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Email, weather and gribs at sea using 3G/4G

by Art on

This is the second article of a series discussing how to connect to the internet at sea using a variety of hardware and software. I recommend reading the articles in order of their publication to learn the most about this complex subject. The articles in this series are: Email, weather and gribs at sea using WiFi, Email, weather and gribs at sea using 3G/4G (this article), Email, weather and gribs at sea using a Satellite Phone, Email, weather, gribs at sea using Satellite Terminals and Email, weather and Gribs at sea using Software.


In the first article of this series I opened the discussion talking about how to get a good WiFi booster installed and working onboard your sailing yacht. Checking for a good WiFi signal is always my first choice when I arrive at an anchorage or marina. A lot of times I'm lucky and get a free connection and other times I have to pay a small amount to connect but a lot of times it's the best connection available.

However, the distance between the boat and an on-shore WiFi system is restricted to line-of-sight and a relatively short distance. In a marina, with lots of other boats around, the WiFi signal is usually not very good at all. Interference from other boats radios, TVs, spreaders and masts all help to kill a good signal. At times I've been 30 meters from a WiFi system and yet can't get a good connection. So, what to do when WiFi isn't viable?

3G/4G Connection

One answer is a 3G/4G Wifi Connection, You already know about this. It's the technology that is in your smartphone (iPhone, Blackberry, Android, etc.). It allows you to connect to the mobile network to get email, browse the web, etc. Most smartphone accounts include some amount of megabytes (or gigabytes) to download each month. This works well and is pretty much everywhere you go these days.

ABroadband SB Modem Sticks work great too Even, when you are out of your local area, you can buy a SIM card from a local vendor and plug it into your unlocked phone ( you do have one of those, right?) to allow you to not have to pay the high roaming charges from your mobile provider at home while you're away. This works well for a smartphone and also for a neat little device called a 3G/4G Wireless Modem Router you can install.

Alternatively you can buy a USB Modem Stick that contains the same electronics but is designed for a single computer and is limited in distance as the antenna is inside the 'stick' and not external. Most mobile phone companies have one for sale or you can get one from ABroadBand that works in over 60 countries. You pay €0.59 per megabyte but the advantage it is works just about everywhere.

A stand-alone 3G/4G Wireless Modem Router works best with an external antenna on the spreader (again, locating it higher is better). In this case, the distance you can receive a good signal can be quite a few miles offshore. I've had good coverage 8-10 nm at times. It depends on where you are. If you are cruusing past a larger city, the signals will usually be terrific. If you're along a secluded shoreline then perhaps you'll get nothing. In a marina or anchorage you can usually get great coverage as the 3G/4G signals are not that affected by local interference.

Global Surfer III+ is a great unit While 4G is the latest buzzword and the speeds amazing (up to 100 megabits), the reality is 4G is rolling out slowly in most places and it will be a number of years before it is availabe in enough places to make me want to get a 4G Wireless Modem Router. In the meantime, I've had great success using the Global Surfer III+ from Option for the past year. In Spain, for instance, I picked up a data-only SIM card (no phone number with it and can't be used for phone calls) for about €20. With €30 of credit added to it I had 1 gigabyte data limit. This worked for over a month and to recharge you just get online and to keep it going (make sure you leave enough time left to recharge!). The speeds were excellent and I got coverage both in the marina and cruising a few miles offshore.

Similar to the way you have to setup the Bullet M2 WiFi booster (covered in Email, weather and gribs at sea using WiFi of this series) you have to communicate with the Global Surfer III+ via your web browser. Just like choosing a nearby WiFi hotspot you need to select the mobile phone company (i.e. Vodafone, Orange, etc.). Once you connect, you are good to use your browser or email like you do at home.

Using a 3G/4G connection, while a bit more expensive, has proved to be the most reliable and economical solution I've found for getting access to the Internet while onboard. The only downside it that is stops working the further offshore you go or if you cruise in areas with limited mobile phone coverage.

In that case, there are other ways to connect (albeit ever more expensive). In the next article I'll write about using a Satellite Phone like the Iridium 9755 Extreme or the IsatPhone Pro to connect. If you plan to be offshore and still need to keep in touch in email or get your weather information then this might be a great option for you. With a reasonably higher investment (it's always about money, isn't it?) you can step up to a SatCom device like the mini-vSat Tracfone from KVH or the Fleet Broadband 250 from Inmarsat. We'll cover them both as well in upcoming articles.

As usual, any comments or thoughts are welcome!

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Comments so far

  • comment from Art Art on April 23, 2013

    @Arthur - I would suggest using a 3G Modem like the Global Surfer III+ and just buying a sim card for a country you are visiting. That will be the least expensive way to make sure you have good internet all over. You shouldn't need a amplifier or repeater... just the Global Surfer will do. For best results you might want an external antenna to make sure of good reception. Make sure the Global Surfer you buy is unlocked and allows any SIM to be used. Some countries lock down the unit to only use a SIM from one 3G provider so be careful of where you buyt it (the UK sells unlocked Global Surfers and perhaps other places as well). Enjoy your cruising!

  • comment from Arthur Vermeulen Arthur Vermeulen on April 23, 2013

    I will be work on a cruise line - visitng places over the whole world. I loved this article. Would you recommend the use of a 3G amplifier or repeater (what is the difference?) connected to the 3G router?