Skip to main content

Staying in Touch

Want to get off the grid, but stay in the loop? Here are a few workarounds to keep your lines of communication open while cruising.

The pandemic has made 24/7/365 communication critical, not just convenient, especially boating folks. We’re in the Work-From-Home era, and for those of us who have been cut free from our offices, “home” can be anywhere we want it to be, including on board, which means no more weekend-only boating—let’s go fishing on a Wednesday! But working from the boat requires reliable internet.

Unfortunately, keeping data flowing while at sea can be ­problematic, and trying to manage with just a smartphone is a dumb idea. You need a decent communications system, a challenge that costs money and doesn’t always work as well as you’d like. Still, it’s a heck of a lot better than going into the office. And like technology in general, the systems will improve next year. If you don’t want to wait, here are a few options available now.

The TracPhone LTE-1 includes a fully integrated Wi-Fi router for wireless communications on board. (The app works with iOS and Android.)

The TracPhone LTE-1 includes a fully integrated Wi-Fi router for wireless communications on board. (The app works with iOS and Android.)

It’s All About the Signal

If you want to connect to the world, you need a signal to connect to, and signals come from three places: Wi-Fi, satellites and cellular. A Wi-Fi hotspot—many marinas have them these days—collects data from hard-wired sources, cable or DSL, or wirelessly from cellular or satellite, and rebroadcasts it to wireless receivers within range. The hotspot and receivers create a LAN (Local Area Network), which you likely have in your home/office. To remain in a LAN, the Wi-Fi receiver has to be relatively close to the hotspot. When you move away, you disconnect, so unless you spend your whole boating life in a slip, plain ol’ Wi-Fi isn’t your best bet—although you’ll use it to set up your own onboard LAN.

For better Wi-Fi reception, try installing a bridge. A Wi-Fi bridge is an external antenna that can, according to some manufacturers, pick up a signal from a hotspot that’s miles away—Wave WiFi claims up to 7 miles for their Rogue-series bridges. A Rogue scans available hotspots and displays their signal strengths, encryptions, etc., so the user can select the best one to use. A bridge is easy to install (much like installing a radio antenna) and connect, using a single antenna lead plugged into a PoE (Power over Ethernet) injector which supplies 12 volts and connects to a computer or, better yet, a wireless router. A router creates a LAN aboard your vessel.

Satellites are another answer, especially if you cross oceans. They provide almost worldwide coverage (don’t expect to get a signal near the North or South Poles), but the equipment’s expensive—KVH’s TracPhone V30, their least-expensive satellite system, lists for $12,000. Satellite systems are much slower than cellular; the V30 downloads data at 6 Mbps (megabits per second) and uploads at 2 Mbps. According to the FCC Broadband Speed Guide, that’s enough for one user at a time to email, teleconference, surf the web, keep social media up to date and stream standard-definition video. Higher-end TracPhones offer more bandwidth, but come with hellacious price tags that are more suitable for megayachts. Satellite data plans are expensive, too. $149 per month buys 200 megabytes of 6/2 Mbps data, which isn’t very much if you’re a serious internet user. Streaming a standard-definition movie on Netflix uses about 1 gigabyte per hour, so 200 MB would get you 12 minutes. If you need data on the open sea, satellites are the only game, but cost-wise, I’d rely on
cellular.

Whether close to shore or crossing oceans, a reliable Wi-Fi connection has become indispensable for boaters of all ages.

Whether close to shore or crossing oceans, a reliable Wi-Fi connection has become indispensable for boaters of all ages.

Other than in remote areas, you probably have a pretty good cellular signal while cruising near-shore, probably 4G or its faster cousin, 4G LTE. (Consult the FCC’s Mobile LTE Coverage Map to see if your local waters and intended cruising grounds have LTE—Long Term Evolution—service, and from which providers. Some cruising folks sign up with two providers so they can always get the better coverage.) Verizon claims its 4G LTE cellular system produces typical data-transfer speeds between 5 and 12 Mbps, with maximum speeds as fast as 50 Mbps. That’s probably in urban areas, where speeds are faster, not in a secluded anchorage on the ICW, but it’s still your best shot at connecting. Today, all the cellular chat is about fast 5G service, but most of us still connect over 4G. Folks in rural areas might be stuck with slower 3G, or maybe none at all. And that’s the fly in the cellular ointment: Bandwidth is all over the place. You have to install an onboard system that makes the most of whatever signal you’re receiving.

