June 18, 2016

SMS devices vs. Sat Phone for Wx data [Updated May-2017]

We occasionally participate in various boating forums. [See our Some Forums We Read sidebar for links...]

Some of those topics may be relevant here, so sometimes we repost to our blog for reference.

The following may be one of those cases. To accommodate our non-boating blog readers, add additional detail, and/or just cause more confusion, I sometimes add some additional {information and links} to the original forum post, below.

And since we are talking about electronics, in the future technology described on this page will become dated and/or obsolete. Therefore, we will attempt to keep this information current regarding what we have and use, and what we are researching/considering for the future. Consequently, this page may be updated over time...

––––––––– Updated 30-May-2017 [by Bill] –––––––––

Introduction and background:

Delorme [now owned by Garmin] makes some great two-way satellite [Iridium] text [SMS- short message service] communicators that connect wirelessly to your smart phone(s). They seem to be usurping the once ubiquitous one-way SMS devices from Spot in the marketplace.
What is SMS? [Short Message Service]
SMS is what we typically call 'texting' or 'instant messaging' on our smart phone. It is limited to text characters only. [MMS (Multimedia Message Service) is what allows us to send photos, videos, sound clips and the like...] 
SMS messages are limited to 160 text characters per message. Multiple short messages can be chained together [concatenated] to make longer messages. But unlike email where the entire message is contained in one document, SMS is limited when longer pages of information are involved... 
SMS is great for quick, abbreviated communiqués. But do you want to read a letter composed of 20 small bits of paper, or have it all together on one sheet of paper...? 
Not only can you text with anyone in the world from anywhere in the world, but you can also log your location on a map for friends and family to follow your journey, and send SOS distress signals. 

There are many usage plans. e.g, For US$60/month you can have unlimited texting, and pause your plan when you don't need it. [You cannot currently pause Iridium phone plans in the same way without loosing minutes and/or service...] 

Recently, DeLorme introduced weather subscription services. 

However, for ocean sailing, and particularly high latitude adventures, the weather products available on SMS devices are deficient in some aspects. 
For example, SMS weather products do not currently include some of the weather forecast information considered important- perhaps critical- by many sailors for forecasting marine weather. [e.g., weather fax, GRIB files*, satellite imagery, etc.]
In the following 'reprint' of a forum discussion, I propose that a satellite phone [and perhaps even a satellite IP device like the Iridium GO! (references embedded in forum discussion, below...)] is almost as cost effective as an SMS only device, and is capable of requesting and receiving the missing weather forecast products not available via SMS only [not to mention email and voice communications in addition to SMS...] 

My proposal is that a sat phone [or hot spot like the Iridium GO!] is presently a better choice for a boat at sea than a device limited to SMS only if one needs detailed marine weather products... 

Please read this post in its entitreity before assuming I am panning two-way SMS only devices... I'm not; they have their place... just not for marine weather forecasting... Not yet anyway...


Link to Original forum post [7-Jun-2016]

Re: Complete Com and Weather with inReach

Originally Posted by artisthos View Post
I think I have solved our weather and communications system. Use an inReach. DeLorme inReach - Two-way satellite text messaging, tracking and SOS anywhere in the world now they have weather.
The expedition plan is $65 a month which you can purchased by the month. Each weather download is a dollar. I have not confirmed that this is the Premium Marine Plan which we would have.
The inReach Explorer device is $380. Plugging it into a pad or laptop would give you the weather with wind and waves.
You can communicate with unlimited 114 character messages.
Combine this with a AIS VHF receiver to see ships broadcasting.
A chart plotter like GPS Navigator may complete the system.
Plus it would be easy on the batteries.

Maybe we could avoid getting radar which is hell on the battery.

Thanks for a great group, I'd buy you all a beer if I could find the link.
Hi Tom,

What a fun adventure you have planned.

As a fellow high latitude sailor [but on the other coast...] I would encourage you to gain a deeper understanding of the marine weather [and Wx forecasting] in the areas you plan to travel before concluding that the automated products currently available via SMS only [Delorme, etc.] are adequate for your needs.

My statement has nothing to do with whether the DeLorme, Yellowbrick, and similar two way SMS devices are useful. They are, but within limits with regards to weather products.

Expanding on what I mean about Marine Wx, I believe there is a difference between understanding the Wx, and understanding the Wx products available for diagnosing/predicting/confirming the Wx where you are. [For more details, here is a related blog post which links back to another somewhat related discussion on this forum, and contains links to some of the excellent marine Wx resources we rely upon...]

What are some of the Wx products I cannot do without when traversing higher latitudes that are not all available via SMS? 

  • Weather Fax [surface forecasts and 500mb charts]
  • Satellite Images
  • Forecaster's Discussion [What were 'they' thinking?...]
  • Detailed Marine Forecasts
  • GRIB files of my choosing [variable data as needed; one download feeds several applications onboard]
  • Etc.

Very recently I assisted some fellow sailors on a crossing they made by aggregating [and sometimes interpreting...] and sending Wx info they could not find/receive through other resources on their DeLorme InReach, so I have some recent experience with this.

It looks like the recently released DeLorme Wx offering is a nice interface rendering GRIB data. But I constantly remind myself GRIB data is computer generated and not interpreted by a human- except you and I... WeFax charts contain those interpretations, as well as illustrate fronts, have ship reports from the area, etc...

Another point I would like to make is, after a quick cost analysis I would argue that doing all this via sat phone costs about the same, and yields far more usable results and capabilities.

e.g., A used Iridium Sat phone costs the same [for older phones- scroll down to the 9505] as a new InReach. [For the sake of discussion, newer used sat phones cost twice as much. Scroll to 9555 on above link...]

Your annual unlimited SMS service with DeLorme is US$65/mo for a monthly contract, or $600/yr for an annual contract; 500 Int'l sat phone minutes are US$730/yr. We use about 400 minutes/year downloading Wx data twice daily [as needed], and send/receive text only email and SMS messages as well. And we can make voice calls in an emergency.

DeLorme forecasts are US$1/each, so that would be US$2/day for us. For US$1/day we subscribe to UUplus service so we can download any Wx products we need [all free via SailDocs] and send/receive email with anyone. Of course it uses sat phone minutes, but that is already accounted for above.

We can also do all of the above on our Marine SSB/MF/HF radio, but we choose to use the sat phone for reliability and expediency.

[Here is my detailed write-up about our Sat phone and costs, which includes more specifics (and hopefully clarity) with links to much of what I mentioned above.]

In closing, please don't take my comments as discouragement regarding your adventure. Please accept them as encouragement to further your depth of understanding of marine weather- especially for the complicated weather areas you plan to explore.

There are many Wx prediction products, and several somewhat cost effective methods for receiving them while on the water. I hope this provides more food for thought as you work through what might be best for you.

Best wishes with your impending adventure!



PS: As a side note, I would also strongly advise RADAR capability for your trip [Dense Fog...] The newer digital units (3G, 4G, etc.) are very easy on the batteries... [We have a 4G and speak from experience...]

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