COMMUNICATIONS IN EUROPEAN WATERS
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There would appear to be one factor above all others that prevents many would-be live-aboard sailors from ever casting off and which destroys much of the magic for those who do. It is not the threat of gales or the fear of drowning or the misery of seasickness but something far more basic to our human needs. It is the fear of being out of touch with loved ones back at home. This review looks at some of the ways in which modern technology can be used to obviate that fear.
Before looking at possible solutions, a word or two about the philosophy of living aboard as opposed to taking a holiday afloat: When one is in full-time employment, one’s annual holiday is supremely important and one makes a very great deal of effort to make sure that it goes well. For the duration of the holiday reality is suspended: worries about relatives are put on one side, health problems are ignored and finances are temporarily over-stretched. By contrast, when one moves on board permanently, reality moves on too. Even though one might be living in paradise, problems can no longer be ignored but must be dealt with on a day-to-day basis. It is this aspect of living aboard that makes communication so vital.
For those for whom money is not an issue modern telecommunications now offer a near-perfect solution. A combined mobile and satellite telephone can give instant access wherever you happen to be on the surface of the globe just as if you were sitting at home. Unfortunately, for the average live-aboard couple trying to make ends meet on limited funds, such systems are prohibitively expensive. However, for those cruising close to land in European waters, there are ways in which a mobile phone can be used to advantage without necessarily reeking havoc with the budget.
The Mobile Telephone Networks that cover European waters are all part of the international digital cellular system known as GSM. (Global System for Mobile Communications). All the countries in Europe have at least one Mobile Network, most have several. In the seven years since we left the UK we have spent less than half a dozen nights out of range of a GSM aerial, a clear indication of the extent of the system.
GSM Networks in Europe use either the 900 MHz or the 1800 MHz frequency band but, as most new handsets can operate on either, the distinction is now largely academic. In the UK, Vodafone and O2 use 900 MHz and Orange and T-Mobile use 1800 MHz. (The system used in America is different but handsets are now available that can be used on all three systems.)
Licences have been issued for so-called ‘Third Generation’ (3G) Mobile Networks that, in theory, will eventually displace the current GSM Networks. However, progress is so slow and patchy that 3G cannot yet be considered as a viable option.
GSM handsets all require a small electronic chip known as a SIM card (Subscriber Identity Module) to be inserted before they can be used to log on to a network. It is the SIM card that carries the details of your account and telephone number, not the handset. Handset Locking, often inaccurately called SIM-locking, is the practice whereby handsets are locked so that they can only be used on the original Mobile Network. This, the Networks tell us, is to ensure that they recoup the subsidy given on the handset at the time of purchase. Before a handset can be used with a SIM card from a different Mobile Network it must be ‘unlocked’. Most handsets provided by Vodafone and O2 on monthly tariffs are unlocked from the outset but those they provide on pre-paid contracts and all handsets provided by Orange, T-Mobile and Virgin, are locked. Each company has a minimum period of time or a minimum expenditure on calls before it will unlock a handset and all but Virgin Mobile charge a fee for doing so. If you hope to use your handset with a foreign SIM card whilst cruising (see below) it is essential to ensure that it is unlocked before leaving the UK.
Using your UK mobile phone whilst abroad, a process known as ‘Roaming’, is simplicity itself: you switch the phone on, wait for it to log on to a local network and dial the number required. However, calls made in this way can be very expensive (see below). Beware too that you also have to pay to receive calls as you pay for the leg from the UK, not the caller.
It is the high cost of incoming calls that imposes the greatest limitation on the use of a UK mobile phone whilst abroad as callers may not appreciate that you are paying to receive their call. One solution favoured by those who remain in one country for a protracted period of time is to open a pre-paid, (Pay-As-You-Go or PAYG) ‘SIM Card only’ account with a local Mobile Network. Provided your handset is ‘unlocked’ (see above) the new SIM card can be inserted into your UK phone giving it a local number e.g. a Spanish number if the card was bought in Spain. So long as you use the card only in the country of origin, incoming calls will be paid for entirely by the caller.
When we first set sail for the Mediterranean in 1998 we met few other yachtsmen who used the Short Message Service (SMS) that is built in to all GSM networks. Since then the kids have discovered it and ‘texting’ has become universal.
All current GSM phones can send and receive text messages of up to 160 characters. Messages can also be sent from a computer equipped with a modem using a simple piece of software that can be downloaded off the Internet. Any messages sent to your phone whilst it is switched off are stored for up to 17 days. They are received within a few minutes next time the phone is switched on, wherever in the world you happen to be, provided it is in range of a GSM aerial and provided the local Mobile Network includes the SMS service which, I suspect, all now do. Messages cost nothing to receive and, in the UK, only around 12p to send: amazingly cheap for a messaging service that covers half the globe!
