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Voyager works to find e-mail connections

Jan 1, 2003

I have always enjoyed documenting my cruising adventures. Unfortunately, photographs, letters, and postcards are completed only after the fact, often months after the voyage. Phone calls, on the other hand, are immediate but too expensive.

I'm always looking for faster ways to communicate, ideally in real-time and from far-off places. Computer e-mail is one answer. It offers a timely and efficient way to stay in touch at a relatively inexpensive rate, considering the amount of information that can be transmitted in short electronic bursts.

With the help of international computer telephone networks like InfoNet and SprintNet, I am able to share observations and musings with friends worldwide, often moments after typing them into my traveling laptop computer. I usually maintain a computerized journal during my travels and frequently transmit passages as the trip progresses. My having-a-wonderful-time-and-wish-you-were-here messages become almost real-time conversations with friends back home.

For those friends and acquaintances not yet electronically connected, online services like CompuServe offer options of translating message into fax format or traditional print format for posting through the U.S. Postal Service, domestically or internationally. Everyone around the world can be reached at the touch of a button.

The discipline of creating a journal is the easy part. I am already accustomed to maintaining a ship's log, engineering reports, and business diaries. I keep journal notes in pocket notebooks as events develop. These are very cryptic reminders of names, conversations, sights, and so forth. Every few days they are fleshed-out on the computer during quiet moments in a harbor or some sidewalk cafe. I type the journal entries on a word processor, avoiding specialized formats and styles. This is to facilitate transmission on Internet e-mail, which is limited to the simple 128-character typewriter keyboard expressed in a seven-bit ASCII code. Normal e-mail cannot accommodate non-standard characters like italics or umlauts, or format instructions for special indents or bold fonts that are available to most word processors in an expanded eight-bit binary code of 256 characters. Even conversion software that reduces word processed files to simpler ASCII text files can result in some strange unwanted characters in the final message.

I then cull a current passage from the log with a dateline of the city or village at that particular point of the journey. This gives the logs an up-to-date newspaper look and encourages me to make timely transmissions. Then the fun starts. For most people e-mail is a relatively new experience. In Second or Third World countries, or even in small villages of First World countries, it is still an unheard-of phenomenon. On a recent sail to Russia I put into 43 cities, towns, and hamlets in seven countries. In most places I was able to connect successfully with local or nearby computer networks and easily transmit my logs. The most challenging country was Russia, especially the rural towns far from rapidly modernizing big cities like St. Petersburg.

Although Russia is considered a First World superpower, it is in reality a developing country with a big nuclear arsenal and a large modern military. Their telephone system, especially in long-distance connections, is marginally better than a taut string between two tomato cans. Fortunately, young computer hackers can be found all over the world. With the help of a couple of "New Russians," I was able to maintain a string of successful connections as we sailed the inland waters of Russia between Archangel on the White Sea and St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea.

The e-mail exploits complemented the sailing adventure on two levels. First, I was able to document and distribute a journal of my travels almost as it unfolded. Second, I had a unique opportunity to interact with locals in a way that was quite different from normal tourist contacts, which are generally restricted to finding a room, getting dinner, and making a train schedule. Looking for e-mail connections resulted in some memorable encounters that were worth as much as the travels I was reporting on. At times I felt that the medium was definitely the message.

Bodø, Norway. Located just north of the Arctic Circle, this town presented a typical Norwegian phone hunting experience. I spent three hours one morning looking for a high-tech computer or telephone store or a hotel willing to let me use their telephone line for a few minutes.

The encounters often went something like this: I approached the hotel desk clerk with the laptop in my backpack and a two-meter section of telephone cable in my hand, saying, "Excuse me. May I use your telephone to make a call to Oslo with my computer?" In Norway, Oslo is the only city with a network connection for e-mail. Then I'd show them the small plastic modular connector of the telephone cable in my hand, explaining, "I need to connect with this cable."

