Wednesday, 19 November 2003

Kangaroo Valley

Driving through the mountain on our approach to our new location I could not help but be fearful of the accuracy of the reporting that came from our hosts who lived on the side of a mountain. It transpired that there was no need, but I will admit that driving a van like ours up the side of a mountain up a road that was as wide as the van in first gear was an experience.

We set the dish up next to the house, and at 45° we basically went over the top of the garden arch and the next mountain across the valley without any difficulty. Again we used the trusty Ethernet cable to link up and a connection was made within two hours of arriving.

The dish saw lots of action as a base for some travelling friends of ours who used the broadband connection to update their web-site and upload packet loads of photos of their travels around the country.

During our stay we also experimented some with the tarpaulin that covered the dish because there was some pretty hard rain and wind around. Because we stayed in the same spot for a while, the grass got pretty high underneath and we tried to find ways to drain water from below the dish. On one occasion I was underneath the tarpaulin when I thumped my head against the elevation bolt - the big long one you can see on many of the photos here - I stood up and thump. I saw stars and had a headache for several hours, but the dish was fine...

During loading of the dish, Frances and I were left to lift it on our own for the first time and we dropped it. Well, it sort of slid sideways and left a big crack in the side of the dish. Neither of us was hurt, but we were both pretty upset for a few days.

Seems the dish is pretty robust, because it never even seemed to notice the crack.

Sunday, 2 November 2003


Windy Barmera caused some stir when we installed our trusty connection, because we set it up in the court-yard of the old train station. We visited the home of the last station master and he took great interest in the goings on next to his old platform.

The technology worked just fine, we didn't use a wireless link, I cannot recall why, but ran the 80m Ethernet cable that we constructed in Crossing Falls for the first time in a non-troubleshooting role.

Setup was uneventful and our hosts took great delight in explaining to their friends that we carried the dish around to watch TV - seeing as they had one on their roof too and that's what they used theirs for. We decided that it was a little too complicated to explain that we didn't use it for TV.

Saturday, 25 October 2003

Middle of Nowhere

The most memorable because of its location.

Initially the plan was to camp in Woomera, but the team changed their mind and decided to camp on the side of the road where the car stopped. Fortunately it was flat, as far as the eye could see.

By this stage the team was experienced and most of the work was completed with little effort on my part. Tuning was simple and we were on-line within an hour of arrival. The German Team also camped at the same location and shared our on-line experience.

Frances took a photo that made it to the Melbourne Herald Sun.

Friday, 24 October 2003

Coober Pedy

Living underground is interesting, but it makes for exciting conversations on your mobile phone.

Our worst race fears all happened together. First of all, we setup away from the road in a nice quiet corner of the motel. There were no obstacles, but there was a power line overhead. After trying to tune for an hour, we moved the dish and found a signal straight away. Turns out that power lines are not good for satellite signals.

So, then we were tuned and switching on the modem gave us similar symptoms to those seen in Crossing Falls and an urgent call was made to the BOC.

Seeing as I had received email every night without notification of any updates, I didn't expect that again Optus had made a change without a notification. (Not even to the BOC apparently.)

So, with me inside on the computer, an Ethernet cable running 50 meters to the dish and one of the Sungroper Team members standing outside on the mobile, relaying information, and remembering to disconnect the dish from the modem, we again re-programmed the modem to a new set of frequencies.

After 45 minutes we were up and running and all was forgiven.

The location was on the side of a hill, so I decided that some chains and pegs were in order. The next day I learnt that you do need to use a van to pull pegs from the ground and that if you do, some pins bend 90°'s before coming out of what I can only suspect was sand-stone. Suffice to say that the dish didn't move...

Thursday, 23 October 2003

Stuart's Well

The home of the singing dingo.

Arriving in the late afternoon we were assisted in setting up by a skinny Spaniard who had cycled across the continent, taken a boat to Perth, where he cycled to Alice, he was on his way to New Zealand. We fed him.

Connecting wasn't anything spectacular and was basically limited to updating the Sungroper web site and sending out some email updates.

Wednesday, 22 October 2003

Aileron Roadhouse

In the middle of Australia we felt the need to do something special.

So we did.

