Antenna unit and main unit with Ethernet jack and 3 phone jack. The OpenPort is rated to operational -30C.
Image by courtesy, SOURCE
Travelers to lower latitudes should use the lighter, cheaper and faster Inmarsat BGAN (coverage in image). But outside the coverage Iridium's OpenPort offers new opportunities for (polar and some ocean) expeditions. Image HumanEdgeTech (click to enlarge).
HumanEdgeTech report: Beyond Inmarsat's coverage - High Speed Internet and Video from Anywhere

Posted: Sep 17, 2009 06:56 pm EDT
( Over the last few years, improvements in Inmarsat BGAN systems have slashed costs and weight, and radically increased data speed up to 400kb/s.

This has made possible high quality images, video and website updates for most explorers except for those in polar and some ocean areas, who have been stuck with Iridium handsets and painfully slow data speeds of 2.4kb/s.

Enter Iridium OpenPort. With true global coverage and speeds up to 128kb/s it radically stretches polar possibilities, albeit with some important limitations.

A quick history of expedition video from the Poles

On April 8, 2003 a North Pole team led by Geoff Summers proudly sent 22 second video from 88 54N, 115 09E, only 75 miles (120km) from the Geographical North Pole. The video showed the team's landing on the ice, starting point, leads etc. On April 18, 2003 Ben Saunders, while skiing the last degrees toward the North Pole, uploaded 8 second video over Contact 2.0 and Iridium.

CONTACT software was smart enough to allow skiing expeditions for the first time to transmit small video clips over Iridium. But it was difficult and painfully slow.

The Iridium OpenPort

The OpenPort is primarily aimed at the marine market (where the money is). The two main parts are a (below deck) unit connecting to a laptop through Ethernet, and an (above deck) antenna.

Monthly plans are a great option for expeditions not wishing to be stuck in yearly plans. The data connection can be left open and the user is charged by MegaByte, not by minute. Pending plan, the cost starts at just below $6/MB and goes up to plus $20/MB.

That's higher than Inmarsat, but while uploading a 100kb file over the handheld Iridium would take 10-20 min at $13 - $26; the same upload over OpenPort would run a dollar or less.

OpenPort connects to a router, allowing multiple users to hook up simultaneously. A wifi router (not included) would actually allow team members to work without cables from different tents.

OpenPort has 3 phone jacks and is delivered with two phones. It's possible to keep three phone conversations and data going at the same time.

Where to use the OpenPort

Few reasons remain for marine vessels to choose OpenPort over BGAN since Inmarsat increased its coverage to the Pacific this January. The cost of OP is higher and the data is slower. (Check back in a few weeks for new and exciting high speed options for yacht and other marine).

But the system remains handy for extreme north- or southbound trips. To achieve high speed, expeditions to Greenland, Ellesmere Island, most of the Arctic and Antarctica would all require OpenPort.


The hardware runs $5000 and includes antenna, antenna cable, main unit and two phones.

OP delivers 32kb/s as standard with higher bandwidth delivered on demand. 64kb/s comes at a fixed price of $125 per month and 128kb/s at $330/month.

The plan is VERY complicated (thanks a bunch Iridium). But as a rule of thumb; a two month expedition using 200MB and aiming for the 128kb level should budget just under $2000 plus voice calls, which is in line with standard rates at $1 to $1.30 per minute.

If you plan to pitch sponsors, put $10k in the budget to be on the safe side, and another $5k to cover the rest of your tech (laptop, software, power, solar, video etc).

Email or call team HumanEdgeTech for exact pricing and detailed tech budget.

What would be required for a polar expedition to use the OpenPort?

With the comms possibilities and cost out of the way, how much will you have to lug around?

OpenPort weighs in at some 13kg (29 lbs) so with a P50 battery, an ASUS EEE Expedition Laptop and solar power the expedition should be prepared to carry about 16kg (35 lbs).

Such extra weight could kill an unsupported North- or South Pole expedition but shouldn't pose any serious issues with resupplies.

With up to 128kb/s OpenPort will allow live web cam updates and snippets of broadcast quality video. The weight and cost should however be compared to HumanEdgeTech's polar package allowing web updates with images over standard Iridium at a total weight of less than 2 kg (4 lbs).

HumanEdgeTech is a unique, no-nonsense virtual expedition tech warehouse for satellite communications and edge technology. Created by explorers for explorers, the store is user-friendly with no-hassle pricing, expedition-tested gear, expedition-ready hardware, fast delivery and payments. accepts most international credit cards, and delivers worldwide within 72 hours.

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