They usually stared back with a puzzled look, asking: "You want to what? Make a call with a computer?" "Yes," I'd say. "I'll record the time and pay you for the call."

Then, without hesitation, they would hand me a telephone from behind the desk, still with an uncomprehending, but willing-to-be-helpful attitude.

"No. I don't need the telephone. See, I just want to plug into the wall outlet," I carefully explained, showing them the telephone cord again.

To my surprise, most people were exceptionally friendly and eager to help. They moved desks, untangled cables, and took apart telephones just to give me access to their wall jacks. Their friendliness was probably due in part to my American accent and in part to curiosity over the computer.

Unfortunately, the telephone switchboards and extension phones at most hotels and larger businesses, with their strange beeping tones and digital systems, often confused the computer and thwarted attempts to reach Oslo. I'd then move on to other establishments looking for a non-switchboard access to the local telephone system.

In Bodø I found a friendly hi-fi store that let me use their telephone. After successfully completing a 12-minute call to Oslo (lots of return messages from friends), I offered to pay for the time. The store manager was so interested in what I was doing that he gestured with a dismissive wave saying, "No. No. I do it for promotion of American tourism in my town." I left hoping he would get repaid by his wish coming true.

Petrozavodsk, Russia. I made my usual search for a computer telephone connection in this attractive lake-shore city on Europe's second-largest lake, Lake Onega. It was much harder to make myself understood in Russia, where few people speak English and the general level of technology is about 40 years behind Western standards. The telephone system for long-distance calls is barely operational and not quite up to computer modem standards.

Fortunately, I met a young Russian computer hacker in a business office. I never really learned what the "business" was all about, but he had several computers and a modem connected to the local phone system. He was quite up-to-date on Internet and other e-mail networks. In a few minutes he had me patched through a local SprintNet number to CompuServe in Moscow. While he was working the modem connection, I busied myself trying to understand the Cyrillic-Latin keyboard to address my files.

We spent over an hour transferring files, due to frequent errors in the transmissions. He apologized for the delays, explaining that Russian phone lines are notoriously noisy. In the end we were successful, and he refused my offer to pay for the phone time or his valuable assistance. I think he was just pleased to be able to use his computer skills in a city which hadn't yet reached the level of reliable telephone service.

St. Petersburg, Russia. Within three hours of docking, I had already made arrangements with the St. Petersburg Yacht Club bartender to use the office telephone for my e-mail transmission. Naturally, I also ordered a couple of beers to solidify the relationship. Several calls to the local SprintNet number finally connected me with CompuServe and I was able to speed my latest logs to friends and family.

Later that day, I happened to walk into a computer shop in St. Petersburg stocked with the newest American software packagesfrom the absurdly low prices I guessed they were probably pirated. Out of curiosity, I asked the proprietor if there was an Internet, CompuServe, or any other e-mail connection in the city.

"Not yet," he said apologetically.

Apparently, with the help of my young computer hacker friend in Petrozavodsk, I was more informed than the St. Petersburg computer store.

Tallinn, Estonia. While my fellow crewmembers were absorbed in 13th-century Orthodox churches, I was busy checking out 20th-century telephone communications. A very modern computer store helped me, free of charge, with my never-ending e-mail adventure. In the back of the store there was a room full of young programmers busy writing Estonian software. They were surrounded by all the latest computers and American software packages. One young hacker had no trouble loading my files onto his computer, then calling the physics department at the local university, and finally patching me through to a Swedish Internet connection across the Baltic Sea. My files were off in less time than it took me to introduce myself and explain my request.

These and many similar e-mail experiences followed me throughout Europe. It was a good introduction to the potential of worldwide e-mail connectivity and the friendliness of locals toward this new technology.

Closer to home, I island-hopped the beautiful waters of the Bahama Islands. Here the e-mail experience was quite different and not so friendly.

