Mobile Data

The need for this arises when one is doing a multi-stop trip and, being away from home, has no easy way to check weather, notams, etc, and file flight plans the the next journey.

Currently there isn't a really good solution. Internet cafes and hotel lobby PCs are the best if you can find one. Carrying a laptop with WIFI and locating a café or a hotel with a free WIFI access point is the next best thing. Calling one's UK internet service provider with a data-capable GSM phone, or using a local GPRS service, is very convenient but the most expensive. But mobile internet is THE way to go, and this trip could not have been done anywhere as easily without it. I set up a lightweight laptop like this

with dial-up via a Nokia 6310i phone connected via a cable to the laptop. This is on a PAYG tariff and operates adequately as a very slow 9.6k modem. It was found to work reliably everywhere; it looks like 9.6k GSM data works everywhere, and on most networks, on which the phone itself works. The real problem being the call costs of £1/minute plus. Vodafone offered a 40p/minute "happy hour" 7-8pm local time, in various countries.

At some cost, one could get a pretty flash ultra portable laptop with a GPRS/G3 card and get the whole thing in a package half the size and weight of the above. Another way is to use a PDA with a 640x480 screen (Toshiba E800 or the new HP 4700 range); this shows the Toshiba with a bluetooth connection to the phone:

The PDA was almost as good as the laptop for internet access but useless for flight planning (can't run Navbox and can't display downloaded PDFs). I had the bluetooth connection working great with the laptop setup too but the day before we went it stopped and no amount of work could get it going again, so I connected the phone with a cable. As many others have found, Bluetooth is a technology that will have a great future, for ever...

The high call cost can be mitigated to a degree by using a website which is very efficient. I use Avbrief for immediate (flying the same day) information but from abroad it costs about £2 just to download their front page (the one shown on the PDA above). They do have an undocumented "PDA" page here which is very quick and does the OPMET stuff only (TAFs and METARs). Knocking-up an efficient page for text-only data is trivial and is a great step forward; I even used it at FL075 over France.

Another lesson learnt, at a cost of possibly £100 on this trip alone, is to avoid mobile phone roaming. Most phones have an option to manually select the network, and one should use this to select the network which avoids roaming charges; if possible select the same network which issued the SIM card. When abroad, one usually gets text messages from one's network when the phone makes the initial contact, and these should tell you which network is best to use.

WIFI is the best way to do all of this and if one day WIFI becomes really widespread then flight planning will be easy. Most modern laptops have WIFI built-in. Today's ridiculous system for preflight briefing, when one can get it, is suitable only for local flights, or for pilots who have lots of time to waste.

Both the laptop and the PDA have WIFI but despite finding plenty of WIFI networks about (even in Greece), there was only one which was available for outside usage: Monzoon in Switzerland and it was very expensive at about £10 per 30 mins. Not a single internet cafe had WIFI.

Faxes (e.g. for filing flight plans to the departure airfield before leaving the hotel, so one doesn't have to hang around there) can also be faxed using Winfax (the simple fax feature built into Windows 2000 doesn't appear to work with mobile phone modems) and this works very well. The cost of faxing an ICAO flight plan is under £1, anywhere. However one must have a verified fax number for flight plan filing and phone the person afterwards to make sure they got it. Most of the fax numbers in Bottlang touring guides are useless, the flight plan will be lost, and nobody will tell you even if you have put your phone number on the bottom of it.

Next time I do this sort of trip I will have a laptop with a PCMCIA GPRS card, or sort out a GPRS-enabled SIM card for my Nokia 6310i phone. This is likely to be cheaper and with a data rate of about 38k is much more usable than 9.6k GSM access. GPRS doesn't work as widely as plain 9.6k GSM data but works in most of Europe. One can even get G3 cards with GPRS fallback but somehow I doubt G3 has usable coverage...

I now have a GSM/GPRS card (a Vodafone-badged Sierra 750 bundled with a rip-off £7/MB PAYG tarriff) in the above laptop which operates as a 9.6k GSM data/fax modem and provides internet access over GPRS. On a rough calculation this looks like it would cost the same as 9.6k data on GSM but because one pays only for actual data and not for online time, it comes out cheaper and is a lot quicker. It is a lot less hassle than the Nokia phone was. A monthly GPRS contract is expensive but might be worth it if combined with business use e.g. doing emails remotely. I also use Onspeed to reduce the amount of data transferred. The above mentioned Avbrief OPMET page costs only about 2p over GPRS.

Currently (April 2005) it looks like the best way to file flight plans is this brilliant Austrian website. They have confirmed to me that it can be used for filing flight plans for anywhere in the world. They do charge, Euro 36.00/year.

The device which I am currently testing which should do all that's needed for planning etc on the move, as well as serving as a really good moving map GPS display, is here.


Update 3/2009

A number of things have changed since the above was originally written in 2005. WIFI is commonly available but is invariably secured and charged for, often at grossly exorbitant rates. GPRS/3G therefore often ends up the method of choice for mobile internet. 3G coverage is often patchy but GPRS works practically everywhere where normal voice (GSM) calls work. More details here.

This article describes the two online flight plan filing methods (Homebriefing and AFPEx) currently available to UK pilots.

Fax (either real direct fax, or an email2fax service) remains the method of choice for PPR requests at foreign airports - unless you can speak the local language in which case phoning them is the best way. However the AFPEx facility enables communications with airports using AFTN messages and this is likely to work very well for PPR requests.


Page last updated 31st March 2009

Comments/corrections welcome.