Whilst we are cruising one of our children acts as a point of contact for us in the UK. If she receives an urgent message for us she sends us an SMS message either from her mobile phone or from her computer at home. We normally keep our handset switched off but we turn it on for 10 minutes every day during supper. If our daughter has sent us a message we receive it at that time and can take action accordingly. More importantly, if there is no message, we know that there is no problem. To receive such reassurance every night at no cost is a great blessing. We have also found that SMS messages are the perfect means of keeping in contact and arranging meetings with fellow yachtsmen. We have enjoyed many a reunion in deserted anchorages that could not have been arranged in any other way.
Electronic Mail, or email as it is universally known, works in a very similar way to SMS messaging: mail sent to your electronic ‘mailbox’ is stored until you log on to receive it. However, unlike SMS messages, emails can be of any length and can also have files or pictures attached to them. We have received pictures of our grand-children in this way whilst cruising, a delight that any grandparent will readily appreciate, but do read the warning below about receiving attachments on board. A further advantage of email is that the same message can be sent to any number of different recipients for no additional cost. We make use of this by sending regular ‘Passage Reports’ to friends and family to keep them in touch with our progress.
To send and receive electronic mail you need an email address and access to the Internet. If you are living at home in the UK, the simplest way to obtain these is to open an account with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) who will provide you with one or more email addresses and either a dial-up or broadband connection to the Internet. Both forms of connection require a landline coming into your house, a luxury rarely available on board. It is this lack of a permanent, wired connection that must be overcome when seeking a means of using email when cruising.
I would like, at this point, to deal with a few technical matters concerning the sending and receiving of email. If such matters make your eyes swim I suggest you skip this section and only come back to it if you feel the need!
The computers that handle email traffic on the Internet are known as ‘Mail Servers.’ There are three types in common use:
POP3 (Post Office Protocol version 3) servers are used to handle incoming mail. Your incoming mail is stored in a POP3 mailbox (your personal corner of the server) until you access it, at which point all your messages, including attachments, are downloaded onto your own computer. POP3 mailboxes are always password protected so only you can access your mail.
IMAP (Internet Messaging Access Protocol) servers use a more sophisticated method of handling incoming mail in which the mail remains on the server and is not stored on your computer. However, to read your email you still have to wait for the information to download and, if you want to re-read it a few hours later, you have to go on line again. This is no problem for a land-based customer with an always-on broadband connection, but it is of little use when cruising. Like POP3 mailboxes, IMAP mailboxes are always password protected.
SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) servers handle outgoing mail by routing it to its intended destination(s). Unlike POP3 and IMAP servers, most SMTP servers are not password protected. Instead, they will only forward your outgoing mail when you are logged directly into their host ISP. For example, you can only send email via the Virgin SMTP server when you have got onto the Internet by using a Virgin dial-up number or Virgin broadband. If you have got onto the Internet by some other means, e.g. a WiFi connection in a marina (see below), and attempt to send mail through the Virgin SMTP server, your attempt will fail. To get around this problem a few, but not many ISPs provide a secure, password-protected SMTP server that can be used irrespective of how you get onto the Internet. This can be very useful when cruising.
To communicate with all three types of Mail Server you need a special programme know as an ‘Email Client’. By far the most common is Microsoft’s Outlook Express as it is bundled free-of-charge with Windows. However, other email clients are available including Eudora, Pegasus Mail, Mozilla Thunderbird and Microsoft’s Outlook.
The simplest, cheapest and one of the most popular ways of using email when cruising is to set up a ‘Web Mail’ account such as ‘Hotmail’ and use Internet Cafés to access the Internet. Web Mail accounts are accessed using a web browser such as Internet Explorer so you do not need to know anything about email clients or mail protocols. Internet Cafés can now be found in many places throughout the Mediterranean though not, of course, in deserted anchorages miles from civilization.
Recently, some UK ISPs have introduced ‘Web Access’ to their POP3 and IMAP mailboxes. This allows you to go into an Internet Café and both read and send email from the account you use at home. Once read, you can choose to delete incoming email that you have dealt with or leave it on the server until you return home and download it. You cannot, however, keep a copy of outgoing email unless you send a copy to yourself.
