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Internet access for voyagers

Oct 25, 2013

An overview of the options for setting up a voyaging boat

While satphones are great for voice communications offshore as seen here, they can also be used for slow speed data connections.

While satphones are great for voice communications offshore as seen here, they can also be used for slow speed data connections.

Courtesy KVH Industries

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For better or worse, we live in a connected world. When we set off voyaging, our access to connectivity changes. How much it changes depends on where we’re going, what kind of access we want, and how much we’re willing to pay — measured both in cash and in energy consumption — to get it.

Let’s say you’re fitting out the typical voyaging boat for some bluewater adventures. What’s the spectrum of choices available to you?

Fortunately, that spectrum is pretty broad these days and you are likely to be able to find a solution that reasonably matches your intentions, needs, and budget.

Let’s start with the intentions on where you’re going. Basically, the split is — are you going global or not. If you are going global, you need a global solution, whether it is terrestrial-based or satellite based. If you are intending to cruise the coasts of North and Central America, with occasional forays into the Caribbean, there are a few more options available.

Courtesy Globalstar

Coverage for Globalstar’s data services.

And what are your needs for access? Will simple text-based e-mail suffice or must you have access to other Internet-based services from the boat? Are you willing to restrict your Internet access to limited times and circumstances or do you want availability 24/7?

Finally, what’s your budget for equipment? There are three considerations here: purchase and installation costs, access fees, and energy consumption requirements to operate.

One thing that every boat can benefit from for starters is improved Wi-Fi access. More marinas are adding Wi-Fi all the time and hot spots are cropping up in popular anchorages thanks to restaurants and bars that want your business.

Even if you have a laptop with built-in wireless, you will benefit greatly from adding an external Wi-Fi antenna or access point. The biggest impediment to getting a good signal for Wi-Fi on board is the clutter of equipment and metal structure between the computer and the land-based Wi-Fi antenna. Plus the fact that below decks, your computer is probably sitting right near the waterline.

Courtesy The Wirie

The WirieAP unit is a Wi-Fi booster for latching onto Wi-Fi networks at greater ranges.

If you just want occasional access and you’re not too concerned about performance, a simple USB wireless network adapter (like those from Alfa Network) are available for less than $50. They can be suction-cupped to a port for use and stowed when not needed. While very convenient, they will be limited by similar line-of-sight issues to the computer itself. Still, they offer a significant improvement over the computer’s built-in antenna.

If you want more reliable Wi-Fi access while in marinas or hot spot areas, consider an Ethernet-based wireless access point with an external antenna (the Xtreme products from Bad Boy are one example). This is a more permanent solution with a waterproof antenna and electronics that you mount somewhere with a clear view (masthead, or radar arch). The access point electronics will consume a small amount of power, but only while you need it.

In any event, keep in mind that Wi-Fi is a two-way street and there has to be some land-based hot spot available to you for this equipment to be of any use. Some vendors may claim ranges of up to five miles for their equipment (doubtful), but even so this is not a solution offshore or even while underway coastal. Also, you may have to pay an hourly or daily access fee as well, but in general this will be the lowest cost option for Internet access from the boat.

Edit Module

Dec 19, 2013 10:48 am
 Posted by  Yachtdaemon

Excelkent advice thanks, just a couple of comments to add:
- When looking at Winlink v Sailmail, remember Winlink cannot be used for business. Also we have had several fellow cruisers who use Winlink complain that it is getting more difficult to get access as shore stations are closing
- One very cost effective way of having Internet access in foreign ountries is to buy a local prepaid SIM card and use that as required for data on a computer, smart phone or tablet. Access in developing countries can be quite inexpensive, although coverage may be patchy.

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