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December 09, 2014

Satellite Internet At Sea: Hardware, Airtime, and Pricing

We often get asked what is the most affordable option for satellite internet while at sea. As the satellite industry matures, more and more options are becoming available for internet connectivity on your boat and some of them can be very affordable. The options we've detailed here are intended for single users or small crew situations. (For large satellite internet options at sea, please contact us). 

Satellite internet is still more expensive than any land-based internet you will find. How affordable (or not) it can be depends almost exclusively on how you use it. 

Low-data usage (low cost)

Downloading weather files
Very small webpages (like NOAA, etc) 

Note: if this is the kind of data you'll exclusively be doing, you will also be very well-served by a handheld satellite phone, as most of them can do this for you for a much smaller up front hardware cost. Popular options are the Iridium 9555, Iridium GO!, and RedPort Aurora

High-data usage (higher costs)

Web-browsing, especially without compression
Any kind of streaming service (Youtube, Skype, Spotify, etc)
Certain VoIP services
Large and frequent file downloads

Satellite Terminals for Marine Satellite Internet

Now that we know what kind of internet activities will most affect your satellite airtime bill, let's talk about the equipment. 

Iridium Pilot

Iridium PilotThe Iridium Pilot is a fixed installation antenna that provides broadband capability. It is one of the least-expensive hardware options for marine satellite internet. Although it runs slow by land speeds (up to 128kbps - about twice the speed of dial-up) it is significantly faster than a handheld satellite phone (which runs at 2.4 kbps - 25 times slower than dial-up).

Because of this and other operational features of the unit, doing basic activities like email, weather, and voice calling becomes incredibly inexpensive. Downloading a GRIB file over a handheld satellite phone will cost somewhere around $2.15 in airtime. Downloading the same GRIB file over the Pilot would cost about 2 cents in airtime. While the upfront costs of the unit are more than a handheld, the ongoing costs are significantly less. Adding in the ability to web-browse (which, while expensive and slow, is possible and a very nice feature to have in an emergency!) means that you get a much higher quality of service than with a handheld satellite phone. 

Hardware cost: $4,793 for the Iridium Pilot Savings Bundle
Airtime cost: From as low as $39 a month, with seasonal contracts available.
Estimated low-usage cost: Around $50 - $100 a month will cover you for email, downloading weather GRIB files, and doing emergency web-browsing.
Estimated high-usage cost: Committing to bundle with 1,000 MB per month will cost you just over $1,000 a month, with per-MB overage from $0.56 each.
Coverage: Worldwide, pole-to-pole 

More info: we have a great (free!) guide to affordable satellite broadband that specifically looks at usage cases for the Iridium Pilot. You can check that out here

Inmarsat FleetBroadband

Sailor FleetBroadbandFleetBroadband is one of the oldest marine satellite broadband options and certainly one of the most reliable. FleetBroadband comes in 3 different terminals: the 150, 250, and 500. Each terminal reflects the max download speed of the unit (the 150 goes up to 150 kbps). FleetBroadband works most places on the planet, provides smooth connectivity for downloads, and remains a popular choice for everyone from cruisers to commercial vessels. 

Hardware cost: Around $6,000 for a Sailor 150, around $11,000 for a Sailor 250, and around $16,000 for a Sailor 500
Airtime cost: While prepaid options are available, be sure to read the fine print. We recommend a postpaid plan. These start at $106 a month (includes 5 MB of data).  
Estimated low-usage cost: Around $100 a month will cover you for email, downloading weather GRIB files, and doing emergency web-browsing.
Estimated high-usage cost: FleetBroadband postpaid options for high usage jump from 200 MB per month to 2 GB (with nothing in-between). 200 MB per month will cost you around $1,000 and 2 GB per month will cost you around $2,000. 
Coverage: Excellent coverage up to 70 degrees latitude. For worldwide coverage, consider adding an Iridium Pilot as backup. 

Inmarsat Fleet One

cobham fleet oneInmarsat Fleet One is the newest satellite broadband option from Inmarsat. It is basically a lean version of a FleetBroadband 150. It runs at a max speed of 100 kbps and offers very inexpensive airtime options...with a catch. Inmarsat has created a special coverage map for the Fleet One. If you're within the "home zone" you get fantastic airtime rates of around $6 a MB. But if you go outside of the home zone you get dinged at $33 a MB. 

Hardware cost: $3,295 for the AddValue Fleet One and $4,154 for the Sailor Fleet One
Airtime cost: Prepaid and postpaid available. For $60 a month you get 10 MB a month within the home zone. 
Estimated low-usage cost: Around $60 a month will cover you for email, downloading weather GRIB files, and doing limited web-browsing.
Estimated high-usage cost: Hard to calculate. There isn't a graduated scale for Fleet One airtime so usage as high as 1,000 MB a month would cost you around $5,800 (for home zone) - not a great solution. If you plan on doing high data usage, consider a different system. 
Coverage: Excellent coverage up to 70 degrees latitude. For worldwide coverage, consider adding an Iridium Pilot as backup. 


KVH TracPhoneThe KVH Mini-VSAT, more than any other broadband unit available for individual users, offers the fastest, cheapest airtime. With data speeds up to 2 mbps (around what you would get on 3G on your cellphone), you can quickly and easily access the web. There are three KVH systems: the V3, the V7, and the V11. The V3 is the least expensive at around $13,000 and the most popular with individual sailors. 

KVH airtime is where the system really shines. Starting at $49 a month, KVH overage per MB is only $0.99 to $1.99. 

Hardware cost: Around $13,00 for the V3 (although contact us, we might be able to make you deal), around $30,000 for the V7, and around $60,000 for the V11. 
Airtime cost: Postpaid airtime starts at $49 per month. (For the V7 and the V11, unlimited plans are available starting at $995 per month). 
Estimated low-usage cost: $49 a month will easily cover you for email, downloading weather GRIB files, and light web-browsing.
Estimated high-usage cost: 1,000 MB a month costs $999 per month, with $0.99 per MB in overage. 
Coverage: KVH has good coverage in the Northern hemisphere, but doesn't have good coverage in the Southern hemisphere. Many users use an Iridium Pilot as a backup if they plan on traveling outside of the KVH coverage area.

Please contact us for pricing on KVH equipment and airtime.

Find the Right Satellite Internet System

Not sure which marine satellite internet system is right for you? Request a free satellite communications consultation today to get a custom recommendation for satcomms just for you. 

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