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Wireless Boats

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Riding the Waves

Wireless systems keep you connected to what matters: stem to stern, port to starboard.

Go into any consumer electronics store, and you’ll find a Wi-Fi logo on almost everything, from phones and printers to game consoles, cameras, and televisions. But the term “Wi-Fi” doesn’t mean anything in particular. It’s not an abbreviation for “Wireless Fidelity,” nor an acronym for “Wire-free Internet” or anything of the kind. It’s just a catchy name—a bit more user-friendly than “IEEE 802.11”—for a family of highly technical standards that were developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to define how electronic devices can communicate with each other over short distances. 

Boaters, thanks to the marine electronics industry, were reasonably quick to pick up on the idea of information networks. Indeed, we—or our parents—were using information from Loran receivers to control autopilots 30-odd years ago. But it’s been the opposite with wireless: Somewhere along the way, the development process seems to have stalled, and boating got stuck in the Copper Age. 

wireless boat helm

Dockside, a Wi-Fi range extender linking a laptop to a marina hotspot is probably the most cost-effective way of bringing broadband Internet aboard, but boaters and the marine electronics industry have been relatively slow to pick up on the virtues of using Wi-Fi networking to share information amongst the various pieces of electronic equipment within the boat’s envelope.

More to the point, we were quite happy to use wireless radio waves to carry information around Local Area Networks (LANs) in our homes and offices, and even Personal Area Networks (PANs), exchanging information between phones, tablets, MP3 players, and earpieces, but we insisted on copper cables to carry information around inside our boats. Now attitudes are changing among boaters, slowly but surely!

In the great scheme of things, Wi-Fi isn’t particularly fast: Its nominal maximum speed of 54 Mbps (megabits per second) is little more than a tenth of the speed that can be achieved by a wired USB connection, and only slightly more than half the rate that can be pushed through an Ethernet link, but it’s at least ten times faster than necessary for high-definition video. The beauty of Wi-Fi, of course, is the “wireless” bit. Like any radio communication system, the range that can be achieved by Wi-Fi depends on the transmitter, receiver, and what’s between them, but it typically varies from a few tens of yards to a mile or so. Wi-Fi-based Internet access has made such inroads into the electronic infrastructure that travelers are vexed when it isn’t free or included in the price of an airline or train ticket or hotel stay. But Wi-Fi is always included when it’s your own network, and it’s a great solution for wireless connectivity between units installed and used within your boat.

Bluetooth—bizarrely named after a Viking king who has been dead for more than 1,000 years—uses radio frequencies that are similar to Wi-Fi, but different protocols and much lower power, giving it a range that is typically limited to a few yards, and data speeds that max out at about 2 Mbps. That’s not much good for swapping video but it’s fine for audio devices like wireless earpieces for phones or intercoms, and perfect for control messages from a wireless mouse and keyboard or for exchanging simple data, like when a traveler needs to sync his lists of contacts and appointments on his phone and laptop. 

One or two brave companies experimented with wireless, and Tacktick (now part of Raymarine) developed a successful and ongoing niche market for its 916 MHz Micronet system of wireless sailboat instruments. 

However, the past 12 months or so have seen a flurry of new wireless networking devices, such as Furuno’s new TZtouch range of multifunction displays (MFDs), that use Wi-Fi connectivity to stream navigational images and data to an iPad or iPhone. “Think of a situation where you’re fishing off the back of the boat and you don’t have a clear view of your normal fishfinder picture,” says Dean Kurtz, marketing manager of Furuno USA. “I can simply reach into my pocket and connect wirelessly to TZtouch and see my fishfinder picture right in the palm of my hand.” 

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.