Wireless Email on your Boat

September 2001E-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 Palm or Pocket PC 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 and forecasts. 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 recent 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.

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 and paging services. You can use a modem with some cell phones, however the data rate (usually 9,600 baud) is slow, and since you will be paying for each minute of use, the cost can be high.

Dedicated e-mail systems that operate with conventional Windows laptops, the new pocket PCs and some palmtops such as the Palm V, utilizing 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. The Sierra AirCard 300 CPDP (Cellular Digital Packet Data) wireless modem works 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.

Since most laptop screens are useless in full sunlight, the AirCard will also work with the new Pocket PCs such as the Compaq iPaq and 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 VIIx 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.

As an example of today\’s technology, we use a Compaq iPaq Pocket PC, running special versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook and Internet Explorer, plus other software including AOL Mail, Instant Messenger and GoWeb, a compressed Web browsing program. The unit measures only 5 x 3.5 x 0.6 inches, and weighs less than six ounces. Adding the AirCard wireless modem increases the thickness to 1.25 inches, and the weight to 12 ounces. A full size computer keyboard from Targus folds into a 5 x 3.5 x 0.8 inch packet which makes it possible to do substantial work, without resorting to the iPaq\’s stylus operated keyboard or its handwriting recognition software. The small transreflective color screen is clearly visible in full sunlight, and brightly backlit, too.

Put this 5 x 3.5 x 2.05-inch, 12-ounce package in a plastic bag, and even your sea kayak voyage can be on the Web!

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