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Comms

This trip provided the ultimate challenge to a dyed-in-the-wool sparky. 

In Newport we had ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line) and then DirecPC. Both offer something in the hundreds of kb (kilobits) per second download speeds and somewhere around 50 - 100 kbps uploads. 

Connectivity Options

For the cruise we were faced with connectivity deprivation unless we had a very long wire. In the end we found six options, all of which are subject to SMTP blocking and to setting the correct proxy settings:

Landline & Internet Cafés
Cellular Handset Dialup
CDPD Data
High Frequency
GPRS Data
Wi-Fi

SMTP Blocking

In addition to the problem of just getting connected is the problem of being allowed access to an SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) outgoing mail server when the path you have chosen to access the Internet is not under the control of the sending ISP (Internet service provider). Most ISPs will block outgoing traffic in this case. The only solution we have found so far is to subscribe to HotMail (www.hotmail.com) and cut and paste email messages to send or else have a local account of some kind that you can log into directly.

Proxy Settings

Proxy settings are the data required to allow you to connect to the Internet through any provider. There are generally three critical data:

Gateway address
IP address
DNS servers

The principle on which all these methods depends is that there is some omnipotent POP (Point of Presence) on the Internet which then extends its services to local clients. Another principle on which all these methods depend is that computers don't know from words, all they understand are numbers. So we have to translate everything into numbers of one sort or another.

Gateway

That POP is generally referred to as a host or a gateway, that is, the gateway to the Internet. So first and foremost, you have to identify your gateway. Most providers tell you what this is, in the form of a series on numbers in the format xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx, where xxx is always 255 or less. This curious pattern is referred to as an IP (Internet Protocol) address.

IP Address

Now that you know to whom you want to talk, you have to tell that node how to talk back to you. So you have to have your own IP address, so that the gateway will know how to send you your traffic. Again, most providers will tell you what your IP address is, or else will tell you to put it into automatic, a topic of faith 'way past the scope of these pages. Trust them, it might work, but generally you need to insist that they assign you a specific IP address.

DNS Server(s)

Finally, now that you know how to reach the gateway, and the gateway knows how to reach you, you need a way to translate your human information (URLs) into numbers, the IP addresses. The DNS (Domain Name Server) is a machine somewhere out there that, when you send it a URL, looks that URL up in a table and finds its IP address, then returns that IP address to you (via the gateway); that IP address is then exchanged (by your software) for the URL you typed in, and then, and only then, is the message or web page request actually transmitted. An awful lot of work just to accommodate us humans, but a good thing nevertheless. If you get responses from your web browser saying "Site cannot be found", it's probably because your DNS server settings are hosed up.

So, once again, you need to get from your provider a list of at least one, preferably two, IP addresses of the DNS servers they recommend, so that when you send traffic through their gateway, the lookup will occur and your message or URL request will be sent correctly.

All of these data are then entered into the network properties settings for the particular TCPIP binding that you are using. For example if you are using a Nokia phone to access the service you will find an entry in Network Properties showing the connection between TCPIP and the Nokia, like

    TCPIP-->Nokia

Selecting that binding and then editing its properties will let you amend the details as discussed above.

Sigh... Sorry to be so pedantic, but that's what it takes...

Landline

Internet Cafés

This is a broad topic, discussed in detail here.

CompuServe

Andy carefully recorded the CompuServe access numbers for Spain before leaving, figuring that we could connect for a while using CompuServe from hotels or pay phones.

Imagine our surprise when we found 1) the access numbers on the CompuServe web page were incorrect (you have to log onto CompuServe and GO PHONES to get the correct numbers) but that furthermore there was a SIX DOLLARS PER CALL surcharge! Andy did the numbers. At that rate it is cheaper to call back to the States long distance than to connect locally! Wow...

We tried resolving this more amicably with them, but they kept referring us to use the 800 per minute connection. They don't seem to understand that 800 only works within the political boundaries of the U.S. 

So, fuggedabout CompuServe.

IDS

IDS.NET is our home ISP. They are associated with CONVERSENT.NET, a large network of ISPs that offer a very good range of local dialups throughout the US.This allowed us to avoid the SMTP blocking as long as we were in the U.S. However, they do not offer dialups overseas. So other than calling them by long distance from overseas, fuggedabout the local ISP once you leave the country. 

PSINet

Booz Allen subscribes to PSI.NET. They do offer overseas dialups. For better or worse, we are no longer associated with BAH, so this no longer works. They also had hefty surcharges as I recall, probably are in the same class as CompuServe.

Cellular Handset

The apparently most obvious solution is a cellphone. Sounds trivial, but it ain't. 

The problem is all the consolidations and turmoils in the wireless field. "Verizon" is a collective term which is embracing NYTEL, Bell Atlantic, BellWest, and various others. BellSouth generally runs things south of the Mason-Dixon line. AT&T is big in wireless in Florida.

Verizon

Verizon's "customer service" is abysmal, IMHO. 15-30 minute waiting times (and longer), clueless people at the other end. They lost over a billion dollars last year and two billion this year. Yet they're clueless why they're losing business.

 But you do what you gotta do. Ultimately we went with Verizon's multistate plan, which stops "local" coverage at the southern Virginia border. From there on you are "roaming" at usurious rates. We then used the handset to dial in to ISPs through the Carolinas and Georgia. Despite restricting the length of calls and only calling after 2100, we still ended up with a $1000 (yes that's three zeros) bill.

