Home Out of Range
Internet access is right up there with food and fuel when cruising the Great Loop. Here’s how my family stayed connected.
My family recently spent 14 months on our boat, a Carver Voyager 570, cruising the Great Loop. It was an incredible experience, although when we left home to begin the adventure, some members of the crew (our two young daughters) were hesitant about the whole idea. I knew we would need as many comforts of home as possible, and high on that list was a solid, steady internet connection. I did plenty of research before and during the cruise, and I learned that connectivity isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all issue.
There are three ways to get internet on your boat. The first and least expensive option is land-based WiFi, which works well if you’re in a marina with a well-constructed WiFi network, behind your house with access to your home’s network or in a location with a publicly accessible hot spot. Various WiFi bridges can extend the range significantly, but are unlikely to make WiFi connectivity effective while underway.
The second option is internet via cell service, which most likely means using your phone as a hot spot. You could also use a dedicated hot spot—a marine-based system like a Glomex WebBoat or WiriePro, or one provided by your cellular carrier, such as MiFi. These services usually work well until you’re about five to 10 miles offshore, where the signal will dwindle and you’ll be without connectivity.
The third and most expensive option is a satellite communications system that connects to the internet almost anywhere you can take your boat. However, the vast and seamless coverage can get pricey. Satellite is also likely to offer both the lowest throughput (the amount of data moved successfully from one place to another in a given time period) and highest latency, or delay.
On our cruise, we visited 97 marinas and used their WiFi about two-thirds of the time. While we had long complained about connectivity at our marina in Chicago, traveling taught us that the WiFi back home isn’t unusual. We also learned it can be difficult to predict WiFi quality from one place to the next. We stayed at lovely marinas with beautiful facilities, excellent infrastructure and great staff, but they had some of the worst WiFi we encountered. And yet several tiny marinas in the middle of nowhere with docks in danger of collapsing delivered flawless connectivity. We did notice that the marinas contracted with onSpot wifi offered well-designed, reliable and high-speed connectivity. The long and the short of it is that WiFi is a difficult thing for marinas to deliver well and many places simply don’t do a good job of it. That could be due to circumstances beyond the marina’s control, but sometimes the operators simply don’t pay any attention to it.
During our time traveling, we also relied on a wireless cellular hot spot with an unlimited data allotment. We used between 250 gb and 350 gb of data per month; that was with the girls on YouTube, and my wife and I watching TV and surfing the internet. We were away for 400 nights, yet we spent just two evenings in the U.S. and Canada without service. During a six-week stay in the Bahamas, we relied on a mix of Bahamas WiMax—a network of high-powered WiFi hot spots—and BTC, the Bahamian cellular carrier. Typically, our hot spot got about 10 Mbps of download throughput, which was enough for us to go about our normal online activities without much thought to how we connected. And if a marina had poor WiFi connectivity, we had enough cellular bandwidth to just switch back to our hot spot.
Before we left Chicago I spent some time getting the boat’s network ready for our travels. The system I installed is kind of complex, but I built it for my particular needs. Ease of use wasn’t a big consideration, which is why my wife came looking for me anytime there was a problem with connectivity.
The heart of our boat network is a Ubiquiti EdgeRouter, a remarkably capable device for $75. The EdgeRouter tests two incoming internet connections and decides which to use. That means if we’re in a marina and connected to its WiFi, the Edge-Router will detect when the connection stops working and automatically send all traffic to our 4g connection.
This Ubiquiti system has a downside, though: a more complex user interface. It’s not the easiest device to configure. (If you start with the device in default state and plug it in, for instance, it won’t pass any traffic.) By comparison, the Peplink brand enjoys a good reputation for high-quality hardware with good features and an easy-to-use interface. However, Peplink products come with a higher price tag, starting at three times the cost of Ubiquiti’s products.
I use an older Wave WiFi Rogue Wave wireless bridge—with a Ubiquiti Bullet inside—to connect to 2.4-ghz marina WiFi networks; for 5-ghz networks I use a Ubiquiti Bullet Bm5-Ti. LTE. Connectivity is provided by a Netgear LB1120 LTE modem; it’s connected via ethernet to the EdgeRouter. This setup allows the wireless bridge to be the preferred source of connectivity. If none is provided by the bridges, then the LTE modem does the work. These devices connect to the boat’s internal network; they’re not aware how the boat is connected to the internet. All told, the system proved highly reliable during 14 months of cruising.
Our LTE internet service was provided by a company called 4G Antenna Solutions (4GAS), which started out offering cellular internet connectivity in rural areas. The cellular carriers frequently change their offerings and the rules of their plans, which can be frustrating when you’re trying to select one for a long cruise. Fortunately for us, the offering from 4GAS worked well for over a year. Nearly all of the unlimited cellular offerings come with a threshold, at which point the carriers warn you they may throttle or rate shape your traffic. While 4GAS has changed the cap a couple of times, I’ve never seen any throttling.
Prior to our trip I had grand visions of the remote places we would see and the need for satellite internet connectivity in these locales. However, further research changed my mind about that. When compared with cellular offerings, satellite service of similar bandwidth is more expensive in orders of magnitude, although I did find affordable options for low-bandwidth satellite connections, which are suitable for email and occasional web browsing. In the long run, though, I decided not to go with satellite. I based that decision on our cruising grounds and the likely availability of land-based options in those ports. However, we’ll be traveling to new places in the future, and satellite could be the best option then, so I continue to watch satellite announcements, hoping to see advances that lower pricing.
Many of the people we met during our travels had very little networking equipment. They relied on marina WiFi and used their phones or tablets when they were away from marinas. That could work for you, too, but if your crew is like ours, with a desire for robust connectivity when underway, you may not want to rely on the variable quality of marina WiFi. I’ll be testing a number of connectivity options in the future, including new products with integrated features designed to simplify use. Look for the results of those tests here.