Calling In from the Wide Blue Yonder
By Daniel Piltch, Marine Computer Systems
Browsing the Web Via Cell Phone
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Time was, once you cast off your last mooring line, you effectively severed communication with the shore until the next time you tied to a bollard. That time has passed, and now there's a multitude of ways by which to communicate with friends, family, or colleagues by voice or by text. This means you now have to make decisions: With whom do you want to stay in touch? How far offshore will you be? Will you want to use voice or email or both? Do you want to take incoming calls? Your budget, as is so often the case, will have the final say.
The voice v. email debate is usually settled by personal preference rather than by logical analysis. Some people just like to hear the reassuring voices of friends and family while they're offshore. Others like the succinct density of information that email often fosters, and in my work as a consultant to people deciding on how to equip their boats, I've seen a big increase in the number of people asking for email access at sea. Either way, the choices become more limited the farther offshore you expect to go. I'll start with the close to shore options.
Coastwise and Pennywise
For voice communications, there are lots of options for the coastal cruiser. The simplest and least expensive solution is to use payphones ashore. This approach is limited by the availability of pay phones, and the more remote your anchorage, the scarcer they become. Many cruisers have taken the next step to the convenience and mobility, with their concomitant costs, of the handheld cellular phone.
The cell phone brings with it the nuances of "roaming" charges to confound the budget as well as the convenience (or bane) of incoming calls, but its range is limited. Handheld mobile phones have a maximum power output of 0.6 watts. By comparison, a handheld VHF radio transmits at 1.0 to 5.0 watts, and fixed mount VHF radios can transmit at up to 25 watts. Consequently, expect the underway range of your cell phone to be less than that of your VHF radio. When determining offshore coverage, factors other than transmission power come into play. You can't change most of these factors, but you can increase the range of your cell phone by getting a booster kit or a "bag" type of phone. Made by Motorola, Nokia, AudioVox, and others, these systems are a little larger and are reminiscent of the early types of mobile phones that required their own briefcase. They typically transmit at 3.0 watts and can be used effectively much farther away from the cellular tower (i.e., farther offshore). With most of these you can mount atop the mast to boost your range. The "bag" part of the phone usually houses a larger battery to support the more powerful transmissions. Raytheon recently introduced a Raycom box that can be mounted in an out-of-the-way location and essentially enables any telephone connected to it to function as a cell phone.
Larger boats will benefit from a phone distribution box such as Charles Industries' C-Phone system which allows 2 lines to be distributed to 4 onboard stations. The 2 lines can be any combination of regular land-based lines, cellular lines (through a separately installed system), Globalstar lines, or even an Inmarsat Mini-M phone line. The onboard stations can act as intercoms to communicate with each other, or as telephones that will call out on one of the two installed lines.
Your VHF radio has a greater range than a cell phone. If you're willing to sacrifice privacy, you can have a VHF call patched through to a telephone using a service provided by Maritel(http://www.maritelusa.com/ 1-888-MARITEL); its replaced most of the local marine operators that previously dotted the coasts. Maritel provides coverage through more than 140 VHF towers along coasts and waterways, with nearly complete coverage of the East and Gulf coasts but spotty coverage on the West Coast. Calls from vessel to shore are disguised by Maritel so no one else can hear your end of the conversation, but the transmission from the land party is broadcast in the clear. Using a masthead antenna, you can reach the system from up to about 50 nautical miles and even greater distances off the mountainous coasts of Maine and the Pacific Northwest, where radio towers are sited at higher altitudes.
Maritel is upgrading its network to take advantage of the digital radio transmissions available through digital selective calling (DSC) radio and will soon offer data and email services in addition to voice services.
Cruisers have several options for sending and receiving email. A simple solution is to bring a laptop with a modem, then hunt down a phone line whenever you want to send or receive email. Now that many large internet service providers (ISPs) offer toll-free numbers for connecting to the Internet, this is becoming easier. A compact, less complicated, but more limited solution is offered by the Pocket-Mail system from PocketScience Inc.
