03 February 2017

The Data Post - Cruising while Connected (or not)




If this blog post was being dictated, it would be NSFW and if I was using Dragon Speech recognition, I would surely have taught it some new words. Staying connected on this voyage to the Caribbean has been by far the most frustrating, swear-inducing, and unexpectedly expensive aspect.

Bob Damiano


This is definitely not a how-to, because I certainly can not claim that we've done things right all the time. In fact, we've made some huge (expensive $$) goofs. What I can say is that we've learned from our mistakes, discovered some techniques, and are now much more savvy about how to stay connected island and country hopping. And, if you are preparing to cruise over an extended period of time or even near home, perhaps you will find some helpful information below.

I thought being dis-connected was the whole idea?

The mythical reason for doing a cruise like this is to disconnect and "find yourself" and "experience a new world".  Well, all that hippy crap is true, but for those of us who are not independently wealthy, we need to get stuff done while away. And these days, getting stuff done means being connected.

Ah, we are in paradise....

... Who cares about being connected in paradise??  I do!


We both need connectivity while cruising - mainly because I am working allegedly 10 but more like 22-28 hours a week - not to mention taking a peek at work emails or production logs at random times during the day or night. For standard cruising purposes, we do like getting Weather, GRIBs, Active Caption, Google Earth and other online resources to help us decide where to go next, get where we're going safely, and learn about where we are. We also have family and friends back home that we want to actually speak to once in a while and talking over IP is the only affordable way to do that. Besides all that, we're both podcast junkies and Linda can't survive without her Daily Show (she misses Jon but is enjoying Trevor). We also like updating this blog once in a while (and we thank you for reading it).

Linda prefers her outside office.

Bob working, or doing music or something that uses data.


Redundancy

Nothing works all the time here. It's important to have several solutions. Obviously, prioritize the free ones and degrade to the more expensive ones. Our most expensive fallback solution is a $90/GB plan with a global SIM card provider. We definitely have had to dip into this quite a bit when there are no other options. It becomes the primary solution more often than I wish.

Speed, Schmeed

If you expect fast data, don't go cruising. That said, we've occasionally gotten lucky and had some pretty decent connectivity. Not by US cable-modem standards, but good enough.  In general, for my work, I don't need extreme speed. I need stability. It's very frustrating to loose my connection during work as I have to re-establish connections to things on the internal network at the office. It's all the more painful if I have to switch connection methods to log back in. As for the photography for the blog, we will often initiate the upload before going to bed and hope to find the 28 photo upload completed by morning.


Typical weak signal and slow-ish connection.  Not bad though considering we're hundreds of yards away out in the anchorage and picking up the free A/P from a coffee shop.


How to Connect


When it comes to Wifi, Argon is equipped with a Bullet Titanium wifi router and high-gain antenna up on our radar mast (I've since seen other boats with them up on the second set of spreaders on the main mast). The nice thing about this is that not only do we get increased range, but all our devices appear as a single IP to whatever service we're connected to. It also ends up being our own LAN which things within the boat (like Chromecast) can connect to. Having the Bullet is one thing we did right. It's been absolutely awesome to have.

The Bullet Titanium Radio/Router with Antenna.

 

Open Access Points (A/Ps)

These fall into several categories:
  • Totally open - For these, there is either NO login web page after connecting, or just a "click here to accept our terms of service and promise that you will not browse sheep porn".  You will of course find that these are crowded with users and may be pretty slow (but not always).
  • Facebook check in - This is a new thing and I actually don't mind it. The deal is that to get the data, you do a Facebook check in which does a little promotion for the bar or restaurant on your timeline. To me, that's more than fair. Other people have a problem with it. If you don't like it, just delete the post on your timeline.
  • Login page - This is by far the most popular model. Within this category there are some variations. Usually you enter a password given to you by an employee of the establishment and it works forever (good). A newer variation is that you get a code that works for an hour or two (not so good).
  • Subscribe for some time period - These seem to be popping up in various places in the Caribbean.  In the West Indies, there is HotHotHotSpot! which had unlimited data for 30 days for $50. We definitely bought into that and it worked fairly well from the Bullet in Antigua, Guadeloupe and even in Dominica. There was also one in Bermuda run by the Doyle Sail Loft.  That one was about $35/week if I remember right and was up and down quite a bit but more up than down. Some of them are paid for per IP Address (so only one device). Here is where having your own radio/router is a big advantage since you can appear as a single client and have all your gadgets hanging off of that.
Sometimes we find a particularly bucolic spot to settle in to on land to connect.

Encrypted A/Ps

These are your typical access points where you need to enter a code at the time you connect.  The good news is that, these do not expire (typically) so there is never a "works for one hour" version of this.


Finding an A/P

Here is our typical method when we arrive at a new place:
From the boat, fire up the Bullet, connect to it with a phone and do a site survey.  Sort the results by signal strength and take a screenshot.

Site survey results from the Bullet.

