By land and airwave

When we first got to Ireland and then England, I would take my laptop into a marina or hotel, give them a pound and do the e-mail. I always carried a black plastic garbage bag to protect the laptop from splashes and rain while going in by dinghy. Borrowing a phone line worked pretty well, although it is a nuisance riding in the dinghy with a laptop. It’s also a nuisance riding in the dinghy in the rain, as is trying to convince someone working at the marina that using their phone line for a few minutes to call a toll-free number won’t hurt their phone.

When we got to St. Katharine’s Haven in downtown London, we planned to spend the winter there. We had a landline phone installed, and the convenience of having a phone on board was worth the installation cost. This was for both e-mail and, hopefully, no emergency calls from the family (later, the office set up an arrangement whereby voyagers could take their laptop to the office to use its phone line).

Right after installing the landline, we also got a mobile phone by accident. We stopped by a phone store in London just to look because, ultimately, we would leave the dock and wanted to have a mobile while voyaging around Britain and elsewhere in Europe. There was a sale going on that was hard to resist. By taking a year’s subscription out with BT Cellnet, we could get an international mobile phone that was capable of calls in both Europe and the U.S. and that could handle data as well. And the cost for the year’s subscription with the phone was much less than the normal price of the phone alone. So we went from no phones to two in a matter of days.

Because telephone networks in Europe are different from those in North America, you can’t use your U.S. cell phone (generally called a mobile phone in the U.K.) to make or receive calls. However, there are mobile phones available on the market that will access both U.S. and European cell networks. Both Nokia and Ericsson market phones that handle data and, therefore, e-mail and faxes. We bought an Ericsson I-888 that up until recently has worked well.

The data rate for these mobile phones is only 9,600 bps – very slow by comparison to the 56,000 bps we are accustomed to when using landlines. The service provided by the phone company is controlled in the mobile phone by a small card, about one inch by 5/8 inch, called a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card. This is inserted into position inside the phone opposite the battery on the Ericsson I-888. It contains coding for the phone, identifies it with BT Cellnet or an alternate telephone company, tells it what the phone number is and the like. It can be replaced with other SIM cards for other local phone systems both in England and most other European countries. These SIM cards are also available with prepaid amounts credited to them. Rather than enter into another one-year contract, we’ll purchase a prepaid SIM card with a given number of hours of service. When the prepaid amount is almost exhausted, you are usually alerted and have the option of updating the credit amount by phone and can charge it to your credit card. Since we plan to spend this winter in Paris, this will eliminate international calls back to England to call across the street.

Unfortunately, moving quickly from one country to the next in order to visit as many places as possible in the short summer season here doesn’t lend itself to purchasing a SIM card in every country visited. So, we continue to tough it out by paying the high international rates to BT Cellnet.

This past summer we have been voyaging around Scotland and then from Norway down to France (we are now at Paris). Using our mobile phone outside of the U.K. for any reason in addition to e-mail means that all of these calls incur roaming charges because we are using a mobile phone registered in England to make a call from another country. We slipped up and forgot to make allowance for the one-hour time difference from England, so we were incurring premium time rates as well. Another lesson learned the hard way: the premium time rates apply to local time in England and not to the time where you are. The charges for this oversight involving mainly e-mail were staggering.Residency impediment

There is a requirement in the U.K. that you have a bank account and have lived there three years or more before you can obtain a mobile phone. To overcome this, many voyagers find a resident to purchase the mobile for them, prepay a year’s service or set it up so payment is automatically charged to their credit card. Having the same last name on the card as your friend probably helps. Your friend really has to like you to go along with this, because they are still responsible for the use and cost as far as the phone company is concerned. This includes fun events such as contesting disputed phone charges (we recently received an outlandish bill which included calls to Turkey and Egypt).

We thought the residency requirement would be a major stumbling block for us. We didn’t know anyone very well, especially not someone who would go out on a limb like this. However, there are many retail outlets selling mobile phones in London, and the competition is intense. If you want to buy a mobile phone, the store will be happy to fill out the appropriate form stating whatever they think will work. You can walk in just to look and walk out with a phone and number.

When you do e-mail, you are really making a phone call to an Internet service provider (ISP) who connects you to the Internet. An ISP in the U.S. typically charges $20 dollars a month, which allows you to use the service for a fixed number of hours a month. When you use their service outside of the region where you first opened the account, the ISP may very well add a roaming charge to your bill. With (now called, the roaming charge is U.S. $9.00 per hour prorated. So, if you are paying $20 a month for the service and use it two hours while out of the U.S., your bill will be $38. If you use it an hour a week or four hours per month, your bill for the month will be $56. This doesn’t include the phone call, and it adds up fast. Of course, these rates change all the time and you should contact your ISP to get the latest.

There are several free ISPs available in England, including Freeserve and Virgin, that can be accessed on the Internet or by toll-free phone calls. Many EU countries have similar free ISPs as well, but it helps a lot if you can read the language. We started using Freeserve and found it to be excellent. We didn’t receive spam, and the service was very much on top of things when there was a virus alert. We still retain an account with Attglobal in the U.S. because it has local phone access in many of the countries of the world, and because as we voyage through the countries in Europe we need an e-mail home base. Also, we periodically get mail from people who have forgotten to change our address. I tried to remember to access Attglobal at the beginning of the month but usually forgot. Now I have it set up so that it is accessed each time I go on line.

There is a downside, however. Every time we access Attglobal, we are also getting the dreaded roaming charges. That may not seem bad until someone sends a picture you didn’t ask for. If you are in a country other than the one of your free ISP, you will have to make an international call to that country to access your account. That is, if we are in France and we want to do some e-mail via Freeserve in England, we have to call the number in England to hook up. Doing this with a mobile during business hours gives new meaning to the concept of living beyond your means.

We use BT Cellnet, which has varying rates depending upon whether it is during the business day or at night or the weekend. BT Cellnet charges 40 pence plus 17.5% value added tax (VAT). This works out to be about U.S. $0.75 per minute for the service during business hours of 0800 to 1900. After hours, it drops to about $0.03 per minute, including VAT. Weekends – that is, Friday night until Monday morning – are also at this reduced rate, but not holidays. Slightly more competitive rates are available from Vodaphone, Orange, and others.

By Ocean Navigator