When we got to Jacksonville, FL we looked at the problem again and found that Verizon now had coverage in Florida. Martha's account was relatively new so carried a $200 cancellation fee. She was going to be out this regardless once we left the country (unless she chose to pay $30 a month into a black hole) so we changed her plan to the Florida coverage.

Unfortunately we didn't notice that they had switched the plan: the New England plan was nights and weekends. The Florida plan was weekends. These transactions occurred on the phone. They didn't point out the difference and we didn't catch it. Another $250 down the drain.

GPRS

We're now set up with Telefonica Movil Espańa. They have a really excellent range of services including high-speed wireless data connectivity. 

The Europeans (and most of the world) use the GSM system, which offers digital data on a subset service called GPRS. It provides 56KBps connectivity wireless with charges billed on the basis of throughput, not connectivity time. There was some shuffling around for a couple of days to get it up and running but it now is working great. The only drawback is the SMTP blocking discussed above.

We've been asked several times about our lashup. The details on the GPRS service are available here.

CDPD Data

An alternative is the CDPD (cellular digital packet data) PCMCIA card or CDPD capable handset. 

PC Card

We had CDPD data capability in our cellular handsets and the Novatel Wireless "Merlin" PC Card . The Merlin is  a credit card sized board with a tiny little antenna that slides into the side of the computer. There is a range of providers from which you can choose. This gets you to the Internet but does not solve the SMTP blocking problem.

GoAmerica

We chose GoAmerica, who are basically a middleware firm. They sell you the service and then negotiate in bulk with the providers. They offered an "anytime anywhere" plan for about $60 per month.

Unfortunately there was an e-st factor in their marketing. 

First, the coverage wasn't as advertised. 

Then, they seem to do a bit of a shell game with the IP (Internet protocol address) assignments. If you haven't used yours in a few days it gets discontinued (and apparently assigned to someone else). So you fire up the modem and lo! no connection. So you have to call their 800 number on the aforementioned usurious cellphone connection to get them to "reset the IP", after which it works for a few days until you move somewhere else. 

Then, finally, they decided their "anywhere, anytime" was costing too much for flat rates (prolly due to the aforementioned usurious roaming charges) and they tried to apply additional charges ex post facto.I said, NO! I have a contract thank you very much, and they backed down. But they did change my provider from the nonperforming Verizon to AT&T. It worked flawlessly from then on.

Nota bene: "flawlessly" is interpreted as, "it connected and I could send and receive." The connectivity is advertised as something in the 30 KBps region. That may be what is actually  being exchanged, but the error free rate (what you end up with after all the packet collisions and fades) is something more like 14.4 KBps at best, and prolly more nominally 9.6 KBps. So we are very interested in seeing what GPRS actually delivers.

CDPD Handsets

CDPD is a function of the providing operating company. In the case of Verizon coverage stopped at the Virginia - North Carolina border and picked back up again in Florida. However, note the discussion above about their billing, which resulted in high costs. 

We are now using the GPRS capabilities of the Nokia 6310 handset and are very pleased with it.

High Frequency (HF)

HF (or "shortwave" to non-Geeks) is theoretically an ideal medium. You can indeed talk anywhere, anytime to anywhere. There is just one tiny little catch: picking the right frequency...

We won't go into it here, but there are numerous advances over the past couple of decades that make this medium quite viable, albeit slow. The most notable is a modulation and connection protocol called PACTOR II. Basically, it uses error correction coding and a handshake protocol to ensure that all your data packets get through. The nominal throughput is 9.6 kbps, which you can modulate with location, antenna length, and (as in real estate) frequency, frequency, frequency.

As we speak they are testing the next generation PACTOR III, which promises even better throughput. The protocol is supported and explained here.

Fortunately, some very selfless dedicated amateur radio operators have built an amazing world-wide infrastructure called WinLink to support boats at sea using this mode. They have established a network of shore stations interconnected on the Internet to accept incoming and outgoing traffic for ships at sea. They've partitioned the system into two sectors, one for licensed Amateur Radio Operators ("hams") and another for non-licensed seamen.

So we (being licensed as WA6VCT) opted for the ham version. Installed an ICOM transceiver, 23 foot whip, and (most importantly) an MFJ "Ultimate Transmatch" tuner. And it is sweet. But slow.

Wi-Fi

This is by far the coolest connection method we've found. As with all the others, there are plusses and minuses.

Wi-Fi uses the wireless IEEE 802.11 series standard totransmit and receive to nodes within a small radius of a central station (called an access point), which then is connected to the Internet through a landline. It is the same protocol we use for an in-house (errm in-boat) wireless LAN (local area network) connecting three laptops to printers, modems, and so forth. 

We found this at Benalmadena, where a company called ITS Networks has set up an access point on top of the control tower, and then rent PC-card client nodes for €6 a day, giving easily over 600 kbps, and depending on the load into the megabits per second connectivity. 'Way cool.

They are a growing business, and have marketeers out there flogging the product while being clueless about proxy settings (TCPIP, gateways, IP addresses, and DNS servers), but nevertheless... It took us about an hour to sort out all the technical details, given the salesman's dearth of knowledge, but once hooked up it flew. We were sorry to leave, for that reason only...

We pointed out of course that they weren't going to make much money at €6 a day if it took them an hour to set it up, so they needed to get real smart about the technicalities real soon, and they agreed. Sounds like a consulting opportunity...

The plusses, of course, are high bandwidth and low cost. The minus is that it is only available in port, and then, for now, only in Benalmadena, so far. But think of the potential!