Nassau, Bahamas. My search for e-mail connections served as a way of bettering relations between tourists and locals, especially Bahamian merchants. I found that in the Bahamas this relationship starts and ends at the cash register. After 10 consecutive days of paying dearly for phone time at the Bahamas Telephone Company (BaTelCo), the three levels of supervisors, who had reluctantly granted permission, realized belatedly that they had no policy on e-mail and I had to stop using their phone line. I then tried local offices of IBM, Digital Equipment, Radio Shack, the Tourist Office, the Chamber of Commerce, the marina, and two computer service consulting firms. The answer was usually a curt "Hey, Mon. We can't let you do that."

BaTelCo advertises direct and secure satellite links to Switzerland for the 400 secretive offshore banks on the islands, but has no e-mail "policy" to nearby Miami, only 47 miles from the nearest island. The local Radio Shack outlet, billed as "The Technology Store," claimed that they had no telephone. Digital Equipment wanted to sell me a month's subscription to an Internet gateway. The Chamber of Commerce offered to rent me the entire board room, with fax line access, for $45 an hour.

Finally, a pleasant computer consultant understood my plightand my addictionand let me use his phone line.

Back in the U.S., which has a fantastic telephone system reaching every nook and cranny of the country, computer communications have their own unique problems. At most marinas I'm forced to use pay phones. These devices are okay for ordering a pizza or requesting emergency road service, but they're generally not user friendly when it comes to computers.

For example, many pay phones have been lowered for handicap use with a small, postage-size shelf beneath the wall mounted phone. To add insult to injury, the stainless shelf is tilted downward, to discourage people from leaving things by the phoneeverything slides off, including the computer. There is rarely enough clearance to open the lid on a laptop. The phone is often located close to a humming appliance like a washing machine or ice machine or a busy and noisy walkway. Using a pay phone requires an acoustic coupler since the phone jack is inaccessible. The coupler is a very noise-sensitive instrument that needs ideal conditionsa phone in good working order isolated from extraneous noises and vibrations. Such conditions are the exception, not the rule.

Internationally, the world of e-mail communications is rapidly bypassing ordinary overseas telephone connections. In the Russian hinterland it was much easier to find a telephone for a local call to a nearby e-mail node than it was to find an overseas operator for an old-fashioned international voice call. The e-mail nodes (via SprintNet, Internet, and CompuServe) are now in all the major and minor cities of Russia.

Making an international voice call in these same cities is much more complicated and requires more searching, more patience, and more money.

Along this adventurous e-mail trail I learned some important lessons worth passing on to fellow travelers.

1. It's helpful to carry a "road warrior" kit of phone conversion plugs to connect the computer modem to the telephone wall outlet. Different countries have adopted different types of plugs or, in some cases, no plugs, just hard-wired connections. Unfortunately, these conversion plugs are usually available only in the country itself and hard to find beforehand. Several articles have been written on how to "break into" telephones and wall jacks to make the two-wire modem connections. I stayed away from these drastic measures, fearing problems with local authorities in countries with government-owned phone systems.

2. Acoustic couplers designed to connect directly to a handset to avoid wire connections are of limited use. In some cases local handsets are shaped in such a wayultra modern or old fashionedthat the coupler can't be connected. In other cases, the problem seems to be with incompatible frequencies and timing used to establish or decode the audio tone and pulse signals.

3. Where possible, look for Japanese telephone and facsimile equipment or point-of-sale credit verification equipment because these devices all use the familiar small plastic modular connectors (RJ-11) used in the U.S. The cable to these devices can be connected easily to the computer modem or joined with your cable with an in-line connector.

4. Avoid fancy multifunction telephones or local office switchboards because these systems can sometimes confuse the modem and the dialing sequences built into the communications software. If possible, use a dedicated telephone line. These can usually be found in conjunction with a fax machine or a telephone credit verification machine.

5. Have a detailed list of access numbers for local e-mail networks available before setting out on a journey. Also know the data rates (e.g., 1,200 bits per second, 9,600 bps) and names (e.g., InfoNet-Euro, InfoNet-Wrld) of the networks. These networks have different communication protocols. In countries using phone cards, there may be special toll-free numbers. For example, in the U.S. you need an (800) access number with pay phones to avoid having to insert coins during the transmission.

