Keeping in touch while afloat

WiFi Internet connection, Wireless Internet while afloat, Marina WiFi hotspots, VoIP, Skype

Wireless Internet from your boat, what’s it all about?

There are a growing number of questions from boaters about using WiFi Hotspots to provide Internet access within Marinas. This article will help with understanding what the above phase actually means and what is could mean for the people who live and work on and around the canal boats of the United Kingdom. This information is provided by Ian MacIver, a Senior Partner in a consultancy firm called Acre Consultants. Acre’s background is in building mobile phone networks around the world and well as advising large fixed line telecom companies such as BT, the knowledge gained in these areas have lead them into the new world of Wireless Internet. The company knows that the future will include providing Internet access to people in remote and mobile communities.

Why would a boat owner need to use the Internet? What can a connection to this form of technology actually provide, above what I already pay for, after all, I have a mobile phone?

These are common questions asked during conversations with Marina owners and boat owners. The place to start understanding is to take a look 10 years into the future. This is part of the service provided by Acre to large companies. Imagining a world where your TV image can be seen where ever your boat is in the UK, you do not have to rely on getting a good position for the TV aerial on the roof because you have moved location today, your music CD / LP music collection can be played from a device like an iPod and you can add new CD’s through the same iPod. The TV signal and Radio for that matter can come over an Internet connection. Your CD collection does not have to reside on the boat; it can be stored some where else and accessed via the Internet.

Now I know I can hear people commenting on the above view, but the reality is that the Internet is really only a pipe or connection to pass information over. It’s a bit like Star Trek when they can beam up some cargo. The cargo is converted into an electrical beam and then the cargo is re-build at the receiving end. The Internet works in the same way. You will be able to watch TV with out the need for an aerial or satellite dish. People today listen to Radio 2 over the internet. While I am writing this article on a Saturday evening I am listening to Mike Harding’s Thursday night folk program re-played as my selection. I could be on a boat, sadly I am not. Access to every day items like TV & Radio can be accessed over this Internet pipe.

Could I make telephone calls over the Internet?

Coming back to our world today, there is also a lot of conversation around making phone calls over the Internet. This is known as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). This is actually quite simple once explained. We have already talked about the Internet's ability to convert some things into an electrical form and then re-form it at the destination end. Making calls over the Internet requires some thing on your end. A commonly used program is called ‘Skype’, you may have heard of it. This program forms one end of a phone conversation which can travel over the Internet. When you load the ‘Skype’ program on to your computer it asks you for a name which is unique to the Skype system. This means that no one else with a Skype program will have your chosen name. This uniqueness means that from your computer you can call other Skype programs on other computers any where on the Internet. As the Internet now covers the whole world it means that you could establish a phone conversation with some one in Australia or the boat on the next mooring. To the Internet, distance is not really an issue. You may have guessed by now that this call would be free because it remains on the Internet and the company who runs the Skype system choose not to charge at the moment for calls to other Skype users. You have a cost to connect to the Internet, but once connected the cost will not go up just because you make phone calls over it.

Quality of the call relies on the quality of the Wireless connection you have from your boat to the WiFi HotSpot provider. We will cover that subject later. But generally the call quality is good and will get better over time.

Can I use VoIP to call a normal telephone number?

Companies like Skype allow you to open an account by credit card and then you can call a normal fixed number over the Internet. The call actually gets directed to the Skype company computers and they then pass the call out to companies like BT who pass the call on to the fixed line. Remember, you can make these calls where ever you can get connected to the Internet. So if you are travelling north on the Grand Union and the Marina you intend to moor at in the evening provides this access then you can make calls. The next question is how I can receive calls from normal phone lines. To do this people need a real number to call. You would think that it would be difficult to get a normal phone line to make it through to the Internet. To get over this companies like Skype provide the ability to have your own number such as an 0845 number or normal numbers with an area code which connects the inbound call to your unique Skype account. This means that people can call your new 0845 number, if you are connected to the Internet then the Skype program will ring, you answer it and have a phone conversation. If you are in transit and out of WiFi Internet coverage then the Skype account will use a Voice Mail system which you can pick up on your Skype program once you get back into coverage.

This is an over view of the possibilities available today to people in remote areas where Wireless Internet access is available. Now lets look at how a Marine would implement this service and how you as a customer would use it.

Wireless Internet, as the name implies uses radio waves to carry a signal from the transmitter to a receiver and back again. The receiver is either built into your laptop or is built into a device which plugs into your laptop or Computer. The transmitters, some times known as base stations link back to an Internet connection which usually comes via a phone line. This is the Broadband connection. A typical site installation will have one Broadband connection and 3 to 4 base stations spread around the Marina site. The range from each base station is up to 100 Meters. This means that you should get a connection if you are within 100 meters of a base station.

As the system uses radio waves, radio waves do not travel through metal. As I am sure some people will be thinking, most canal boats are made of metal. The signal actually travels through the gaps in the windows or other gaps in the boat. The radio wave used is 2.4 GHz and this wave will pass through very small gaps. There will be a loss of signal when you are in the boat and there are devices you can buy to help reduce this loss. If you have a device which plugs into your computer and has a lead on it, then the device can be positioned near the windows. There are other devices which can be fitted to your boat.

This device shown right is a Marina Hotspot Booster which can be fitted on deck and the cable can be plugged into the Laptop. This will greatly increase the signal. More details at http://www.wirelesspro.co.uk/product_info.php?products_id=413

When you buy and devices to be plugged into your computer they will talk about the type of signal they can receive. This is normally called 802.11b or 802.11g. All HotSpots should support both type b & g. G is the faster version but both will work.

How do you use a Hotspot.

There are two stages to using a WiFi HotSpot. The first is for your computer to connect to the base station via a wireless link. If you have WiFi built in to your computer or you have a plug in device the process is the same. The Wireless system will allocate a network address automatically to your computer. To allow this you have to set the network connection to accept ‘Dynamic address’ allocation. Once your computer has connected correctly with a base station the link will show it has connected. This will now allow you to connect to the Internet. The WiFi Hotspot system will allow you to start a Web Browser and the browser will automatically be directed to their HotSpot login page. This page is as far as you will be allow going until you either login or buy credit and are provided with a login.

The screenshot right shows a typical screen where you can either click on the credit card image to pay by credit card, or if you have already paid and have a username and password then you can enter these details and click on Login. Once you have login in then you will have open Internet access to go where you want.

All HotSpot systems should work the same way.

What does the Marina owner need to do to supply this service in their Marinas?

There are a number of companies which provide this type of service to Marina owners. This article describes the service provided by stourmarine.net, a division of Acre Consultants. Stour Marine provides all the infrastructure required to run this service at their own cost and pays the Marina owner a percentage of the revenue taken. This keeps things simple. We know how to provide this service and the Marina owner knows their customers.

The usual installation process requires us to order the Broadband connection; this requires the use of a BT phone line. We pay for the Broadband connection but not the phone line rental. This is because in some cases the customer has a spare line used for the fax machine. But it is also true to say that no two sites are the same.

For more details see http://www.stourmarine.net or contact Ian MacIver, email Ian.maciver@acreconsultants.com or ring  0870 892 1177,


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