Yacht internet: A guide on the different ways to get connected
Last updated: 26/10/2017
Accessing the internet on board has become a necessity rather than a luxury for owners, guests and crew members alike, whether it’s simply to get weather information or, more importantly, news from family and friends. However, internet connectivity on board can be a challenge, with inconsistent coverage, dead zones and slow speeds.
Today, mobile Wi-Fi is usually available in many marinas, or even from a neighbouring boat, however the low power of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets does not always afford a strong connection due to range limitations, meaning guests and crew often have to take a trip further ashore to get a reliable connection.
To connect to Wi-Fi over longer distances, or to get a strong signal from all areas of the yacht, a Wi-Fi range extender can greatly help. Range extenders can come in two forms:
1. Smart booster antennas: Smart boosters have the software built into the antenna unit with a cable that uses a simple Ethernet connector.
2. Wi-Fi antenna and smart box: These systems have their software fitted in a box usually mounted below deck, rather than in the antenna itself.
Other popular options to consider include:
Wave Wi-Fi Rogue Wave (£419): An easy-to-install antenna with 15m cable and Ethernet connection. Power to the antenna is provided through the same cable, but requires a PoE adaptor. Can be combined with the Yacht AP kit (£192) to provide an on-board wireless hotspot for other devices.
Digital Yacht’s WL510 ($770): The WL510 is an antenna, smart box and 10m cable combination that allows boat owners to connect to Wi-Fi hotspots. Wi-Fi range depends on many local factors, but Digital Yacht has seen ranges of up to four to six miles. Can be combined with the iNavconnect Wi-Fi router ($250) to provide an on-board wireless hotspot for other devices.
Advantages of using Wi-Fi on board a yacht
- Only one Wi-Fi connection to make
- Usually unlimited data
- Speeds are quite fast
- Usually free or very low cost
Disadvantages of using Wi-Fi on board a yacht
- Very short range – less than a mile without booster
- Inconsistent availability
- Not secure
Mobile and cellular data
Another way to get internet access is to use an existing mobile/cell data plan. Depending on the connectivity needs of the yacht, the money spent on an antenna/smart box could instead be spent on purchasing a higher mobile-data allowance.
The problem with this is ‘dead spots’. To avoid a dead spot, additional equipment will be needed, such as a signal booster. Leading manufacturers in marine mobile/cellular include Digital Antenna, Shakespeare Marine, and Marine Technologies.
Advantages of using mobile phone data on board
- Medium range up to 15 miles
- Can be fast
- Can use the same phone plan ashore
Disadvantages of using mobile phone data on board
- Most data plans are capped
Bonded internet connection
Known as the next generation of internet accessibility, bonded internet combines a number of different internet connections from different providers to create a single, faster connection for your yacht. The multiple connections can be 3G/4G, Wi-Fi hotspot or shore DSL links.
A recommended product is YachtSurfer’s Surf Sonic. With bonding, you will benefit from greater bandwidth. In addition, the broadband connection will be protected by multiple paths making it a more reliable connection than a single service connection.
If you want more internet browsing offshore, then a satellite system is going to be needed; but expect to pay for this premium. There are three main satellite options to choose from:
Mini-VSAT: This is the best option for high-bandwidth data needs, but the equipment is very expensive (expect to pay $30,000 for a system) and it does not cover the world.
Inmarsat BGAN: This costs less to get started, with equipment around $3,000, and the transmission data rates are also good. At first look, you would think this is the best option but the cost of sending data is high, and you need to point the antenna towards a satellite; which is hard from a moving boat.
Iridium: This is the least expensive option with both handheld and fixed-satellite installations available, so it is by far the best option for infrequent use, or as a backup. Iridium uses Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites so it’s available absolutely everywhere on the planet. Iridium has two downsides, however as data cost is high and bandwidth is very slow.
Staying connected on your boat has gotten a lot easier, but then again our growing internet appetites are hard to satisfy. In fact, even many big-domed yachts have alternate Wi-Fi and/or cellular internet facilities in order to minimise costs when moored, and also for speed and redundancy. Making that all work together smoothly takes some tinkering.
Combined Wi-Fi and cellular/mobile connections
If affordable, the key is to go for a system that gives the widest range of internet connection possibilities and a system that is easily upgradeable. The better the quality of components, the lower the risk of lost transmissions.
Matthew Bingham, from marine tech specialists Azuz IT, added, “Increasing internet reliability is essential for retaining 24/7 communications and maintaining a smooth journey with owners and guests on board. Combining satellite, mobile data and other connection methods can increase download speeds and provide excellent failover methods. Consider mobile-data devices with automated failover, load balancing and multiple modems - devices with options for dedicated aerials and antennas will also extend the range of the device.”
The future of yacht internet
Who knows what will happen in the future? Technologies are constantly progressing and in a field like connectivity where demand is ever increasing, it is only a matter of time before innovative new options enter the market.
One such option has come courtesy of e3 Systems and Kymeta, who have successfully trialled flat panel antennas and terminals on board world-renowned superyachts Maltese Falcon and White Rose of Drachs, delivering ‘fully integrated high bandwidth maritime communications and entertainment’.
Kymeta’s vice president of maritime, Hakan Olsson, commented, “This is a major milestone for the maritime industry, where reliable, flat, lightweight satellite connectivity will open an entirely new world of communication capabilities.”
Meanwhile, UK based start-up Seanternet is in the process of creating a Wi-Fi communication infrastructure, which is going to be positioned on yachts, boats, commercial ships, buoys, platforms and other suitable floating devices and provide wireless communication when close to shore. The idea is to propagate the radio signals from shore to sea and to use the aforementioned communication points, as both relay stations and internet access points.
According to Seanternet's CEO, the fact that this is based on Wi-Fi will allow it to provide internet services at a fraction of the price that is currently offered by the satellite service providers.Seanternet has already run a proof of concept test in Dublin Bay, and is currently racing to deploy its first commercial network in a number of high-traffic and high-vessel density locations across the world.
It will be interesting to see how both of these burgeoning alternatives progress in the months ahead as the industry looks towards more efficient, simple ways of keeping us connected at sea.