Telephony Afloat (voice, internet, WiFi)

it_overview

Within the space of a decade mobile telephony has into boat life and it is now often assumed that a boat has these new capabilities. Along with the trivial uses there are some benefits. On this page we try to list inexpensive alternatives we have found in the European countries that Maringret has cruised through.

Most persons sailing today can remember the era prior to mobile telephony and mobile internet. Although some people will choose to keep them off the boat there are some unique features which come with them – mobile weather forecasting to mention just one. As we moved Maringret through various countries we came to learn of some of these beneficial capabilities from other sailers. Within Europe there are not really any pan-European mobile telephony providers yet although there are some players who are dominant in multiple markets. There seems to be some consolidation amongst the providers but it may take some years to reach any final state. In the meantime rates for mobile telephony almost always give the advantage to the long term contract with pay-as-you-go tarrifs being much higher. An alternative is to use your mobile telephone contract from your home country but often any advantage is eaten up by “roaming” charges applied by your own carrier (although the EU government has announced an intent to ban roaming charges). As with the various programs (apps) available to download we have been steered towards some carriers who are more cost effective in a given market. After all, a boat spending some weeks in a country doesn’t really want to take out a 2-year contract for services simply to get a reasonable rate for the mobile telephone.

For those who feel that there is no need for voice or internet access on boats we relay the story of the harbour masters of  NE France who knew nothing of the water levels. The water levels were in fact so high that some hours later the canals were closed to all traffic. Now obviously the harbour masters could see that their harbour was close to flooding over its banks but when we asked about conditions at the next lock all they could suggest was to check the government website (which indeed had all the necessary data). When we were back out on the river the river police came by to make sure we had checked the websites to determine water levels for our route and impending closures. It seemed that everyone in the system expected a well found boat to have the ability to check the centrally provided safety information. And that information is now  often provided via internet websites. When the canals were finally closed we were directed to moor outside one lock. Luckily the next vessel to be moored was a Dutch barge who had all the information as they had internet access. That enabled us to get the information so we knew when different sections of the waterways were re-opened. On the Danube where we often were not in a country long enough to organise internet from the local phone company, we would speak to the commercial barges who all have internet of some form in order to find out the river status was.

A related article (or series of articles) is our web page Android which discusses software we found of use to the sailing fraternity.

With respect to mobie telephones on boats, we treat them as 2 separate items for voice and for internet access. We make mention of WiFi services as an extension to mobile internet access. In some countries we have found that voice and internet can be packaged together at a mutually competitive price where as in other countries it is best to buy 2 different packages, possibly from two different providers. In order of cost the available services fall into the following list:

  • locally provided WiFi (which is free of cost)
  • having your internet access through your voice SIM (i.e. one SIM provides both services)
  • carrying 2 SIMs, one for voice and the other for data

WiFi (and Boosters)

WiFi is the provision of internet data access by local signal (the coverage area often being 300m or less). Many countries refer to it as “WeeFee” and some countries provide WiFi at either a club level, harbour level or even a town level (e.g. Dokkum in the Netherlands). The signal can be password protected or not and provides data access to the internet for a suitably equipped phone or computer. As there is no cost for the data this is a preferable source to download items such as weather forecasts – what in the internet vernacular is referred to as doing your “heavy lifting” via WiFi. Note that in some countries (e.g. Germany) WiFi being provided through marinas, shops, restaurants etc. without passwords  is almost unheard of which means you have to contract your internet access via a 3GM phone carrier.

WiFi is intended as a local transmission protocol. To overcome this there are commercial products available which amplify the signal and make it possible to use the signal from a greater distance. We used a product called BearExtender to amplify weak or distant signals. The product runs on both Macintosh and PCs and since we bought our unit they have announced a more powerful model. Often when at anchor if there was an open WiFi signal the BearExtender would allow us to use it to update weather forecasts etc.