You Need an Antenna

Step one to improving the performance of your cellular data
connection is to mount an external antenna, but this is not as straightforward as it sounds. One theory says to install a booster, comprising an external antenna that feeds the cellular signal to an amplifier mounted belowdecks. The amplifier transmits the now-boosted signal to another antenna in the cabin. Placing a mobile hotspot, or a smartphone or tablet set up as a hotspot, close to the internal antenna so it receives the strongest possible signal creates a LAN that multiple devices can connect to. Shakespeare, weboost, SureCall and other manufacturers make boosters. They cost anywhere from $500 to more than $1,000, so consult with a communications pro before buying one.

Not every expert thinks a booster is the solution. Instead, some folks say an omnidirectional MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) antenna will usually do a better job at less cost. What’s MIMO? Cell towers transmit 4G LTE data simultaneously over two, four or sometimes more antennas, which makes for stronger signals and faster speeds. The receiver also has multiple antennas, better for “hearing” the enhanced signal. (Yes, your phone probably has two antennas, or maybe four if it’s the latest model.) Frequently, all that’s needed to improve the performance of your LTE cellular system is to install an external MIMO antenna connected to a router—few smartphones or tablets have antenna jacks. The router generates a LAN so the whole crew can log on wirelessly. A MIMO antenna suitable for marine service costs a few hundred dollars, plus you need an appropriate router or mobile hotspot. Again, there are many nuances to setting up this system, so talk to an expert first.

Make It Simpler

By now, you might be thinking this is getting complicated. So how about a one-step solution, like the KVH TracPhone LTE-1, winner of a 2021 NMEA award for Wi-Fi/Cellular Devices? KVH says the LTE-1, using 4G LTE-A (‘A’ for advanced) technology, can pick up a signal up to 20 miles offshore. The unit consists of a dual MIMO antenna and a wireless Wi-Fi router, all housed under a traditional KVH white dome. The router creates a LAN, so no need for a separate hotspot. The LTE-1 gets power through an Ethernet cable connected to a PoE injector mounted belowdecks that’s about the size of a deck of cards. There’s an option for turning off the internal Wi-Fi signal, should a user prefer to connect an external wireless router to the PoE for a stronger signal throughout the vessel. There’s a version of the TracPhone LTE-1 for U.S. only, and another for global communication. Both use a SIM card and require a KVH data plan, $99/month for 10GB of data, then $10 per gigabyte.

For best performance, the LTE-1 should be mounted at least 20 feet above the waterline, with a 360-degree clear “view” of the horizon. The higher the antenna and the fewer obstructions, the better. However, it should be at least 3 feet away from the radar to minimize interference, and above or below the radar’s beam path, because the energy of the radar signal could damage the LTE-1 antenna. On smaller boats with radar arches, these criteria could make choosing a mounting location problematic, so plan the installation carefully. I’d hire a pro to install the unit. List price for the U.S. version is $2,000.

If the TracPhone LTE-1 doesn’t do it for you, check out Glomex’s weBBoat 4G Plus EVO, a similar system comprising four cellular and two Wi-Fi antennas feeding data to a router/hotspot. According to Glomex, up to 32 users can connect simultaneously to the network without degrading performance. With two SIM card slots, the weBBoat permits switching between carriers to find the better signal, but that also means paying for two data plans. The weBBoat connects to a Wi-Fi network when available to save data charges but switches automatically to cellular if there’s no Wi-Fi. List price is $1,095. There is a Lite model EVO with slightly less capacity that will suit many ‘longshore boaters.

The bottom line? There are many manufacturers of connectivity equipment these days. Check out systems targeted at RV’ers, too; they have the same connectivity problems as boaters, and both groups can use similar solutions. For expert information from someone who’s used these systems on an extended cruise, check out Ben Stein’s articles on pmymag.com. Stein doesn’t mind installing and fiddling with an array of gadgets to get what he wants. If you’re the same, his articles will provide just what you need.

On the other hand, I like plug-and-play, one wire to rule them all, so a self-contained system would be my first choice. Now, I have to go—the editor is Zooming in, and I have to unfold my blue poly tarp right quick, or he’ll know I’m out fishing.

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

Related