Internet For Boats (Guide to Marine Internet Connection)
The internet is a fundamental part of modern society, but it can be hard to get on a boat. Getting internet – or, even better, high-speed internet – depends on several factors. Here’s what you should know about this.
In this article you will find out...
The best and easiest way to get internet when you’re close to land is by tapping into local wireless internet services. These are generally available in ports and harbors and may extend around them if the port is generous enough to build a large signal tower.
Most Wi-Fi emitters only send a signal over 100 feet, so don’t expect to get far from shore while maintaining a connection. Taller towers can create wireless signals over several miles, though, but even this tends to drop off heavily once you’re over the horizon.
In short, Wi-Fi is a good option if you’re living on a boat or in the harbor a majority of the time and don’t go out for too long. However, it’s not viable or practical for longer trips away from shore.
Wi-Fi extenders are devices you can install on a boat (or a truck, for that matter) to increase the coverage area and get Wi-Fi signals further away. The most powerful devices can reach as far as 12 miles away with line of sight to a tower, and even moderately-capable devices can often get at least half that. That range is usually good enough if you’re remaining close to shore.
However, an essential part of choosing a Wi-Fi extender is looking at the requirements for the signal boost. If you can’t rely on line-of-sight to the tower, then a device requiring that is only a waste of money. Alternatively, if there’s a lot of bad weather or other interference, the practical range of an extender will shrink noticeably.
Every harbor has unique characteristics for managing cell signals, so there’s no universal choice or approach when getting an extender. The best you can do is examine the area and determine which options fit your situation.
Wi-Fi extenders are a great option if you’re sailing in areas where you can use them. You can also make them more effective by asking if your harbor can increase the height of their signal tower, assuming local regulations allow that. Higher is almost always better and will give you a stronger signal from further away.
Ultimately, extenders won’t work for everyone, but they’re often the best and cheapest option when they fit your needs. Consider this first, and only move on to other ideas if extenders won’t be enough to meet your needs.
It’s technically possible to get an internet wired connection while you’re on a boat. Like Wi-Fi, this is easiest if you’re staying in a harbor and don’t need your wire to be very long. However, scientific and research ships staying close to shore may run a wire back to land to maintain a connection and transmit data.
The wire can theoretically be of any length, but managing and moving it gets increasingly less practical as you get further away from your source. Outside of specific research scenarios, wired connections are a poor option.
Another rarely-used option is getting cellular internet through a mobile hotspot. The effectiveness of this varies based on how tall a cell tower is and whether there are any obstructions in the way, but you can realistically get up to several miles of coverage this way.
Naturally, this isn’t a good choice for trans-continental cruising, but cellular internet can be practical if you’re able to stay a few miles away from the harbor at all times. Cellular connections are more common among some casual sailing companies, as well as near some inland lakes and rivers.
Marine cell boosters work similarly to Wi-Fi boosters and can extend your internet access by as much as several miles.
The main downside of using cellular internet connections is that you usually need at least one additional component if you want to use the internet on anything besides a smartphone. Specifically, you need a device capable of creating a wireless hotspot, and it’s better to have a dedicated device instead of running out a phone’s battery to generate a signal.
Satellite internet is unquestionably the king of connections when you’re trying to get internet service on a boat. With the correct service, you can get reliable internet coverage almost anywhere in the world, day or night. You may need a signal booster on your ship to send information back, but that’s a relatively minor matter once it’s set up.
Satellite internet is the option of choice for most nautical users, including cruise lines and shipping companies who need to manage as many connections as possible to keep things on track.
Satellite internet is also significantly better than it used to be, often averaging between 25 Mbps and 150 Mbps.
That’s not fast compared to modern landline speeds, which can exceed 1000 Mbps, but it’s quick enough for video streaming, most online gaming, and other high-bandwidth uses. The obvious downside is that satellite internet tends to be expensive and isn’t always reliable, but both of these will likely improve over time.
Why Is Getting Internet at Sea So Hard?
The main issue with getting internet at sea is how hard it is to maintain connections over open water. We can build signal towers practically anywhere on land or run wires long distances as necessary, but there’s nowhere to put signal towers at sea.
Most wireless internet options are relatively short-ranged, and there’s a simple reason for that: few devices have the power for long-range connections. You can make a powerful signal tower, but that doesn’t mean much unless the devices you’re connecting to have the range to send a signal back.