Setup of the dish was again on the travel mount, which we used for the rest of the race. In addition to the dish, we also had some astronomers with us who pulled out their telescopes. I took the opportunity to setup an out-door cinema with a DVD player and a data-projector displaying onto a sheet hung from the back doors of the van.

In the middle of Australia we watched the stars, connected to the 'net and watched the only appropriate movie for the occasion, "The Dish".

Apart from the rather obnoxious behaviour from the proprietor, we had a great time.

Tuesday, 21 October 2003

Tennant Creek

We again used the travel mount setup and again it worked without any issues. We had the journalists from the Puerto Rican Team visit us and ask how they could connect using our stuff. I answered that all they needed to do was to plug in their lap tops.

Suffice to say that we made it to the front-page on their newspaper in Puerto Rico. They were completely blown away that this guy could rock up, unpack a dish and they could have broadband connectivity in the middle of the bush.

Their satellite phone apparently never did allow them to connect to the 'net.

Monday, 20 October 2003


Experimentation continued. We came up with the travel mount which was a great success. Instead of building a complete H, we just made a tri-pod out of the post and three legs. I was a little concerned about stability, but it was lower to the ground and there wasn't much in the way of wind.

Setup was very simple and it was the night that we had the most visitors to the Sungroper Internet Cafe.

In the morning I noticed a Direct-Way dish on the top of the road house, but none of the staff actually knew anything about it, so I don't know how fast it was, if it was two-way, Telstra and how much it cost.

Sunday, 19 October 2003


I was becoming more and more disenchanted with the effort required to build the base, so Katherine marked the starting point of some experimentation in this area.

Our initial experiment - don't try this at home - was a flop. I had purchased some channel from Bunnings and had it constructed in a way that it would slide into the tow-ball attachment on the back of the van. The idea was to then attach the vertical post to that and support it from below. In an attempt to make it more stable, we attached a side leg to the mount, which did help somewhat, but by this time it was dark and nothing much constructive was really achieved.

While it worked, stable is not a word I'd use to describe this contraption. I was surprised that we did in fact achieve connectivity, which says more about Gilat than it says about this experiment.

We actually camped on a campsite we'd visited before and some of the locals were very interested in all this fan-dangled stuff, so some of the more adventurous offered to assist in the process. It didn't help too much that they were more than slightly inebriated, but eventually we got it all running.

Thursday, 16 October 2003

Hidden Valley

Arriving in Darwin was interesting. The humidity was quite high, but having been in the Kimberly for some months it didn't hit us as hard as it did our friends from Perth. Setting up in the blazing sun was an interesting experience, one which I don't recommend. After all the pain in Crossing Falls, setup was a doddle.

I'd just had an article about our project hit the front-page on, so I was approached by several geeks at the race-way asking if I was that guy. We had several journalists visit us to take photos and the team did their bit to spice up the Sungroper Internet Cafe.

One journalist asked us if we could just pick-up the dish and move it to the front of the complex so she could take a photo there. She was a little taken aback that the whole thing weighs about 600kg and that moving it would require us to dismantle it, stow it, move and reverse the process. She finally gave up on the idea and took a nice shot that made it to the NT News on the inside-cover - I think that's where they traditionally have the pin-ups :-)

This was the first location we used a generator to power the dish and it made no difference whatsoever.

Saturday, 23 August 2003

Crossing Falls

It didn't work.

Setup was simple, lining up the dish was simple, dealing with the strange high angle of the dish was even simple. The tuner would tune to the satellite, but the modem would just sit there blinking with no actual connection to the 'net.

I was out of GSM mobile phone range and on the very edge of CDMA coverage, so talking to the Broadcast Operations Centre (BOC), was a bit complicated, and no-one could tell me what went wrong or why.

This was the time that I learnt the value of a persistent technician, a dedicated support centre, staffed with individuals who understand their technology and appreciate what it might be like to be in the bush on your own trying to make this stuff work. The guys at the BOC went out of their way to assist and we finally nailed the problem.

Initially I'd tuned to B3 in the new location, because that was what I was supposed to do. It didn't work, so I tuned to C1. That still didn't work. It turns out that the modem can receive tuning frequencies from the satellite and I missed an update, because no-one sent out any notifications.

