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Mobile Internet ... of sorts

When you absolutely positively need to connect to the Internet, why not carry your own broadband connection with you? As a web-developer I'm currently traveling around Australia. With my wife, we've been on the road since February 2003 and we hope to be able to continue to travel for at least two years.

As a web-developer, I write software and amazingly, my clients expect me to upload their new code in a timely fashion, and be able to fix things when they break. Of course changing an actual Tape Drive is not possible, but that's a story for another day.

Our planning for this trip started some two years ago with me looking for a way to connect to the 'net in some way that would allow me to traverse the width and breadth of Australia - and beyond.

The simplest solution would be to use other people's land-lines, but dialing up on their phones, for long periods of time didn't seem sociable. Connecting via a mobile phone is only for the foolhardy, and if you get 9600 baud you're on a winner. I came across Inmarsat, which for only $20,000 would get me a nice tiny dish and allow me to connect to the 'net whilst traveling at 100km per hour over the ground, great for those times that you want to write software while looking at the scenery. Oh, and it only costs $10,000 per month to keep it on all the time. A little out of my league as a one-man-band.

I looked at Telstra's 2-way satellite solution, based on the DirectTV stuff, but they have spots in Australia where you can't actually connect. I then bumped into Optus' SatWeb, based on Gilat hardware. While the setup didn't leave me change out of $10,000, the monthly fee is similar to my 512k/128k ADSL connection. For my $150 I get 400kbps/76kbps, nothing to sneeze at and it works.

The kicker is in the detail.

The dish I'm carrying around Oz is 1.8m - though it's oval and the largest diameter is 2m. It weighs in at around 100kg, and with the electronics attached more like 150kg. I setup a mount, lift the dish out, put it on its base and point it at the sky. Most dish solutions require a satellite modem next to your computer, expecting you to run two thick cables between the dish and the modem. I didn't like it, because I had no way of knowing how far I'd be from my dish, so instead I connected a wireless base-station to the modem, bolted both of them to the dish, and connect via 802.11. With a 5m aerial and a 18dBi yagi, I should get 10km, but the furthest I've been away is around 500m.

Of course nothing is simple. The salespeople were convinced that I couldn't line up the dish - it took me about an hour to figure out and now roughly takes about ten minutes each time I set up. They told me that the wireless gear wouldn't talk to the modem, they told me that my Debian workstation wouldn't be supported, they told me that the BOC wouldn't talk to me, they told me that I needed training, they told me that it wasn't done and it wouldn't work, they told me that I'd void my warranty, they told me so many stories...

I just used my skills augmented by Google and some friends around the globe and did it anyway. The next step is to paint the dish, water-proof the electronics, put a solar-cell on the top for power and improve cooling. Before all that I need to get VoIP working and I need to get my Van-cams installed so I can document the trip. The MP3 player needs to be finished, uploading photos from my digital cameras needs to be improved, I need to get my card-reader to work and I need to finish this software package I'm writing. Oh, and I need to update my website. I'm thinking about adding another dish, so I can watch TV, because Optus just added a new satellite and I don't have satellite TV anymore :-(

A few things to do, but with my office being anywhere I am, I'm pretty happy. So far, I've looked out over the ocean, looked over a paddock, looked at wallabies, birds and banana's. Not bad for the first few months.

You'll be able to catch us on the 2003 World Solar Car Challenge between Darwin and Adelaide where I'll provide Internet connectivity to the WA entry, the Sungroper.

Of an evening at the end of each days racing, heading south on the Stuart Highway somewhere toward the end of the pack, we'll run the Sungroper Internet Cafe to compete in the Yahoo Internet Cafe awards - BYO chair and mug. Just look for a solar car that looks like a yellow shark, or a big white van with a black and green maze on the side.

This article appeared in linmagau.org and was featured on slashdot.org
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