The Pace Sky Digibox and minidish is back

Due to the need to use my laptop for work I am forced to return to using the digibox and mindish, and I’ve dug out from the cupboard the Roadstar 10″ portable colour television. For years I have been watching Freeview TV on a laptop via my Freecom USB TV device. Most of the time this has been good enough in terms of picture quality and the range of channels available. But I have to concede that the quality of the picture using the satellite dish is absolutely perfect. The only down-side is the the far greater total wattage of the satellite package and subsequent consumption of battery amp-hours. The laptop used very little power. Still, I’m enjoying watching the Beijing Olympics in glorious quality. However, a few nights ago I watched the England v Czechoslovakia football match using the digibox but the quality was absolutely terrible (I mean, of course, the quality of the English football!!!)

Broadband on Narrowboat (GPRS)

G3 (GPRS) has finally become a viable and affordable option for mobile Internet access from a narrowboat on the move. I recently received a visit from neighbouring narrowboaters, Paul and Bridget who use a T-Mobile GPRS card with a laptop and I had to try it out.

All the major mobile networks offer GPRS Internet access cards for laptops. I hope to review as many as possible with a view to subscribing at some point in the future. But at the moment I have a more or less permanent mooring with Internet access via a Wireless Broadband router at the boatyard.

T-Mobile GPRS

NB. It is important to bear in mind that there are many factors that influence the speeds at which data is uploaded and downloaded. Many of which have nothing to do with the cost and quality of your connection.

The T-Mobile GPRS device is available as a USB modem that fits in any USB slot and is compatible with both Mac and Windows (wake up to Linux will you, T-Mobile) or a data card (which at the time of writing isn’t compatible with Mac or Windows Vista and doesn’t work in ExpressCard slots).

T-Mobile offers a range of GPRS subscriptions named Web’n’walk plans. All of which include unlimited data transfers with speeds of up to 1.8 Mbps. The monthly cost options vary from £29.00 to £44.00 mainly based on the duration of the contract rather than the connection speed.

Paul and Bridget subscribe to the Web’n’walk Plus (12 months) package at £29.00. They tell me that it is sometimes difficult to obtain a connection. This, T-Mobile say, is due to work being undertaken on the transmitters. An aerial can be plugged into the card to improve the signal strength, and it does so, significantly. I visited a number of sites that I know are often slow to download, and I connected to YouTube to see how well it streamed video. Not bad at all.

My verdict is that the T-Mobile GPRS connection is satisfactory. At this moment in time, not having compared it with other GPRS service providers, all I can say is – if it was the only option available it would meet my requirements and I would subscribe to it for mobile Internet access. However, I would resent paying £29.00 for a connection that is nowhere near as fast and reliable as residential broadband on a telephone wire which I currently enjoy for half the price. Of course, I can’t travel more than 50 yards without losing the connection!

If you use GPRS mobile Internet access from your narrowboat I’m sure my readers would be very grateful for your opinion on the cost and quality of the service that you receive.

MacBook Airport no good for narrowboats

Several people have visited me on the boat and brought laptop computers to access the Internet via my wireless network… is it a coincidence that the only ones who could not connect were those with MacBooks? To be fair, there has only been two people with MacBooks. However, the fact remains that they were unable to detect even the slightest signal. I borrowed a MacBook and took it to my parents’ bungalow. If I placed it in the same room as the wireless router it connected fine. Through the door to the next room, fifteen feet away – weak signal. Through the next door a distance of no more than forty feet from the router – no signal. I don’t know if the latest MacBooks have better wireless functionality but I would be reluctant to buy one unless I could test it first. I had a Dell Latitude with a Centrino 1.4 GHZ processor and that was fine. I now have an IBM ThinkPad R52, again with Centrino processor (1.7 GHZ), and that’s even better. MacBooks may be more ‘swish’ but they don’t actually do anything more or better than any notepad/laptop.

