Chuck Husick: Techno-Talk,
September 2001 BoatUS Magazine - updated February 2009
and the Internet
E-mail withdrawal: Most is us have experienced this 21st century malady
at one time or another. It usually lasts for a short time and is often
caused by an easily remedied system failure. However, for those of us
who believe that staying in touch electronically is a must while boating,
the situation is a bit more complex, but improving.
Using a wireless modem with either a conventional laptop or with
a PDA or iPhone has added benefits and can contribute to boating
safety by providing access to Web sites such as the National Weather
Service for downloading of weather charts, forecasts and real-time NEXRAD radar images. Your choice
of on-the-water wireless communication will depend in part on what
services are available in your area and on your messaging needs.
On a sail from Florida to Maine, I found that wireless e-mail,
with or without a computer, is readily available in many of the
most popular boating areas. You may even be able to do a limited
amount of Web surfing, although it may prove slow enough to be painful unless you are in an area served by a 3G cellular system, which in some instances can approach the speed of wireless internet connections.
Although a satellite communication system will keep you in touch
with your e-mail provider from virtually anywhere on earth, you
can obtain quite usable service for much less cost in equipment
and service charges if your boating takes place in areas served
by cellular phone towers, especially where high speed data systems, including 3G are available.
Dedicated e-mail systems that operate with conventional Windows
laptops or Macintosh communicating over otherwise unused cellular telephone channels, can be much
more attractive. These systems generally operate at 19.2K baud,
providing excellent e-mail capability and limited but useful Web
access. A variety of USB modems are available for use with laptop computers and will work with many of the cellular telephone services in most U.S. cities and along much of the coastline.
While cellular phone service is usually available up to five to
10 miles offshore we found the AirCard often worked well beyond
the distance where voice messages are no longer possible, for example,
28 miles off the southeast coast of Florida.
A wireless modem such as the AirCard can be plugged into most Windows
laptop computers. Unfortunately, it won't currently work with an
Apple Macintosh laptop unless the computer is running Virtual PC. However, similar plug-in cell phone modems are now available for Mac users. The wireless devices built into most laptop computers have limited ability to work with distant and therefore relatively weak signals. A number of external wifi USB connected transceivers are available that may be capable of providing connections to "hotspots" some hundreds of meters distant. The major challenge in using this typ4 of equipment results from the fact that such sites are very often encoded and therefore unusable without access to the password.
Since most laptop screens are useless in full sunlight, the AirCard
will also work with the new Pocket PCs such as
many of the Palm and Handspring palm units whose screens can be
seen clearly when outdoors. Price promotions may offer the modem
virtually free of cost with an annual service contract costing about
$35 per month for unlimited use. America Online offers free software
for use with most of these systems so that both e-mail and instant
messaging are a click away.
The RIM Blackberry and Palm devices offer another cruising
e-mail alternative. These devices work on paging frequencies and
may carry over even longer distances than the AirCard since the
FM radio transmitter antennas they use can be 2,000 feet above the
ground. These units operate at a somewhat slower data rate than
the AirCard and may provide lesser Web access. They cost between
$200 and $500, with a monthly subscription fees running about $40. The Apple iPhone 3g opens a wide range of opportunities for both communication and access to essential boating related information including real-time views of the National Weather Service Doppler Weather Radar system. There are dozens of applications (apps) for the iPhone that have very specific on-water value. The iPhone's combination of integral GPS receiver and ability to fix its location by triangulation from cell phone towers makes it a very valuable boating companion.