How to update your blog from the middle of the ocean

We are currently at 15°14’54.77″N 75°15’12.63″W, somewhere between Jamaica and Colombia, en route to Cartagena, Colombia. We should be arriving there tomorrow afternoon. I am posting this (and anything else that begins with GPS coordinates) using a Wideye Sabre 1 BGAN Terminal (or in layman’s terms: a satellite modem).

When we started planning this trip, I had resigned myself to a month without access to the internet. It sounded like a badge of courage when people asked me, “So, does the container ship have wireless?” and I answered: “Nope.” The last time I didn’t have access to the internet for 28 days straight was probably before I had access to the internet at all.

I’ll admit, I am weak. I did some cursory looking into satellite phones, Iridium and such. But they were just blindingly expensive. And I didn’t want to make calls, I just wanted an IP address! Eventually I stumbled upon Inmarsat’s BGAN, which stands for Broadband Global Area Network. Unlike the various satellite phone options, many of which only guaranteed coverage on land, BGAN covers the whole planet, continents and oceans, with the exception of the poles. It was almost too good to be true.

Inmarsat BGAN satellite coverage map
Inmarsat BGAN satellite coverage map

So I googled around for “BGAN rental” and eventually stumbled upon SatellitePhoneStore.com. Their website was relatively generic-looking, but the deeper I dug, the more I liked what I saw. They offered several BGAN models at reasonable daily, weekly, and monthly rates, and I believe their minimum rental was 7 days. At the low end, a Sabre 1 only cost $6.95/day to rent. My jaw dropped. This was affordable. There was a catch though: bandwidth. The rental rate was one thing, but I would also have to pay for every megabyte of data I sent and received—to the tune of $6-8/megabyte (depending on how much I prepaid).

The minimum amount of bandwidth I could prepay for was 25 megabytes, or about $150. With the cost of renting it for a month and a half (adding cushion on either end to receive and return it), I was looking at around $400-500 all told. Not cheap, but not beyond the realm of possibility—assuming I didn’t go over 25 megabytes. The next question was: would it work with Ubuntu? Could I use ssh (to upload photos)? In order to tease this out, I sent them an email, and promptly got a response back from Eric Talman:

Using the BGANs with Linux should not be a problem. You can access the web interface on the Sabre 1 directly via http://192.168.1.35/. The Launchpad software (for Windows or Mac) is a little more user friendly for the masses but if you are a Linux user then I expect you will like the web interface of the terminal. All Internet protocols are open by default so yes, ssh works.

It’s very confidence inspiring when someone doesn’t shrink back in the face of a question about Linux, so after asking a few more questions about voltage support (supports 100-240V), ocean coverage, and shipping, I took the plunge and placed an order.

I had it sent to my cousin’s house in New Jersey in advance of our arrival, but then I committed the cardinal sin—I did not test it out before getting on the ship. And I paid for that. Since I couldn’t use the standard Launchpad software with Ubuntu, I didn’t have all the information I needed in order to connect to the internet. Luckily we had a day long stop in Savannah, so I was able to get on the phone with Eric to iron things out.

Really the only thing I needed was the username and password to access the Sabre 1’s web interface (just like you might configure your wireless router at home). Apparently this is prone to change, as the first two passwords I got from Eric, frantically using Stephanie’s iPhone while we were docked in Philadelphia, were actually out of date. Once I got the correct username and password in Savannah, it was all smooth sailing.

Anyway, here’s how it works. First a picture:

Justin using a Sabre 1 BGAN Terminal to access the internet on the Cap Cleveland, somewhere between Jamaica and Colombia
Internet access on a container ship

Now the nitty-gritty:

  1. Go outside. Though it’d be more comfortable to access the web from my room, the BGAN terminal needs line of sight access to the satellite. Big metal container ship parts make that difficult. Superconveniently, the terminal has a battery, so as long as it’s charged, all I need is my laptop, the Sabre 1, and an ethernet cable.
  2. Turn on the laptop.
  3. Turn on the Sabre 1.
  4. When the Sabre 1 asks whether it should use the stored GPS or a new one, connect the laptop to the Sabre 1 with the ethernet cable. The laptop should say it has a wired ethernet connection.
  5. On the laptop, in a web browser, go to http://192.168.1.35/ and enter the username and password for the device. Make sure you have the username and password—and have tested it before leaving!
  6. On the main “Setup” tab, click “Register Network”. This should cause the device to get a new GPS fix and register with the network. The terminal may need to be rotated to get a signal above 50dB.
  7. Once the device is registered with the network, Click the Data tab and the Primary Profiles subtab. Assuming the standard profile is selected, and the Access Point Name (APN) is bgan.inmarsat.com, press the button, “Activate Profile”. It should say the device is renewing its IP address, and once that’s complete, you now have access to the internet. Yay!

Screenshot of the Wideye Sabre 1 web console
Wideye Sabre 1’s web console. Note: The GPS output in the Sabre 1’s web console has the symbols for minutes (') and seconds (") swapped. The actual values are correct and in the right order, but the latitude should read: 15°14’54.77″N, and the longitude should read: 75°15’12.63″W. (Thanks Dad!)

One last heads up from Eric:

Every 200km you will need to turn off the BGAN and turn it back on to get a new GPS and reregister with the satellite. This is because the GPS fix of the terminal is used to allocate channel frequency to the remote terminal and an old GPS fix will mess up the registration.

Of course this is not really an issue for me, as I only have it on for a few minutes a day to update my blog.

A final word of caution. Just because bandwidth is expensive, doesn’t mean the device is slow. The published data rates are 384kbps receiving, 240kbps sending, and I haven’t experienced anything to doubt that. Which of course means it’s very easy to run up the megabytes quickly. In order to avoid that there are several strategies to employ.

  • Tell the browser not to download images. This might make the web less visually appealing, but it will radically reduce the amount of bandwidth incurred with each page load. To do this in Firefox, go to Preferences, select Content, and uncheck “Load images automatically”. To make it easier to use the BGAN’s web interface, add an exception for http://192.168.1.35/
  • Install the Firefox Flashblock Add-on to prevent the automatic download of heavy Flash components.
  • Set Gmail to “Standard HTML View” (there’s a link in the footer) if you plan to check your email.
  • Compose and revise your blog posts in a text editor or word processor before publishing them.
  • Disable automatic web browser updates. In Firefox, go to Preferences, select Advanced, and under the Update tab, uncheck Add-ons and Search Engines.
  • Disable automatic Operating System updates. For Ubuntu, go to System > Administration > Update Manager, click Settings… and under the Updates tab, uncheck “Check for updates”.

Feel free to if you found this useful.