My fourteen-year-old daughter Mollie battles her first yellowfin tuna up to the side of the boat, I lean in with the gaff, and in one smooth motion I simultaneously secure the fish and bump her treasured cell phone out of its belt clip. As I struggle to heave the 80-pound tuna over the side, her phone falls (in slow motion, of course) to the top of the gunwale, takes a single bounce, and plops into the Atlantic. Unless another tuna happens to swim by and eat the phone, and I happen to catch it moments later, gut the fish, and retrieve a still-functional phone, I’m going to be in serious trouble.
As is the case with many teen girls, that phone is as precious to her as life itself. And the timing couldn’t be worse. She has a date tonight, and she’s supposed to text her friend the meeting time when we get back to the dock. Naturally, the only place her friend’s number is stored is inside of that phone. Ouch. But I tell her not to worry. I tell her that Verizon stores the contact numbers, and I’ll get Mom to run out and get her a new phone before we even get back to shore. She glares. She stomps. She tells me that it’s impossible, since we have no way of communicating with Mom from 70 miles offshore.
A year ago, she would have been right. But today Dad will come through. Because in the modern communications age, whether you’re 70 feet, 70 miles, or 700 miles from land, communicating with home isn’t just possible—it’s even affordable.
It may cost billions of dollars to put a satellite constellation into orbit, but we get to enjoy using it for a few hundred bucks. We spend chicken feed, and we get rocket science. Rocket science that could save your life one day, and has probably already made it a heck of a lot easier. No, I’m not talking about GPS. The electronic navigational revolution is more or less complete and has essentially left traditional navigation techniques in the dust. When’s the last time you pulled out your parallel rules? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Now there’s a different set of satellites circling the space rock we call Earth. These have made it possible to communicate virtually anywhere on the planet, and for decades now we’ve been able to establish voice links from pole to pole at any time via sat phones. Only one catch: you had to be a one-percenter to enjoy such capabilities. To the rest of us, those precious communications satellites may as well have been a bunch of space junk.
The same was true of computers, at one time in the not-so-distant past. Only governments and huge corporations could afford them. But prices fell as technology advanced, and in an amazingly short time, household computers became as commonplace as the houses themselves. Actually, more commonplace—according to the latest census numbers there are about 132 million individual houses in the USA today, but there are some 230 million home computers. This revolution has changed the way we live.
A similar revolution is taking place right now in marine communications, thanks to those satellites and some very new developments in the way we can utilize them. The catalyst: text messaging.
Let Your Fingers do the Talking
Cell phone texting has become so incredibly popular that it was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to harness this newly flowing data stream and put it to use on boats. A widely-recognized pioneer was SPOT (a subsidiary of Globalstar), which in 2007 introduced the world’s first satellite messenger. The SPOT unit essentially served the same function as a pocket-sized GPS-equipped EPIRB, providing the user with a 911 button that would alert emergency services to a need for rescue—anywhere, anytime, by bouncing a quick message off those satellites. All the unit needed to send was the signal and its GPS position—a minuscule data-burst when compared to the satellite’s usual talkative tasks.
The SPOT also had some fringe abilities, like being able to send short pre-prepped text messages such as “I will be late” or “all is OK”. More importantly, the SPOT was introduced to the market for a mere $150 plus a $100 service and activation fee. That was less than half the average cost of an EPIRB, along with other cost-saving features, such as the ability to use regular AA lithium batteries instead of specially-designed EPIRB batteries that could cost hundreds of dollars. And when compared to a full-blown sat phone, the cost savings were even larger.
The unit’s advantages were quickly recognized by the marketplace, and it sold well; in its five-year history, SPOT units have already been responsible for over 2,000 rescues. But the unit’s main limitation was obvious: it gave you a way to cry for help, and no more.
In 2011, satellite messaging took a radical leap forward when DeLorme developed the inReach, a satellite texting unit that had the ability of the SPOT plus the ability to connect with a smartphone via Bluetooth. Harnessing the phone’s screen and virtual keyboard, it became possible to tap out texts up to 160 characters, which the inReach then bounced to the satellites for delivery. Even more importantly, the system worked in reverse—with this unit, you could also receive regular cell phone text messages, even when hundreds of miles from the nearest cell tower.
The price of an inReach is higher than the SPOT, at $250 for the hardware. Subscription plans range from $10 to $50, plus individual message fees for data overages, but those fees are bound to come down over time. Note that the SPOT’s price has already been reduced by a third of its original cost, currently carrying an MSRP of $100.
Satellite Communications for the Masses
So, exactly what technology has allowed us to harness those satellite constellations with economic ease? “Miniaturization with chip sets has been key,” explained Ted O’Brien, VP and General Manager for Iridium of the Americas. “It’s allowed our partners to develop new products, like text messengers, which have brought prices down and grown the market. Meanwhile, we’ve been improving our reliability and capability. We now have 66 LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites with a cross-linked architecture. Overlapping coverage and data speed have been expanded, and as more people can enjoy the benefits of our services, cost drops.”
Saved by Technology
The text messaging services made possible by the Iridium constellation and the inReach saved my butt the day I knocked Mollie’s phone into the drink. After packing the fish on ice, I activated the inReach, turned on my Android, and had a text conversation with home. By the time we got back at the end of the day, Mollie's mom had her new cell phone ready and waiting. And had I wanted to, I could even have Facebooked or Tweeted the day’s events from the middle of the Atlantic. (Shhh, don’t tell Mollie!) Sure, I had to wait about 10 minutes for the texts to bounce around between the unit, my phone, the satellites, and the destination. But the entire communications system fit into my pocket. It cost a total of around $350 including a full year of activation.
And changing that glare back into a smile was, of course, absolutely priceless.