We then tried to use the modem management software to put the new frequencies in, after one of the BOC staff actually found a 360E in their demo setup and read the list from its configuration. No matter what, I still couldn't talk to my modem. It appears that if it is connected to the dish, it ignores configuration parameters from the Ethernet socket, but no manual that I have access to will tell you that.

Initially we wondered if the problem was due to my wireless link, we even tested the Ethernet cable that had let us down in Dunsborough, but none of that seemed to be the cause of our challenges. None the less, it was decided that it would be prudent to eliminate the wireless link from the equation and I made an 80m Ethernet lead that has since been used many times, to link the computer directly to the modem on the other side of the property.

So, I've finally modified the frequencies, gotten on-line and now I need to still migrate to the new B3 location, which I was pretty hesitant to do. So, I noted down all the frequencies, crossed my fingers and tried it. After reprogramming the new settings, I was finally back on-line on the trusty B3 satellite in its new orbit.

Suffice to say that I was not looking forward to our trek down the Stuart Highway where the plan was to setup the dish in a new location every night.

During our stay I modified the cooling setup and instead of using aspirated air in an open box, I sealed the boxes, attached ruddy big heat sinks to both the inside and outside of each box and forced air around the box on the inside - with an extra one on a hot chip on the modem - to make the air the same temperature everywhere. On the outside I blow air across the heat-sink, to make it cooler than the box, thus sucking heat from the inside of the box. Not pretty, not efficient, but it appears to do the job.

Saturday, 17 May 2003


A time of great turmoil.

Staying in Dunsborough introduced us to the ocean and salt. 53 days of rain didn't help and humidity was a really big problem.

Setup was simple, we had a parking bay next to the house and power from the shed next to that. Pointing the dish was becoming simpler and I don't actually recall having to pull out any hair to make the magic happen.

During our stay in Dunsborough it rained a lot. So much so that the tarpaulin invention made in Yangebup was put properly to the test. I got up out of bed several times during the night when another severe down pour came along, one night even getting out in my pyjamas to cover over the electronics, just in case the tarpaulin ripped or came loose. There was never any problem. We'd exchanged the tarpaulin on our pass through Perth, but I was still quite fearful of having the new one rip to shreds and bring our adventure to a premature end.

During our stay, Optus brought the C1 satellite on-line. This affected us in several ways.

Our original satellite was Optus B3. It has been in orbit for a while and I think it was running out of capacity, because it hosted my service, and a whole bunch of others including Foxtel, Austar, Aurora and countless international broadcasters as well.

With the arrival of C1, the signal would be boosted and everyone would get a better deal. Except that of course the B3 VSAT users got to stay with B3. So, they had a process of moving the satellite and having the signal be available on both during the transition phase.

In addition to this, Optus also phased out the 360 modem for a 360E, a firmware upgrade. However Optus did not do any upgrades, they thought it was simpler to swap-out the modems. Except mine was bolted to the dish in a red-box.

I asked my father to ship the plastic enclosure to me, because I didn't want to change the serial numbers and upset the apple-cart, and took receipt of my new shiny 360E. I powered off, swapped out the boards, and powered it all back up. It didn't work.

I swapped them back. It still didn't work. You should probably know that during the board swap, the red boxes with the electronics were still bolted to the dish. The dish was covered in a large tarpaulin and it was pouring down with rain. So much so that there was 5cm of water underneath the dish - seems the driveway wasn't quite flat and we had the low end. So here I was, sitting in the pouring rain, under a tarpaulin, with my feet in 5cm of water, swapping out electronic equipment that was both expensive and fragile.

I spent several days troubleshooting the issue, including connecting the modem directly to the workstation and finally discovered that there was a loose Ethernet cable in the wireless box that was causing grief. After fixing that, it all worked as advertised.

I spent several anxious hours on the phone attempting to find out what would happen when I got to Crossing Falls, because the final transition, when B3 occupied a new location, would be completed in the time it took us to drive to Crossing Falls (some 3000km north of where we were). I was assured that it all would work fine.

On our way through Perth we unloaded the remote aerial masts and the loading crane calling them both a bad joke. I had grandiose plans to create a better crane, but manpower is to date by far the simplest.

