Should you choose a satellite phone or SSB radio and Pactor modem for your next long distance adventure. We compare and contrast the two systems to help you reach a decision. Let the debate rage on; Satellite or SSB.
Connection speed: Lightspeed
What it is: An SSB radio sends and receives high-frequency (HF) radio signals. These signals, because of their long wavelength, can bounce between the ground and the atmosphere and cover very large distances at the speed of light. It is common to be able to talk to another boat more than 1000 miles away. When paired with a modem, digital information can be sent through the radio signal.
Pros: Real-time voice communication, receive Weatherfax and listen to weather updates, connect to radio networks, emergency Digital Selective Calling (DSC), no subscription, pairs with Pactor modem or similar.
Cons: Relatively expensive start-up cost, involved setup and installation (including: ground plane, antenna and antenna tuner), large power draw (up to 9A when transmitting), requires good conditions for signal propagation (usually dawn and dusk), limited connection distance and subject to bounce zones (a phenomenon where the signal has bounced over the intended receiver). Little privacy.
How people use it: The SSB comes into its own for weekend and coastal cruising in North America. There are a variety of SSB nets throughout Canada, USA and Mexico that allow mariners to keep in touch and provide local information, including weather. When paired with a Pactor modem the SSB can be used to send and receive digital signals (see beow). HAM operators have access to the Winlink network to send and receive digital information (including weather downloads) for free.
Connection speed: up to 10500 bytes/min (Pactor IV), but usually less than half in most operations
What it is: A Pactor modem converts radio signals to digital information and vice versa. Information, such as an email, is composed on a computer, then sent to the Pactor modem, where it is converted into sound and sent via the SSB in the form of a high-frequency radio transmission.
Pros: Turns SSB into a digital capable device
Cons: Expensive, limited functionality, slow data speed
Cost: $1000 + subscription
Connection speed: Up to 2400 bytes/sec
What it is: The Iridium GO! works like a wireless router. The user connects a device, like a computer, Ipad or smartphone to the Iridium GO! through wifi. The Iridium GO! connects to a satellite and apps on the paired device allow the user to send and receive data.
Pros: Very low power draw (<1 amp when charging), long battery, easy to use, no installation cost, connection 24/7, free accompanying app provides access to email, text, Facebook, Twitter, voice calling and limited web browsing (wayyyyy slower than dial-up, which means it’s functionally useless for web browsing).
Cons: Expensive data plans, no built-in weather data service. Unlimited data packages can be had for $125 USD/month, which is a nice option if you are a frequent user. Included in these plans are voice minutes that often roll-over from month to month if they aren’t fully used.
How people use it: The Iridium GO! has become a common item on offshore sailing vessels. It’s low power draw and relatively quick data speeds mean that you can get more frequent and faster connectivity, which is nice when your’e staring down a bank of black clouds. It is less common among coastal cruisers, but is gaining in popularity as data plans become less expensive.
Robin was born and raised in the Canadian North. His first memory of travel on water was by dogsled across a frozen lake. After studying environmental science and engineering he moved to Vancouver aboard a 35’ sailboat with his partner, Fiona, with the idea to fix up the boat and sail around the world. He has written for several sailing publications including SAIL, Cruising World, and was previously a contributing editor at Good Old Boat.