I have a few strong suggestions for anyone considering purchasing communications gear for their vessel:
1. Work with a dealer who truly listens to you.
There are lots of good communications solutions on the market - but not all are good for you. Most dealers have a vested interest in convincing you to buy the gear they sell. I'm different - my weather business pays the bills, and any communications gear I sell (or rent) just provides a little (and I mean a little) extra income. My main goal is to ensure you have adequate communications capabilities to receive my weather forecasts (via SSB, voice telephone, email, or a combination of these). I have little interest in selling you non-optimal gear. I frequently recommend gear I don't sell, and I'll refer you to another dealer if your needs are beyond what I can provide (see below for a list of Factors to Consider).
2. You may find a slightly-lower price at a mass merchandiser of marine gear - but you get what you pay for.
When you buy from me (and from many other dealers), you're buying from someone with hands-on experience with a number of communications solutions. My prices are rarely the lowest nor the highest - but margins are so thin there's usually only a few percent difference in cost as long as you're comparing apples-to-apples.
3. Don't buy too-soon or too-late.
Communications options are constantly changing. I suggest exploring the possibilities ahead of time, but not making the final purchase decision any farther in advance than required to allow you to install, test, and become proficient in the operation of the gear (a month-or-more for a new SSB/Ham install to just a few days or a week-or-so for most wi-fi antennas or satellite phones (longer for permanently-installed hardware).
4. You've read/heard recommendations for/against certain gear. Remember #1 above - one person's perfect solution may be absolutely the worst solution for you (and vice-versa). Make your decision based on your situation - NOT someone else's.
5. What are examples of gear I might recommend? (any of these may or may NOT be a good solution for you): Iridium, Inmarsat (iSatphone, BGAN, Fleet), Globalstar (new satellites improving service), VSat, SkyMate, Sirius/XM weather, other satellite solutions; Blackberry, various other cell phones; WinLink, SailMail, other SSB email providers; ICOM SSB/Ham radios, Kenwood Ham radios, other radios & radio gear; Sony handheld receiver.
6. What gear do I sell?
Iridium, Inmarsat (iSatphone, BGAN), Globalstar (new satellites improving service), and all accessories including external antennas & docking stations.
7. What are some examples of other dealers I might recommend working with?
Luis Soltero's Global Marine Networks, www.gmn-usa.com
Mark Freeberg's OCENS Inc, www.ocens.net
Tim Hasson's TechYacht, www.techyacht.com
Gary Jensen's Dockside Radio, www.docksideradio.com
Mike's Electronics, www.mikeselectronicsfl.com
8. If you email me, can't I just recommend what you should buy?
Probably not. As you'll see below, there are many factors to consider when narrowing-down the various options - and it's best if we discuss this by phone or in person. Fell free to call me 863-248-2702, best 10a-2p EST/EDT Daily, or by appointment.
Factors to Consider:
Spend time identifying your needs, wants, budget, technical savvy, geographic destinations. Consider both the initial costs to purchase the gear as well as ongoing usage costs. Consider installation expense and difficulty.
Before consulting with a communications hardware dealer, answer the following questions, and be prepared to share this information with your dealer. When answering the questions, do NOT include occasional and casual needs which can be fulfilled when you're in urban areas likely to have good communications infrastructure. Instead, consider your needs for the time you'll spend in areas which range from non-urban to isolated to middle-of-the-Ocean.
While not all questions may apply to your situation, if you are prepared to answer all these questions, then it's almost certain a good dealer with your best interests at heart will help you arrive at the optimal communications solution for your vessel.
1. What communications gear do you currently own? What has been your experience with your gear?
1a. In what geographical areas do you plan to Cruise in the next 1-3 years?
1b. For how many weeks/months/years do you plan to Cruise?
1c. How long do you plan to Cruise actively each year? (i.e. For how many weeks/months each year will you need a communications solution?)
2. What are availability and costs of the various land-based communications solutions (if any) in areas you'll Cruise?
2a. Which needs/wants are likely to be un-met by these solutions?
3. Are you technically-savvy? And do you derive pleasure from tinkering with electronic gadgets? - or do you NOT have patience for anything you don't simply turn on and use?
3a. Will you be the only/primary user? Or will someone else need to be comfortable using the gear?
4. If the cost (initial purchase and ongoing usage) was within your budget, would you want a voice telephone?
4a. If yes, how many minutes/mo (and how many months/yr) would you consume?
4b. How important is the ability to make a voice phone call when you want regardless of where you are?
4c. How important is convenience and ease-of-use when making or receiving a phone call?
4d. How important is it to receive incoming phone calls?
4e. If you'll want to leave the phone on to receive calls, how noisy is your environment?
5. If the cost (initial purchase and ongoing usage) was within your budget, would you want basic computer data (email) capability?
5a. If yes, on average how many normal emails (a couple paragraphs of text) would you like to send & receive per day?
5b. How important is the ability to send/receive email when you want regardless of where you are?
5c. How important is convenience and ease-of-use when sending/receiving email?
5d. Would you want the ability to send/receive attachments or images?
5e. Is your current email service Web-based (do you use a Web browser for email) or email-client-based (Outlook, Thunderbird, etc.)? Would you consider using an email-client-based system if it was more-efficient?
5f. If you Blog or use social networking, have you considered solutions which allow you to update these via email?
5g. Do you use a Windows (which version) or a Mac (or a Mac running Windows) computer?
6. If the cost (initial purchase and ongoing usage) was within your budget, would you want Internet capability?
6a. If yes, would you use Internet only occasionally for critical tasks (bill paying, weather-gathering) - or frequently for these tasks as well as social networking and/or entertainment?
6b. How important is the ability to access Internet when you want regardless of where you are?
6c. How important is convenience and ease-of-use when using Internet?
6d. Is the speed of your Internet connection important?
7. If you're considering a higher-end solution, what is an approximate maximum limit for size/weight of its antenna?
8. If the cost (initial purchase and ongoing usage) was within your budget, would you want long-range radio communications capability (SSB/Ham), which can be useful for communicating with me & other SSB/Ham Nets, and keeping in-touch with fellow Cruisers beyond VHF radio range?
8a. Are you (or do you plan to become) a licensed Ham radio operator at the General Class or higher level?
8b. Which radio & related gear would best suit your needs (technical specs, installation considerations, networking with other electronics)?
9. How much do you value redundancy in important onboard gear?
10. How much do you currently spend on communications each year (phone, cell phone, cable, Internet, etc.)?
10a. How much do you plan to spend to purchase communications gear? What is the maximum amount you would consider spending to purchase communications gear?
10b. While Cruising, how much do you plan to spend on ongoing communications usage?What is the maximum amount you would consider spending on ongoing communications usage?