Spending a significant amount of time at sea is awesome, life-changing even. Unfortunately, there are some challenges to spending that much time on your boat, and there are a few luxuries that you might need to give up.
In the past, an internet connection would be lumped in with all of the other things you’d have to give up when you take to the waves, but technology has changed that. Over time, more and more methods to maintain a reliable internet connection on your boat have emerged, though getting it set up has still remained somewhat confusing.
In this Boat WiFi Guide, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about getting a solid internet connection on your boat, regardless of whether you’re in the marina, just offshore, or in the middle of the sea. Once we’ve gone over the various methods at your disposal, we’ll take a look at some of the factors that you should consider when you make your decision.
Boat WiFi Guide: Connect to the Internet at Sea!
How you connect to the internet on your boat is dependent on a few different factors, including how close you are to land, what kind of connection you’d like, and how much you’d be willing to spend.
There are four main ways to get an internet connection on your boat, and based on some of the conditions we outlined above, some may work better or worse for you. Here are the four choices you have available:
- Using and amplifying marina connections and other WiFi coming from shoreline sources
- Cellular hotspots and ways to amplify them
- MiFi connection (LTE Mobile Hotspot)
- Satellite internet
Marina and Other Shore-Based Wireless Signal
You’re most likely already acquainted with this kind of internet, especially if you’ve ever brought your phone with you to the marina. Most docks and marinas have their own public WiFi connections, and many of them are protected by passwords that you can get from the dockmaster.
Most of the time, marina WiFi is used when docked for general use, and to perform last-minute checks before you set sail. Marina WiFi can even be used while you’re out on the water, especially if it’s powerful enough to reach the far-out parts of the port where you have your boat docked.
However, this is only in the most ideal circumstances.
In most cases, you’ll be lucky to get that WiFi connection while you’re on your boat, even if it’s tied up at the pier. Some marinas may only have a wireless connection that can be reached when you’re near their buildings.
If you’d like to benefit from your marina’s WiFi while you’re on your boat, you have a few options at your disposal. The most important piece of equipment that you need to take advantage of this wifi connection is a marine WiFi extender, (also known as a repeateR) which you hook up to your boat so that you can reroute the signal and strengthen it.
The need for a WiFi extender, like the CC Vector WiFi Repeater system shown above, will increase as you get further away from the marina. If you’re trying to get out on the waves, your need for an extender will increase with that distance.
One of the main advantages of using a WiFi extender on your boat is that it’s relatively affordable compared to your other choices.
Getting a WiFi extender set up on your boat may have some pricey initial costs, as you’ll need to make sure that your extender is mounted firmly, and in an area where it can get a good signal.
This will also require some handiness on your part. Of course, you can hire someone to install it for you, but that will further increase your setup costs.
Another huge benefit of using a WiFi extender to connect to marina WiFi is that you don’t have to deal with any service costs associated with your internet usage (unless your marina mandates them). You’re just getting WiFi, similar to how it works in your home.
While a wireless repeater can significantly boost the range of the signal, the conditions will dramatically impact the distance.
Weather and Environmental Conditions
As we already mentioned, you’ll want to place your extender somewhere on your boat where it will have a direct line-of-sight with the marina’s wireless antenna. The line of sight is quite important.
Weather can also reduce the effectiveness of a WiFi Repeater, especially if there’s a thunderstorm hovering over you, which will cause plenty of EM interference.
A WiFi extender’s main weakness is that it tethers you to your marina, and you’ll have to stay within that extender’s range to maintain your internet connection.
The best wireless extenders will allow you to connect to your marina’s WiFi at a range of up to a dozen miles under ideal circumstances, but often it’s more common to get a mile or two of ranged.
Tether to Your Cellphone – Use Cellular Data
If your marina doesn’t have a reliable WiFi connection, you can also take matters into your own hands and use your cell phone or mobile device as a data hotspot. Your cellular data connection is what allows you to access the internet when you’re on the go and not in range of any WiFi sources.
When you turn your device into a hotspot, you’re essentially making it a mobile internet source and providing that data connection to all of the other devices in your area. Much like a WiFi connection, your hotspot is typically password-protected and may even extend throughout your boat, depending on its size.
This is by far the cheapest option in most circumstances. You just hit a switch on your phone and turn on Mobile Hotspot, and you’ll be able to connect to the internet on your devices, through your phone.
While it would stand to reason that this can solve all of your internet connection problems while you’re out on the waves, there are still some things you’ll need to account for.
Distance from Shore
The first thing is that there is no cellular data connection in the open ocean, or even a few miles away from the shore. When you consider it, this makes sense because there is no reason to create the infrastructure for a cellular data network in the middle of the sea.
Depending on how far out you’re going, you’ll quickly lose cellular signal.