If there are any NONE encryption (open) A/Ps, we give them a try.  Sometimes, we get lucky and find either a totally open or the Facebook Check In type with acceptable speed.  If so, our work is done here (and Bob is very happy and does not swear).

You geeks will notice there is at least one WEP A/P in this list above. WEP is definitely hack-able if you know how. I don't, so to me these are as impenetrable as WPA.

Then go ashore and try to find the bar/restaurant/shop that matches the SSID names from your screenshot.  If I was in charge of one of these establishments, I would never name my SSID after my business but so far, most still do. Buy a drink (it's a dirty job but someone has to do it) and ask for the wifi password (either the encryption code or the "login" if it's an open A/P).

The cost of collecting a wifi code.  We're out in that mooring field and can see this bar's SSID with the bullet.

Enter the password and capture it.  If it's an encrypted A/P, check the box for "show password" and take a screenshot after entering it.  If it's a login page, save it in a note, or email, or write it on your underwear. Just don't lose it.
Our phones are getting full of screenshots like this as we do site reconnaissance.


Got one?  Great.  Move to another place and have more drinks and get more. The key to successfully staying connected is redundancy.  NOTHING down here works all the time (just like everything else on the boat).

Eventually, we return to the boat with our booty of passcodes and passwords and see which one works best from the Bullet. Often times, we end up switching between several.

 

The Wifi Passcode Arms Race

A new thing we've noticed is that when you ask for a passcode at a bar or restaurant, the waitstaff is required to enter it into your phone themselves and not tell it to you. They are catching on! So here is where a Key Logger comes in. A Key Logger app substitutes a fake keyboard instead of your phone's native keyboard. It records the key presses as it passes them on to the app. The typical use is for parents who want to spy on their kids, but it works great for spying on waiters too. Some of these have keyboards that look quite different from the native keyboard. Eventually, they will catch on if the keyboard does not look quite right. I suggest trying several and use the one with the most real looking (and behaving) keyboard. Download one of the free or cheap key logger apps from the android store and switch it into "hacking" mode when you hand over your phone.  The waiter types in the key and, you've got it recorded.  Don't tell anyone.


Recordings of keyboard entries. This could be used to capture anything typed by, say, a waiter in a restaurant such as the wifi passcode.

No WiFi...  Now What?!?

I guess I could tell the boss I'm not working for a couple weeks and just connect with nature. But then, I wouldn't get my podcasts either so that's unacceptable.

Your only solution now is Mobile Data. When cruising near home, it's fine to chew up some mobile data on your normal plan. So what if you go over a bit - you're cruising... have fun! When roaming out of the country though, this won't work unless you are independently wealthy. We have AT&T plans and they do offer a "Passport" where you can buy a chunk of roaming data for around $60 for the month.  It's a couple hundred MB and we did try that a couple times.  Unfortunately, we had some data accidents doing this and ended up with some five and six hundred dollar overages. Cha-ching!

At the upper extreme end of the pricing scale is the so-called Global SIM thing. There are several companies providing these including Go-SIM and World-SIM.  Basically they are data re-sellers who partner with local mobile providers all over the world to re-sell their data using one single SIM. This data is massively expensive - $90/GB. On a good work day, I'm using about half a GB. More if I dial into meetings and do VOIP. In theory, you should be able to find this same data locally at a much lower price. But being on a sailboat with limited transport options sometimes does not make this very practical. It could mean a $30 cab ride to buy a SIM that will only work while you are in one island for a few days and save you $20.

Our unlocked hotspot with $$$ expensive global sim.  Connected here to a 3G provider.

Sniffing out good 3/4G Mobile Data

Often when poking into remote anchorages where we are sure the only option will be Mobile Data, we will fire up a Signal Strength Meter app on one of our phones to monitor signal strength as we move along.  We sometimes end up choosing the place to drop the hook partially based on this reading!


Screenshot from one of our Signal Strength metering apps


Local SIMs

In addition to carrying the black unlocked ZTE hotspot loaded with the Go-SIM, we have a second unlocked ZTE hotspot that we figured we would load up with any local sims we could buy. Ha! Try going into a Digicell or Flow store in the Caribbean and saying you want a SIM for your hotspot. They look at you like you are from Mars. They've never seen one or heard of such a thing. "These work in only in phones" they say. We had a couple very frustrating experiences in stores meeting this kind of resistance. I'm sure this is not right. I'm sure I could get it to work. I'm also sure that I don't want to have a complication setting it up in the hotspot only to meet with "these work only in phones" from tech support.

So, we never had luck getting a local SIM for our second hotspot. And, I swore a lot.

Both of our fancy expensive Samsung Android phones are dual-SIM and unlocked. So in theory, we should have been able to pop a sim into the second slot and been good to go. I am not crazy about opening these expensive phones though. And I especially don't want to open them again and again as we swap in different local cards.

