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Two solutions for email and Internet afloat

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #118
November/December 2001
To the editor: While we might all wish to abandon our shoreside lives and responsibilities while afloat, the "real" world continues to make demands on us that, in today's business and personal terms, requires electronic communication. From a simple message to the latest weather forecasts and charts, access to the Internet while afloat can be an important safety factor and a great peace of mind generator.

Lawrence Husick works on his iPaq PDA while on a trip up the East Coast. When close to shore, Husick was able to gather email using a wireless modem. When farther offshore, he used a Globalstar satellite phone.
   Image Credit: Twain Braden

Shoreside, telephone lines and even high-speed access such as television cable modems and digital subscriber line (DSL) service are available at many docks. At moorings and under way inshore, however, the choices are far more limited. These include wireless data access using pager-type devices, personal digital assistants and laptop computers equipped with wireless modems or connections to some types of cellular telephones. Offshore, our choices become extremely limited: only satellite telephone systems and SSB radios equipped with special radio modems provide access.

On a recent voyage from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Portland, Maine, via Miami, my son Andrew and I equipped our 46-foot ketch Bonne Étoile, with two different systems. I am a patent attorney and wished to remain in touch with my office and with my wife and daughter shoreside, and Andrew, 12, used the systems for entertainment and general email communication with friends and family.

Certainly, there are many alternative systems for near-shore wireless communications. Handheld systems including Palm VII, RIM BlackBerry and many two-way pagers are available and provide email capability and limited access to certain websites. Such systems are reliable in wide areas of the United States, and are cost-effective. They do not, however, provide complete flexibility for access to the entire Internet.

To gain full access to the Internet, the first system we tested comprised a Compaq iPaq 3630 handheld computer, a Sierra AirCard 300 CPDP wireless modem and service from iPaqnet. The iPaq device is a PocketPC (as opposed to a Palm-type personal digital assistant) that uses a very fast 206-MHz StrongARM chip, has 32MB of RAM and a 320 by 240 full-color screen. We also used a Targus folding keyboard to give us an alternative to the on-screen "hunt-and-peck" keyboard and the handwriting conversion software which comes standard with the iPaq. The total cost for the system, including a full year of unlimited Internet access from anywhere in the United States, is approximately $950.

The software used on the iPaq includes scaled-down versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook and Internet Explorer. In addition, GoWeb, special software for web browsing in compressed form and for email, was supplied by iPaqNet, and America OnLine supplied both an email package and its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) software for real-time chats.

The AirCard uses cellular telephone packet data technology to provide its connection to the Internet. Almost all U.S. cities have such coverage, and in addition, the Florida coast, the Mid-Atlantic and New England coasts, and the areas around Great Lakes cities, Seattle, and Southern California have significant, if not total, coverage. In short, although the cellular telephone is not primarily a marine communications system, near-shore coverage is significant. In addition, because the packet data system is digital, it performs (although at reduced speeds) in areas where voice communication is otherwise impossible. The same AirCard modem may also be used directly with a Windows laptop computer to provide full access to the Internet.

In use, we connected the iPaq system, running on its internal, rechargeable, lithium polymer batteries, with the AT&T, GTE and Verizon networks. The usual connection speed was 19.2 kbps, with lower speeds in weak signal areas. From St. Petersburg to around 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, full-strength signals permitted us to access email, all sites on the Internet and to maintain real-time chat sessions. Battery life for the system exceeded four hours of on-the-air time, because the modem was set to enter a low-power sleep mode after 30 seconds of inactivity (while keeping the connection alive), and the display backlight was similarly configured to turn off after 30 seconds. There was no delay in waking from this sleep state. We also powered the system from a small inverter using a transformer power supply.

We were able to access both our AOL email, using AOL's special software, and any POP3 email system for our home and office email accounts, using Outlook and GoWeb software. We were also able to access any Internet site, and we tested access to National Ocean Service WeatherFax charts and forecasts, which we successfully downloaded to the iPaq for later access, using the included AvantGo web-caching software. In addition, we were able to chat by keyboard with friends, family and business associates, having as many as five simultaneous conversations. Andrew even maintained a schedule with friends in Valley Forge, Pa., and in Brussels, Belgium.

During part of our trip down the west coast of Florida, we ran offshore, out of cellular telephone range. Our iPaq was thus unable to connect to the Internet at all during that part of the voyage. We regained connection approximately 12 miles north of Key West and maintained it all the way to Miami. After our departure from Miami, we maintained our connection until we were more than 28 miles from shore and well into the Gulf Stream, headed for Maine.

