Skype Over Satellite: Can I Use It On My Boat?
Skype Over Satellite: Can I Use It On My Boat?
One of the questions we get asked the most is, “Can I Skype over my satellite phone?” The short answer is…maybe. If you have a handheld satellite phone (for example, an Iridium 9555, Iridium Extreme, Globalstar 1700, or Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro) then the answer is resoundingly no. There is simply no way that the bandwidth of those devices can handle even the most basic Skype requirements. Which means you need to look at a broadband unit.
Systems That Can Even Get Skype Up and Running
Skype states that the minimum data requirements for basic video calling is 128 kbps. Right off the bat, there are several broadband units that won’t cut it for that requirement. An Iridium Pilot at 32 or 64 kbps is out of the picture, for example. But an Iridium Pilot at 128 kbps, you might be thinking, will do the trick! Unfortunately, 128 kbps (the top speed the Pilot is capable of) is not enough, either. This is because Skype needs 128 kbps bi-directional. Meaning that you need to be able to download at 128kbps and upload at 128 kbps. The Iridium Pilot can handle the download side, but it doesn’t upload at nearly that speed. In fact, even Fleetbroadband 150, Fleetbroadband 250, and many of the lower-end BGAN units can’t match the upload speed required. The only broadband units that guarantee bi-directional upload and download speeds are the Fleetbroadband 500 and the BGAN 700. Not even VSATs guarantee bi-directional, but their bandwidth capabilities are so fast that it doesn’t usually cause an issue with regards to Skype. Keep in mind, also, that BGAN, FBB, and most VSAT systems use shared bandwidth. This means that if you’re in, say, a marina during a boat race and a lot of other people are using their satellite devices, you will not be getting the full bandwidth of those networks. This could drastically affect your Skype performance, even on a high-bandwidth system. So it comes down to a handful of units to even get you started with Skype:
- Inmarsat Fleetbroadband 500
- Inmarsat BGAN 700, BGAN 500, and BGAN 9202
- KVH Mini VSAT (Note: other VSATs will work for larger installations, but we’re focusing more on smaller-scale cruising for this post).
At the time of writing, a Fleetbroadband 500 is around $16,000, KVH Mini VSAT is around $15,000, BGAN 700 is around $5,800, and BGAN 9202 is around $3,000 (although note that we generally don’t recommend BGANs for maritime use – they need a very stable environment to work properly). So you’re looking at a high startup cost for equipment.
How Much Will Skype Over Satellite Cost?
Let me say, very clearly, that “Free Calling Over Skype!” is very definitely not free over satellite. We already know that the basic requirement for Skype is 128kbps, but that’s the minimum. Skype’s own calculations put the recommended bandwidth just for simple video at 300 kbps. Breaking that down into a per-minute charge puts the price of a simple video Skype call at 1 MB per minute of talk. High quality video (500kbps) is 1.67 MB per minute of talk. HD video calling (1.5 mbps) is 5 MB per minute of talk. Now, it depends on what your airtime plan looks like. If you have a basic Fleetbroadband standard rate plan, one minute of normal video Skype will cost you $17.65. One minute of HD video calling will cost you $88.25. Notably, one minute of simple voice Skyping would cost you $1.70 per minute – much higher than a voice minute for that plan. But let’s assume you have a really ample airtime plan, where MBs are much cheaper. On a KVH Mini VSAT plan where MB overage is at about $0.99 a MB (note: this plan is probably already costing you upwards of $1,500 a month)…you’re still paying $1 for one minute of regular Skype calling, and $5 for one minute of HD video.
But Can’t I Use Skype Over My “All-You-Can-Eat” Unlimited Satellite Airtime Plan?
Let’s say you have an all-you-can-eat, unlimited airtime plan for your Fleetbroadband 500. Ah ha! You might be saying, here’s where it doesn’t matter how much each individual MB costs – I can use as much as I want! I’ll go ahead and burst your bubble (sorry!) – Skype is expressly forbidden in the terms and conditions for all the unlimited plans.
The Other Bit Of Bad News
Skype is a P2P based program, which means that even if you are doing absolutely nothing at all on it, it could be using your bandwidth to facilitate calling and data transfers over the network. This is why even minimal estimates for bandwidth usage (and, therefore, cost) are just that – minimal. The algorithm that runs Skype (and other P2P software like BitTorrent, for example) is programed to make the most out of any bandwidth it can find – even your very expensive satellite data feed.
…Is There Any Good News?
Well yes. Although there are a lot of barriers to entry, people do use Skype over satellite. We had a customer who climbed Mt. Everest recently and Skyped with his family using his BGAN 700. It can work, you just have to make sure that all your ducks are in a row (equipment, bandwidth, and awareness of cost) and then – go for it! We’ll wave hello right back at you while you climb that mountain, sail that sea, and continue discovering the unknown.
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