Wednesday, 7 May 2003


Setup was in the grounds of the Chapman Valley Primary School. Many hands make light work and the local Macintosh User Group, GMUG, had several of its members out, including the principal and part of his family.

Initial challenges were the trees in the school-yard next door and I made an error with the initial point, so we spent a little while moving the frame around and getting the angles right. We again used the remote wireless antenna mount, but only to cross the school play ground and point at the library.

This setup was used to teach the kids about building their own web-site, though admittedly, not a lot of actual surfing was done, because we had our hands full building a site and I couldn't figure out how to get my machine to act as a gateway on their local wireless network.

The biggest challenge in that was that the modem only gives out an IP address using DHCP, so I needed to find a way to get my machine associated with that address, while not intercepting the IP addresses of any of the other wireless networks. In the end, it was simpler to plug/unplug the cable from the switch and I gave up the experiment as a bad joke, though I suspect that my current set-up would be able to deal with it if the time came.

Sunday, 13 April 2003


After my successes in Kalgoorlie, I was not prepared at all for this installation site. The site is at the bottom of a garden, lots of room and the removal of the dish from the van and the installation of the frame was quite simple. Finding power and getting ready for the install was also pretty straight forward.

The land was on the side of a hill. The house had been built on the street level, and major earthworks had been completed to make that happen. As a result, the site itself, while spacious, was three metres lower than the house. To make things more exciting, there was a line of tall trees with about a metre between them, each was about 15 to 20 meters tall.

I spent the next six hours in the hot sun, moving the frame around to get some signal, any signal. I checked the hardware, the location, the elevation, the compass, you name it. In the end it turned out to be the trees. Final connectivity came swiftly, when I finally managed to point at a gap between two of the behemoths. Of course, the smallest amount of wind would block the signal, but it was the best I could do.

Getting wireless to work was another challenge, because the setup worked initially, but after a bit of rain, the hill was sodden and acted as a nice big barrier to the signal. The solution was to use the two 18dBi Yagi's pointing at each other, a mere 30 meters apart - very overkill. We used one of the remote antenna mounts for the first time and it worked to spec.

We had purchased a cheap large tarpaulin to cover the dish which lost several eyes during some of the rain and wind that came along, so some anxious moments were had when we'd come out in the morning.

Wednesday, 2 April 2003


Our first remote install. After building the loading crane and nearly loosing my life with a 2m beam landing on my head, the construction of the crane needs a complete overhaul. The original plan was for the loading and installation to be a one-man job, but the crane made life harder, not simpler.

After bolting the dish together, much frustration, the actual install was something different altogether. I carry a GPS, a compass, an inclinometer and a map of Elevation/Inclination/Cross Poll numbers to get the initial placement to be as accurate as possible. I looked over the fence to the neighbours and noticed a Foxtel dish on their roof. I used my big thumb to estimate the direction, did a correction by doing a rough approximation of 22.6° and turned the dish on.

I spent the next three hours trying to improve the signal.

In other words, my rough estimate had been spot on. I can get used to this.

Monday, 24 February 2003


Yay, we are on-line. Our biggest fear, that the wireless-gear wouldn't talk to the modem directly turned out to be a mis-informed technician. The actual set-up was quite simple, we needed to await the arrival of our newly built frame and then got down to the business of actually installing this beast the first time.

Initially, we were not getting very much in the way of any signal, until I realised that I forgot that the dish is not symmetrical and that there is an offset of 22.6°. Lowering the dish by that amount made the tuner connect without missing a beat and we could listen to the Aurora Tuning Channel beep with no problems.

Further fine-tuning got the signal maximised and the modem was switched on for the first time. The first out-going email was sent on 26 Feb 2003 at 13:19:21 - the best is yet to come.

All of the equipment associated with the connection is intended for use inside the home, the tuner for alignment, the modem, the power supply, the wireless equipment, even the video repeater. Our largest enemy is heat, so we removed the equipment from their enclosures and built them into some fire alarm warning boxes which protect them from the elements.

The boxes are bolted to the dish frame to provide a protected environment for these electronics to survive. The box fixture was changed in Barmera and again in Holwell. The initial version relied on external air to cool, six fans sucked air in and blew it out an opening on the front. This was changed in Crossing Falls.