Whether you’re out for the day, on a weekend cruise, or live and work aboard a boat, full-time, internet connectivity for you, your crew and family is more available than ever before. With so much of our activity and day-to-day life relying on internet connection, it isn’t right that some boaters have to stay tied to the dock to access it.
For some, boating means getting off the grid and not being connected. But for others, the past few years of remote work and school as well as the advancement of technology has fueled the ability to go online while on the boat and away from the dock.
If this sounds like a fit for your cruising lifestyle, there are several primary ways to connect your boat to the internet. I am purposely saying “connect your boat,” because you can communicate over satellite phones, cell phones and by connecting individual devices through LTE or Wi-Fi access points, but this is not the best way. If you want a consistent and quality experience, connecting your boat to the internet and then connecting all your devices to the boat will provide a more reliable, available and higher-quality connection that allows the captain to manage access more securely.
Here is a brief overview of each service:
This provides the best connection in terms of bandwidth (upload and download speeds), availability and reliability of service. Several satellite internet providers (KVH, Starlink and others) are on the market today, and based on intended use, each has strengths and weaknesses. KVH and Starlink are two of the leaders for satellite internet but with very different features when compared to each other.
KVH offers global coverage with very few locations not covered. Their service is good, and their technology is true and tested. While the cost of the service puts it out of reach for everyday use by some boaters, KVH continues to innovate for its customers. KVH is one of the only vendors to provide a single hardware solution for satellite, cellular and wireless that allows quality of service as well as automatic or manual switching between the three sources based on availability and bandwidth. If you need truly global service, KVH is worth looking at and selecting the service options that fit your budget and intended use.
It’s fairly new to the market and is luring boaters with fast internet for relatively cheap prices that allow for everyday use of the service whether streaming TV or movies, surfing the internet, or working or attending school remotely. You can select from several service options, but based on Starlink’s terms and conditions, Mobile or Mobile Priority is the best choice. If your boat is stationary and likely will stay that way for long periods and you don’t need internet while underway, its Mobile Service and hardware may be a fit.
If you are underway and run offshore frequently, you may want to look at the Mobile Priority Service, which according to Starlink is the right fit for boats that use its service while in motion and coastal/offshore cruising. Based on a boater’s need for uninterrupted service on the move or stationary, Starlink is worth reviewing the latest terms and conditions to select the right package.
With the proliferation of 4G/5G services from the major cell providers, Cellular broadband is a viable and economical option for boaters who need the connectivity. With the purchase of a Cellular router (like the Pepwave MAX BR1 4G or 5G) and an external cellular antenna, cellular broadband offers very good bandwidth and is reliable. Devices can still be wirelessly connected to the cellular router and then the router connects you to the internet. With an external antenna, boaters can typically receive cellular signals from 10-15 miles offshore and download speeds from 25Mbps to 100Mbps and upload speeds from 10Mbps to 25Mbps, based on relative location to the towers.
If you find that purchasing the router is too expensive, many priority SIM providers will lease a router that is already configured with single or dual SIMs from AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile. Many of the priority SIM providers like EVDODepotUSA offer the service on a month-to-month basis, so contracts are not required, and they have data plans from 300GB to 800GB.
The absolute cheapest way for boaters to connect to the internet is to connect to local Wi-Fi routers while in marinas or anchored/moored close to a Wi-Fi access point. With a Wi-Fi router and external Wi-Fi antenna and booster similar to the products that WAVE Wi-Fi provides, boaters can connect their boats to the local Wi-Fi offered by marinas or other local Wi-Fi access points. While this is the cheapest solution comparatively, it also typically has the lowest availability and reliability due to the varying loads at marinas and internet connectivity.
While many marinas invest in Wi-Fi access for their guests, it’s hard to control the way it is used, so if many guests are trying to stream movies, join video meetings and surf the internet, the experience for boaters may vary.
One final note about these services is that many options for hardware and service are on the market today. Not all service providers and hardware are equivalent. If the internet is something that you need to extend your time on the boat away from the dock, then I recommend good hardware and service that you can manage securely.
When connecting to the internet, it’s crucial to prioritize security. Free Wi-Fi means that anyone can connect, and marina Wi-Fi is usually password protected but still allows fairly easy access to anyone. It’s up to boaters to protect their network and routers.
Configuring your router or hotspot device with a strong password and enabling encryption protocols like WPA2 to protect your network are easy to do through the setup or configuration wizards provided with new equipment on the market today. Manufacturers also offer assistance through chat and online guidance.
Remember to check the terms of service of your internet service provider to ensure compliance with its usage policies, particularly when using its services and equipment on a vessel. If you buy equipment from a service provider, remember to keep it under warranty and follow the terms and conditions.
Being a boater no longer means just taking short weekend trips or staying in a marina because you must do a conference call. Internet connectivity has extended your cruising time as well as your range.