Reaching Out

Whether you are trying to send a data message 10 miles up the Mississippi River, make a voice call halfway across the Gulf of Alaska, or alert paramedics two miles away at the dock, you need dependable communications equipment, whatever the conditions.

Unlike the rather simple devices that workboat operators used to depend on, today’s communication equipment is more reliable, performs better and offers more options for more locations.

VHF

While many VHF radios have class-D DSC (digital selective calling), Furuno offers its FM8800S VHF radio with class-A DSC. The difference is that class-D radios have a separate transmitter and receiver for channel 70 – the channel that DSC operates on – but only a single antenna port.

Class-A radios have dual antenna ports as well as dual receivers and transmitters. “With a single antenna connection, if you are transmitting on channel 64 and a DSC message comes in, you won’t get the message,” said Tim Moore, Furuno’s East Coast general manager.

But with class-A’s dual antennas, it’s like having two radios operating side-by-side, Moore said. If you are talking on channel 64, or any other channel, channel 70 is constantly being monitored, and if a DSC emergency call comes in, it appears on the screen and an audible alarm sounds.

Because the FM8800S is a class-A VHF, it also meets international standards for the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.

For better water protection, Icom America builds its IC-M504 fixed-mount VHF radio to an IPX8 rating. Most VHF radios from other companies use what’s called the Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS) as a waterproof indicator, said Rick Waedekin, national sales manager for Icom. But Icom is the only company with radios that use the IPX8 rating.

“If you take a JIS-rated radio, it won’t necessarily pass the IPX standard,” said Waedekin. That’s because JIS is a water-testing process, whereas IPX is an air-tightness test.

Waedekin gives the example of putting a VHF radio under water for 30 minutes. “Pull it out, turn it on, and if it works, it passes the JIS test, even if it has water inside of it.” In contrast, with the IPX test the radio would fail if it has water inside of it. That’s because it isn’t airtight.

Besides meeting waterproof and air-tightness standards, the IC-M504 VHF radio is a class-D DSC, which means it has a separate transmitter and receiver for sending and receiving emergency signals on channel 70 (but only one antenna).

It also has a receiver-repeater feature that broadcasts through the radio’s hailer. You still have to go back to the radio to return the call, but at least you know a call came through.

HANDHELDS

A couple of companies have introduced handheld VHF radios with new features that give the radios more versatility.

Icom’s IC-M72 handheld VHF radio has the same waterproof IPX8 rating as the IC-M504, plus another feature important to handheld radios when it comes to dealing with water. In this instance, the problem with water and handheld VHF radios isn’t water getting into the case, but into the speaker. This can happen if the radio is being used in an open boat or on an open deck. “Speakers work off vibration, so when water gets in the speaker, you can’t understand what’s being said,” Waedekin said.

Icom’s IC-M72 overcomes this problem with a feature it calls AquaQuake. This produces a low-frequency buzz that vibrates water out of the speaker, making it easier to understand an incoming call.

There’s plenty of power in the IC-M72 with six watts of output and a 200-milliampere battery that’s designed to provide 24 hours of continuous operation.

It can also be connected to a headset. This could be a definite advantage for the operator of a rescue craft or fast patrol boat screaming across a harbor at night while keeping both hands on the controls most of the time.

Another company that emphasizes the hands-free – or nearly so – feature for operating a VHF radio is Simrad, which offers the HT53 handheld VHF radio.

This is the same handheld as Simrad’s HT51 with one exception: besides using it as a handheld radio, you can send and receive with the HT53 using a headset or lapel microphone.

The headset or lapel microphone make the HT53 ably suited for a small, fast, open boat, which is what it was designed for. Just plug the headset or lapel microphone into a chrome-plated brass accessory connector and you’re in business.

Simrad’s Paul Cummins said the HT53 is waterproof and can be immersed in one meter of water and still function. It is built with a drop-proof casing, so even if it falls on your deck and a wave washes over it as you pick it up, it’s still operational.

Another new Simrad product is the WR20 Remote Commander. This is a wireless remote handset for Simrad’s RS80 series VHF radio. In effect, it makes a handheld radio out of a fixed-mount VHF radio.

You can be up to 300 feet away from an RS80 and still be able to use the VHF radio. Using the Remote Commander’s keypad, you not only can make and receive calls, but also utilize any function you could with the VHF radio.

The Remote Commander is also a wireless control for other Simrad equipment. It’s compatible with several autopilots, allows full man-overboard steering control, and remotely operates chart plotter and radar functions.

CELLULAR

In the marine industry, there’s been an ongoing debate regarding the usefulness of cell phones once you leave the dock. One of the problems is that cell phone antennas are so small that range is severely limited.

KVH Industries, perhaps best known for its mobile satellite TV equipment, has developed a new product based on cellular technology that boosts the signal as well as its utility.

KVH’s TracNet 100 is an Internet system that uses the Verizon cellular data network. Receiving and transmitting are optimized with a marinized antenna, which looks much like a VHF-radio whip antenna, and a three-watt booster for extended range. “These do give you a stronger signal and reception than you would get off a handheld [cell phone]unit,” said Christopher Watson, corporate communications manager for KVH Industries.

TracNet 100 uses the Verizon EVDO (evolutionary data optimized) cellular service, where available, to provide a high-speed Internet connection with speeds ranging from 400 Kbps to 2.4 Mbps. Without EVDO, transmission rates drop to 60-80 Kbps.

The TracNet 100 system includes a mobile receiver with booster, an antenna and a wireless keyboard and video remote control. Display options include onboard TV monitors or laptop computers with wireless cards.

Even with the battery booster and the antenna, this is an inshore communication device with, depending on a boat’s location, a range of 10 to 20 miles, said Watson. If you are going to be farther offshore than that, satellite communication is the next option.

SATELLITES

By mid-2007, Inmarsat is scheduled to release its marine version of the BGAN (broadband global area network) system, said Frank August, Inmarsat’s regional director for North America. In the works for a couple of years now, it looks like it’s finally going to happen.

To be called the Fleet Broadband system, its biggest benefit will be faster transmitting speeds. Currently, Fleet transmissions are limited to 64 or 128 Kbps. But August said Fleet Broadband’s maximum speed would soon jump to 460 Kbps.

With the new service, you won’t have to choose between voice or data transmission. You’ll be able to use both at the same time. And if you want to have a conference call free of speed fluctuations, you can lock on to a channel size. For instance, August said, “If you have a video conference and you can’t afford to have speed fluctuations, you can grab 256 kilobytes and have it for the duration of the connection.” Depending on your particular Fleet Broadband system, that could be 32, 64, 128 or 256 KBs.

Whether or not you will be able to continue using existing Fleet equipment depends on the manufacturer. August said operators need to check with the electronics company that supplied the equipment, but he thinks most external antennas will work with Fleet Broadband.

In February, another satellite company, Globalstar, will introduce what it says is the world’s smallest hand phone for satellite use, according to Dean Hirasawa at Globalstar.

At 7.1 ounces, the GSP-1700 weighs about half as much as the company’s current handset, and with measurements of 5.3″ × 2.1″ × 1.4″ it’s 45 percent smaller than previous Globalstar satellite phones.

The GSP-1700 has a lithium-ion battery that provides four hours of transmission time and 36 hours of standby.

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