To send and receive email on board requires the use of a device on which to read and write your mail and a means to connect to the Internet. The most popular device is a laptop computer as it can be used for many other purposes on board, but it is equally possible to use a PDA such as a Psion or Palm or a combined PDA/Mobile Phone. You can connect to the Internet via a satellite link, SSB radio or, when in a marina, by WiFi (see below) but the most common method when cruising is to use a GSM mobile phone dial-up connection. Such a connection is very slow (9.6 kbps) and not really suitable for surfing the Internet (though it can be done) but it is perfectly adequate for sending and receiving email.
To use a mobile phone to make a dial-up connection to the Internet it must have a built-in modem. As the majority of handsets do not, it is essential to check before you buy. You also need to consider the method of connecting it to your laptop. Some handsets use an infra‑red link, some use a cable and some can use either. Infra‑red links are limited in range which, if your laptop and handset are on a table at or below sea level, may create problems with reception. A handset joined to your laptop by a cable can be held up through the companionway where the signal strength is likely to be greater. Recently, handsets using ‘Bluetooth’, a wireless protocol, have come on to the market which could be ideal if your laptop or PDA is similarly equipped. Another innovation is a ‘Card Phone’ – a mobile phone built in to a PCMCIA Card that slots into your computer and is operated entirely through software.
Whichever connection method you prefer, the mobile phone and laptop must be compatible. Not all laptops have infra-red ports and many new ones do not have serial ports either. Whatever you choose, make sure you can join them up!
Before you use your mobile phone to make a dial-up connection to the Internet it is advantageous to have your account ‘data enabled’ as this ensures that special switching is used for your data calls making them less prone to ‘drop-outs.’ This must be done by your Mobile Network and involves switching on the necessary services by tapping the appropriate codes into their computer. If you wish to avoid long and expensive international calls back to your Mobile Network it is essential that you ask for this to be done before you leave the UK, but the good news is that it is usually done free of charge. However, yachtsmen favouring the Foreign SIM approach (see above) should note that not all PAYG accounts can be data enabled and even those that can, may involve a conversation in the local shop that will tax your language skills to the limit!
GPRS is a recent innovation that gives an ‘always on’ internet connection from your mobile phone. As the connection is always on, you pay for the amount of data downloaded rather than for the period of time on-line. Most modern mobile phones can use GPRS but, unfortunately, charges are still high, particularly when roaming. A few foreign mobile phone companies, most notably Turkcell, allow GPRS connection on their PAYG accounts. If a few more companies would follow suit this would become the best method of connection when cruising, so do check up on the situation in your intended cruising area. When you connect to the Internet using GPRS the Mobile Network acts as your ISP as they provide the link between their network and the Internet. Surfing the Internet is quite feasible using GPRS as the connection can be up to four times faster than a dial-up connection but do be very mindful of the pricing structure of your contract.
WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) is a service increasingly offered by marinas that provides you with a broadband Internet connection on board your boat via a radio link. You need a ‘WiFi Adaptor’ for your laptop to use this service but you can often borrow one from the marina. Charges are typically 1€ per day. When you use WiFi you make use of the marina’s ISP as it is through them that you are connected to the Internet.
The services provided by ISPs normally include either a broadband connection or dial-up telephone number(s) through which you can connect to the Internet and one or more e-mail addresses and their associated mailboxes. The choice of ISPs in the UK is huge but the special needs of those of us cruising abroad cut this down to a much smaller number.
Many yachtsmen use a ‘free’ dial-up service provided by a UK-based ISP. Calls made from abroad to log on to the Internet through such an ISP will be international and charged as such. If you wish to consider this option it is essential to choose an ISP that provides a telephone number that can be dialled from abroad. (Most use 0845 numbers that can be called only from within the UK.) Virgin.net has such a number and is therefore a popular choice.
A popular alternative is to use an ISP that provides local telephone numbers in the countries you intend to visit. CompuServe, AOL and ATTGlobal provide such numbers throughout the world though the latter concentrates on business accounts that are rather expensive for personal use. Dial Pipex provides numbers in many European countries though, unfortunately, not in Croatia or Turkey. Calls made to log on to one of these services will be ‘in-country’ which, depending upon your choice of Mobile Network and tariff, can be cheaper than an international call back to the UK (see below).
There are a few specialist International ISPs that provide telephone numbers throughout the world that can be used for dial-up access to the Internet but do not provide any other services such as the provision of mailboxes. Once you are on-line with such a company you can surf the internet (still slow if you have connected using a mobile phone dial-up connection) or access any email account in the world. One such company that I have used with great success is Tempest Telecom who provide such a service charged on a per second basis with no standing charge and no minimum payment. They also provide use of a secure, password-protected SMTP server to avoid the problems outlined above.