Tethering

If you are lucky enough to use Android phones then you have a real great advantage, you can tether internet access from your phone. This means that if your Android phone has internet access then you can in effect re-broadcast that internet access so that all other WiFi compatible devices on the boat can access the internet through the WiFi signal and the Android phone. Be prepared for the Android phone operating the tethering to be rather occupied so surfing from it is not always feasible when it is tethering. The bottom line is that by putting internet access onto one Android phone you can get it on all your other phones, tablets, Kindles, laptops and desktops – all they need is a WiFi capability.
Note: Our understanding is that Apple Computers blocks tethering for iPhones etc. but of course if an Android is hosting tethering then the iPhones will be able to access it.
Note: We have no idea whether Windows phones can host tethering but like the iPhone family they can use tethering from an Android phone

GYMSIM International SIM cards

We would be remiss if we did not mention the option of GYMSIM which is a Gibralter based company that offers SIM cards that work anywhere without roaming charges. They offer 2 different SIM cards, one for voice and the other for internet access. We have tried to get further information but have not been successful. When Maringret crossed Europe by the rivers and inland waterways there were many countries where by the time we passed through a city on the river which was large enough to sell starter kits with a SIM card we only had less than one day before we exited the country. Had we had a GYMSIM SIM card presumably we could have used it for the countries where schedules and population centres made it awkward to purchase local voice and internet services.

AirMail

A long term project on Maringret is to install the WinLink system which provides email access via SSB radio. So far the transceiver and Pactor modem have been purchased and the last box to find is the antenna tuner. The software is provided by AirMail organisation. Once we get this going we will document the process on our website.

Service by Country

The table below gives a summary of which countries we dealt with and whether we used one or two SIM cards (remembering that sometimes it was not cost effective to purchase internet access), if the registration procdure was complex then the country name at the lefthand side is a link to detail on that country. In some countries the phone store staff set up everything while others leave procedures of unbelievable complexity to the customer (i.e. you and your crew).

Country Voice & Internet
Germany Separate
Netherlands Voice only
Romania Voice only
Sweden Combined
Turkey Combined
UK Both separate and combined


Germany

Phones are more regulated in Germany than other countries. Within the first few days an address must be given to the operator, sometimes the phone store will do this for you, some times you can use your hotel address. Mobile phones are called “handy” in German.

Note: WiFi is not usually provided by German marinas and it is very rare for businesses (e.g. restaurants) to offer an unlocked WiFi signal. Even libraries password protect their WiFi signals for members only.

Due to the pricing structures we used two different SIMs from two different carriers: Lebara for voice and AldiTalk for internet. Lebara was straight forward and registration was handled by the multi-lingual operators who were quite happy to use the hotel address for tourists. AldiTalk was much more complex to set up although it offered a data price that no one else came close to matching. AldiTalk gave us 5 gigabytes for €15 for 30 days. A starter kit must be purchased from the Aldi food store for €15 and then a top-up kit each 30 days for €15 also. If you are fluent in German then it is adviseable to have a friend who is help with the registration which can be done online or by phoning the operators. Every time we phoned the operators they refused to speak anything bu German saying “in Germany we speak German.” We learned that having a German speaking friend phone for us was much more expedient. The online dialogue is shown below:

German English Example
Anrede Title Herr (or Frau)
Vor, Nach Given & family names Hans Schmidt
Straße, Haus Street & house number Heerstrasse 59
PLZ, Wohnort Postal code and city 12345 Berlin
Geburtsdatum Birthdate April 1st 1980
Ruf für Rück Contact phone number the number on the AldiTalk SIM
card
E-mail E-mail address for contact myEmail@provider.com

With the completion of the above dialogue the internet service became active. Each month the system will automatically renew the package as long as there are sufficient funds on the account. So a few days prior to the end of the 30-day month we would purchase another €15 at the Aldi food store and then enter the 16 digit number in as instructed on the till voucher. The funds would then be “on the account” and the automated system would deduct what it needed upon expiry of the 30-day month.

  • *104*16-digit-number-from-till-voucher# – to apply the funds you have spent purchasing the till voucher to your phone
  • *100# – your balance will be sent to you by SMS message

We never had to provide any documents such as passport or residency cards. There is a more detailed description of the activation process and the tarrifs on the “Prepaid wireless internet access” website.


Turkey

Turkey has one of the most complex procedures for mobile phones. There are multiple providers with the government company TurkCell having the lion’s share. We went with TurkCell as most other boats had done that and they have the most franchises (sometimes 5 in a one block area).

We got the impression that there is no TurkCell store run by TurkCell but only franchises. We checked at numerous franchises to find someone who could speak English, in hindsight this was a good idea as the process of setting up a mobile phone in Turkey is the most complex we have encountered.

