This is just a howto article. For full disclosure, I have not done this to my boat
, it's too small to worry about going to these lengths and when I'm aboard I try to unplug mostly from the outside world, but I can and do sometimes use internet
purposes while aboard.
As a former network engineer
I figured I'd lend a hand to anyone looking for the answers to these questions.
In order to get good wifi
or wired access to the internet
on your boat
you are going to need these things:
1. Internet signal
2. Tx capability (wired or wired)
3. Encryption (so nobody can sniff your signal or jack your connection for free)
4. End client hardware
to make use of it (computer, cell phone
, tablet, whatever)
1. INTERNET SIGNAL
Depending on where you plan to have access, this will be either cheap
and easy or very expensive and difficult.
For coastal areas near major urban centres and highways, you can usually use a cellular connection via a "mobile hotspot". They vary wildly in price
and features, but with a $10 extra SIM card and one of these suckers you can use your phone
plan's data and light up most boats with the single
Most modern cellphones also have this feature, but as I'm sure most people would agree, it's better to have a working cellphone when you need it than a dead one because your crew or guests were playing on the internet all day while cruising while it was in your pocket. Just using your cellphone is cheaper, but it comes with two drawbacks: (1) it's not mountable high up the boat, and (2) being near the waterline will reduce the signal strength.
When you are far away from the coast, however, you are going to want one that can take an external antenna
. There are some standard types such as SMA, TNC, N or Mini-UHF, if your handy you can run it up inside the mast
and mount it on top; this will give you more range and better signal. Your wifi
hotspot can be fixed in the cabin
, giving your devices strong signal to the hotspot while the antenna
is far away.
If you are offshore
, really far away from the coast, or in areas with no cell reception
or where you are forced to pay heavy roaming charges, things get more complicated. You are limited in options: satellite
, internet via VHF
, or dish (satellite).
phones can provide you with internet access, but this is quite expensive and slow. You could connect this satphone device (depending on the model) to a wireless router mounted inside your cabin
but you're going to have to really monitor
your data usage. The average web page these days runs at over 5Mb per page (stupid, really, given that all you want to do in most cases is read some text, but all their scripts, advertising code, images
are starting to really add up. I remember with the average web page was like 8k. Now they are over 8,000k. Not so good for a satphone data connection). If you are going to use this as a solution I would highly recommend that you use it primarily for email
and maybe instant messaging (skip facebook messenger btw- it uses hordes of data. Use whatsapp or BBM instead). If your pockets are deep you can fill your boots but don't be shocked at the huge bill. The advantage is, it will really work
anywhere you want to be.
Next is VHF
/ HF / UHF Internet. There are thousands of people using this technology, but a lot of it is pretty cottage industry, so expect to do a lot of tinkering, and tinkering again as you enter new locales. There are volunteer HAM operators who bridge between the radio
signals and their personal interent connections. BCFMCA - Internet Radio Linking Project
This is a source that might get you started in BC, but you can use the lingo to search for support in your area. You could find a device that works with the device set that you choose, and as long as you can get a CAT5 cable to come out of the thing, you could install Wifi coming off that. Downside is it's going to be slower than satellite and probably less reliable. Cheaper way to go if you love to tinker around, bad way to go if you want something you can plug
in and it just works.
Finally, there is dish access. This can be brutally fast and relatively cheap
, but it often requires an outbound connection. The way it works is your web page request is sent via one network (ie. cellular or satellite), and then when the request is fulfilled it is blasted off the satellite and received by a dish mounted on your boat. The latency is terrible, but the throughput can be extremely good. This means voIP services, video chatting and gaming really suck, but when you need a 100Mb file downloaded once it gets moving it will really be moving. On the water
, the action of the waves and orientation of your boat will really complicate things. You will need to learn how to orient toward the transmitting satellite and train the dish probably every time you turn it on and expect to use it. In a rolling sea, it will be largely useless. Probably only of any use while at dock
for a significant period of time; you can mount the dish to a piling, train it, and eliminate the action of the water
and only have a coax cable running to your boat. Nice thing about the latter arrangement is if you're mooring
some place with a stable piling nearby, you can get blistering fast download speeds provided you have a reliable uplink connection to send your requests to.
The most expensive: two way autotraining dish. It's quite fascinating, you turn these things on and they automatically train to the satellite using a internal compass
and gyro. They will lock onto the satellite all by themselves, and some models might even be able to auto adjust for waves and weather
. They will transmit directly to the satellite. You are usually looking at at least a 2 meter dish (so think of where you'd mount it without the wind
ripping it off). You will still face high latency issues so again, video chatting and voip are going to be awful, but provided you can keep the thing trained on the satellite and not have to keep sending requests to resend, it's about as good as it gets for the middle of nowhere on blue water
Note: with satellite installations your data covers everything the satellite sends to you - whether you receive it or not - so if you are bouncing around and it has to send 10 requests before you get your 100Mb file, you just paid for 1000Mb or a Gb. Satellites arent cheap to put into space, and their operators could care less if you had the dish not perfectly pointed for 15 minutes.
Personally, if you can, I'd go with a cellular with a mast-mounted external antenna connected to a hostpot running off the house battery
. Let your phone
connect to it, don't patch everything through your phone.
Setting up your little communications
system and getting it working will be exciting. But not so much if the boat at anchor
300 feet away finds your strong signal and starts making good use of it. Not only will it slow your own connection down, but depending on your connection type it could cause you significant extra charges either for roaming, cellular data, or satellite.
Your first defense is encryption. Use WPA2-PSK on your router or hotspot. If you are sitting somewhere for a long period of time and someone is smart enough to have Airsnort, they can just passively soak up packets and bust your simple encrpytion in a day or two and then they have free internet. There are actually whole forums
dedicated to this kind of activity, called "Wardriving"; it started with people driving around, finding a good signal, and busting the password so they could get free wifi in places they liked to go.
Another problem with lack of security
on networks is once they are connected to your wifi, unless you have hardened each invidual device you are connecting to it with they are all exposed. People could hack your laptop
, your computer, your phone, your tablet, and glean sensitive information. Rather than leaving your network wide open and hardening everything, just harden your network and keep moderate security
settings aboard. Sometimes its useful to be able to share files between your laptop
and your tablet, or a friend's laptop; or to have a desktop
on board and be able to load files off it on the laptop or mobile devices.
With WPA2-PSK it's pretty easy to give out the password to a friendly boater you met - not so easy for someone sitting there to bust the password. Just be careful of who you give it out to.
FINALLY, IN CONCLUSION
If you do manage to set up such a system and are far from home, don't go around bragging about it. This will attract both thieves (who want to steal the hardware
to either use it themselves and resell it) and hackers (who maybe have a lot of time on their hands at anchor
until they come up with money
for gas or repairs).
Some of this hardware is very expensive - things like satellite phones, radio<>internet solutions, wireless hubs, external antannae. Some of it is dirt simple (cellular wireless hub) but is a quick easy grab and sale
after the sim card is floating to the bottom of the ocean.