Internet on a boat: How to create a wifi onboard

6th June 2022 Elena Manighetti

Internet on a boat: How to create a wifi onboard

Having an Internet connection has become more and more essential over the years for both recreational boaters and cruisers. 

Some full-time liveaboards need access to a wi-fi in order to work remotely from their boat. Other boaters simply want to do their weather routing on a decent-size screen. Whatever the reason, having the internet on a boat has become fundamental for many. In this article, we look at how you can create a wi-fi on board your vessel.

Wi-fi options on a boat

When it comes to connecting to the internet from a boat, there are three main choices:

  • Connecting to a wi-fi based on land

  • Using mobile data

  • Getting satellite internet.

Not all these options are as economical and reliable. Let’s look at them in more detail.

Connecting to a land-based wi-fi

This option is the cheapest and least reliable one. It involves joining a wi-fi that from the shore reaches your boat. For example, that of a marina or a beach bar. Wi-fi networks aren’t very powerful, so you will need to buy a booster - a device which lengthens the reach of a wireless signal. A booster will allow you to connect to wi-fis on shore; however, the speed will be a lot slower than if you were near the router. 

This method is very economical, as you only need to invest in a booster and nothing else. However, in order to connect to the internet in this way, you’ll need to find anchorages where there is a strong wi-fi signal and go to shore to gain the password. These days all wi-fis are protected, so you may have to go to a bar or check into a marina in order to use one. Bear in mind that free wi-fis aren’t particularly fast, so the internet speed will be limited.

internet on a boat

Using mobile data

Alternatively, you can use mobile data, which is generated by a SIM card. In many places, 4G data extends several nautical miles out at sea (typically 3-10nm, depending on where is the tower). You can either use your mobile phone or 4G tablet as a hotspot and connect to it via a laptop, or use a 4G modem router. An alternative to this is a dongle, which comes in USB format and slots directly into your laptop, rather than needing power to operate.

If you have a smartphone with a good hotspot, this option is great, because all you need to do is invest in some extra data. Mobile data is fairly cheap in much of the developed world and 4G (or 5G) connection is very fast - faster than most free wi-fis. The other advantage is that 4G (or 3G) is available in many anchorages and marinas. You’d have to anchor under some steep cliffs or in remote areas not to have any signal. 

To improve your chances of good 4G coverage, get more than one SIM card. This way, you always have a second option if you’re in a provider’s “dead zone”. You can even add a 4G antenna to your system to improve your reception.

internet on a boat

Getting satellite internet

Satellite internet is becoming more and more available worldwide and packages are slowly lowering in price. You can use satellite phones and devices, which can receive certain kinds of data, depending on your subscription and their capabilities. 

For example, a Garmin Inreach only allows you to send and receive 160-character messages ìand receive the weather forecast. While an Iridium Go creates a wi-fi network you can connect to on other devices. Bear in mind that most satellite internet travels at slow speeds and the pricing is still very steep, compared to mobile data.

An interesting new technology has been launched by SpaceX. The US-based company developed Starlink, a satellite internet constellation with satellites in a low orbit. It travels at very fast speeds (up to 200mbps) and is available in 32 countries so far. SpaceX is planning to generate global coverage and allow video calls, streaming, online gaming, and more, even on the go. The technology was developed with the idea to allow moving ships to use a fast satellite internet connection. 

As you can see, technology is moving forward and accessing the internet on the water will become easier with time.

internet on a boat

Tips for your onboard wi-fi usage

Finding unlimited mobile data plans is getting difficult, especially if you travel through various countries as you cruise. For this reason, you can’t simply use the internet as you would on land when you’re on a boat.

Here are a few tips to help you make the most of the data you have available:

  • Don’t stream videos unless you have to (or have data to burn)

  • Only update apps over a land-based wi-fi

  • Download heavy files and documents on land

  • Avoid sending and receiving big files

  • Turn off autoplay on all your apps, especially on social media

  • Always close background apps you don’t need

  • Turn off mobile data at night or when you’re away from your phone for hours

  • Cache some apps, such as Google Maps, for offline use

  • If you need to stream something, use the lowest resolution

  • Close tabs when you’re done browsing a page

  • Turn off auto-sync on all apps and programs

  • Set a mobile data usage warning

  • Avoid scrolling social media

  • Restrict background data usage by app, especially data-hungry apps

  • Reduce image and video sizes before uploading them.

Setting up a wi-fi on your boat doesn’t have to be complicated. You can combine these options as you like. For example, you could use your mobile data directly on your phone or tablet daily, get a 4G modem router to connect your laptop to a few times a week, and have a satellite device on board with a basic subscription package, which you can upgrade before going on offshore boat trips.

Staying connected from a boat has never been easier. You won’t always have a fast connection or be able to stream your favourite TV shows, but boating is all about being outdoors and enjoying nature, after all.

Download the Deckee app from the App Store or Google Play before going out boating next. Check the marine weather forecast, look up points of interest, inspect Aids to Navigation, and more. Deckee uses GPS technology to track your location on a boat trip. You can then access other features, such as the details of the points on the map, over 4G.

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