Another factor is that a lot of the ocean consists of international territory, so nobody would be responsible for spending the money to develop cellular data infrastructure out there.
To make up for this, you’ll need to get your hands on a cellular data booster, which is much like a wifi extender, but it operates on cellular data networks instead of wifi connections.
Much like a wifi extender, one of these will have to be mounted on your boat in a relatively unobstructed area. The one shown above is made by AnyCall, and works on a variety of networks including Verizon and AT&T.
This method of extending cellular data range shares many of the same initial expenses as a wifi booster. You’ll either need the tools to put it up and secure it to your boat or you’ll need to hire someone to do it.
Add that to the cost of the booster itself, and the initial setup can get pricey.
Finally, unlike using the marina’s WiFi, your cellular data connection will incur monthly costs, and it can get even more expensive if your cellular provider doesn’t offer unlimited data. Thankfully, most American telecom companies offer some form of unlimited data plan to their users.
Just be sure to keep those data charges in mind!
Despite the hassle compared to using a WiFi extender, there are several key advantages to using cellular data to maintain your internet connection while you’re on the waves.
First of all, you’re not dependent on a third-party connection to stay on the internet. You have more control over its reliability and availability.
More importantly, you’ll be able to bring your boat wherever you want, as long as you remain within the extended range of the shoreline, and the best cellular data extenders can give you several miles worth of range.
Your Sim Card
Another thing to consider when using your cellular data connection on a boat is whether or not your network is compatible with the area that you’re in. If you’re only traveling around the US coast, then you’ll be fine with your American SIM card.
However, if you’re making a trip from Florida to the Bahamas, for instance, you’ll need a SIM that will work in both places. For international boating, you’ll need to consider all these logistics.
You have a few options in this case. You can opt for a worldwide SIM card, which will be expensive, especially when it comes to paying for your monthly service.
On the other hand, you can also buy multiple SIM cards from local networks, which will be cheaper but will have to be swapped out on the fly.
MiFi Connector, or LTE Mobile Hotspot
A MiFi connection, also known as an LTE Mobile Hotspot, is like a union between a cellular data connection and a traditional WiFi connection. Whereas your home-based WiFi is dependent on cables (either copper or fiber optic) to deliver the signal, MiFi connectors run on a cellular data network, so they have many of the same limitations as using a hotspot.
You’ll still have to remain within a reasonable distance of the shore to connect on your MiFi connection. And if you don’t supplement it with an antenna, don’t expect that to be very far.
Thankfully, many MiFi connectors are compatible with antennas, though the installation of an antenna will increase your setup costs.
MiFi devices are essentially little routers, some of which you can connect to a device through a USB connection.
More powerful models may look like little boxes, akin to a home modem but at about half the size. With the right kind of setup, you can even use a MiFi connection anywhere in the world, though your operating costs may get pricey.
Using a MiFi connection differs from using a cellular data plan in that it gives you more control over your expenses. The companies that offer MiFi routers typically cater to people who require extended use of their internet on the go. This differs from most standard cell phone plans, which are designed around individual use primarily only when out of the house or office.
This means that you’ll probably pay less for your connection, and you’ll certainly have an easier time setting it up than if you were to use something like a cellphone or a data-activated tablet. Keep in mind that some MiFi connectors operate using SIMs for global versatility, while others may not.
One of the main advantages of a MiFi router is that it lets you access the internet on your boat without having to deal with a lengthy or expensive setup process.
While you may not have quite the same range as if you were using an antenna, you may not need that extra range if you’re staying close to the coast.
The speed of your internet using a MiFi connection depends on where you are in the world and how developed their infrastructure is. If you’re in Europe or America, you should have access to an LTE connection, while you may be restricted to 3G if you’re in a less developed region.
Some of these devices are even battery powered, meaning that you can bring your internet connection with you when you dock at a foreign port. If you’re looking for something that’s relatively versatile and doesn’t require too much effort to set up, a MiFi device may be the right idea.
So far, all of the options we’ve presented will work for you if you stay within a dozen miles of the shore. But what if you want to be able to connect to the internet even if you’re in the middle of the ocean? This is where a satellite connection comes into play.
First off, let’s get this out of the way up front: a satellite internet connection is by far the most expensive option on this list. Satellite internet is so expensive that it’s not even in the same ballpark as some of the previous choices, which have so far been relatively reasonable in both setup and operating costs.
Just to get your internet connection set up, you can expect to pay well over $1000, with some high-end satellite dishes costing you up to $50,000. Another thing to keep in mind is that it may be relatively challenging to get your satellite dish set up in the first place, so you may also have to pay for labor to ensure that it’s done properly.
This doesn’t even account for what you can expect to pay for data while you’re using your satellite connection. The cost of your connection will depend on its speed and how frequently you use it.
