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Increasingly, we need to get Internet connection when away from home on our boats. Internet Cafés are all very well in their way but are not the most convenient or tranquil of places. Much better is to sit quietly on-board using Wireless (WiFi) or a Data connection over a 3G or 4G system.
NOTE. Without either, the you will have to use a GPRS or GSM connection.
The whole area of mobile data is continually evolving with rapid changes. While these may be technically desirable they can cause confusion and create problems for the user. The good news is that wireless networks ("WiFi") are becoming more common and usable as Windows 7 and Vista, have reliable, easy to use software built in. I have forgotten what happens with XP.
Somewhere on your computer, always in Control Panel and usually near the right hand end of the task bar, you will find a display that tells you which, if any Wireless networks you are receiving. Select the appropriate one and enter the password. Basically, that is all.
Unprotected WiFi locations are becoming increasingly rare and, in the UK, at least, illegal to use without permission. Charges can vary from zero to several Euros a day. Some forward thinking local authorities or other organisations have introduced WiFi systems over a wide area. A particularly good one in the Vendée area of France. A week's access costs as little as one euro a day unlimited access - although it can be slow because of usage exceeding the limits of the available bandwidth.
A signal booster can help for distant sources or in marinas with many masts and obstructions. Signal range can be short. MailASail market their WiFi Bat, a marinised booster with a substantial aerial. This is suitable for permanent fixing on a boat.
Availability is increasing; in 2009, there were 12 marinas out of 14 between St Malo and Belle Ile with WiFi. Out of 28 marinas in Spain, the Balearics and Portugal in 2009, we found half had WiFi, mostly free. The lowest charged service was €3 for 5 hours. The most expensive - and worst - was at Gibraltar at 4.5 an hour or £27 for 10 hours. For limited use, it may be cheaper to use a mobile phone to get online, particularly if only for email. Commercial pressures will drive prices down and, with so many people wanting connection on the boat, it will probably become built in to marina prices.
Bandwidth capability is very variable. In some places, notably Gibraltar and, to a lesser extent, Lagos I spent some frustrating times just trying to get a connection. At Gibraltar, that was a costly exercise.
Data networks run usually by mobile phone companies are becoming widespread although there are some notable gaps. I am told that Western Scotland is not well served.
Use of these will require a contract and buying a data dongle (known in France as a USB Clé.) The signal on a chart table down below may not be very strong. It might be helpful to have a USN extension cable so as to put the dongle higher up, even on the cabin roof. Dongles can be bought at mobile phone shops and are usually locked to that company in that country. If you are moving from country to country you might save a little by buying an unlocked dongle.
In your own country it is all easy enough but it can be a different matter abroad. In France, an Orange shop simply refused to let me buy a dongle, let alone use a PAYG service. It seemed to be because I did not have a French bank account. On the other hand, Orange in Spain were much more helpful.
SFR (Vodafone in France) were more accommodating. My only real problem is topping up on a monthly basis. Not having a French credit card, I cannot top up online. In Western France, at least, mobile phone shops are few and far between, being confined to large towns or shopping malls.
That apart, the systems often work well. Prices (in France) in 2013were €30 for 2 GB valid for one month.
To use POP/SMTP email with either WiFi or a data network you will probably have to amend your settings as is necessary when using a cell phone with GPRS.
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