Panbo

Inmarsat Fleet One, affordable FleetBroadband for real?

... written for Panbo by Ben Ellison and posted on Jun 2, 2014

Sailor_Inmarsat_Fleet_One_system_aPanbo.jpgBoaters looking for a reliable, moderately fast satellite Internet connection for light and/or occasional use have learned to be leery of Inmarsat. When FleetBroadband came out in 2009 -- particularly the FB150 model with its easily installed 13.5-inch stabilized antenna -- it seemed like a reasonably affordable option for bluewater cruising. This promise was confirmed in a terriffic Panbo review series conducted by Gram Schweikert as his family sailed from Maine to New Zealand with both KVH FB150 and Iridium OpenPort antennas mounted on the spreaders. Note the fairly friendly FB rate sheet published in Gram's installation entry and how (with very careful data use) he found the FB150 quite useful out in the Pacific at only about $100 to $150 a month in service charges. Unfortunately, the deal changed...

In 2011 Inmarsat purportedly modified the terms their service resellers could use -- causing particular pain to intermittent users (and the dealer/installers who had set them up) -- and in 2012 we got a clearer understanding of the company's motivation. Inmarsat's VSAT competitors in the data-hungry ship and megayacht market were using nearly global FB systems as a backup to cover the areas they couldn't. Suddenly, the middle class yacht could no longer, say, prepurchase 12 months of a basic $59/mo service plan and use the total block of 60 up/download megabytes and 1,100 voice minutes however they wanted during that year. The FB150 is still available, but you don't see them on many cruising boats.

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Well, Fleet One is Inmarsat's new attempt to "meet the particular communications needs of leisure mariners, day boaters and sport and coastal fisherman," and the Sailor Fleet One hardware pictured at the top of the entry looks remarkably similar to the Sailor 150 FleetBroadband System. In fact, it may well be the exact same hardware, but with software that only enables one voice connection at a time and that limits data speeds to 100 kbps -- versus FB150's "up to" 150 kbps. The major difference, though, is that Fleet One's attractive rates only apply within the coastal regions shown in green above...

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The green (or lavendar) regions are actually quite substantial. It looks, for instance, like a yacht could cruise throughout the Carribean and then passage to New England via Bermuda without ever crossing the line where Fleet One prepaid data rates take a huge leap from $5 to $40 a megabyte. With "In Region" voice calls at 68 cents a minute, Fleet One could be just the right service level above a sat phone (or maybe the new Iridium GO!). You're not going to surf around the Web like you do when you're on land-based WiFi or cellular connections, but carefully managed Internet use should be easy and fairly quick. Cruisers will also appreciate the fact that $50/30 day prepaid vouchers are good for a year and that unused time can roll over onto another voucher if it's activated before the first one's 30 days is up. Plus, an activated SIM card can go unused for 8 months before another $100 activation fee is needed. And note that the same hypothetical coast-of-North-America yacht could pick up the same Region rate in the Med, and they still would have had easy data access while crossing the Atlantic, though at a premium rate (that will discourage use of Fleet One as a VSAT backup :-).

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Installing the Fleet One BDU and ADU -- the below and above decks units -- looks fairly straightforward. The above manual illustration is from the Inmarsat-branded hardware, which looks very similar to the proven Skipper FB150. Accessing Fleet One Internet via the built-in browser pages, illustrated below, also looks fairly straightforward. I'd still recommend having a reputable dealer/installer involved, though, if nothing else than to serve as an advocate with Inmarsat if things turn sour. The company may want to work with leisure boaters, and this offering seems attractive, but I'm not sure they've learned how to treat us. For instance, I'm pretty sure that even though a Fleet One system could use its included GPS to warn a user if they've crossed a Region border into high rate territory, it does not. That's why the non-partisan sat comms expert who supplied much of the info for this entry favors pre-paid usage. "It limits liability!" Soon, the Web should have more information and opinions about Fleet One. I'll be paricularly interested in what Global Marine Networks has to say, and note that they already like the Iridium Pilot (formerly known as OpenPort for similar user profiles.

Inmarsat_FleetOne_web_console_aPanbo.jpg

Comments

I will be VERY curious to hear what people have to say about the Fleet One system. I first heard about it a few weeks ago and I understand the hardware is identical to FB150. Curious if they would consider a firmware "upgrade" to those FB150 customers who have been abandoned by Inmarsat to allow them to use the Fleet one software and pricing scheme. I can't help but feel this "new" system is really just a ridiculous kluge to allow Inmarsat to keep overcharging it's customers. Why again do bits from the same satellite cost 9 times as much when I am 601nm from the nearest shoreline as opposed to 599nm?

We are currently in the last year of a 3 year contract on our Iridium Openport system that set a base $50/month for service with all usage charge a-la-carte at approx $5/mb though I am not sure if these rates are still available today as that service provider has now started pushing inmarsat products. We had to sign on for 3 years to get those sort of rates and while the $50/month is a real issue now that the boat has returned to Maine and is only used in bursts, compared to the other options at the time, it was by far the best option we had.

We continue to look for good offshore data options for Visions of Johanna for when our contract expires, and have started looking at the Fleet One system as well as narrow-band options like the Iridium Go, but as we already have invested in the hardware, and have the space for broadband options, it is hard to step back to the VERY slow connections like the Iridium Go when their pricing schemes are still generally dependent on maintaining monthly subscriptions that go unused for 6+ months a year.

At least with the pre-paid Fleet-One pricing, you can envision a usage where you spend $50 every 20-30 days for the 4-5 months you use your boat, rolling over your airtime during that time if you don't use it, then "hibernate your system for 7 months before activating another $50 voucher. The problem is that this requires your careful attention to ensure that you re-up before your 30-day window expires during usage times and that your 8-month window doesn't expire or else you have to get a new sim card and pay another $100 activation. I am afraid most boat owners have better things to do than carefully track their sat phone bills. Also, what guarantee to customers have that their $4000 investment in hardware won't become useless to them in a year if Inmarsat decides to change their pricing scheme and get rid of the pre-paid rollover option?