To use PocketMail, you need to buy either a small electronic personal organizer with its own miniature keyboard or a Palm with a special cradle. Both devices include a built-in speaker and microphone that you hold up to any telephone to make a connection. PocketMail is ideal for use with borrowed phones, payphones, and even cell phones. Once you've prepared all of your outgoing email, you locate a phone, hold the unit up to the handset, and press a button. The device dials a toll-free number (in the United States and Canada), delivers your email, receives any incoming email, and signs off, all for $10 a month, no matter how much email you send or receive. On the downside, it won't handle email attachments, and you need to be on land or within cell-phone range of land to use it. To bypass the PocketMail's frustratingly small keyboard, you can compose your emails on your laptop using its larger keyboard, then download them to the PocketMail. Cidco's MailStation and VTech's PostBox are similar solutions for occaisonal short messages.
The next level of sophistication, and one that's useful for the business traveler, too, is to connect a laptop computer and a cellular phone. With this combination, as long as you're in range of a cellular network, you can check your email without having to find a phone with a data-port. You can do this by inserting into the laptop a PC Card (slightly thicker than a credit card) that connects via a special cable to your cell phone. Just be sure your modem and cell-phone are compatible. Other than being much slower, it's no different from connecting over a regular land line, and with patience (remember that a typical photograph is equivalent to ten full pages of text), you can handle the odd email attachment. A typical cellular-capable modem such as the 3COM Global GSM & Cellular Modem PC Card costs about $220, and a phone-specific cable such as the Nokia 5160/6160 adds another $90. Calling costs depend on the calling plan you have with your cell-phone provider.
Alternatively, for about $500 you can purchse a PC Card that's essentially the guts of a cell phone minus the keypad, mouthpiece, and speaker but with an antenna that enables your laptop to connect directly to the cellular network. Even better, a laptop that has factory-installed wireless capabilities will be less susceptible to radio-frequency interference. Because they employ technology that's optimized for data transfer, these systems are significantly more efficient for email than regular cell phones.
Single sideband (SSB) radio has long been the voyager's standby for long-range communications because, with its range of up to several thousand miles, even from mid-ocean it can be used for vessel-to-vessel or vessel-to-shore conversations between appropriately licensed stations. SSB connections are best served by high-quality equipment and properly installed antennae and grounding systems and are subject to vagaries in propagation according to the time of day and even sunspot activity.
Marine operators worldwide can patch you into land-based telephone systems. Access to landlines is provided in the United States by Mobile Marine Radio through its radio station, WLO, in Mobile, Alabama. The company charges $5 per minute to make a voice call via SSB to a US location.
To make phone calls from farther offshore and with less hassle, you have a choice among satellite-based systems, most of which at some level rely on Globalstar, Motient, or Inmarsat Mini-M. The Globalstar system, which has the lion's share of the handheld mobile satellite phone market, enables its phones to operate in cellular mode when in range and in satellite mode when not. Before committing to a phone, though, make sure you understand which of the many cellular services you'll need.
Third parties such as Ericsson, Qualcomm, and Telit all make phones for use with the Globalstar system, but the Qualcomm phone, at around $1,200, is the best choice if your primary use will be in North America because it's the only one that works with the U.S. analog cellular system. A marine version is available for an additional $1,500, and it uses an external antenna so you can install it and make calls from belowdecks. Typical rates include a monthly fee of $25 to $150 plus $1.40 to $1.70 per minute; more free minutes accompany the higher monthly fees. Depending on your call destination, you may incur long-distance charges in addition to the satellite-connection fee.
Globalstar's bent-pipe technology, which bounces the signal from your phone to the nearest ground station off an orbiting satellite that essentially acts as an intelligent mirror, requires both you and the ground station to be visible to the satellite at the same time. This isn't likely to happen in the middle of the ocean, and Globalstar claims coverage only up to 200 nautical miles from the coast except in the North Atlantic, where last year they introduced limited coverage between about 30 and 70 degrees north latitude.
