IsatPhone Pro does data, XGate a must?
I briefly tested the IsatPhone Pro last summer, later we enjoyed the “independent study” war, and recently Inmarsat announced that the phone can now be used as a narrow bandwidth modem when attached via USB cable to a PC. But don’t be fooled by the fudgy “effective data rate of up to 20kbps” language in that press release. Global Marine Networks (GMN) has extensively tested the IsatPhone Pro with its excellent XGate sat phone email service and, as the table above indicates, 20kbps only applies to (highly compressible) plain text emails. In fact, GMN’s tech wizard Luis Soltero tells me that the phone’s raw data rate is about 1.7 kbps, “a tad slower than an Iridium”…
Apparently XGate is the only Inmarsat-approved solution for the IsatPhone Pro so far, and according to Soltero only GMN’s modem drivers — and not Inmarsat’s — actually work with the phone. He also revealed that the “IsatPhone currently only works with Windows. Mac users are currently out of luck unless they run windows VMware or Parallels. We have tested the IsatPhone under VMware on a Mac and it works perfectly. Note that Beam has not yet released data capable firmware for their docking stations but plan to do so in the very near future.” But he added that it’s “expected that Mac users will be able to use the IsatPhone Pro natively when in a dock once Beam releases their data firmware. This is exactly the same situation with the Iridium 9555 when it was first released (there is an extensive post on Panbo on this). Inmarsat has no ETA for Mac (or Linux) support.”
Incidentally, Dr. Soltero thinks that a Beam IsatDock is pretty important for offshore sailors because, at least where he lives at 40° North “You have to aim the antenna at the satellite for a minute before it registers and then you have to keep it aimed until the call is placed. (Once the call is in progress you can then move around.) On a bobbing sailboat this would be difficult.” He has a Beam external antenna “which makes the phone very usable”, and he figures that the needed antenna/dock makes the Iridium/Inmarsat hardware costs pretty similar:
Iridium 9555 + External Antenna + Antenna Cable + Dock
$1295 + $250 + $149 + $500 –> $2194
IsatPhone Pro + External Antenna + Antenna Cable + Dock
$620 + $575 + $130 + $775 –> $2100
And while Inmarsat airtime is less expensive, Soltero feels that the slower data rate balances that out for boaters who use the time more for email and weather downloads than voice calls…and so he concludes that “the two systems are quite equivalent.”
However, I think that the IsatPhone Pro’s low handset price, along with the generous prepaid voucher deals (which will hopefully be available along U.S. coasts soon), may create a market for sat phones amongst boaters GMN is not used to serving. I’m thinking of coastal cruisers like myself who only occasionally wander outside cell coverage. They are probably willing to work with the phone’s data performance without a dock and external antenna, and they probably won’t like paying about $20 a month for XGate service either. Which makes me wonder if there’s an alternative email client that might not be as easy and fast, but will serve in a pinch. If you know of one, please speak up.
In the meantime, GMN has great page on XGate with IsatPhone, including a well done how-to booklet and two videos, including one on updating the phone’s firmware that would be useful even to someone not planning to use XGate. And, in fact, there are other services that claim to work well with Inmarsat’s new data service — like Vizada’s SkyFile Mail, GMPCS Speedmail, and OCENS Mail — but if you poke beneath the surface, you’re apt to find the good Doctor Soltero 😉
The mac is now fully supported on the IsatPhone. Inmarsat is currently reviewing the solution and we expect it to be certified shortly. In the mean time a 3day free demo version of xgate for mac is available at http://www.globalmarinenet.com/IsatPhone_Mac_Email.php
You will also find a video (which describes how to install, configure, and use XGate for Mac with the IsatPhone) and a draft version of the inmarsat solution guide for mac on the same page.
XGate is not the only way! Vizada provides their SkyFile mail service for free to customers, which includes a similar compression technology. Vizada is the service provider for a lot of these phones, including mine (bought via satphonecity.com).
