Getting the internet onboard can be a painless and straightforward affair if you purchase the right kit for the right job.
So what is the right kit? Well, that’s a loaded question, as it depends on who is going to use it and what kind of internet access you need, it could be; simple email, grib file and a bit of weather; or online games, video streaming ( iTunes, Netflix, Amazon prime) social media ( Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) or a combination of the above!
Phone – So you could just use the basic data package included in your phone or tablet plan, we’ve been really surprised at the connectivity of 4G all the way down the French, Spanish, Portuguese and Canary islands, with the exception of the Biscay and the Lagos to Lanzarote crossing, we’ve had a really good signal 3-4 miles off the coast almost everywhere. Check your data plan before you leave, particularly if you’ve had the same plan for some time, you could be paying over the odds for a service that could now give you more calls and data for less monthly payments!
It only often takes a quick phone call to get the plan changed, that said, watch out for the so-called roaming packages, the big boys ( EE, 3 and O2, Vodafone) all say they can provide abroad usage (some free, some for an additional fee £5 per month) but some are limited on time (3 months at a time) and some include it free but throttle back speeds after 3 months.
Local Wifi – The other option is to use the often free Marina Internet, that the majority of marinas seem to offer, which is great for catching up on email, but is dependant on the number of other yachties using the same connection as to whether you will be able to do much else. Cafe’s, restaurants, bars, and supermarkets often offer in-house free wifi, but again, its limited to local use and is dependant on the number of users.
Mifi – The next option is to use a Mifi or Mobile Hotspot unit, all the providers do their own versions of them, some will want to sell you a package, ie a data package with the Mifi box included for X amount per month, or a one-off purchase of the Mifi box and x amount per month. Be aware that these are locked to the purchased provider so only work with those sim cards!
A variation on that theme is to pimp your mifi and just buy the data package and go for something like the TP-Link 300 Mbps 4G LTE
This is a sim unlocked piece of kit that has a sim card slot in the back, it has the ability to allow unlimited users, (mifi’s often limited to 10, bearing in mind that a user is a piece of equipment, your iPad, phone, kindle, laptop etc soon eats up the users, even if they’re not switched on) they are more powerful than the little Mifi boxes (pick up a weaker signal, transmit through your fibreglass/wooden deck) and provide a reasonable firewall from unwanted hackers.
* Something to note, these devices will work fine whilst in Europe, but because of different frequency usage may not work in the rest of the world or USA!
As an alternative or to take this setup one stage further, you may want to consider something like a wifi bat
An external antenna mounted up on deck, your spreader or arch, which will allow you to pick up “free internet” via wifi hotspots from nearby cafes, bars and restaurants and the like (assuming you have previously purloined the password when you ate there earlier) this simply plugs into the back of your laptop and thru a bit of software lets you connect to their hotspot.
Moving up from that you may wish to consider sharing this facility with the rest of the crew, in which case you will need a wifi router like a Mailasail Redbox to accompany your Wifi Bat. This will allow you to take your “free internet connection” and redistribute it to other devices on your boat via your internal “boat wifi” (Some marina WIFI’s, however, are web-based logins and require you to log in via a webpage, restricting use only to that device) but assuming the wifi is normally set up everyone onboard can use it, however a self-governing fair use policy should prick your conscience and reasonable use lets everyone else get reasonable speeds.
Another addition to the Mailasail suite of wifi kit is the new 4g-Roam-Free-Gateway, this plugs into your Redbox and gives you 4g on your Redbox Wifi, but this is a worldwide piece of kit which works with any Network Provider on the majority of the world network frequencies. (other UK network Mifi boxes may not work worldwide) This handy addition to the Redbox Suite means that you end up with one SSID (WIFI network ID) rather than several from several different pieces of kit.
Getting your emails even further afield! If your thinking of traveling further than Europe, particularly across the Atlantic, Pacific or Indian ocean then Satphones and SSB are the only true way of getting your emails and weather grib files whilst in the middle of nowhere!
Satellite Phones – There are a plethora of options here from the Simple handheld, “Iridium Go” or a full-blown “Iridium Pilot” that provides both Phone and internet. The initial outlay for the equipment can be just as expensive as purchasing a new SSB set-up and in some cases, even more.
Handhelds – are also capable of data, but the speed will depend on the signal being received, which we almost definitely mean sitting out in the cockpit to use it, an additional external antenna can be purchased to improve this.
The Iridium Go – is the most recent addition to the satellite world, it is a “data only” solution that acts as a satellite wifi hotspot, allowing phones, iPads tablets etc, to download data, across the Iridium network.
The Iridium Pilot – is an “all singing all dancing piece of kit that has three phone lines and a data port, allowing simultaneous phone and data at the same time, it also has two additional ports that allow data scratch cards to be purchased by the crew to make calls on a crew phone. The pilot is different to its competitor’s dome because it is an array (no moving parts) rather than a gyroscopic dish antenna, such as the Inmarsat fleet broadband. However, although both providers use the term “broadband” do not expect anything like the speeds at home, this is still only a tad faster than dial-up and “surfing” or “streaming” is far from reality.
* Iridium is the only provider with true worldwide coverage, Inmarsat isn’t quite worldwide because it doesn’t cover the poles, that said, I don’t suppose many of us will be visiting Antartica or the Northwest Passage anytime soon!
**With decent compression software, emails and weather can be obtained effectively and reasonably economically, but satellite communication doesn’t come cheap! Call and data prices still make sat phone and sat data usage as expensive, if not more expensive than the first cellphones were, if you don’t keep a tight watch on usage, costs can soon go through the roof! (Left plugged in PC’s, Macs, tablets, iPads, and Phones, try and update software and apps, Our policy is; Use it, then disconnect the data lead when you’ve finished!)
SSB – If you already have SSB on board you should be able to add a Pactor Modem (if your old enough to remember dial-up modems) a small box that connects to your SSB radio and allows you to connect via software on your PC and a subscription to sailmail.com be prepared to put up with slow speeds (like the old dial-up) this process also requires a new email address in the format of “firstname.lastname@example.org” and cannot be used to browse the internet! See our complete section on SSB