Email access at sea

I’m happy to report that we now have a solution up and running on-board Zangezi for sending and receiving email and downloading weather data while at sea. This is a project that I have been working on for some time, and required quite a bit of research and experimentation to arrive at our final solution.

I originally looked into using one of the new satellite broadband systems, but the data transfer charges (around $15/megabyte) were just not practical, so in the end I decided to stick with our existing Iridium phone and install a data gateway and email compression software from Global Marine Networks (GMN).

Testing the satellite email system. The little white box next to the computer is the Optimizer. The Iridium handset is at the right hand side of the photo. The XGate software is running on my MacBook.

This solution uses a data interface between any computer (or iPad) running the XGate email software and an Iridium phone, plus an email account and subscription to the GMN email service. Our Iridium phone has an RS-232 data port, so I originally tried using a USB-Serial adapter between the MacBook and the phone, but I had a lot of problems getting it running, and I didn’t like the idea of having to keep the drivers and software for the USB-Serial adapter up to date on my computer, so instead I tried a new product from GMN they call an Optimizer.

The Optimizer handles the serial communication with the Iridium phone, and knows how to connect to the XGate email service. It has a built in WiFi interface so any computer or iPad/iPhone can connect to it over WiFi. Once connected, I use the XGate software to handle reading, writing, sending and receiving email. XGate provides compression and attachment management so it reduces the connection times needed over the sat phone, so is quite economical. The Optimizer also blocks any non XGate network traffic, so virus scan programs and the infamous Adobe updater can’t establish an expensive and unnecessary data connection to the Internet. The installation of the Optimizer was super easy, and everything just worked with no hassles or complicated configuration.

Here’s the Optimizer installed in its permanent home in the cupboard under the Nav Station. The cable at the bottom runs over to the Iridium transceiver RS-232 port.

This solution won’t work for browsing the Internet (it’s just not fast enough) but it will allow us to keep in touch with our family and friends and download weather forecasts. And since Iridium has global satellite coverage, we can stay connected no matter how remote we happen to be.

4 thoughts on “Email access at sea

  1. That’s wonderful. We will be able to email pics of Coconut and everyone while you are away too.
    Isn’t it great to finally find a solution that came together so well?

  2. Pingback: In search of WiFi | Zangezi at Large!

  3. This looks very interesting, you mentioned the $15/MB being too expensive with the other solution, have you figured out what is the $/MB with this solution (Iridium phone + optimizer)?
    Christian Vargas

    • Hi Christian,

      It’s a bit apples and oranges comparing broadband satellite to the voice systems. I would LIKE to have broadband access offshore so I can use the internet like I do at home. But what I really NEED is phone service, weather files and text based email service. Since the cost to purchase and operate a broadband system is so much higher than the basic low bandwidth voice and text email system, it wasn’t worth it to me. It probably costs close to the same per MB of data with my system using XGate, but I expect it would take me about two weeks to use that much data, so it didn’t make sense to me to spend all the money on a new broadband system that I wouldn’t pay to make full use of. I also had an existing Iridium phone that works fine, but if I was starting from scratch I might have looked a bit harder at broadband.


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