At the lowest level, you can expect to pay $50 per month for satellite internet on your boat, but that won’t get you much. If you want a high-quality connection that is also fast with a high limit, you can expect to pay about $1000 per month.
If you’re considering traveling across the open ocean and you’d like to stay connected to the internet at all times, satellite internet is brilliant. However, if you have the option of staying near shore and giving up your internet connection when you get more than a dozen miles away from dry land, it may not even be worth considering a satellite connection.
Of course, a reasonable price for an internet connection is an entirely subjective matter, so only you know whether or not a satellite connection on your boat is worth it.
Factors to Consider When Choosing an Option
When deciding what kind of onboard connection will work best for you, there are a few things that you’ll have to take into account so that you can set your priorities straight.
First off, you’ll have to determine how important internet speed and reliability are for you. Next, determine how much you’re willing to pay for your connection. Finally, consider how far from the shore you’ll typically be.
The Reliability and Speed of Your Connection
You’ll have to figure out what kind of internet speed you’re looking for and whether it needs to be reliable. A faster internet connection will allow more people to use the net at once, so if you’re planning on boating around with the family, you may need some extra bandwidth.
Also, consider the reliability of the connection, and how reliable you need it to be. This is one of the main weaknesses of relying on a cellular data connection, especially offshore. The further you go, the less consistent your internet will get, and this will make things like video calls much more difficult.
The Cost of Your Internet Connection
How much you’re willing to pay will determine how effective your internet connection is and how far offshore you can go and still expect to have good service. As a baseline, relying on an existing wifi connection through an extender is the most affordable way to get the internet while you’re on your boat.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can expect to pay the most for a satellite internet connection that can be accessed anywhere in the world. While there are more affordable satellite connections, they’re typically extremely slow or will charge you exorbitant prices if you exceed their data limits.
How Far Offshore Are You Traveling?
You can also determine your ideal boat-based internet solutions based on how far away from shore you plan on traveling. If you’re going to stay within range of the shore, you can rely on either wifi or cellular data, but if you’re going further out, you’ll need a satellite connection.
Beyond how far you expect to go from the shore, you’ll also want to account for how long you’re going to spend away from land. If you’re only going to be away from the coast for short periods of time, it may not be worth the effort and cost of installing a satellite connection on your boat.
What Are You Going to Use the Internet For?
Another way to figure out the best kind of internet to install on your boat is by account for what you’ll be doing on the internet. We’ll take a look at what works best if you’re going to be work, entertainment, or if you’ll need an internet connection for emergencies and navigation.
If you’ll be using your internet connection for work, then you’ll need something as reliable as possible. The last thing you’ll need is for your internet connection to cut out just before you hand in a big project. Keeping that in mind, a wifi extender may not work best for you, as you’ll be reliant on other people’s shore-based networks.
If you’re planning on staying relatively close to shore, then a connection based on cellular data (whether through a hotspot or through MiFi) seems like the best possible choice. If you’re going to be regularly crossing oceans or long stretches of sea without coming in sight of land, opt for satellite coverage.
Navigation or Emergencies
If you need an internet connection so you can navigate your boat or so that you can contact emergency services (though you should always have a backup), reliability will be key, once again. Unlike an internet connection for work, one needed for navigation and emergency contact won’t necessarily have to be fast.
This means that you can expect to pay less for a connection if you’re expecting to only use it for these two applications.
Once again, we wouldn’t recommend relying on someone else’s WiFi for something so crucial, with both data and satellite being valid choices.
If you plan on using your connection for entertainment purposes, like watching videos or listening to music, you’ll need a relatively fast internet connection. While you’ll need a fast connection, it won’t matter immensely if it’s a little spotty, as videos typically buffer enough for a small lapse to not cause an issue.
If you’re going to be using your connection for entertainment, you’ll also want to make sure that you don’t have too low of a data limit, as video streaming tends to use up a lot of data. In this case, wifi, cellular data, or satellite internet will all work well.
To sum things up, you have four options when it comes to getting an internet connection on your boat.
Boosting a local wifi connection is the cheapest method at your disposal, but it’s also the least reliable one, and it may not even be possible if your local marina doesn’t have its own wifi.
Relying on your phone as a hotspot can work within a relatively short range of the shore, and you can find signal boosters to expand your range even further, though you’ll typically need to dedicate a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet to do this.
MiFi makes up for some of the weaknesses of using a device with a cellular data connection, and you can typically expect to pay less, though you’ll need a separate MiFi router to take advantage of this kind of internet.
Finally, satellite internet is the most expensive option, but it can work anywhere on Earth, even in the middle of the ocean, so if you absolutely need an internet connection and you don’t mind splurging on it, this is your best bet.