Turkey has a process whereby foreign phones are allowed to operate through roaming for about 10 days, after that they are suspended and have to be “unlocked” by the tax department. From what we were told this revolves around the Turkish tax rule that all foreign phones must pay a tax when they are bruoght into Turkey (aside from the permitted 10 day period mentioned which is intended to cover business trips and holidays). So the first thing you are faced with in Turkey is unlocking your phone for the Turkish network. There are two optins, the tax permit (outlined here) and having it unlocked by some clandestine operation. We opted for the latter as it was a desk within the TurkCell franchise where we had located an English speaker. This procedure is outlined here for the Istanbul area. We had to leave the phone over night and for a charge of 50 Turkish Lira (TL) the phone was unlockd the next morning. All information, all applications and even settings will be erased as part of this process so make sure you have back up all your information prior to handing your phone over. If the concept of copying all information on the phone is just too much then perhaps the tax permit option is better. Additionally a phone can be purchased in Turkey but prices are very high as the import tax is built into the purchase price.

Once you have an unlocked phone you need to choose a starter plan. This was one area where we got mixed up as in other countries you pick a plan to start with and then re-purchase it in subsequent months for a lower cost as you only pay for the SIM card in the initial month. In Tukey with TurkCell you purchase a starter plan and then when the quota is used up or the 30 days has expired you buy different top-ups to get what you need.

Initially we intended to buy the following starter kit:

Package Name Yilizli
Turkish talk
minutes
400
SMS messages
within Turkey
400
Internet Data 100 Megabytes
Duration of quotas 30 days
Price 44 TL

The sales person was very concerned that we get an auspicious phone number and so pulled out all the starter packs with SIM cards in order to pick the one with the “best” phone number. Inadvertently we were given a starter kit whose name we were not sure of which comprised of:

Package Name unknown
Turkish talk
minutes
400
SMS messages
within Turkey
400
Internet Data none
Duration of quotas 30 days
Price 34 TL

This left us with no internet access (although to be fair 100 Megabytes would not have covered a lot of use). We had planned to use the 100 megabytes to verify that both the TurkCell and our phone worked together. To their credit the Turkcell staff then paid for an internet top-up to make up the difference. We then had a functioning phone good for 30 days. To register the phone a passport must be supplied which is photocopied, a limit of one phone per passport per year applies.

At the end of the 30 days, or the consumption of the quota you return to a TurkCell franchise and purchase a top-up specific to each quota. As far as we could understand you there are no plans to renew through on pay-as-you-go basis. Additionally we were told multiple times that you can only top up any one quota a maximum of 3 times in a 30 day period. This does not make much sense but numerous persons told us this. Apparently after the 3rd top-up you must wait until the 31st day before you can purchase your next top-up.

We purchased the following top-ups for the second month (i.e. the next month after the 30 days covered by our starter kit):

Package Name Alo Dunya
International talk
minutes
60
Duration of quotas 30 days
Price 19 TL
Package Name Internet 1GB
Internet Data 1 gigabyte
Duration of quotas 30 days
Price 25 TL (see next
row)
Note: alternate prices are:1 GB at 25 TL2 GB at 30 TL4 GB at 40 TL
Package Name NAR
Turkish talk
minutes
400
Duration of quotas 30 days
Price 20 TL (see next
row)
Note: 20 TL – calls to
TurkCell
mobiles only25 TL – calls to all Turkish mobiles30 TL – unknown

As many or as few of the individual top-ups may be purchased in a given month.

  • *159# will cause an SMS message with the current balance to be sent to your phone. As far as we could determine these SMS messages are only available in Turkish.
  • Dialing 523 and then option 77 will put you in touch with an English speaking operator.

The website Turkey Travel Planner has a number of useful articles on mobile phones in Turkey. One is Mobile Phones in Turkey and the other is Registering Mobile Phones in Turkey which discusses the tax to be paid on a foreign phone.

  • Shop around, each country seems to have the best deal lurking in a different form. In Germany every food chain (e.g. Aldi) seemed to have its own in-house phone offering, there were so many it was hard to decide.
  • Check the internet, talk to other people and try and follow the  advertising. Each country is different in its offering and organization. If you do not speak the language then it is that much harder.


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