Friday, May 24, 2013

Shindig Communications

This blog post is for the boat geeks out there.  Nancy says this is boring but  I think some of you may be interested in how we keep in touch.  I think we have a good mix of communications that work well for us in Mexico.

In fact, we have everything needed to be a remote hi-tech office or a communications hub during an emergency.

Here is a run down of the gear we have onboard and how we use it.

VHF Radio - Standard Horizon GX2150.  This radio is used every day.  It has a range of 20 miles (25 watts) or so and is used by all the other boaters and some land based restaurants, stores and marinas.  Here in LaPaz there is a morning "net" where boaters can get local information, find long lost boating friends and buy or sell stuff. 

Here is an example of the morning VHF net in LaPaz:   La Paz Cruiser Net

We also have two handheld VHF radios that we use when we are away from the boat.   I have also gotten into the habit of leaving he handheld radio on channel 22A at night.  If there is an emergency in the anchorage we'll hear it and because the handheld has limited range we won't be awakened by far away transimissions.
WiFi - most marinas, restaurants and hotels have WiFi available.  We are still junkies for our internet and use it to keep up with the news, email family and friends, read friends sailing blogs, write our blog, skype calls, share photos and download movies.

I have become an expert in tapping into wifi signals and the social engineering of wifi passwords.
Shindig has a Bitstorm wifi extender and hotspot onboard.   The extender is mounted on the masthead and allows us to pull in signals that your laptop or iPad can't.  The hotspot then allows any device onboard to tap in and have internet access.   The WiFi extender can pull in a signal from over a mile away if there is a high powered hotspot.  In my experience I can usually get a usable signal when anchored out 1/4 mile.
    Cellular Data - Banda Ancha.  When traditional WiFi is not available we use cellular phone technology to keep connected.  After we arrived in Cabo last year we picked up our Banda Ancha at the Telcel store.  You can buy chunks of data and depending what plan you have, they last 30, 60 or 90 days before you need to "reload" it with more pesos.

    We only use this when we don't have WiFi and it only works with one computer at a time. (the one you plug it into).  Honestly we haven't needed used it too much but it only cost $40 and then you pay as you go.

    Cellular Voice - Our Mexican cell phone is a cheapo from Telcel. We use it infrequently to call home to the States and contact local services.  It is not something we carry with us all the time like we would back home but it is usually turned on and ready for action.  We think of it as an emergency contact phone too.  We have a "pay as you go" plan for the phone and load  on about 400 pesos ($33USD) every couple of months.
    Most of our calls are outgoing - no one except Bryan has figured out how to call us down here.  If anyone wants to try, send us an email, and we'll give you our phone number.  :0

    International dialing on the cell phone is easy and straight forward.  Dialing local numbers Mexico is a little funky.  For example, in Banderas Bay you have to know if you are calling a cell number or a landline and put the appropriate prefix in front of the number.  It seems like these rules vary from one area to another.

    Ham Radio/ Single Side Band (SSB) -  Shindig has an ICOM IC-M710 SSB radio onboard that has been modified for use on amateur radio (HAM) bands as well.  It is an old radio that many regard highly for its simplicity and high power (150 watts).  It is a little clunky to use for ham radio but I have some software that helps make it easier to use.

    We can talk anywhere in the world with this radio.   The radio's practical range depends on what frequency you use and propogation quality which is impacted by solar radiation in the atmosphere.  That sounds confusing, and it is a little but once you get some experience with it you get a feel for when you can make a long distance contact and when you can't.

    In Mexico there are several SSB/HAM nets that are usually in the morning.    Each one has a different "personality" but usually give regional Mexican weather and allow boaters to keep in contact from a long distance.

    This year we also listened in on the Pacific Puddle Jumpers net.  Here is an outtake of our friends on Wizard checking in:  Pacific Puddle Jump Net - Wizard Check-in
    Wizard was about 1500 miles from our location when this was recorded.

    Pactor Modem and Winlink -  We are able to use our ICOM radio with a Pactor modem to get email and weather.   I use the amateur radio's network of stations(winlink) to connect and get email.  This method is only used for text email and small weather model files.  The connection speeds I experience are from 100 baud to 2400 baud.   For those non-techies out there = That is really, really, really, slow.   For example, at 100 baud, a full page text email would take 2 minutes to download.  On your average internet connection this same download would take about 2 or 3 seconds.

    Slow Pactor connections are what we use when we are on passage.
    Here is what it sounds like to make a pactor modem connection over the ham radio: Pactor Modem Connection .
    In addition to email we use it to get weather reports and maps and there is a crude interface to pull down the text from a web page.  We use this to get blog updates from friends.

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