Information on Tempest Telecom can be found at: http://www.tempestcom.com/
Other similar companies include: Iberpass: http://www.iberpass.com/
It is possible to use a local ISP when cruising in a foreign country, but finding out about them and opening an account when you do not have a fixed address makes this impractical in most cases.
Viruses and Spam (unsolicited email) are the curse of email. Many ISPs now provide virus-filtering on their POP3 and IMAP mailboxes. Do not consider an ISP that does not.
The best way to reduce Spam it is to have two or more email addresses including:
You may find use for some intermediate ones as well e.g. a special one just for an email group or one for more formal contacts like the Bank.
If you would like to have a personalised email address such as firstname.lastname@example.org there are many companies who can set this up for you for a very modest annual fee. Some of these companies will also provide you with POP3 or IMAP mailboxes and the use of a password-protected SMTP server making your email addresses entirely independent of any one ISP. You can then use whatever means you like to get onto the Internet such as GPRS, WiFi and whichever ISP has the best introductory deal when you return home, but always have the same, personal email address. My domain costs about £20 per year and gives me 50 different addresses, 5 POP3 mailboxes all with virus filtering, access to a password-protected SMTP server and Web Access to my mailboxes. If you would like to know more about ‘One and One’, the company that provides the service for me go to:
and then click on ‘Instant Mail’ towards the top of the menu on the left-hand side of the page. I will receive a small commission if you open an account after clicking on this link.
With several Mobile Networks in most European countries and a whole range of tariffs offered by each, a seemingly simple question such as ‘how much does an ‘in-country’ call cost within France’ has several hundred different answers. To begin with, there is a huge difference between the amounts charged by the four main UK networks for roaming on the same foreign network. For example, when I last did a comparison, you would have paid 18p/min to T-Mobile and 99p/min to O2 for roaming on the same network in France at the same time of day. The French network no doubt charged both UK companies the same wholesale price but O2 added a very much greater mark-up.
It would be reasonable to assume that when roaming, making a call within the country would be cheaper than making an international call back to the UK. This is sometimes the case, but not always. At the time of my research T-Mobile charged 18p/min for calls within France and 37p/min back to the UK but O2 charged 99p/min for both. In similar ways, the cost of receiving calls when roaming can vary greatly from one Mobile Network to another and using a foreign SIM card does not always give you cheaper local calls. With tariffs changing almost daily the only thing you can do is to check the current tariffs carefully and keep checking them because today’s bargain may be tomorrow’s rip-off and vice versa.
There are no fixed costs for using a ‘free’ dial-up service with an ISP such as Virgin.net but all the ISPs that provide overseas telephone numbers charge a monthly fee for their services. They also charge a ‘surcharge’ for use of their overseas numbers. To make a cost comparison you must therefore take into account how often you propose to log on and which tariff on which Mobile Network you intend to use. In most cases it is cheaper to use a free UK ISP if you only log on infrequently as you have no monthly fee to take into account. However, if you log on several times a week, provided you have chosen your Mobile Network wisely, the CompuServe, AOL or Tempest option is likely to save you money.
Attached files and photographs can be very large and consequently expensive to download using a GSM dial-up link. We use a separate address for e-mails with attachments and download them in an Internet Café.
E-mail can be sent to recipients who have a fax number but no e-mail facility of their own. The format is as follows:
where ‘name_name’ can be anything you please and ‘telephone number’ is the country code (without the access digits 00) and the telephone number as dialled for an international call, i.e. without the leading zero, and without gaps.
We have our own personal fax number with a company called eFax. An incoming fax is converted into a graphics file and sent to us as an attachment to an e-mail message. Details of this service can be found at http://www.efax.co.uk.
The combination of e-mail and SMS messaging has solved almost, though not quite all of our problems over communication whilst cruising. For relatives without e-mail or fax we send letters and postcards and there are also times when only a chat will do. On these occasions we use public telephone boxes. In most European Countries the public telephones are now operated by using a ‘smart card’ issued by the Telecom Company and, for some reason which I have never been able to fathom, often obtainable from a tobacconist. However, in those countries that have embraced the concept of competition in the Telecoms industry it is also possible to use third-party pre-paid cards to make calls. These usually take the form of ‘scratch cards’ which enable you to dial a special number and then make a call or calls up to the value of the card. Not surprisingly, they usually offer better value than the local company. In Spain, BT have a pre-paid system that enables one to telephone the UK from any public telephone for the equivalent of 22p per minute, day and night charged by the second. To set up the system dial 900 94 89 25 from any phone in Spain (it is a free call) with a credit card to hand.