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Old 04-24-2001
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Tom Wood is on a distinguished road
Offshore Communications


Like folks ashore, much of life for many cruisers now transpires via computer.
New information technology is one of the most insidious diseases that ever affected the cruising community. Kathy and I happily lived aboard, transacting our business and communications with family and friends for nearly 20 years with nothing more than a phone card and an occasional patch from a friendly HAM. Those days are history.

In the past five years, e-mail has replaced phone calls, letters, and radio contacts. Banking, investing, and bill paying have moved on line. Our weather, tidal information, and local knowledge come off the web. We order our replacement parts and make haul-out reservations on the computer. We haven't yet taught the thing to cook and clean up, but we're sure that will be coming soon.

The upshot is that we are now so entangled in the web, extracting ourselves would be a difficult, expensive, and painful exercise. And since we are embarking on the next leg of our watery adventures, finding ways of taking the web with us is an important part of our pre-cruise preparation. 

I would imagine that we represent a median of computer knowledge. Our cohorts who were trained in web development are obviously way ahead of us—in fact one of them referred to me a few years ago as a techno-peasant. On the other hand, we have worked with computers enough for the past seven or eight years to be able to solve the most common problems. So the raw frustration, disappointment, and high cost of taking the web mobile came as a big surprise to us. We found that we were simply not conversant with the equipment enough to be out on the cutting edge of the merging of technologies.


SSB and VHF radios still comprise the core of on-board communications for many voyaging sailors.
As I write this in the late spring of 2001, there are few, if any, controlling bodies taking command of the interface between the Internet and wireless communications. There are ways to do it—perhaps too many ways. And the technology changes so fast that whatever is bought today will be a dinosaur in short order. But here are the options what we found:

Landlines    Communicating via land-based phone lines is still the least expensive line of defense. Take a laptop on board the boat and install a small inverter to run it. Buy a good waterproof case for the laptop and go ashore occasionally to beg, borrow, or surreptitiously use a telephone jack. You will need to maintain an account with an ISP (Internet Service Provider) for this method, having the bill sent to your credit card that you may then check on line periodically. The good thing is that you can send large files such as pictures without a problem. The bad news is that you will spend a lot of time searching for telephone jacks—depending on your attitude toward the cruising life, this can be a pain or an adventure. The other good news is that you now have a full-fledged computer on board to use for creative endeavors, for tides, navigation, or logs and diaries, and to play games on rainy days.

"The bad news is that Internet cafes can be inconvenient, non-existent, and expensive. "
A variant of this method is the use of Internet cafes. In fact, in this case you can omit the need for a computer, the waterproof case, the inverter, and the ISP by finding computers that rent by the hour. That's the good news. The bad news is that they can be inconvenient or non-existent when you need one and the expense can mount up quickly if you use them often. For the cruiser that simply wants to check his brokerage statement once each quarter, this might be the best method. A variation on this variant is to keep the laptop on board, put all the messages on a disk, carry the floppy ashore to the Internet café, and send all the files in a short amount of time.

Yet a third variant on the landline method is becoming wildly popular for some cruisers, even though it doesn't allow Internet access at all. It's called PocketMail, and it allows short e-mail messages (maximum of about one typed page) to be sent over almost any telephone. The good news with PocketMail is that the hardware is inexpensive, the service is only $10 per month, and connections are everywhere you can reach a US-based 800 number. The bad news is that messages must be short, no attachments can be sent, contact from outside the US requires an additional long-distance charge (very expensive from the Bahamas, for instance), and no Internet connectivity is possible. But if you just want to tell mom and the kids that you arrived safely, it's probably a good deal.


Once you leave shore, there's a maze of possibilities for staying in touch.
Wireless
    Communication without the strings attached is what most cruisers really desire. Once the telephone (or cable) umbilical is cut, however, cruisers wander into a maze of possibilities that will leave them shaking their heads. Because this method requires that any data must be sent by radio frequency, there are interfaces necessary from the computer programs to the radio carrier, from there to a landline, and then to the ISP.

The form of wireless voice communications that most of us use is the cellular phone, and yes, it is possible to send e-mail and make an Internet connection via a cell phone. The biggest problem is that there is no one in any of the above areas that seems to have a grasp on the whole system—the cell phone companies know nothing about computers, the ISPs know nothing about cell service, and it is possible to go in circles for weeks without getting accurate information. With cell phone connections, the following items are necessary:

  • A computer
  • A cellular modem, preferably through a PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) and the cables to connect the computer, modem, and cell phone together.
  • A cell phone capable of analog service, regardless of whether the phone will switch automatically or can be forced into analog mode.
  • Cell phone service contract with the widest possible area.
  • An external dual-mode cellular antenna—this could be considered optional, but any weak connection or static will interrupt the data flow and kick you off the air. The antenna also extends the range offshore from which you can send and receive.
  • An ISP with national/international reach that will operate at slow server speeds. Many now limit the slowest speed their servers will correspond with at 28.8k, and cell connections are at a very slow 9,600 bauds.


