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Accessing the Internet afloat


Connecting Up

For this trip, we've found that GPRS has worked exceptionally well. Its expensive, but, because its data and not time driven, we believe it works out about the same or better than ordinary GSM data calls, which you pay for even if the system is sitting there doing nothing, and the data rate means that transfers take longer. We meant to do a direct comparison of the two to prove the point, but forgot. We'll try it one day.

With GPRS you don't need a local or a UK ISP, as the Telco connects you to the net directly. You need an ISP or mailhost if you use SMTP email (see below), but if you use webmail, you don't need an ISP at all.

GPRS coverage where we have been has been complete, and has the advantage that login settings are universal between countries. Essentially GPRS is just the transfer mechanism but it is set up to give you local access to the net from wherever you are. Voice calls take priority over data so occasionally we've seen difficulty setting up calls at busy times, but you can switch to another network to overcome that.

Email and the web work almost 100% reliably, at speeds of about 33k. One obscure problem we've not yet got to the bottom of is that FTP sessions seem to timeout. This has prevented us updating the web site as easily as we would have liked.

We use an ordinary mobile phone, and a tiny Bluetooth adaptor (£40 from Maplin) that plugs into the USB port of the laptop. IRDa (Infra-red) works just as well, but obviously the phone has to be within sight of the computer. The Bluetooth adaptor has a fussy 'pairing' sequence you have go to through when you first install it, but once set up is simple and reliable. The software that comes with it is complex and largely unneccessary.

GPRS obviously needs to be enabled on the phone (its usually not by default). The telco can send you a 'profile' to the phone by SMS when you first get it, so you don't have to key it all in manually. To set up the computer you simply create a 'New Connection' under 'Network & Dial up Connections' as though you were adding an ordinary dialup connection to an ISP using the parameters below. (You should have the phone modem already installed via Bluetooth or Infra-Red)

Dont use the Telco's software. (Our Network, Vodafone, has 'ConnectMe' software - Ignore it) The parameters to use when defining the connection are:

  • Number to Call :  *99#
  • Username :         web
  • Password :         web

This is all that's neccessary. We usually create a 'shortcut' on the desktop so that  everytime you want to make a connection, you just click on the Icon.

Once connected, you can browse the web as normal. Dont forget to disconnect!

Email

There are two types of email.

Webmail (otherwise known as Hotmail) as used by RYA-Online, uses a browser, and needs no special software on your PC. It can be accessed from anywhere (including Cafes) but is inefficient and expensive over a mobile phone, due to its graphical nature. Its also rather subject to Spam.

The alternative is 'traditional' (POP/SMTP) email, which needs a program like Outlook Express. This is far better for boat use, as it efficently downloads the email to be read offline. Telcos don't usually provide a mail POP server so the best thing is to use your UK ISP (Freeserve in our case) and then you can continue to use mail as though you were in the UK - you dont actually have to call the ISP itself. You do however have to set up Outlook Express a little differently.

Two 'server's are involved in Email. 'POP' servers are for incoming mail and can be accessed from anywhere, however you are connected to the net - hence you can access your own ISPs POP server without logging into them. 'SMTP' servers are for outgoing mail, but to use your ISPs SMTP server you will have to be dialled into them. Fortunately, although you must access your own ISPs POP server to get mail, you can use any SMTP server to send mail - it still looks like its come for you!

In OE's Accounts section, you set the POP (Incoming mail) server to be the same as your UK ISPs (pop.freeserve.net), but the SMTP (outgoing) server to that of the Telco (send.vodafone.net). You can then send and receive as normal.

Note that SMTP mail rarely works with Libraries or Cafes, where you are restricted to Webmail. We never use Libraries for email, but one solution to that is to have an ISP which offers both Webmail and SMTP. Our web hosting company (Fasthosts) offers such a service.

Some ISPs will 'time out' your account if you don't dial into them regularly (3 months for Freeserve) and they don't count GPRS or email as 'logging in'. To get round this you must either make an ordinary data call to them within the 3 months, or get them to re-enable you via a call to their helpdesk. In Freeserve's case you can do this yourself via their website.

Costs

Using a GSM phone abroad can be a costly business, but with some thought you can keep it to a minimum.