Motient , formerly the American Mobile Satellite Corporation (AMSC), also provides satellite-based service. A single satellite in geosyncronous orbit over the Western Hemisphere can be accessed by such equipment as the Westinghouse Wavetalk to provide coverage to all of North America and up to 200 miles offshore, including the Caribbean, Alaska, and Hawaii. Pricing varies with the type of system and type of antenna, but expect to pay around $5,000 to equip a mid-sized cruising sailboat. There's a $45 monthly fee and the calling rate is $1.20 per minute (incoming and outgoing) plus long distance charges.
The best voice coverage is provided by Inmarsat's Mini-M service which covers 95 percent of Earth's continents and most of its oceans; the main gaps, which are small ones, occur midoceans in the Southern Hemisphere. Nera's Worldphone, Thrane & Thrane's Boatphone, and a version of the KVH Tracphone all work with Mini-M; a typical marine system costs around $5,500. Airtime prices range from $2 to $5 per minute, so your per-call cost will heavily depend on the calling plan you select. A good plan will entail no monthly fee and no long distance charges and cost about $2.50 to $3.00 per minute (outgoing calls only).
Email From Out There
The basic technology for sending and receiving email via SSB has been around for about fifty years and employs a radio modem, costing $700 or more for a good quality one, connected between your computer and your SSB or ham radio. A service provider listens for your transmissions and converts them into emails to be sent over the Internet, performing the reverse procedure to deliver emails to you. Companies such as Globe Wireless offer this service through an international network of stations. Recently, non-profit groups such as SailMail have appeared, offering lower costs but typically fewer stations. Your choice of provider will be influenced by which one will best serve the areas you plan to cruise. SailMail was started by a sailor in 1998 and now maintains antennae in California, South Carolina, Australia, and Hawaii that cover between them most of the North Atlantic, Pacific, and eastern Indian oceans. As with any SSB-based system, coverage will be highly dependent on the time of day and your distance from the base station. SailMail's association dues of $200 per year cover the cost of operating the stations and grant you access to the system. You're asked to limit usage to 10 minutes each day and to use the system only when it isn't being used by others. Other commercial-service providers, most of which operate single base stations, include PinOak Digital (Gladstone, New Jersey), WLO Radio (Mobile, Alabama), and MarineNet/WKS Radio (Jupiter, FL). If you're not shy about getting intimate with your radio's every dial and adjusting your schedule to be at the set when propagation is best, SSB could be the right solution for you.
In January 2001, Globalstar added data and Internet-access capabilities to the North Amercian and Caribbean coverage regions. You can now send and receive email and instant messages and browse the Internet at a rate up to 9,600 bits per second. You'll need a cable to connect your computer to the Globalstar phone, but your existing software and server will handle the service, which will be billed to you at the same rate per minute as your voice service.
Magellan, a subsidiary of Orbcomm, sells the GSC 100 Communicator, a brick-sized device with a keyboard that's designed to send and receive short text messages via the constellation of satellites operated by Orbcomm. Unlike other satellite systems, the coverage\ of the Orbcomm satellites isn't continuous. Because the GSC 100 must have a satellite in view before it can send or receive any messages, a user must become familiar with the satellites' orbit schedules. Feedback from the few cruisers who have used it suggest that it's neither very reliable nor easy to use. However, at about $1,000, it's an inexpensive solution for someone who wants to send and receive infrequent, brief messages.
The Motient/AMSC systems support email and fax as well as voice, but be prepared to pay an extra $15 monthly fee for these data services. In addition to the equipment you've bought to make phone calls, the add-on for sending faxes will cost another $800. We're now up to $6,300 in equipment and $60 per month not including usage. All this for coverage that includes only North America (including Alaska, Hawaii, and the Caribbean) and 200 miles offshore.
