Matthew Sheahan investigates a number of ways to hook up to the internet on board and advises on the equipment you might consider

There isn’t as much logic as you might expect when it comes to hooking up to the internet on board. For our list of types of equipment to get you online we have not included the claimed range or power figures for the various units as there is no set standard by which to compare them. Broadly speaking, three to five miles offshore seems to be a typical maximum range for wi-fi or a mobile phone, but there will be exceptions. Be wary of companies that make impressive claims on these fronts.

A typical arrangement for combined wi-fi and cellular connection at sea

A typical arrangement for combined wi-fi and cellular connection at sea

If you can afford it, the key is to go for a system that gives the widest range of possibilities and offers the best chance of upgrading at a later stage. The more you pay, the better the quality of components and the less loss there will be in transmissions.

The following suggestions, which have been arranged in escalating cost, detail some of the equipment available. It is not an exhaustive list and we have not performed comparative tests, but it should provide a starting point of the types of systems available.

 

  1. Mi-fi wireless routers

 

£100        4G (eg Huawei E5776 3G/4G LTE)

£40        3G (eg Huawei E5332 3G)

£15        Pay as you go, unlimited data and texts (eg Lebara Mobile)

Typical online prices

 

A portable wireless dongle-type unit. It has similar innards to a mobile phone, but without a keyboard and the ability to make calls. It provides a link for data and text messages.

One of the simplest and cheapest methods of hooking up to the net and providing a wi-fi hotspot on board. We’ve used this system for several years on James Ellis’s Oyster 54 Raiatea and have discovered that some of the most remote coastlines have the best mobile phone signals.

The unit connects to a mobile phone network and redistributes the signal on board, just as a wireless router does at home. The downside is that the Mi-fi unit is close to water level and therefore has a lower power rating when compared with units with fixed external antennas.

 

WiFi 2

 

  1. Wi-fi booster antennas

 

Plug and play antennas that enable you to hook into wi-fi signals while at rest and under sail. Each has the required software built into the antenna unit with a cable that uses a simple ethernet (RJ45) connector that will plug into PCs and Macs.

 

Digital Yacht (www.digitalyacht.co.uk)

WL450 £375

This simple 1m tall antenna has a single cable that plugs into the ethernet network port on your computer. Power to the antenna is provided through the same cable, but requires a PoE (Power over Ethernet) adapter.

No software installation is required and the unit is driven using an internet browser window. The unit has a 10m cable as standard with an option for a 20m cable if required.

Connecting into Digital Yacht’s iNavHub (£330) provides a wi-fi network on board that other devices can login to. The unit is compatible with Mac, Windows and Linux operating systems.

 

Mailasail

Wi-fi Bat £299 www.mailasail.com

Another simple to fit, smart antenna with a high 2W power output. The 590mm-tall antenna comes with a 12m cable with USB connector. Software is installed from a CD. Connecting to Mailasail’s Red Box (£449) creates a wireless hotspot on the boat for other devices to connect to.

 

Wave wi-fi

Rogue Pro £419 www.wavewifi.com

A smart, easily installed antenna with a 15m cable with ethernet connection. Power to the antenna is provided through the same cable, but requires a power over ethernet (PoE) adaptor. Compatible with Mac, Windows and Linux operating systems and can be combined with the Yacht AP kit (£192) to provide an on board wireless hotspot for other devices.

 

  1. Wi-fi antenna and smart box

Operation is the same as the smart antennas, offering a laptop connection, but these systems have their brains fitted in a box usually mounted below decks, rather than in the antenna itself.

 

Pelagic Systems

MWB300 £839 www.pelagicsystems.co.uk

Although this unit operates like the smart antennas, the big difference with the Pelagic MWB300 is that its brains are in a case that can be mounted inside the boat and uses an external antenna. It can also be fixed outside and doesn’t need the external antenna in this instance. An ethernet connection provides a direct link with the boat’s computer. The unit also acts as a base station, creating a wireless link to other devices.

 

4 Wi-fi+ cellular network antenna and smart box

Stepping up a gear, externally mounted antennas that have their brains in a box below decks, but with the added advantage that they can be connected to cellular phone services as well as public wi-fi networks. Not only does this increase the chances of getting an internet connection, but the data transmission speeds are often higher, particularly with the new 4G networks.

 

Loco Marine – Micro 4G yacht router

£1059 www.yachtrouter.com

A compact unit mounted below decks the Micro 4G can connect to both Wi-Fi networks ashore and mobile phone networks 4G, 3G, Edge and GSM. It also provides a wireless hotspot on board.

 

Inventica Marine

Yachtspot

One of the longest-running products in this field on the market, Inventica claims that it produces the simplest and most reliable mobile and wi-fi marine systems using high-quality components. Additional features include firewalls and other security devices. These systems are designed to be professionally installed, but do come with a user-friendly interface and a high level of after sales support.

 

Yachtspot 3G

£1899 www.inventicamarine.co.uk

With the antenna mounted outside, either on a spreader or at the stern of the boat, the link to the internet can be made via wi-fi or through a cellular network. When connected to a cellular network, the unit will operate with either 2G or 3G networks.

Peak download speeds of up to 21Mb/s are claimed with a peak uplink speed of 5.76Mb/s. Below decks the unit can be connected to the boat’s computer or a standard wireless access point (eg Cisco WAP4410N, £100 online) to provide a wireless hotspot for several devices.

