to voice communications no matter where you roam.  But such system capability doesn’t come cheap. Its 9555 phone is routinely priced around $1200. The high-end 9575 Extreme does contain built-in GPS which can be accessed for personal tracking and its SOS button can be triggered for emergency help but you’ll need to shell out almost $1500 to purchase the 9575 phone.

Iridium airtime service doesn’t do anything to lighten your cost-of-ownership. The least expensive way to keep an Iridium phone active and relevant to you as a communication solution during an emergency is with a postpaid airtime plan. Whereas Iridium once offered a postpaid voice-only plan that creative resellers were able to market for as little as $25 per month, Iridium slammed that door shut in mid-2012. As such, their least expensive postpaid plan now runs almost twice as high at $45 per month ($540 per year). This excludes any of the per minute charges you’d actually pay when you talk over the phone (although if the issue is getting someone to you in time to save life and property, the per minute rate you’re paying is probably the least of your concerns). Couple that with the price of the 9555 or 9575 and your first year cost-of-ownership with Iridium runs between $1700 and $2000! Global coverage is great but if emergency voice communication is your criterion and cost is a deciding factor, you are paying an awful lot to make sure you can make such a call from the North Pole.

Globalstar

The Globalstar system has been largely offline since early 2007 when solar radiation zapped the duplex transceivers on the majority of the satellites in the Globalstar constellation. As such, no matter how inexpensive or cost-effective Globalstar airtime has been since 2007, the lack of Globalstar coverage over the past five years has excluded it from any consideration as a just-in-case satellite solution. But the company has been inching its way back to being a bona-fide sat com provider in 2011 and 2012 and should complete the re-launch of its constellation by early 2013. In September 2012, most locations in the Globalstar footprint (see coverage map below) receive 45 to 50 minutes of coverage in a given hour.  This amount of up-time and the imminent launch completion convinces us it should now play a role in your just-in-case satellite phone considerations.

 

GlobalStar Coverage Map

Globalstar’s 1700 phone sells for $499. Because of the state of its network, the company has been offering unlimited airtime at the unheard of rate of $40 per month. Amazingly, if you have an active phone and can find a working satellite, you will spend less to talk through the Globalstar satellite network than you will on most cell phone plans.

However, because I’m going to assume you wouldn’t mind paying $10 a minute if it will save your life, the fact that Globalstar’s $40 per month provides unlimited talk time is largely irrelevant to our calculus here.  What we’re more interested in right now is knowing it will cost me $480 for my first year of Globalstar airtime to be prepared to make that all-important one or two minute call for help. Combining $480 in annual airtime costs with the $499 price of the Globalstar 1700 and the first year cost-of-ownership with Globalstar is $979, almost one-half the first year cost of Iridium. It’s hard to say what Globalstar will do with its airtime plans once the full satellite constellation is in place (prior to the Globalstar constellation demise in 2007, low end airtime plans were in the $50 per month range), but right now in late 2012, it costs you much less to buy and maintain an active Globalstar phone than it does with Iridium.

Inmarsat

Your third option is Inmarsat’s IsatPhone Pro. Inmarsat has been a global leader in satellite communications for decades, but it entered the handheld market only very recently (in the US not until late 2010). Although coverage extends from 70N to 70S, the fact that its geostationary satellites are positioned at the equator makes an IsatPhone Pro sensitive to the direction the antenna on the handheld phone is pointed, particularly at higher latitudes. Users above about 45 degrees of latitude must have clear views of the sky to the south and orient the phone’s antenna in that direction to minimize signal drop.

Aside from these limitations, the IsatPhone is an excellent solution for voice communications. Voice quality is high and because those Inmarsat satellites aren’t moving, once you’ve achieved a signal lock, the connection is very stable. The price of the phone is around $700 after an Inmarsat price hike in early 2012. This has been more than compensated for by Inmarsat with its globalization of prepaid service on September 1, 2012. This change lowered the annual cost of airtime service to less than $200 for the IsatPhone Pro and consequently has elevated the phone’s status as a cost-effective, “just-in-case” satellite solution immeasurably.

The minimum year one cost of ownership for the IsatPhone and airtime service is under $900 ($897 for a complete hardware/airtime kit from OCENS).  This is almost $100 less than Globalstar and less than half the cost of Iridium. The IsatPhone Pro’s comprehensive coverage (both temporally and geographically) gives it a further leg up on Globalstar.

The following chart offers a summary comparison of year one costs of hardware and airtime from the three providers:

Cost Comparison Chart

Inmarsat’s low annual airtime cost also means it delivers to you the lowest on-going cost year-in, year-out.  Second and later year costs of operation of the IsatPhone Pro are $300to $350 less than Globalstar or Iridium.

Ongoing Cost Comparison Chart

Consequently, IF your objective is the least expensive route to accessible satellite phone voice communications just in case everything goes to heck in a hand basket, the IsatPhone is your answer. It does this by merging middle-of-the-road hardware costs for its handheld phone with annual airtime costs substantially below Iridium and Globalstar.

 CLICK HERE to see the OCENS IsatPhone Pro “Be Prepared” kit.

 

 

New Iridium Australia and New Zealand Postpaid Regional Plan

OCENS now offers a new Australia and New Zealand postpaid regional airtime plan. The plan is only $25 per month and in-region calls made while within Australia and New Zealand are only $0.80 per minute. Roaming, out-of-region calls are $1.59 per minute. See all of the details on this plan here.

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.