Brian (I think it is...), your Q reminds me of the sign I saw posted in the boatyard office the other day:
Pick any two...
You can have everything you want for zero operating cost if you use the amaeteur radio pactor system (www.winlink.org
) and this even includes the ability to send/receive small attachments (text docs, jpegs, etc.) BUT you will need a SSB capable of supporting Pactor comms plus a TNC (radio modem), a laptop and some related small items (chokes, primarily) - and these items can be expensive. (A new Icom 706G, TNC modem and SGC Tuner will run a bit above $2K USD in the USA). You will be running (free and wonderfully simple/intuitive) client software on your laptop called Airmail (www.airmail2000.com
) and will find access to real-time wx files (text and graphics) that support cruising around the world. This same onboard equipment + Airmail will also allow access to Sailmail (www.sailmail.com
), a non-profit commercial system accessible on the marine bands and intended for marine radios. Sailmail is more limited in connect time, is $200USD/year last time I looked, and has no wx graphics files available, but cruisers will sometimes subscribe to it while in areas where its shore stations offer better connection than Winlink's shore stations (e.g. some parts of the Pacific). Both Winlink & Sailmail are essentially worldwide and e.g. we stay in regular contact with a friend in the Pacific (currently in the Marshalls) from our cruising venue in Europe.
SatCom systems are more reliable, can be used 24/7 (vs. working within propagation windows with SS
and are easier to use...but are far more limited in what they can do for you re: email & wx f'cast products, at least for the systems typically found on normal cruising boats. Hardware costs will probably be a bit more and then there's op costs per minute or per KB. Inmarsat is just in the process of installing 3 new/huge sats in orbit to provide workable internet (56K) & phone comms capability on smaller boats but of course op costs are likely to be even higher than the simple text-based systems, so this doesn't suit your requirements.
There are many BB's with threads covering the SSB email topics - and as is typical of the internet, lots of incomplete & inaccurate info out there, as well. Your best source of more info on this topic is to discuss it with experienced cruising sailors who have been using the system 'on the go' and have a good feel for its limitations & capabilities. One such source is the SSCA Discussion Board - http://ssca.org/sscabb/index.php
FWIW we've been using Winlink since 1999, almost all of that time while cruising, and find it so flexible & practical that it is our primary method of communication. We keep a free shoreside email identity (Yahoo and Gmail) to handle big pics, large attachments, etc.