GPRS is of course charged per data byte rather than per minute, although there is usually a minimum charge equivalent to about 100kb. Telcos seem to go out of their way to make charges as opaque as possible, but in the last couple of years, the wide use of camera phones, which of course use GPRS, has stabilised charges somewhat.

Unlike when we first went, for data in Sweden you will now be best off by using a local Pay-as-you-go phone rather than your UK phone. Local contract phones offer the best deal, but you have to sign up for a year, and have a local bank account and address, so its not normally viable.

The best way to do this now is buy a 'SIM-only' package in a shop in Sweden. Vodafone Sweden's package costs 95 SEK (about £7), which includes 20 SEK's worth of calls, and can be 'topped up' at Vodafone shops and tobaconists. There is no monthly fee, but you must top it up at least once in 12 months for it to stay 'alive'. The other networks offer similar packages.

You'll need a handset, which means swapping the SIM card if you use your UK phone. A better way to get a handset is to get your UK phone upgraded before you leave. This is usually free, gets you the latest gadget, and you can retain your old handset for use on the boat.

Many UK handsets are 'locked' to the network, and you will need to unlock them first. Your network will charge you about £30 to do this, but many local phone shops will carry out the job for about £10, or you can do it yourself over the Internet. (Nokia owners can do it for free by carrying out the instructions on unlock.nokiafree.org). The phone will also need a new 'data account profile' to access the Swedish services, but the network will send you this via SMS if you ring them on 220 when in Sweden. You might need some trial and error to get things to work, particularly if you are reusing an old phone, but its worth persevering. (Note : To access GPRS from a PC, you'll need the Swedish 'Internet' profile, not the 'Vodafone Live' profile).

Vodafone PAYG charges in Sweden are currently 20 SEK (about £1.50) a megabyte. This may seem epxensive, but compares with using a UK Contract phone in Sweden which works out about £7.50 a megabyte (Anytime 200 account). For making ordinary voice phone calls, there is little difference. Charges seem to be similar from both the local phone and a UK phone, being about 60p a minute.

If you are not travelling through or within Sweden, then you may be stuck with your UK phone, and its charges. (We'll update this page with info on Denmark shortly) Nowadays, we either divert our UK number to our Swedish number, or just keep both phones 'live' on the boat, using the local one for Internet access. Depsite extensive use of the net, our phone bills have never exceeded £100 in any month. To keep costs to a minimum, here's a few tips:

  • Dont bother with a UK tariff which has bundled megabytes. They don't count abroad. Make sure you have 'International Call Saver' enabled if it is offered.
  • Set up Outlook Express rules to ignore large emails, attachments, and Spam.
  • Set up OE to only check mail on demand, not automatically.
  • Make sure no background programs are accessing the net while you are connected.
  • Set your web browser to ignore pictures.
Wireless Networks

The main downside to GSM is its cost. Wouldn't it be great if you could get broadband on your boat for free? We'll, its getting close. Some marinas operate Wi-Fi access points for their patrons use, and its free (or included in the berthing fee). All you need is a Wi-Fi enabled laptop (or plug in card) and away you go.

Marinas we have found so far in Sweden that operate a Wifi system are: Nyköping, Syndbyholm (Mälaren), Stockholm Wasahamnen (all free) and Bullandö (50 SEK/h).

If the marina doesnt operate a system, there's a pretty good chance someone else will. Telia operate a paid-for system (Homerun) in a number of hotspots across Scandanavia, including hotels and cafe's, but its expensive (about 120kr for 24 hour access). Their website lists the locations. A better bet, at least for the moment, is to find a cafe near a resendential area and try your luck, there's a good chance someone is operating an 'open' network you can just tap into. Having tried it, we're amazed at the number of networks actually available. And best of all, its free!

One small problem is that sending normal SMTP mail will not be possible (you can receive mail OK), due to the fact that you are no longer logged on to a recognised ISP I.e. you dont know which ISP the wireless connection uses). This means that you will have to use Webmail (Hotmail) or a 'roaming' SMTP service offered by some ISPs.

We use a matchbox sized device, the Canary Wireless 'Digital Hotspotter', to sniff out likely locations. It'll tell you whether any networks exist and whether they are 'open' without having to lug out the PC.

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