KatieKat Cruise: Cellphones and Internet Communications

Before coming here to Australia, I had visions of having a cellphone hooked up to my Mac on the boat and having the ability to happily surf the Internet weather sites, uploading daily to my website, and having e-mail at my fingertips while sailing along the Australian coast. So much for visions...

Cellphones are called "Mobiles" in Australia and, as I mentioned earlier, are incredibly popular - it seems that everybody has one. There are quite a few mobile phone providers, with a couple of the top ones being Telstra and Optus, each having high visibility with not only their own outlets, but with stands selling their products everywhere. There are two types of accounts offered: Pre-Paid and Contract, for both cellphones and internet access. Since cellphone contract duration is typically two years, Pre-Paid makes more sense for us, especially since a package including the phone and 50 hours of jabbering is around US$70, with "recharge" cards available everywhere. Although the Pre-Paid per-minute cost of making phone calls is very high and one cannot make overseas calls, incoming phone calls are free. The systems are digital (GSM or CDMA) and coverage and quality are excellent.

Now, the fun begins when the discussion turns to connecting to the Internet via a cellphone. In talking with storefront salepeople, when one says "data connection" they immediately say "no problem, myte" and produce a cellphone with an RS232 adapter cable and a CD-ROM and tell you that's all it takes; furthermore, when you tell them you have an infrared port on the computer they produce a number of cellphones with infrared ports which obviate the need for the cable, and you get the impression life is simply great. Not so!

First, one needs to distinguish between data transfer between the computer and cellphone and actual communications. Data transfer means, e.g., to upload a phonebook into the phone. Communications is a different story - but, doable. At first I thought they were talking about using the RS232 connection to merely transfer data into the cellphone; however, with a PC, the communications works and e-mail uploads/downloads do work, albeit slowly.

If you tell them you have a Macintosh they roll over and die because all their packaging tells them the stuff is only PC-compatible. But that's not the issue, because I can buy a PCMCIA card which will allow me to connect my Mac to the cellphone, and it includes Mac/cellphone-compatible software. I haven't pursued it, but I understand the latest version of the Mac operating system would allow me to use a Nokia cellphone's infrared port directly.

If you have all this hardware in place and are actually able to connect, it looks as though at present 9600baud is the best they can do. Now, the data modem costs a bundle, the communications data-compatible cellphones cost a bundle, and to top it all off, none of the major mobile suppliers allows data communications on their pre-paid accounts - you have to sign up for a two-year contract! After being frustrated and unable to find a phone line a number of times, I actually tried to sign up for long-term contract (figuring I could use the GSM digital cellphone worldwide - except the US) and they wouldn't do it because I don't have a permanent Australian address!

Now, I had one more ace up my sleeve: an acoustic modem, advertised as being good for 28.8K and which I had successfully used at home at 14.4K, although it usually connected at 9600 or 4800. I bought an inexpensive Optus Pre-Paid mobile and an Optus ISP access account and tried to mate my acoustic modem to it - it starts off interacting but then stops. I didn't know if it was a digital cellphone and acoustic modem compatibility issue or the fact that data communications service is restricted on these Pre-Paid contracts - in any event, it didn't work. Talking with the very pleasant Tech Support at Optus they allowed as data comm is indeed inhibited on PrePaids and there's nothing they can do about it. So I tried the next step: using the acoustic modem with a payphone - that also didn't work, and another call to Tech Support revealed that the SLOWEST rate they support is 14.4K, and so I suspect the quality of the handset/phoneline/modem combination precluded getting up to the 14.4K.

So, what do I do? I have the Optus ISP account and so it's a matter of finding a phoneline to plug into, since local-access phone numbers are available in most places. A number of people have been kind enough to let me use their phone lines: Richard Ward from Seawind in Sydney, Rohan Walter in Pittwater, and Peter Skirving from Allboat & Cargo Insurance here in Manly, to name just a few. In addition, a number of harbormasters have let me use their fax lines for a few minutes at a time. I've discovered that newsagents who have fax lines, once they understand that there is nothing underhanded going on, are only too happy to rent out their phone lines for a few dollars. Invariably, people I ask go well out of their way to be accommodating, and it has proven to be a really gratifying experience virtually every time - the wow factor still exists as people see the Internet working when I show off this website (to verify my upload just worked).

I only had one time when I was made to feel like a piece of unwanted dirt: in Brisbane, I had to get a very important time-sensitive e-mail out - it was a Saturday, and my usual channel was closed - I stopped at a posh real estate office and explained the situation to three penguin-dressed (that's what I call the universal black-suit standard business attire here in Australia) middle-aged salestypes who were just sitting around bs'ing, and was curtly rebuffed with no attempt on their part to be helpful (their unused fax machine just sitting there) - a most unpleasant experience! Happily, that was an isolated incident, because, as I said before, Australians everywhere are indeed exceedingly warm and friendly and helpful.

My normal procedure, once I get onto a phoneline, is to spend a minimal amount of time tying it up: I upload/download my e-mail and upload my website and then shut down and go back to the boat and read my e-mails (which explains why it might be days or weeks before some of you have a response from me). Incidentally, the connection speed is usually excellent: 46K-49K range.

When in town, Kathy and I use Internet cafes, where I'm able to access my normal POP3 accounts to read the e-mail using a web-based e-mail service (Yahoo seems to have the best spam protection and least intrusive advertising) and I can immediately answer any messages that are pressing. Kathy has her own web-based e-mail address and often spends hours at an Internet cafe exchanging correspondence with her friends and family. Checking bank balances and credit card statements over the Internet allows for peace of mind. It is so convenient and inexpensive.

Enough jabbering, the sun just came up and I have work to do prepping the boat for the ocean voyage...

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