How well does SkyFile work in the real world? Good question! In a few months when we are back on the boat I’ll be able to answer that.
XGate has a fantastic reputation, and it’s the service I’d be using if SkyFile doesn’t meet my needs – but free is good, even if it means the data charges are slightly higher, it could come out significantly cheaper for occasional users, such as myself, who don’t want to use a subscription based service.
Also, nobody really needs the dock or external antenna. Sure, for a fixed base installation it’s nice, but it adds significantly to the hardware costs and may not be necessary for many people. I’ve found our isatphone pro gets pretty stable service inside the salon of our fiberglass boat.
I would think that Sailmail email ( http://sailmail.com/ ) would work well with the IsatPhone Pro. Sailmail was originally designed for SSB email and currently works with Iridium.
A significant advantage I see with XGate is I can use any email client I want as XGate is a mail server. This means I don’t have to have a separate address book. My mail whether from a sat phone or a WiFi connection is all in one place which means I can access it on my iPad or iPhone or Mac or PC.
As someone who has been using Iridium for e-mail on offshore passages beyond cellular range along the U.S. east coast, the Bahamas and Caribbean, across the Atlantic, and throughout the Mediterranean since 2005, let me say that the Luis Soltero is “the man” when it comes to answers.
Although I have used Ocens (which employs GMN technology) and their tech support has been satisfactory most of the time, anytime I’ve had a question beyond Ocens’ level of expertise and turned to Luis he’s been there to help–and he’s always had the right answer.
In my judgment, when it comes to low-bandwidth e-mail communications, nobody know more or has better answers than Dr. Soltero. And he’s a terrific, personable, helpful guy–and a former cruising sailor to boot.
A Bluewater salute to Luis for his great service and can-do spirit!
–Milt Baker, Nordhavn 47 Bluewater
We have just released the linux version of XGate which supports the IsatPhone Pro. XGate now provides support for IsatPhone on Windows XP->Win 7 64 bit, Mac OS X, and Linux.
Downloads and solution guides for all 3 OSs can be found on our IsatPhone page at http://www.globalmarinenet.com/isatphone.php
Just a quick note from MailASail. We also make a very fast email acceleration service (ExpressMail) which works very well in conjunction with slow services such as cell phones and satellite phones. More info:
However, I’m slightly confused by all the posturing that seems to be going on above and generally surrounding the Isat Pro? Perhaps I’m just missing the point, but from day one of the Isat Pro firmware release we have had it working absolutely fine on Windows, Linux and Mac? What’s the problem? Further it works absolutely optimally with our software releases from some many years back… Why are so many people claiming that they needed “updates” to their software to support the Isat Pro?
There seems to be only one bit of technical info needed to make the Inmarsat phone work perfectly and it would appear that many of those who know it are keen to keep this their secret? To spill the beans, the Isat Pro appears to have significant problems with it’s data implementation and in particular struggles if the communication port is set to any speed other than 2,400 baud. Annoyingly if you don’t force this connection speed then it “kind of” works, but tends to die part way through the data connection.
So, armed with this information it’s not too hard to grab your linux netbook and quickly have the thing dialing up…
Hopefully this demystifies some of the magic that others are determined to keep secret? For more information please see the Documentation section of our website:
However, is it worth it…? The ISat has latencies (time for the speed of light to hit the satellite and come back down) of around 4x the delay on Iridium. This means you need around 30-40 seconds of chargeable time to connect to the internet (vs less than 10secs on Iridium) and download speeds are around 1/2 to 2/3 the speed of Iridium. The upshot is that you can connect, send 3-4 emails and disconnect in less than 20 secs on Iridium, but it takes 60 secs on Inmarsat…
On the surface it’s easy to conclude: “So it’s half the price, takes twice as long, so net-net they are equivalent”. BUT this misses that your time has a value. Sitting watching a computer download weather for 2-4 mins is bearable, sitting for 4-8 mins to get the same info tips the scales towards “can’t be bothered”.
