Typically when we think of internet we think in terms of performance – ie, whether the internet slows down if too many people are actively online in the house, or whether it is just slow in general. Drawing a parallel between data and water, the concept of internet performance is how much ‘flow’ capacity we have through our data ‘hose’ providing internet. When using a cell phone provider for internet aboard a boat we have an additional concern: how much total data we download within a given month. Many cellular data plans for either dedicated wifi hot spots or tethering via a cell phone (in my case, Sprint offers only the latter via my iPhone) have caps on the total data downloaded within a month before punishing surcharges set in.
Initially I signed up for a 2 gig / month tethering plan through Sprint ($20/ month) and was delighted to see that the Sprint bars here in Jamestown were nice and strong, providing excellent performance. I gleefully logged on each morning and used my laptop exactly as I would at home – including social media check-ins and regular YouTube use. After a few days I checked my bandwidth consumption on the Sprint site.
Within a week I’d wolfed down 1.3 of my 2 gig limit. I needed a plan, stat. First, I upgraded to the 6 gig / month plan ($50). Next, I took a series of steps to reduce my consumption. For the last two weeks in June I’m back on target to be below my 6 gig monthly limit but the real tests will come in July and August when I need to work for four full weeks (I signed up for the 6 gig plan mid-June). In the meantime, here are some suggestions that may help other live- & work-aboards stay under their data caps:
- Conduct all online video streaming, recreational browsing, social media check-ins, etc on the cell phone itself rather than on a laptop or iPad via the tether. Use tethered bandwidth only when necessary for work-related activities.
- Whenever possible, attend Skype, Webex, GoToMeeting, etc conference calls by dialing in via the cell phone instead of using the audio through the laptop.
- If online backup (ie Mozy, etc) is being used and if practicable, disable automatic backups until the laptop has broadband internet off of the tether (for example, on each trip to shore where WiFi is available).
- Place your email application (ie Microsoft Outlook, etc) in offline mode during the work day and periodically check your cell phone for incoming emails. When email arrives that needs to be addressed, place the laptop email app back online so you can reply. Place the app back offline when done. This measure prevents the email app from using up bandwidth by regularly checking for new mail (your phone already does that).
- Disable background applications that place a parasitic burden on bandwidth. On Windows, for example, the system tray in the lower right may show a series of small applications that periodically check for updates (ie Adobe Acrobat, your printer software, laptop specific programs like my Lenovo Solutions Center, etc). In Windows, these can be closed by right clicking them individually. Better yet, use the ‘msconfig’ utility to disable their automatic boot on start up. On the Mac you may need to look in System Preferences for apps that start up with OS X under your login, or look in the upper right of your screen for icons of running apps you may not be using.
- Make sure to turn off the laptop wifi whenever the laptop is not in use.
I’ll know more by the end of the summer, but at present I believe these measures will keep me from writing additional checks to Sprint for any data overages. Maybe they can help other cruisers this summer as well.