Posted by: Gram Schweikert at June 2, 2014 8:16 AM | Reply

It would appear to be a very transparent move to compete with VSAT rates and at the same time highly-discourage use as a VSAT backup system.

Posted by: Shea Weston at June 2, 2014 12:18 PM | Reply

The prepaid function works well for the casual boater. It's designed so you can "pre-purchase" 50 unit vouchers from your marine electronics dealer.

When you first activate, you only load the vouchers you need to use for your cruise, then you can let the service expire.

When you're ready to go out again, you make a toll-free call from your sleeping Fleet One to short code 951 and load another voucher. You won't get hit with an activation charge and should load up with just enough units for this next trip.

Posted by: Inmarsat Dave at June 2, 2014 1:41 PM | Reply

Inmarsat Dave -- can you provide details of how this pre-paid service works, or a link to details? I am a bit confused as to what you are suggesting. Can you load less than $50 at a time?

Also, based on your "handle" do you have any idea if it is possible to update a FB150 system with the Fleet one firmware so it could be used with that pricing scheme instead?

Thanks.

Posted by: Gram Schweikert in reply to Inmarsat Dave at June 2, 2014 4:43 PM | Reply

Thank you for your questions Gram S. You should be able to find details on prepaid services through your local marine electronics dealer, if you can't,let me know.

You can load only $50 or multiples of $50. My point was that you can "pre-purchase" vouchers, but don't apply them to your SIM card until you're actually ready to use the service.

Also, I'm sorry to report that there will be no way to "cross service" with Fleet Broadband. Fleet Broadband terminals will only work with FB SIMS, and Fleet One terminals will only work with FO SIMS.

Posted by: Inmarsat Dave at June 2, 2014 4:55 PM | Reply

Thank you Dave,

I can't find service details anywhere online yet, just hardware costs, so might you be able to provide a link to details?

Also, do you know if the terminals are physically identical to the FB150 or have they actually made any changes beyond software.

Thanks -- Gram

Posted by: Gram Schweikert at June 3, 2014 7:04 AM | Reply

The hardware is the same as the 150 for now.

Posted by: emsusa at June 5, 2014 10:36 PM | Reply

The hardware is the same as FB150, but different firmware and they are not interchangeable.
The In Region pricing is:
1. Prepaid MRRP it $5/MB and $0.50/minute for voice (prepaid in ($50 vouchers only. Vouchers are good for 365 days from date of purchase, and $50 credit is good for 30 days from Voucher activation.
2. postpaid is one year contract with a maximum of 4 months per year suspended service at $20/month, and suspended time added to end of contract. $70/month and that includes 10 MBs of data and voice is $0.50/minute.
Out of Region MSRP is $40/MB and $3/minute.
'505' distress call, connecting you directly to Regional Search & Rescue Coordination Center is free from anywhere in the world!

Posted by: Stephen Buckingham at June 6, 2014 11:35 AM | Reply

Satellite Internet.

Look, it's all chasing a rainbow that does not exist, and you're wasting a lot of money on it. The satellite systems cost a lot and don't give you much except the status (dubious) of having a sat dome on your yacht.

Here is a low tech/low cost alternative which works better:

1. Install a SSB and Pactor system for those times when you are at sea. Trust me, it ain't often, and you can send and receive email, download weather, and text versions of web pages with no data charges. Yes, it's fiddly, and costs $250/year.

2. Buy a USB modem and local prepaid sim cards and get pretty good cellular based Internet whenever and wherever you are, close to shore (which is most of the time). Every year these 3G and 4G services get cheaper, faster, and have better coverage.
In Central America we can watch videos, use up to 4 GB a month, and pay less than $50. Similar rates and services in Asia, Australia, Africa, and the Caribbean. In the San Blas they didn't even have toilets, but we had good Internet connections and we could top-up the prepaid and buy data packages online.

Believe me, I waited years for a reasonable satellite system and it never came. I broke down and went for the old technology and, I tell you, it works. Power usage is low as well.

Stop dreaming about satellite.

Posted by: wingssail at June 7, 2014 11:39 PM | Reply

Oh, I forgot the latest fad among cruisers:

One person on the boat puts a data package on his/her smart phone and then turns on the "hotspot" function and everyone gets a WiFi connection on their tablets, phones, laptops, etc.

You put about $25 of prepaid on the one phone, buy data one day at a time (each morning, for example, you buy a 1-day package with a simple SMS message for $.99 and you get 150 MB).

Posted by: wingssail at June 7, 2014 11:48 PM | Reply

Best of all, there is no equipment to mount, no wiring, no contracts, dealers...anything. You have a smart phone, you buy your first top up from the girl on the corner, and that's it. You're good to go. Internet for dummies, its a no-brainer.

Posted by: wingssail at June 7, 2014 11:52 PM | Reply

Good points all, Wingsail, but there are still cruisers who want sat domes for more than the look. And I'm happy to report that there's a new FleetBroadband and Fleet One service provider about to announce themselves who may be perfect for some bluewater cruisers, ocean racers, and offshore fishermen. Stay tuned.

Posted by: Ben at June 11, 2014 12:35 PM | Reply

I'm not about to get sucked back in after purchasing a Skipper 150 that initially started out with good rates. That didn't last long. I am hoping there will be a pre-paid provider (for limited use) boaters like myself that are stuck with deactivated fleet broadband equipment (FB-150).
Bill
36 Gulfstar Mark II

Posted by: Bill Lentz at July 10, 2014 5:16 PM | Reply

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