Combining cellular data and Wi-Fi while coastal cruising can make digital connectivity easier
While enjoying my usual evening libation in the cockpit, I often grab a cellphone or laptop to find out what is happening in the world, what messages may have come in that I can ignore, and whether or not thunderstorms are likely to wake us at the usual 2 a.m. With the wonders of Wi-Fi and cellular phone service, these joys/chores of modern life have become necessities for most cruisers, and there are many ways to achieve the state of “connected” bliss on board.
For many boaters, regular cellphones and Wi-Fi-enabled laptops (and other devices) provide plenty of connectivity when close to shore and in marinas. While coastal cruising from Maine to Florida, I am frequently within good cellphone coverage — even over to the Bahamas. Yes, there are big gaps at times, but I can survive for a few hours without checking Twitter. Almost every marina has Wi-Fi, and if they don’t, there is bound to be an Internet cafe or other public Wi-Fi nearby. I’ve run into Wi-Fi in the weirdest places far off the beaten track, like on a cay in the Bahamas with no regular phone service — but it had satellite Internet and TV!
However, many others feel the need for stronger data connections and will utilize marine Wi-Fi and cellular receivers that can feed an onboard Wi-Fi router. This can mean the difference between enjoying a quiet night of Facebooking while anchored securely in the middle of the harbor vs. schlepping a laptop ashore in search of a signal. However, the days of “stealing” free Wi-Fi from unsuspecting shoreside homeowners and businesses with unsecured networks is largely over. Though it is still possible to be a data thief, you can’t count on it for reliable service.
Obtaining a legitimate data connection that can supply the speeds and reliability you need means a combination of Wi-Fi and cellular phone data when coastal cruising. In some harbors, there are public Wi-Fi signals that reach out over the harbor, and in others you may be able to get permission and/or pay a fee to a nearby marina. But, Wi-Fi is limited in range and there are many security concerns. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi is relatively hackable and you should read up on how to secure your data connections, possibly by using a VPN.
Typical home Wi-Fi routers have about a 150-foot range indoors and possibly up to 300 feet outdoors, depending on what’s between you and the router. Marine Wi-Fi receivers with large antennas that can be mounted on a high point above deck obstructions will receive at greater range.
The Shakespeare WCT-1 antenna system has multiple antennas, incuding one for HDTV.
Courtesy Shakespeare Marine
With a dedicated marine Wi-Fi receiver, you can expect much improved performance over any regular Wi-Fi receiver in a portable device, however coverage and range in the real world will be highly variable. I have seen brochures for marine receivers that claim “up to seven-mile range,” and some claim to reach up to 12 miles offshore, which is meaningless since a lot depends on the originating source. If you just need a strong signal on your home mooring or in a marina and know what networks you want to connect to, a marine Wi-Fi receiver may be a great solution for you.
While cruising in unfamiliar waters, you will have the problem of sorting through all the available Wi-Fi networks to find the ones that allow you to connect and provide the service you need. That problem is made more difficult by all the other boats in the harbor broadcasting their own wireless networks. The other night, I was located well offshore in a harbor on a small island that I know has only one public Wi-Fi network, yet a quick look at my phone showed many of the boats around me were broadcasting signals that were much stronger than the public Wi-Fi service in my location. I didn’t try, but I assumed that most of those other boats had their networks properly password protected! I’ve used the public service before and know that it is expensive, slow and unreliable. The best Wi-Fi receiver won’t be able to solve that problem for you.
Cell your soul
The most reliable option, at least within the U.S., is receiving your data via a cellular phone network. Cell signals offer much greater range that can extend many miles offshore. I have found that phone company coverage maps often underestimate coverage on the water, since they probably do little testing out there. Ordinary mobile phones are often quite effective within a mile or two of much of the U.S. East Coast. Again, there are significant gaps in coverage, depending on your carrier of choice, but in general you will find a good cell signal more often than you will find good Wi-Fi, particularly when underway. Hopping from one Wi-Fi network to another is a study in frustration, but maintaining a decent cellular signal all day long is a regular occurrence for boaters in many parts of the country. In other areas of the world, your service and choices may vary greatly.
Security is much better on the cellular networks than it is on Wi-Fi, and I have also found that it is much more reliable during inclement weather. When the power goes out ashore, most of the Wi-Fi networks go down too, but usually the cell service stays up and running. This can be a tremendous safety factor during hurricanes and lesser storms, when communications may be critical. At the very least, it is great to be able to call home or send an email to let everyone know you have weathered the storm. It is also great when you need to find parts, contact your insurance company or transfer some funds when all of the ATM machines ashore go dark.
All the major mobile carriers offer unlimited data plans, as do many prepaid carriers. Data-only plans are available too, but they may not be a better deal than a traditional phone plan. Unfortunately, the word “unlimited” doesn’t really mean limitless amounts of high-speed data, so read the fine print. However, for many of us, an unlimited cellular plan is cost effective and provides the greatest real-world data coverage.
Digital Yacht’s 4G Connect unit for cell signals has a built-in Wi-Fi router.
Courtesy Digital Yacht
For some boaters, a good option is to combine Wi-Fi service with cellular coverage via your phone when needed. You can “tether” other devices to your phone in order to utilize the phone’s data plan. In general, this is not for extended or heavy data usage, but it can be a great option if you just need to use your laptop for something that the phone can’t do. The other day my son downloaded a new book to his Kindle by tethering to his cellphone. One thing to keep in mind is that tethering seems to deplete your phone’s battery faster than ever.