We have seen few customers buy an ISat Pro and be really happy with it (compared with most Iridium customers). Most scale back their ambitions and use it just as an emergency voice phone with minimal data – however, we see this as a massive shame because all our Iridium customers go on to become huge addicts of the devices!
We will shortly be putting up side by side videos of Iridium vs Inmarsat downloading exactly the same set of emails. I think the results will be quite intriguing.. Watch our site for release
Thanks and good luck
In Miami, I asked Jeff Thomassen of OCENS ( http://www.ocens.com/ ) about sat phones and got an earful about trying to use an Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro for email and data downloads. He confirmed some of the issues Ed details in the comment above and then said that OCENS had to do so much tech support regarding failed IsatPhone Pro data connections that they now strongly recommend against it. They do like the phone and service for voice use, however, and please note that the data problems may not apply at all to the various fixed versions of the Inmarsat technology, like FleetPhone: http://goo.gl/jWr77
Be very careful with Luis’s company for customer service. They sent me three notices of when my iridium service minutes would expire ( on a Saturday). I emailed them Friday evening with a renewal notice including an additional purchase of time to preserve my existing time – they had my card on account – i wanted tobpurchase more time to keep my existing minutes fom expiring. I received an emil Monday saying that they did not renew my minutes, that I lost my existing time and that it was my fault for not realizing they were not open on the weekends even though their notice indicated that the service expired Saturday – they then confirmed it was correct that I could have been renewed on Saturday exact that they were not open.
Their email implied a saturday renewal was fine – they never stated their operation hours were weekdays only.
Their emails basically said were we are sorry that I lost time but it was all my fault
They may have decent products, but do not depend on their service – their attitude was they are always rightand the customer is wrong. Look elsewhere.
Glenn, I probably won’t be the last person to wonder why you waited until the last moment? Didn’t you know when you bought the minutes exactly how long they were good for?
We are very sorry that Mr. Brodys minutes expired. In our defense we would like to summarize the events leading up to his loosing his airtime.
1. He was sent an email on march 6 and again march 14 reminding him of the expiration of his SIM card.
2. on Friday march 16h after not hearing from Mr. Bordy we called him on the phone at 4:03 pm and left him a mesg reminding him that his account was to expire on Saturday March 17th. Note that we normally do not call customers on the phone. It is very rare for any airtime provider to call customers to remind them of impending expirations. The usual norm of communication in the industry is one expiration notice via email. We contacted the customer 3 times. twice by email and once via phone.
3. Mr. Brody then sent an email to the business office at 10:45PM on Friday March 16h well after the office was closed. The Business office hours are Monday – Friday 8-6pm.
4. Mr. Brody could have sent an email to our after hour support staff at [email protected] but did not. He could have also called the office and either the after hour support would have answered the call or would have called him back within 2 hours but he did neither. GMN provides after hour support evenings and weekends.
5. It is the customers ultimate responsibility to track their airtime expiration dates. GMN tried to contact this person numerous times to warn about the impending expiration. The customer sent one email to our business manager well after working hours on a Friday expecting his account to be renewed. It would have been reasonable for him to follow up with a phone call or an email to the support center but he did not.
6. Please note that it is our policy not to charge a customers account without their explicit approval. So it was not possible for us to renew his account and charge his card $649 without his permission.
Because Mr. Brody waited to the very last minute to renew his account (Friday night at 10:45pm the day before his saturday expiration) and did not manage to contact anyone during our business hours, or attempt to contact anyone at our support center his account was not renewed.
Summing up… our company provided this customer multiple warnings starting weeks before his expiration. We even called and left him a mesg on his phone. His airtime was lost because he did not contact us in time to have the airtime renewed. We are sorry this happened but the ultimate responsibility for the renewals lies with the customer as clearly stated in our airtime contracts.
