Picture a spring evening that's so clear and calm you've jumped out from Charleston, South Carolina, planning to chug through the night to Beaufort, North Carolina, and thus skip a sometimes shallow and/or tedious section of the Intracoastal Waterway plus enjoy some offshore solitude. But, darn it, you've got 21st-century habits and would like to spend some of that time on the Web, checking your e-mail or perhaps your compatriots' reports about Beaufort marinas at ActiveCaptain.com (see my column "Poi'd Off," February 2007). I may not fantasize for all cruisers—unconnected can also be an enticing option—but many will be as pleased as I am to learn that this scenario has become quite possible without major hassle or expense.
In fact, one of my especially reliable in-the-field sources was able to stay continuously online using his $50-per-month Cingular "unlimited" cellular data plan not only throughout that particular passage, but all the way from mid-Florida to mid-Maine, sometimes as much as 20 miles offshore and with just a handful of dead spots. That's extraordinary progress, well-documented by Jeff Siegel, who's now finishing his third East Coast round trip aboard a 53-foot DeFever loaded with cellular and WiFi communications gear. Siegel's Cingular setup consists of several Smart phones—he's doing research—that can wire to a Wilson 3-watt amplifier and a Shakespeare 3-dB marine cell antenna when on the boat. He regularly e-mails—even Web surfs—directly on a handset but can also use either Bluetooth wireless or a USB cable to get his laptop online via a phone.
But let's be frank: Siegel is a geek. Actually, he and his spouse Karen are the considerable talents behind ActiveCaptain.com. Interfacing a cellphone data plan and a laptop can be challenging, as I found out myself. It took a conversation with my cellular provider, Unicel, and some serious fiddling to get online via my USB-attached Motorola cell and some Motorola PC software, which I had to find and buy separately. Nonetheless, I felt a new freedom when I could, say, access a NOAA weather site (as shown in the screen shot below) and even download prediction maps. And it worked in midcoast Maine, which is typically on the frontier of developing cell services, if not about 75 miles beyond it!
Here, a cellphone is being used as a laptop modem with Motorola Phone Tools software.
Actually, my local waters don't have any "3G," or third-generation, data services yet, and besides, my average-intelligence cell is only capable of 2.5G anyway. "Second and a half generation?" Hey, the universe, and language, of cell protocols is wacky. My phone and ones like it from AT&T/Cingular and T-Mobile use the GSM network's 2.5G GPRS or EDGE data modes, while similar phones from Verizon and Sprint use CDMA's 2.5G 1xRTT. Both feel like what we used to consider "fast" land-phone modems; regular Web surfing is decent, but more intense sites—like ActiveCaptain.com with its high-resolution Yahoo photo maps—are somewhat sluggish, and you have to forget about YouTube and other marvels of the broadband era.
A Smart phone connected to its owner's home TV via Slingbox.
Meanwhile, rapid 3G—a.k.a. GSM HSDPA and CDMA EVDO—is expanding at a rapid rate from urban to rural coastlines. The photo above, taken at a Quincy, Massachusetts, marina, documents a drop-my-jaw demonstration of what it can do. That Smart phone's techie owner also has a gadget called a Slingbox, which lets him control and watch his home TV system over the Internet. Thus he can not only use his handset to watch the Weather Channel—live, if slightly jerky—but also watch programs saved on his TiVo, anywhere he can get EVDO service, which includes his boat toodling around Boston.
This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.