How to get a good Wi-Fi connection on your boat
In the last five or more years, Wi-Fi has crept in to everyday life, and is now synonymous with a whole host of new ways to use gadgets and technologies. Andrew Smythe, MD of Cactus Navigation & Communication explores how best to get connected on your boat.
This new wire free world that we find ourselves in, can connect our phones/tablets/computers to the internet, stream media to our TVs and Hi-Fi systems or allow us to control and receive data from new gadgets that have miraculously lost their cables and wires.
The most common use of Wi-Fi on boats, is connecting to the internet when we are safely moored in the marina. Some people go sailing to escape the world of internet, but more and more of us are becoming dependent on a good Wi-Fi connection to give us the same connected experience that we have in our homes and offices.
In normal life, our wireless phones/tablets/computers connect to our wireless networks and seamlessly switch to 3G or even 4G networks when we venture outside. On a boat, things get a little more complicated, as the less populated and secluded locations that we like to sail too, are the least profitable locations for phone and internet companies to set up their infrastructure in.
There are three ways to get internet on a boat:
The most expensive is Satellite Broadband which can cost around $1.99 USD per megabyte and involves the purchase and installation of expensive dome antennas that cost around $15000 USD. Coverage is pretty much global and data speeds of around 1-2Mb/sec are achievable.
Next is 3G Broadband, using the mobile phone network. Cost is typically £15 per month for 1-3GB of data in the UK, although this increases dramatically when roaming outside of the UK.
The equipment usually consists of a 3G USB “dongle” or a small “MiFi” personal hotspot that you wirelessly connect to. Coverage is very good in most urban areas, although in rural/remote areas coverage becomes patchy and may be limited to slower 2G or even voice only connections.
Wi-Fi is the cheapest method and costs around £5-£10 per day in most marinas. Pretty much every device has a built-in Wi-Fi adaptor these days and users can connect to any public Wi-Fi hotspot. Most marinas, hotels, restaurants/bars now have their own hotspot or you can subscribe to BTOpenzone which connects you to over 5 million BT users who have a BT router in their home or business (UK only). Pictured above is a typical wireless hot-spot mast.
Although the cheapest and most commonly used, Wi-Fi is not without its problems and the most common problem is range, which is typically about 100m. It always seems, that when you need the internet the most, it is the time when your laptop or tablet cannot quite connect to the marina’s hotspot.
In order to maximise your chances of finding and connecting to a wireless hotspot in any given location, long range Wi-Fi boosters are available from a number of suppliers including Digital Yacht (image shown right), WaveWiFi and WiFiBat. These devices are split into two types; USB connection and Network Connection.
With USB connected devices, you can only connect one laptop computer to the internet, while with a Network connected device you can add a wireless router or access point and share the long range internet connection with everyone onboard.
As the majority of phones and tablets do not have a full/master USB connection, you have to install a Network type device and router in order to use a long range Wi-Fi connection on phones/tablets.
For the majority of yachtsmen, long range Wi-Fi is the most cost effective solution, with equipment prices for marine grade solutions starting at around £100 for USB devices going up to £500 for the most powerful Network type device, it is not too high a price to pay for good internet connectivity.
Connection Diagram of a Long Range Network Wi-Fi adaptor and Router
Andrew Smythe is Managing Director of Cactus Navigation & Communication