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.
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.
- 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.
- 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)
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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