6. Have a list of out-of-country dialing instructions available for each country, like the "011" international dialing code used in the U.S. In some countries this code may also require adding pauses for an additional dial tone between sequences of digits. All these instructions must be entered into the modem's software dialing sequence.

7. For the techies of this brave new world, it may also be useful to understand the Unix operating system. It helps in gaining direct access to Internet servers via many foreign universities and governments that are interconnected on this global network.

8. Trying to access CompuServe or some other online information network in the U.S. through AT&T's USA Direct or MCI's WorldPhone may push the limit of digits allowed in the dialing sequence. For example, in some countries USA Direct requires a 13-digit access code followed by an 11-digit CompuServe stateside number (including country code) and a 14-digit credit card number. That's a total of 38 digits plus several extra pauses that may be needed.

9. In the case of CompuServe, it is sometimes helpful to use the basic communications protocol rather than a specialized user-friendly software package. For example, accessing CompuServe through a simpler program like TAPCIS may be easier than with the user-friendly but more complicated, graphic, dialog-box-oriented CompuServe Information Manager (CIM) software.

10. Some countries require establishing the phone connection via an operator or pushing a special button once the calling party answers. This will necessitate making a manual call and then connecting the computer when the electronic "whistle" is heard from the acknowledging network. This will require special instructions to the modem software or a special protocol of dialing steps to trick the software into accepting manual dialing. (The individual online services or various travel forums and communications bulletin boards can provide these tricky instructions.)

11. It may be necessary to make repeated calls or multiple transmissions of the same file due to noise on low-quality local phone lines. The error checks in the software generally alert the user to such random failures. In some cases, switching to a lower data rate (1,200 bps or even a snail-paced 300 bps) may help overcome errors in noisy phone lines.

12. Have the laptop fully charged before trying to make the telephone connection. Bring along the computer's power adapter for 110/120 and 220/240 volts and the necessary conversion plug. Remember, the electric power outlet may not be near the telephone outlet. It's very frustrating to complete the connection only to have the computer shut down with a dead battery in the middle of a transmission.

13. Have sufficiently long telephone cables available (two to three meters) to be able to reach under desks and behind cabinets. Since only the two center wires are used, be sure to get the smallest four-wire modular connector that is compatible with larger-size openings for six- and eight-wire modular plugs.

14. E-mailing files back to yourself provides a safe and efficient means of storing back-up files in your mailbox while on the road (or the water).

These hints require some additional research and fine-tuning by travelers to particularize their systems for their destinations. There are too many computer networks, country standards, and equipment differences to make up a hard and fast set of instructions. For example, call-back services are springing up in the U.S. for overseas travelers. These give you direct access to the U.S. phone system by an organization that "calls you back" after you place an initial short call and hang up.

Telecommunications is a rapidly evolving environment. Hopefully, satellite telephones will become cheap enough to avoid long-distance land lines entirely.

Also, e-mail at sea via traditional HF-SSB radio is a reality [see story in this issue], but currently much more expensive than land-line connections. I discovered an interesting side benefit to my e-mail obsession. My journals became much more accurate and detailed than they would have been with handwritten letters, postcards, photo captions, or diaries. I carefully checked the spelling of a foreign village or double-checked dates of an ancient ruin. I also dug deeper for relevant background material and recorded anecdotal conversations for the travelogues.

All of this care and attention to detail would not have taken place had the journal not been typed and prepared for on-site transmission. There was something about the technology that demanded the extra research and precision. Obviously, I am a big fan of communicating via e-mail.

Michael Frankel is a voyager and freelance writer based in Orange Park, Fla.Editor's note: For any readers wishing to acquire an acoustic coupler, one source to contact for these hard-to-find items is Road Warrior International, 16580 Harbor Boulevard, Fountain Valley, Calif. 92708; 1-800-274-4277.