In St. Maarten (shopping mall of the Caribbean), Linda had a great idea.  "Let's just buy a cheap phone for the local SIM". And so we did. Turns out, you can buy a BLU Android 4G LTE Smartphone for about $200. It's no frills, but it works as a data hotspot and it's also the phone we can use to make local calls. In hindsight, if we would have done this months ago, we would have saved thousands of dollars, hours and hours of time and a lot of swearing.

The cheap BLU Android Phone. Why didn't we buy you months ago?


We put a CHIPPIE card in our cheap phone in St Maarten and had 4GB of data for $30!  Worked great.  Then, we put a Digicell Sim in it in the BVI (after a $40 cab ride) and got 5GB for $75.  I'm sure that sounds expensive to anyone back in the states, but we're thrilled with this price!

Installing the CHIPPIE sim card in our new cheap phone in St. Maarten.  And it worked! (look at me resting on my arm the day before I broke my collar bone)
Ah, finally!!... Almost five months in to our trip and we are able to get 5GB for $75 with a Digicel local SIM in our new, cheap phone to use as a hot spot. This is our primary back up now when we cannot get free wifi.

Linda negotiated a ride from Leverick Bay to Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda with Ceril in the back of his very rickety touring pick up truck to buy a Digicel SIM card. The normal taxi rate would have been $76 round trip! Ceril transported us to Spanish Town, and waited at the Digicel store, and drove us back for $40. The 5GB SIM card was $75 for a total of $115 and about two hours.

 

Avoiding Data Accidents

The dreaded windows update...  Make sure that your computers are set to not automatically update anything. We did this part right. The last thing you want is an OSx or Windows update to happen overnight while connected to your mobile data.

Windows 10 has a configuration option called "Metered Connection". This lets you mark any A/P as one that no auto updates or phone-home stuff should happen over. My work laptop is Win7 so no luck there, but our personal laptops are Win10 and we have marked all our phones and hotspots as "Metered".

For phones, it's very critical to set them up to never update any apps automatically - even on wifi. Remember, when your phone connects to your expensive hotspot (or other phone) for data, it sees that as a regular old wifi connection. Your phone has no idea that this "wifi" has a really expensive mobile plan on the back end of it. In general, Phones are data pigs and you need to be especially careful with them. I wish Android offered the Metered Connection strategy like Win10 does. I have no idea if iOS or MacOS have any such thing.

DropBox, OneDrive or whatever else the kids are using for "cloud storage"

If you use some sort of cloud drive  that "syncs" data, you can potentially have a pretty serious data accident if you are not careful.  Let's say you have a DropBox account and you have some shared folders between more than one account.  Someone from the crew goes ashore, gets on some free wifi and and downloads some gigantic PDF manual for some gadget on your boat and puts it in your shared dropbox folder.

Now imagine another laptop sitting out in the boat running DropBox and connected to a mobile hotspot.  Please enjoy downloading that whole PDF over your expensive mobile plan. You can imagine similar scenarios if you have family members back home with whom you share a folder.  Be careful!  And don't get me started about putting videos in Dropbox!

We do use DropBox and we do have a large shared folder where all the boat manuals are. But we are very careful to set Dropbox up to NOT startup automatically when windows restarts.  Whenever we DO run it, we only enable sync when we are on some free wifi.

Going Forward


We've made a lot of expensive and frustrating mistakes with data on this trip so far. If we had it to do over again, we would have bought the cheap phone before we left and kept it loaded with local SIMs everywhere we went. I think that with this option available to us, we should have a much better time going forward.  The data is still very expensive and slow here compared to home, but definitely tolerable for what we need.

Is the data nightmare over?  Nope, but it's better.  As I get ready to publish this post, the Digicell plan is working about 30% of the time and the go-sim is empty. I had to dinghy ashore to find free wifi at a coffee shop in order to buy more GO-SIM data ($$$ Cha-Ching). While I was at it, I tried topping up the Digicell plan (it was nearly exhausted) and as my payment was processing, the phone dropped the connection. But at least the coffee is good.  Now, back to work. I have data to pay for.

You may also find useful information and suggestions via the following posts from a very experienced cruising family:
Sailing Totem: Getting on Line While Cruising
Sailing Totem: How to Use Less Internet Data

Now it's time to sit back, relax, and get the wifi password from this establishment.

4 comments:

  1. Nice to read your blog posts. Missing seeing you across on D dock but glad you are having fun

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  2. Nice post guys! Very informative! Now that you are in the BVIs, there are a ton of free wifi bars/resorts to hang at, and anything west of Nanny Cay can tap into the US network on St. John for free (AT&T works best). Enjoy! I fly down on March 4th!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Brent. I've been stranded in Sopers Hole for a week while Linda goes home to Boston. The data situation here is bad at the moment. Sopers hole marine wifi is "down" with no eta on fixing it. Pusser's signal is so weak that it doesn't even work UPSTAIRS at pussers. Digicel is working about 10% of the time here. So I've been fallen back to the expensive stuff for most of the week for work. The good news is I'm working lots of hours this week to pay for it.

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