Inmarsat Mini-M offers better economics and better coverage. For $5,500, you'll also get email and fax capability, and there's no monthly charge. Coverage extends across all northern oceans, and the majority of the southern oceans as well. This is th type of system that relays photos and stories from expeditions scaling Mount Everest or penetrating the Amazon jungle. The ability of Mini-M to easily handle voice, data, email, and fax makes it popular with cruisers who want to conduct business with the home office.
The granddaddy of email at sea is Inmarsat C. Though it's not the newest, and it's often overlooked, it's a wonderfully robust and reliable system that in my opinion should be on board any bluewater vessel. While it won't provide voice communications, and it doesn't easily handle complex email attachments, it provides additional valuable features not available from the other services described here.
Several times each day, free of charge, Inmarsat C automatically delivers weather and safety information to you in text form. The shipboard unit also contains a GPS receiver, and the weather information it receives, which includes the high-seas forecast and any special warnings for severe weather, is tailored to your region. Most significant, though, is its Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) distress feature. When you activate the distress alarm (usually by holding down two red buttons), a coded message containing your vessel's identification number, location, heading, and speed is automatically routed to the nearest Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) for immediate action. Unlike a conventional EPIRB, Inmarsat C also provides for an optional two-way dialogue with the RCC. This is invaluable in any situation, such as a medical emergency, that requires special expertise or equipment. However, it isn't a mobile system-you can't take it in a liferaft, so it's not a substitute for a portable EPIRB.
The Inmarsat C transceiver (about the size of a car radio) connects to your computer with a cable and it comes with its own DOS-based software that you'll use to compose and read emails. The antenna, about the size of a football cut in half, can be mounted in any convenient location. Expect to pay $3,500 or more for the equipment. There are no monthly or yearly fees; you only pay per character transmitted-at a little less than a penny for each. This means you can have an Inmarsat C system on board and online all the time, primarily for its safety features, without incurring charges.
What Does the Future Hold?
With the world of wireless communications in the midst of a revolution, it's difficult to see very far into the future. But despite the tremendous amount of activity going on in the fields of wireless computer networking and third-generation mobile phones with high-speed data connections, it'll probably be a while before the headline-making wireless systems will help you much once you're offshore.
A cellular phone will probably be the de facto voice standard on most cruising boats, while in coastal waters. Also arriving on the market are DSC-ready VHF transceivers that can utilize the advanced features of the Maritel network. Big changes for coastal cruisers are likely to come in the email solutions through third-generation cellular systems and marina-wide wireless networks, as this market overlaps considerably with the more lucrative business-traveler market.
Offshore, the choices will still be SSB or one of the satellite providers, though a significant newcomer to the offshore data market is a marine version of Inmarsat's new M4 service. The M4 system currently allows land-based users to transmit high-speed data and even to surf the web with reasonable speed. However, the marine versions, with stabilized antennae for mounting on moving boats, aren't due to be ready before the end of 2001, and the approval process at Inmarsat may delay their debut even further.
Also on the horizon, following a merger between ICO and Teledesic, is the New ICO, a service similar to Globalstar but with better high-seas coverage from satellites in much higher orbits than Globalstar's. Service isn't expected until 2003 at the earliest.
Biting the Bullet
Begin your decision-making process early enough that you have time to choose and purchase the right equipment and get comfortable with it before you untie the docklines.
Start by making a list of those you wish to communicate with, how frequently you want to do so, and by what means you'll do it: voice, fax, or email. Price out the options and adjust accordingly to fit your budget. Don't be afraid to ask for help in making your decisions. Find a good salesperson with a broad knowledge of the field who'll take the time to discuss your situation and advise on what will work best. Look also for good after-sales support that will be available not just during installation but also during your cruise, even at odd hours of the day (or night).
Leaving it all behind to go cruising can be a bittersweet experience. You can make it a little easier by taking some of it with you, even if all you take is the means to tell those you left behind what they're missing out on.
Browsing the Web Via Cell Phone
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