 

Yachtspot and 4G router

£2,250

The big advantage of this newer unit (launched September 2013) is that it has faster data transfer through the 4G network, (up to 100Mb/s download with a peak uplink speed of 50Mb/s), while still retaining the capability to operate on 3G and 2G networks. As with the Yachtspot 3G, a standard wireless access point, (eg Cisco WAP4410N, £100 online), can be connected to provide an onboard wireless hotspot for several devices.

In addition, this system claims to be the only marine wi-fi device with a built in VPN client to provide secure encrypted transmissions – particularly important for online banking and other private communications.

 

Yachtspot upgrades

For those with older Yachtspot units that only offer connections to wi-fi networks, it is often possible to upgrade the firmware and then connect a 4G router such as the Huawei E5172s-22 LTE 4G Router (£179) which will allow the unit to connect to 2G, 3G and 4G networks as well as maintaining the onshore wi-fi capability.

 

All prices include VAT at 20 per cent

 

 

This is an extract from a feature in the April 2014 issue of Yachting World

 

  • Alan Spicer

    You didn’t say anything about Alan Spicer Marine Telecom. Well I’m in the U.S. and this web site seems to be U.K based. I am known as 4G For Yachts as well as WiFi Yacht. I’ve been doing this for 12 years after a long time in I.T. and some time in 2 Way Radio and such (Ham Radio Extra Class licensee.) We have 4G LTE systems that can work in EU as well as dual modem routers that can U.S. and U.K. for yachts that sail both areas. And they are only getting better as newer chipsets / baseband cards come out. I follow what’s going on. Also obviously do WiFi and reseller Wave and newer Aigean sysetms and can make systems at various price points. 5 Ghz WiFi is becoming important – it won’t give the range of the 2.4 Ghz WiFi but can give faster speeds and cleaner RF environment that 2.4 Ghz when in dock or close in to shore. I also integrate multiple Internet systems together … many of the 4G LTE routers are also full fledged Internet Switching – Load Balancing – Failover routers that can handle VSAT, WiFi, and built-in 4G LTE (3G fall back) with dual sim cards and even dual modems in some models. So don’t forget me! 🙂
    P.S. The guy is right, below, when you are out of range you are out of range. But most yachts don’t spend that much time in the deep blue. If your yacht is big enough and has the budget you probably should do VSAT of some sort as well. He also comments on SSB … Single Sideband Radio. Mostly that is for voice and can be fun with the various SSB Nets on both Marine and Ham Radio frequencies. But there is also Sailmail – which I did 2 x on one small yacht (it got hit by lightning and everything replaced.) It’s basically text based stuff – email – by SSB radio. It’s Pactor Modem stuff and requires a proprietary modem and subscription to Sailmail.

  • jtwoodfield

    When you write “the quality, lifespan and usability of cheap far east products compared with well designed, simple to use, marine grade components” I really wish that I could start from a point of credulity.
    1. Most of the electronics that we use daily are manufactured in the Far East – albeit still usually designed in the West
    2. Those devices are generally of very high quality
    3. Their prices have fallen dramatically over the years as their quality and functionality has gone up. Computers and colour TV being obvious examples.
    4. Conversely, most marine kit may be waterproof (to a degree) but is technically poorly specified, underpowered and overpriced. By way of comparison, look at the screen size and resolution of a plotter priced in four figures and a tablet or PC at a fraction of the price. Then compare the processing power. Finally, compare using a chart on the plotter as against on that cheap Far Eastern product. The latter has massively better resolution and can pan far faster. Then go on to multi-task.
    5. Even if longevity might not be as good the price difference is such that one can probably afford to simply replace several times. Usually with an upgraded still cheaper product. Binning the thing is more cost effective than paying for support over and above statutory rights.
    So, the challenge is to prove my neighbour wrong!

  • There are a couple of factors that should also be considered when tethering:

    1) When a voice call is made the data connection will be reduced quite rapidly to GPRS only, if you are make or receive a lot of calls and are sharing your data connection this will be an irritation very quickly.

    2) Many local PAYG SIM’s block tethering on some devices, which may restrict your options.

    While your neighbour is entitled to their opinion, there is a distinct difference between the quality, lifespan and usability of cheap far east products compared with well designed, simple to use, marine grade components (in WaveWiFi’s case, made in the US). Also the level of support provided if required.

    We always welcome independent performance & usability tests.

  • jtwoodfield

    All very interesting but the cheapest, and very effective, option is not even mentioned. Perhaps because it involves no purchase at all being made.
    Most modern smartphones allow tethering. To turn my Windows Phone into an extremely good 4G router all I have to do is flick a software switch in settings. (Internet Sharing)
    The only potential downside – current consumption – is not a downside at all on a boat as the phone can be left on charge.
    So for 4G: no additional money spent. Job done.
    For WiFi the skipper of my neighbouring boat, who travels a lot, tells me that the aerials sold in the UK are rip offs. He got the same sort of thing in the Far East for a fraction of the price and is very happy with the performance. I suspect that similar items can be bought on Amazon. Perhaps a performance test would be useful?

  • Ian Loffhagen

    The article is all very well but when one is offshore one will be out of range of Wi-Fi and 3G. The only way to get online while properly offshore is through satellite Internet or SSB.
    Ian Loffhagen, Rowlands Marine Electronics.