This is the first 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 (this article), Email, weather and gribs at sea using 3G/4G, 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.
A simple title for an article but a very complex topic to cover. Over the past several months I've spent lot of time researching this subject to help me plan what kind of communications electronics I need onboard. From keeping in touch with family and friends to gathering the weather information I need to make good decisions about passages; it's inescapable these days to have convenient, reliable and economical internet available while at sea.
If you have an unlimited budget then the decisions are much easier as you can spend a lot of money and get the kind of gear that can give you DSL-like internet service just as you have at home. However, a more reasonable approach will get you good results in a far less expensive manner.
There are so many choices of equipment and configurations to use onboard that I thought I would break this down into a series of articles describing each and finishing with a description of what I've decided. Viewpoints may vary and, as you read along, if you agree/disagree or have something else to add, please feel free to join in the discussion via the comments section at the end of each article.
We'll first start exploring the choices of hardware that will get you an internet connection. In a future article we'll get into the choices of software packages to make your life easier and connections that are less expensive.
While not technically something you can use 'offshore' I have been very successful at times using shore-based WiFi while anchored off a beach or in a remote bay in the Caribbean. Europe seems to not to have as many places with WiFI available unless you are in a marina. It's the first thing I try when I get somewhere and, if found, can provide excellent speed approaching what you get at home. Sometimes you find it free and other times you might have to stop into the beach bar, buy a beer and burger to get the access codes.
In a good location (i.e. strong commercial-grade WiFi installation onshore and excellent line-of-site from your boat to the WiFi source) you can get a reliable connection from several miles away. The best I've gotten is about 4nm while in North Sound, BVI.
The best way to get WiFi on your boat is to install a WiFi booster and separate antenna (mounted high on a spreader preferably rather than on your transom for best line-of-sight connection). After going through a few different boosters I found the Ubiquity Bullet M2. One of the great features of this product is that it connects to the antenna via a simple Cat 5 RJ-45 Ethernet cable of almost any length. There is no signal loss through this connection as there is in other installations which use a regular antenna wire and have much more restricted distances (in some cases no more than 8-10 meters).
The only difficulty lies in being ‘savy’ enough to be able to understand how to use it. Aside from installing the unit with an antenna up on the spreader and running the cabling down to your computer or router you still need to start up your browser and navigate to a particular page where you can log into the Bullet M2 and adjust its configuration settings. For people who are ‘plug and play’ types, this might be more difficult than if you have some reasonable computer experience.
There are not very many options to change or configure but you absolutely have to pick a particular shore-based WiFi system out of a list that the Bullet M2 presents you. I usually select the first one on the list that doesn’t have a password and that has the highest signal strength (for the best connection). Once that is done, the Bullet takes care of making the connection for you. Assuming everything goes well, all you should need to do is open your browser to some other website (I like to test my connection with www.google.com). If it comes up OK, then you should be able to browse the web like you do at home and run your email program as well.
These WiFi boosters have been getting much better lately and the Bullet M2 has worked extremely well for me over the past year as I cruised from Europe to the Caribbean and back again. It’s the easiest and cheapest way to get reliable internet access from your boat.
Next time, I’ll go into another way to access the internet using the same connection you use with your smart phone, a 3G or 4G connection.