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 usin 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.
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 jacksdepending 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. "|
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.
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 systemthe 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 antennathis 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.
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 optionsHAM 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? "|
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" natureso 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.
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 Orbcomboth 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!
Sailing with E-mail by Kathy Barron
E-mail Options by Paul and Sheryl Shard
Communications Made Easy by Paul and Sheryl Shard
Buying Guide: HF Radios
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