Despite its limitations, PocketMail has proven to be popular with cruising sailors who travel longer distances.
When you are all done, the good news is that you can send and receive anything that you can on your home telephone line, but at roughly one-fifth the speed. And you have voice communications to boot. The bad news is that this will only operate within 20 to 50 miles of the coast. Taking it offshore may deliver you to another shore where the cell system may work, but usually at considerably higher cost. But for snowbird cruisers plying the waterway north in the spring and south in the fall, this may be the best of all possible worlds.

There are already variants based on the cellular system. Palm Pilots and other handheld devices are available with cellular modems built in, and cell phones themselves now have the ability to key in and send short text e-mail messages without a computer at all. Nokia and Motorola both make high-end cell phones built this way that can also be connected to a computer with special cabling so that longer e-mail messages can be up and downloaded between the two. Again, if all you are interested in is wireless e-mail messaging, these newer options may open some possibilities for you.

So what to do if you need total wireless connection offshore? The data must still be sent via radio waves, and you then have three options—HAM radio, SSB (Marine Single Sideband) radio, or via satellite. All of these methods require black boxes and cables.

"So what do you do if you need total wireless connection offshore? "
Because there are many more SSB users than HAM operators among cruising sailors, there are correspondingly more programs for SSB users. SailMail, CruisEmail, PinOak, MarineNet, and a few others fall solidly into the SSB camp. Most of these have proprietary hardware/software packages that are purchased to link the computer to the radio. If you already have the computer and the radio, however, the additional requirements are not terribly expensive. Some are short text messages only while others use compression to allow graphics or other large files to be transferred. Most charge a standard monthly fee for a small amount of daily data time.

HAM operators have a much greater range of frequencies from which to choose and have an unlimited time usage, but must go through the lengthier licensing process to get the necessary permits. The biggest problem for some is that HAM transmissions, whether code, voice, or data are restricted to having a "business" nature—so no e-mailing your broker to tell him to dump that ailing portfolio. Most HAM operators use either the Airmail 2000 software package and a shoreside ISP or the WinLink 2000 program that serves as a radio mailbox serving HAM operators around the globe.

If you have both a HAM and SSB radio, and the license to operate both, you would have to subscribe to two e-mail services in order to use them for transmitting data.


If you've got the deck space for the necessary equipment (like the white dome aboard the 110-foot Club Med), you can make use of Inmarsat A or B systems to stay in touch with voice or data.
Satellite    These connections are widely viewed as the wave of the future—so much so that several companies, like Motorola with its failed Iridium initiative, have staked billions of dollars on their systems. Already, global pagers are commonplace. Many sailors are familiar with the older Inmarsat system, originally a teletype-based program. It has evolved into the Inmarsat A and B systems (with the huge dome antennas), Inmarsat C for data only, and Inmarsat M and mini-M that will handle voice or data. The later three have small antennas and will link to any computer with a RS232 port. The new IPDS (Inmarsat Packet Data Service through Capsat Messenger Service—M4) even provides all the hardware.

Other satellite possibilities are available from Magellan as voice communications with their World Phone via the Inmarsat system, and both voice and text messaging through their GSC 100 handheld program association with Orbcom—both offer worldwide communications. American Mobile Satellite/Skycell offers a similar system that works only in the US and Caribbean. You can also purhcase a satellite phone and connection service from Globalstar, which offers coverage that is essentially worldwide. This system is set up to accommodate Internet access and e-mail transmissions from laptops or PDAs (like the Palm Pilot).

The final analysis is that with these systems, any type of communication you want, and can afford, is possible. That's the good news. The bad news is that you are out on the cutting edge of technologies that are changing rapidly, so you are bound to go through a hugely frustrating experience getting where you want to go unless one of four conditions exist:

  • You have PhDs in electronics and computer science.
  • You find a mentor that can walk you through the purchase, installation, and de-bugging process.
  • You shell out a lot of money to buy a proprietary package or have an expert technician do all the work for you.
  • You don't mind limited communications and a constant search for the next connection.

If you do decide to break the connection with the landline and go wireless, do follow some basic rules:

  • Don't buy any part of the system until you have researched the whole thing.
  • Be prepared to purchase a new computer, modem, cell phone or radio, antennas, and sign up with new carriers or ISPs in order to achieve your goal.
  • If you find anyone, anywhere, that knows what he or she is talking about on this issue, don't lose that phone number!
     

Suggested Reading:

Sailing with E-mail by Kathy Barron

E-mail Options by Paul and Sheryl Shard

HF Radios

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