Freeview Digital TV through your PC

Television was the last thing on my mind for at least 12 months after I bought Rambler. I was so heavily involved in the refurbisment that I didn’t have time to watch. Eventually I bought a 12vDC/240vAC 10″ Roadster portable through Ebay and shortly after a 12vDC/240vAC video player. At the time I didn’t have an inverter or generator so I had no option but to use 12v DC appliances which are considerably more expensive to buy than 240v AC alternatives.

A better way to receive television

The Roadster TV did not receive a signal or detect channels as well as the 240v televisions of other boaters and my experiments with different aerials and boosters were to no avail. Eventually, I decided to invest in a 12v Pace Sky digibox and a mini dish. Amazing! Not only could I get a great quality picture on all the terrestrial channels, I could access all the Freeview channels. It’s a tricky business aligning the dish to the satellite but well worth the effort. The quality of the picture did suffer during particularly wet and windy weather, and when aeroplanes flew between the satellite and the dish, but most of the time all channels were available to me.

An even better way to receive television

Then I discovered a fantastic device that rendered my digibox and mini dish redundant. I bought a Freecom Digital and Analogue DVB USB Stick. A complete kit that allows me to receive and watch digitial freeview TV through my PC – comprising an unbelievably small magnetic aerial (just 4″ high), a decoding device about the size of a disposable cigarette lighter, a remote control, and easy to install software – for a mere £40. The 4″ aerial is as good as any normal TV aerial at receiving a signal and it doesn’t spoil the appearance of my traditional-style narrowboat. It does of course require a not so traditional Desktop or Laptop PC (with a USB 2.0 socket).

A crude comparison of my battery power usage before and after I bought the device goes something like this: Pace Digibox and Roadster 10″ TV – 12 amps, Laptop PC (14″ screen) – 4 amps. Which means, in theory, using the leisure batteries I can watch TV for three times as long using the laptop PC (on a bigger screen). The mini dish and digibox are now in storage and the Roadster is used solely as a monitor for my son’s games console.

Freecom DVB USB Stick

Similar devices are available from other manufacturers some of which are cheaper and others more expensive. I can recommend the Freecom because I’ve used it with a variety of computers in different locations and it works consistently well. I know people who have not been entirely happy with the results from other manufacturer’s models.

Bizarrely, whilst writing the this post on the subject of narrowboats and television, I find myself wondering how Big Brother contestants would cope if they were forced to co-exist in such close quarters as a 6′ wide, 60′ long narrowboat.


Enjoying quality radio and television on the ‘cut’ can be difficult, to say the least. The ability to receive television and radio at all times, i.e., when temporarily moored during a voyage or at a long-term mooring spot, is a problem for new and seasoned boat-owners alike. The main problem is that it is not easy to obtain a sufficiently strong signal, or sometimes any signal at all.

There are many things you can do (and buy) to improve your chances of being able to take television viewing for granted but, I have learned to accept that you can never be 100% certain of 100% viewing pleasure (and I don’t mean the actual programmes) from a boat. My advice to you if you’re not on a permenant mooring is don’t get too attached to programmes that are broadcast as a series. Also, have plenty of good books available.

Television Signals

Television signals are tropospheric, which means they require a clear line of sight between the television broadcast mast and your aerial. Your boat will normally be located in a channel of water carved into the earth and, therefore, very low down, surrounded by physical barriers such as dense trees and buildings. An aerial at your roof level is likely to be little more than one metre above the ground. Therefore, the clear line of sight is going to be very difficult to obtain. An obvious remedy is to attach the aerial to a pole, ideally 5 metres high. But bear in mind that if the pole is attached to the boat, even the slightest rocking motion will be amplified over the length of the pole causing your aerial to move significantly, resulting in jerky reception.

I’ve posted an article under the category of Technology about how to watch TV through a laptop or desktop computer.

Television License

Boat owners (residential or recreational) are not exempt from television licensing.

“If you have a static caravan, mobile home or moveable chalet, and it has a TV which is used at the same time as a TV set is being used in your main licensed home – you’ll need a separate licence to cover your second home.

However, if the TV in your static caravan or mobile home is never in use at the same time as your TV at your main home, you don’t need a separate licence. But you do need to complete a declaration form and return it to us so that we can update our records.”

Source: TV Licensing Website