By Ben Ellison
Cruising for Hotspots
|Part 2: Siegel argues that a better analogy for using random WiFi Internet access is taking a drink from someone’s lawn sprinkler as you walk by their yard.|
Now where exactly does a well-equipped yacht get her WiFi Internet access? Again, it’s not like a home network. I pay a monthly fee for broadband Internet access and just use WiFi to spread it around the house. On the water I have to find what’s called a hotspot and then either pay for it or rely on the kindness of strangers. The latter can get weird, and even the world of for-pay marine WiFi services is somewhat wild and woolly. If you pull into my town—Camden, Maine—this summer, your WiFi PC should find two strong commercial signals with opening browser screens offering service for about $10 a day, but both are local operations and so far unmentioned in cruising guides or at online WiFi hotspot finders like jiwire.com. Last year someone representing a supposedly national wire-your-marina-for-WiFi operation showed up on PMY’s Electronics forum, and then a couple of months later another fellow—who’d paid for said outfit’s yet-undelivered gear—came looking for him. The good news is that a few established companies—like BroadbandXpress, iDock (www.idockusa.com), and Beacon (www.beaconwifi.com)—are beginning to dominate their respective regions. Those three have even instituted a joint roaming policy for customers with long-term contracts.
BroadbandXpress, it’s worth noting again, also markets its own marine WiFi packages. According to CEO Kevin Keating, that’s because the regular stuff—especially built-in Intel WiFi hardware and the connection software included in Windows—just doesn’t cut it even in marinas he’s wired with high-powered access points. Tip: Try boingo.com for good generic WiFi software.)
But like I said, WiFi is everywhere. Not only do some marinas and boatyards simply give it away—as do businesses like Comfort Inn, which folds the cost into general operating expenses—but so do some individuals, either because they feel like it or by accident (home WiFi routers come open by default). Jeff Siegel once anchored in a residential area on the Intracoastal Waterway near Melbourne, Florida, and counted 30 available WiFi networks, half of them open to his use. Now, some people argue that connecting to an unknown open network is like walking into someone’s house just because the door is unlocked, but my first experience with this phenomenon happened while I was sitting in my mom’s New York City home. I opened my laptop, and ding!, some unidentifiable neighboring apartment offered me Internet access. I gratefully accepted.
Siegel, who always asks for permission to browse if possible (you need to name your network in an obvious way like “benshouse”), argues that a better analogy for using random WiFi Internet access is taking a drink from someone’s lawn sprinkler as you walk by their yard. He’s also skeptical about the security fears that motivate some people to lock their WiFi networks and lives his opinions by keeping his Main Street, Maine, business network open for the benefit of strangers. There’s much more to be discussed, even argued about, regarding open WiFi, but what I know for sure is that no one should be either using it or providing it without some thought and care. That said, I hope that readers who live next to anchorages will observe the serene look on the face of another of my wireless boating buddies, Park Walker (left), and consider the Siegel share-and-share-alike WiFi strategy. I can guarantee that more and more passing cruisers will be darned grateful to find your hotspot. There are skippers today who select their anchorage based not only on water depth but also WiFi signal strength!
But I shouldn’t close without acknowledging that this whole business is not for everyone. Some go boating expressly, and understandably, to escape the likes of Web browsers or, in a phrase passed on to me by the tech wiz behind EyeOnBoard, “don’t want any damn net onboard except one used to boat fish!”
This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.