Boating is about getting away from it all, but we live in a connected world and the internet is helpful for mariners whether you want to predict the weather, look up tides, send an email, contact home, or heaven forbid, do some work. Unless you’re like world-cruiser Laura Decker, making a long trip on your boat may not be feasible without a good Internet connection. Yet connectivity on-board can often be a challenge, with spotty coverage, dead zones, and slow speeds in remote areas or when travelling internationally. So how can you get the best connection at the lowest cost? Here are some recommendations.
My go-to connection is WiFi. This is because it's usually free and the highest speed. Marinas, local cafés, or even your boat neighbor may have WiFi you can connect to—in fact, I’m writing this while connected at my local marina.
To connect over longer distances or to get a strong signal from in the cabin, a WiFi range extender can offer a surprising advantage. WiFi extenders can either plug into your computer USB port, or connect over wired Ethernet. Some popular options to consider include:
• C Crane Super USB WiFi Antenna
• Bitstorm Badboy Extreme
• Wave WiFi Rogue Wave
The big downside of WiFi is the dreaded padlock icon. A few years ago more were open but it seems like these days most locations require a pass-code. For more information on setting up your boat to have WiFi aboard, read Get Connected: WiFi on Boats.
The next best option is to get cellular access using your existing cell plan, or upgrade your plan. For the $500 you could spend on a WiFi antenna you can instead buy a lot of extra data usage for cell service.
To help with dead spot issue, consider looking at getting a signal booster. One I like is the Wilson Amplifiers 460106 Sleek Dual-Band Cradle Signal Booster Kit. You simply plug in your cellphone and set up the antenna as high as possible. To make this even more expansive and connect other devices you can set up your phone as a hotspot. Dedicated mobile hotspot devices are also available from cell carriers.
If you’re going to Canada or the Caribbean, consider buying a new SIM card for your phone. If you’re planning a longer trip, buying a separate phone with a prepaid plan can be convenient. Before you go, check the coverage map to see which carrier provides the best access in the area you’re going. For example, in Desolation Sound in Canada, the coverage varies depending on the area.
High frequency radio (SSB)
You might be surprised to see Single Side Band (SSB) in this article, which may seem like something from the dark ages. But this is a good budget-conscious email communication option for offshore cruisers. By combining a SSB radio, Pactor-modem and SailMail software on a computer, you can send short messages.
The main value of the SailMail system is that it compresses the data, increasing the efficiency of email communications. Expect to pay around $3,000 for a radio, $1,200 for the modem, and $250 per year for SailMail.
If you want more Internet browsing offshore, then Satellite is what you need. But this is where the costs go through the roof–literally. There are three main Satellite options to choose from:
• Mini-VSAT – this is the best option for high bandwidth data needs but the equipment is very expensive (expect to pay $30,000 for system) and it does not cover the world.
• Inmarsat BGAN - This costs less to get started with equipment around $3,000. Transmission data rates are also good. At first look, you would think this is the best option. But the cost of sending data is high and you need to point the antenna towards a satellite, which is hard from a moving boat.
• Iridium – This is the least expensive option with both handheld and fixed satellite installations available, so it is by far the best option for infrequent use or as a backup. Iridium uses Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites so it’s available absolutely everywhere on the planet. But Iridium has two downsides: data cost is high and bandwidth is very slow–remember your first dial up connection, and you’ll be close.
Finally, if you want ultimate connectivity and don’t want to think about the details, the Wave WiFi broadband Router seamlessly connects you to the best available source. It also comes with ‘guest access control’ to make sure your kids don’t leave you with a nasty bill after their session of Minecraft.