Personal devices tend to have a short range for receiving signals, sometimes as little as a few dozen feet. The smaller the device, the weaker it’s likely going to be. Most internet services optimize for land-based connections, so connections are spotty close to shore and vanish entirely as you go further away.
So far, satellite is the only practical option for people going far out to sea. It’s not the fastest, and you’ll need some kind of link to the satellite itself, but ultimately it’s either that or nothing. Most people would rather have acceptable internet over none at all.
Managing Internet on Your Boat
Once you have the internet on your boat, it’s time to figure out how to let things access it. There are several options here, although most people choose the first one.
Wireless connections on your boat require installing a wireless signal generator, assuming your connection device doesn’t already have one. Most wireless hotspots are large enough to completely cover a boat and some area around it, although particularly large vessels may need signal boosters.
Huge ships, like cruise liners, are more likely to install wireless signal generators regularly and put them all on one network. Having repeaters provides reliable coverage for users throughout the ship.
The main problem with wireless internet is that it doesn’t always penetrate ships well. This is especially true on larger ships, where components like engines may disrupt signals and shorten the range. That can lead to dead spots on a ship unless you install signal boosters somewhere.
Small boats rarely have to worry about dead zones, although it might be an issue if you’re trying to relax on a flotation device close to your boat while still getting internet access for a smartphone or tablet.
A rarer option for many ships is using wired connections onboard the ship and requiring devices to physically plug in. Most people will at least get a hybrid device that has wired and wireless options, rather than sticking exclusively with this.
Wired connections are easy to run through an entire ship, reducing the odds of having dead spots where you don’t want them. These can be a good choice for larger systems that you want to have connections that are as reliable as possible, including some computer components.
Particularly large vessels like cruise ships may include wired connections in bedrooms. Other large ships, like cargo ships, usually prefer to have wireless systems that cover the small area where most crew members spend their time.
A third option, and also relatively rare, is having the boat itself access the internet. Having boat access usually requires building the boat with electronic components, installing screens, and otherwise giving a way for the ship to use the internet instead of just transmitting to other devices.
Boat access offers some unusual opportunities, such as wirelessly keeping track of a boat’s location or even controlling it over the internet. Most people only see this on certain types of large boats, though, and it’s essentially unknown on smaller ones.
The last consideration for maintaining an internet connection on a boat is dealing with the environment. Salt, water, UV light, and changing temperatures can all damage regular wireless systems and turn them into an expensive waste of space.
For most ships, the best option is getting a marine-grade connection and carefully managing any additional parts to ensure they have as little exposure as possible.
Specifically, any additional transmitters should be inside the ship, kept away from sunlight and ideally in the driest and most temperature-controlled area possible. These guidelines apply even if the device says it’s waterproof or rated for outdoor use.
Similarly, make sure any wired connection spots have covers and minimal exposure except when actively in use. This can help stop airborne contaminants from degrading connections. Naturally, larger boats tend to have an easier time with this. It’s arguably not worth trying to get internet on any boat that’s too small to support it.
Powering Your Connection
Outside of the internet connection itself, it’s important to think about how you’re going to power your systems. There are a few ways to do this.
The first option is having your boat actively power such electrical systems while its engine is running. This won’t let you access the internet when your boat is off, but for ships that operate continuously, it might be a practical option. Most boats of meaningful size will have no problem powering an internet connection this way.
The second option is using solar panels, preferably with some kind of battery storage augmenting them. This can provide you with regular and consistent internet access at sea, and it has the added benefit of often working during emergencies. If you need to call for help, an independent internet connection can literally save your life.
Some people install separate energy storage systems and recharge them while in port. Separate storage won’t make sense for small boats, but anything mid-sized or larger might be able to make it work. A sufficiently robust system can power internet connections and other parts of the boat for days.
The best way to decide between these options is by looking at your budget and how consistent you want your access to be. Some people forget about powering new systems on a boat until after they’ve already installed them, and that can be inconvenient even in the best scenarios.
As you can see from the discussion above, getting internet connections on boats is difficult, but possible. Satellite is the most practical and reliable option, especially for long-distance travel and digital nomads, but signal boosters for wireless or cellular connections can be a good alternative for anyone staying within a few miles of shore.
Ultimately, only you know how you want to use your boat, and that determines which of these options will make the most sense.
Keep an eye on satellite options going forward, though. Many companies are looking into this, one being AT&T Internet, and it’s likely to lead to better coverage, faster speeds, and lower costs for consumers as time goes on. Even if satellite is too expensive for you now, it might be a better choice sometime in the next few years.