As I stated, I knew precisely when it expired based on Luis emails – Saturday at midnight
I do not know what number he called, but I never received his call. I sent my email to the email address I have used to correspond with them for over 20 emails over at least 3 years time on Friday evening – in adavance by more than 24 hours of his deadline.
No where in any of the three emails that he sent indicating the Saturday expiration did he mention they were not only not open Saturday and that they did not even monitor the email address I have always used and they have always used with me. I included my cell in the email and they did not ever call that nor did they contact me by email until Monday.
His parting words were: you are not the first to have lost their time.
His approach to service, at least with me, is that the customer is at fault, so tough luck.
The isatphone pro data connection is a joke, no question. GNM are now recommending an ‘optimiser’ – another gadget to be paid for – to ensure it can work. These days we when we can plug a cell phone into a laptop and surf away with the minimum of fuss it is absolutely baffling to me this equipment is so far behind in usability when we pay so much for hardware, software, subscritions, and then tear our hair out with endless tech support and ultimate disppointment.
While i am ranting, other points with the isatphone: two handsets I have had have both regularly crashed when the charger is plugged in, neccessitating removal of the battery to reboot the phone before it will work again. The screen is not sunlight readable at all and the ring volume is inaudable beyond a a few feet away in the typical noise present at sea on a sailing vessel. A child could have dessigned a better product.
Hi Laurance, Sorry for your frustration with the IsatPhone Pro but I want to note that anyone who presumes a sat phone can do data like a cell phone plugged into a laptop is going to be very disappointed. Sat phones don’t even have a fraction of the bandwidth pre-3G phones had, and the number of people who use them for data is so small that the technology is crude.
I do think that various new WiFi devices modified to maximize and protect sat phone data connections could make the experience a lot easier and more efficient, but they are yet another expense. Here’s some info on the GMN wXa-102 satellite router: http://goo.gl/skxY0
I looked at the Mail-a-Sail links above and found it an interesting product; in particular, the fact they take the .pdf and .doc attachments and try to present a plain text representation of them, which could be useful in trying to determine if ultimately you _do_ need to retrieve that .pdf or .doc.
Their current £140/yr pricing ($210) does not seem all that much lower than OCENS/XGate ($240), although in all fairness, OCENS/XGate do charge an additional $60 for the first year, i.e., the first year comparison is $210 vs $300. And Mail-a-Sail includes weather, which is an additional on-demand pay-per-each-use feature on OCENS.
I did like the fact that with OCENS/XGate you can use an e-mail address other than the Iridium GO! e-mail address that can only be accessed via GO!, and I am not clear if this is a possibility with Mail-a-Sail. I guess I’ll give them a call.
In any event, great article Ben and great user comments.
I used an email compression service called Onsatmail (just a re-branded version of UUPlus).
This service came for free with my airtime minutes on an iSatPhone. The airtime service provider was AST in the UK, but I guess the folks of UUPlus have similar deals with other airtime providers.
UUPlus does not use the default “28” internet dial in number but a dedicated line. That means no internet overhead involved for the communication between the email service and the phone. Download time for a 20kb GRIB file is below 2 minutes vs around 5-6 minutes without a compression service.
UUPlus does many other things like rejecting or forwarding too large emails, SMS notification on the iSatphone on arrival of new emails, re-starting broken communication link from where the stopped, etc.
Worked very well. But still far away from 3G or 4G cell phones 🙂
Another email compression service you may use is AmosConnect, provided by Inmarsat. I haven’t used it but heard good things about it, similar to UUPlus in terms of speed and features. It’s said to be free for personal use (only one email account).
One more comment: It is of highest importance to tune your PC before using these satellite services.
Windows Update for example will always try to talk to the Microsoft site and look for updates. Same for the PDF reader, the browser, the Java envrionment and lots of other programs. These can clog your 2.4kbps and bring it to a halt.
You have to switch off all these little ctritters.