Once offshore, and out of range of cellular telephones, we made use of the excellent Qualcomm Globalstar 1600 satellite telephone from Globalstar USA. Equipped with the GDC-1100 Data Kit, we were convinced that we were just a telephone call away from the Internet. Other satellite systems that allow you to use a data link are Iridium and Inmarsat. In addition, packet radio modems for ham and SSB communications are in wide use by voyagers worldwide and provide slow but reliable email-only connections.

Much has been written about the value of satellite telephone systems to offshore sailors. The voice aspects of the Globalstar system were of great use to us, and more importantly, to our families, whose worry about our voyage was decreased by going from a potential 10 days of only sporadic contact via SSB ham patches to daily briefings and a Happy Fathers' Day call, as well. Despite the high costs, we can thoroughly recommend the system for these reasons alone.

Physically, the Globalstar telephone is a slightly large cellular telephone, with a size similar to those handheld phones popular a few years ago (so-called brick phones) but with a welcome, much lighter weight. The most noticeable difference is the rotating, barrel-type antenna used for satellite calls, which is approximately eight inches long and 1/2 an inch in diameter when extended. (It should be noted that this phone also functions fully as a standard cellular telephone when in range of a terrestrial cellular tower, using a separate, small, extending whip antenna.)

The bottom of the handset features a multi-purpose connector, used for charging the telephone from either the included 12V lighter adapter, or a 120VAC plug-in transformer. In addition, the data cable also engages this connector. There is no capability for piggyback connectors, so when in use as a modem, the telephone must run from its own battery. This would be acceptable, but for the lack of warning from the phone about low battery - about two seconds. Before it dies completely, it beeps three times and says "low battery" on its built-in display.

The data kit consists of a cable terminating in a nine-pin, D-type serial connector, and a CD-ROM, containing the Windows software and technical documentation necessary for using the Globalstar phone as a 9600-baud modem. When we attempted to install the software on our Windows 98 system, however, a General Protection Fault occurred and crashed the system. Although listed as compatible with Macintosh computers, we ran into trouble here as well. First, a separate adapter cable to provide nine-pin D to eight-pin DIN connection is not provided by Globalstar and must be purchased separately before departure - a good one is sold by, for $9.95. Second, the documentation states that a necessary modem script file for the Macintosh is to be found on the CD-ROM, but this file was missing from the disk. A call to customer support prompted the promise of a return call from someone knowledgeable, but no return call was received.

Fortunately for us, the Adobe Acrobat PDF, included on the CD-ROM, contained copious and correct technical information about configuring a variety of systems to work with the unit. Also fortunately for us, our Macintosh Powerbook G3 had Adobe Acrobat Reader already installed on its hard disk, since Globalstar thought to include this free software for Windows but not for any other system. (Why it was not on the disk can only be attributed to the same oversight that omitted the required modem script file in the first instance.)

As with any new technology, we recommend that you configure and test it before setting sail and that you do so in an environment where you have easy access to telephone technical support and handy electronics stores for cables and connectors. That was not possible in our case.

To configure the laptop to work with the modem, we set the telephone to a baud rate to match the host computer. Although Globalstar recommends 38,400 baud, we found the system reliable only at 9,600 baud. Once connected to the computer and set for a word structure of N, 8, 1, Full Parity, the telephone responds to a limited set of Hayes-type "AT" commands. The minimum necessary commands to get online are as follows: AT > OK AT&F > OK ATDT#777 > CONNECT. The Globalstar phone will then allow negotiation of a PPP connection.

Once we configured the laptop to work with the modem, it was extremely simple to use. Just start any Internet program (browser, email, AIM), and you are prompted to dial the modem. Enter ATDT#777, and within a few seconds, you are connected at 9600 baud to a Globalstar PPP server and the entire Internet. We used the Globalstar phone to access email on both AOL and our other servers, to browse and download weather from NOS, and to review charts of the Gulf Stream from the University of Delft in the Netherlands. We even answered Instant Messenger queries and chatted briefly with colleagues and family.

For computer users who are familiar with dialup connections using a typical 56k modem, however, there are some concessions that must be made when using the Globalstar at 9600 baud. It is best to turn off graphics to speed page loading. File compression prior to transfer is essential with email, since in our experience, sending even a 66-kB Word file took more than three minutes. Last, given the cost of using the Globalstar telephone, any spam email is extremely costly, and I'd recommend establishing an email address exclusively for use on the voyage and using it only for voyage-related business.