This is the final article of a series discussing how to connect to the internet at sea using a variety of hardware and software. I recommend reading the articles in order of their publication to learn the most about this complex subject. The articles in this series are: Email, weather and gribs at sea using WiFi, Email, weather and gribs at sea using 3G/4G, Email, weather and gribs at sea using a Satellite Phone, Email, weather, gribs at sea using Satellite Terminals and Email, weather and Gribs at sea using Software (this article).
If you've waded through our previous four articles where I talked about the various kinds of hardware you can use to access the internet at sea then you may have already formed an opinion as to which system is right for you. So, to conclude this series we'll end with a discussion of specialized software techniques that can make a huge difference in your monthly expenses. This is the magic key to unlock the real potential in whatever hardware you decided on and help hold your costs down.
Whatever hardware you choose you will be charged either by the amount of data you download or upload over it (wifi, 3g/4g and satellite terminal) or by the amount of time you are connected to their system (satellite phones). Either way, it's expensive.
What you don't realize is that it's not just that little email to a friend or a request for a small grib file that is taking up your expensive bandwidth. Modern computers (Macintosh and PC alike) all assume a constant internet connection these days. As such, background processes look for the internet connection and start performing tasks unbeknownst to you. Things like software updates to programs and of course updates to your operating system.
Imagine a slow, satellite phone connection and 20 different background services on your computer trying to download updates at the same time while you are simply attempting to send a short email. For the satellite phone connection, it can't handle this volume of requests and nothing gets done.
Being frustrated that you can't send a short email is bad enough but it's worse on the satellite terminal systems as, althought the connection speed seems fine, the meter on how many megabytes of data your are using is spinning like a top! Just sitting there thinking about the email you want to write, background processes are downloading megabytes without you knowing! It's easy to run up thousands of dollars in costs without even realizing you are doing it.
I've painted a pretty grim picture here but it's true and most people who use hardware to connect to the internet at sea really don't understand why their costs are so out of hand. Now you know why.
So, great… what can you do about it?
You can chase around your computer turning off automatic system and program updates but you will never find them all. There are lots of processes running in the background that you have no access to and that automatically check the internet for all sorts of things like keeping your clock synchronized, etc. At USD$32.00/hour do you really care if your clock is perfectly in synched? This might seem like a minor deal but all these small bits add up.
Luckily, an email program or web browser uses a known set of ports to send data out and receive data back in. You may have heard of the term firewall. Well, this is the chunk of software in your computer (or router) that allows or disallows activity over all the 'ports' (and there are hundreds of them).
So, first choice would be for you to configure your computer's firewall to only allow activity over the ports the email and browser software use. Seems simple however, unless you are a computer security scientist, it is unlikely you can do this successfully yourself.
Next choice is to get a program that can help you do this. For the Macintosh there are several but I'll just mention the one I've used, Little Snitch. Once enabled, it will prompt you whenever anything wants access to the internet and asks you if you want to allow or refuse it. Sounds great, but there are so many processes looking to get on the internet that you will spend quite a while at first 'training' Little Snitch as to what processes it can or should not let have access.
This is the method I used at first as I thought it would be easy to set this all up. It was but it took a long time and I still had the feeling I allowed some things to access the internet that I shouldn't have. I'm sure there are similar programs for all the flavors of Windows too (check out Windows Firewall Control for example) but I think I found a better idea.
For about USD$150 you can buy a hardware device to place in-between your computer and your internet hardware. It's only purpose is to restrict transfer to and from the internet to only email and web browsing. It will not allow access for system or application updates or anything else for that matter. Instead of having to configure the firewall yourself, you just plug this in and it 'just works'. Very nice!
You can get a device like this from a number of companies. I bought the one called the Global Marine Network Optimizer, but there's also devices from MailASail called The Red Box and one from Iridium called AccessPoint Connect (works only on their satellite phones though).
Another advantage is when you choose to use compression software like that found in the Global Marine Network XGate program. It works effortlessly though the Optimizer box and compresses your email going out and coming back in to make the smallest (and therefore least expensive) package to travel on the internet. They also have the ability to compress your web browsing experience (with XWeb) as well to reduce the size of images and information coming to your browser. The savings are significant (10-15 times smaller sizes!).
It also has the benefit of being a WiFi router so you can connect an iPad or iPhone to it wirelessly and use the XGate IOS software to run email instead of being tied to the desktop computer.
The combination of using a firewall (software or hardware) in conjunction with an email compression program or web browsing compression will really cut down on the amount of time your hardware spends on the internet and will directly affect (and lower!) your monthly cost. I really wish I'd figured all this out for my last boat but at least I have for the next one and hopefully helped out others in tracking through these complex subjects.
This concludes our series on accessing the internet from your yacht. I hope this series of articles has helped you in deciding what hardware and software packages you might choose for your yacht, thanks for reading and happy sailing!
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