The best of both worlds
Luckily, there are now single devices that allow you to have great Wi-Fi range when you want it and great cellular coverage when you need it. For example, the weBBoat 4G Plus by Glomex includes a 4G LTE cellular antenna and a Wi-Fi antenna, with automatic switching between antennas based on signal quality. It accepts two SIM cards, allowing you to utilize different cellular providers depending on cost, location, etc. Up to 32 devices can be connected on board at once. The antenna unit looks like a small satellite dome and can be mounted in a high spot free of obstructions. Glomex claims you can get reception “up to” 20 miles offshore. Again, your experience may vary, but you typically won’t find reliable signals at maximum range.
One interesting thing to consider is that Glomex notes that your onboard Wi-Fi signal, broadcast by the weBBoat unit, can be significantly degraded on metal boats, so it is possible to connect up to four Wi-Fi router/access points to the unit. You can also connect to LAN ports using an Ethernet cable.
Average power consumption is listed at 150 mA, and it will work on 10 to 30 volts DC. Retail price is $995, which seems reasonable considering all the various components included with the system. It is easy to spend well north of $200 when purchasing just a regular consumer/landlubber-grade, shoreside Wi-Fi router for your apartment.
It would be possible to use land-grade Wi-Fi routers on board too. I took a look at my reasonably up-to-date home Wi-Fi router, made by Linksys; the power adapter puts out 12 volts and the unit needs up to 2 amps. The Linksys could run off an ordinary boat’s 12-volt system, though battery drain would be significant if utilized 24/7. However, it might be an option to improve your onboard Wi-Fi coverage when in a marina or other location with Internet access and the ability to keep your batteries charged up.
Access to the Internet allows you to check on the proximity of weather features, like this thunderstorm that an online check revealed was 60 miles away and no threat.
Shakespeare Marine makes some units that are very similar in function to the Glomex models. The WebWatch WC-1 and WCT-1 also look like miniature domed satellite receivers, and they offer both increased Wi-Fi reception at great ranges and 4G/LTE reception on the cellular networks. The WCT-1 sports a built-in HDTV receiver, which could be quite useful in coastal waters. HDTV coverage near major U.S. cities can be quite good, and some report better picture quality than when using cable TV. Of course, channel selection will vary from place to place. I have found that TV weather stations are often quite useful when carefully watching the approach of distant tropical systems.
The Shakespeare units operate on 12/24 volts, with a 1 amp max draw. Pricing is in the vicinity of the Glomex units.
Shakespeare also sells their JellyFish JF-3 Classic Multi-Band Antenna, which appropriately looks like a jellyfish due to its domed antenna enclosure sporting three different cables to support the GPS, cellular and Wi-Fi antennas. This unit is a passive antenna, meaning it does not require a power input for amplifying signals, and it does not broadcast an onboard Wi-Fi signal. The cellular and Wi-Fi cables do not sport standard Ethernet connectors, so you will have to cobble together a way to supply an onboard Wi-Fi router or connect to a particular device.
Note that you can also purchase inline signal boosters that will work with various passive marine cellular antennas, but those aren’t the focus of this article on all-in-one solutions to getting your selfies online!
Catch a wave
Wave WiFi is another company offering an almost-all-in-one solution incorporating cellular and Wi-Fi antennas, but the output is a regular Ethernet cable that can be connected to an onboard laptop or separate router. Utilizing a standard Ethernet cable makes connecting to all sorts of non-marine devices much easier, potentially lowering costs. However, many devices require a Wi-Fi signal, which is the beauty of the all-in-ones noted above.
Well known in the RV world, Winegard is now offering a marine unit that looks interesting and is less expensive than most. The Winegard ConnecT 4G1xM combines a Wi-Fi extender with a built-in cellular data antenna and router. A Winegard cell data plan (on the AT&T network) is required for 4G access. With no contracts, monthly data plans start at $20 for 1GB, and you can get 20GB for $150. Unlike the Glomex and the Shakespeare units, the Winegard utilizes an array of five short vertical antennas with no surrounding dome. The unit includes Ethernet ports and broadcasts a local Wi-Fi signal for your boat. Power requirement is 9 to 16 volts at up to 1 amp. List price is $479.
With its relatively costly data plan and the inability to use your own mobile SIM, the Winegard units might be good for those that mostly stay around Wi-Fi with the occasional cruise to more distant waters — hopefully places with good AT&T coverage. Since there is no contract, 4G data could just be purchased when needed.
Less is more
I am not usually a fan of integrating functions on a boat, which can create a single point of failure that takes out multiple necessities. However, in the case of Wi-Fi and cellular data, there are many benefits: fewer power supplies, fewer cables, fewer antennas to site and mount, fewer holes to drill for wire runs, fewer holes to waterproof and fewer controls to manage. Many of these devices are monitored and controlled using smartphone apps. And, your smartphones on board provide the ideal and very usable backups for the single-point-of-failure devices.
Other smartphone apps can assist with the proper installation of an all-in-one unit. For example, I have found that Wi-Fi scanning apps are a great way to test out router positions. You may be surprised by how you can dramatically improve signal strength by relocating a router. Also, phones can be used to help you find open and/or pay-to-use Wi-Fi access points that may require you to send in credit card information or sometimes to call for support.
Having a radar arch bristling with antennas, domes, wires and other electronics can make your boat look like a serious world cruiser, but reducing windage and complication back there might improve your real voyaging experience. And, you’ll be able to watch cat videos while offshore!
John Kettlewell is a freelance marine writer and the author of The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook.