Help Extend Connectivity
Long-range cellular and Wi-fi boosters can deliver lower-cost phone and data connectivity for coastal cruisers.
An early sailboat memory involves my father and me sailing his trusty old Catalina 27 from New Jersey’s Atlantic Highlands to nearby Horseshoe Cove, where we anchored and went swimming. My dad grilled dinner on our rail-hung barbecue and even served blueberry cheesecake — a favorite — for dessert, all with an eye toward instilling his love of cruising into the heart of his then 4-year-old son. All was going smoothly until bedtime, when it hit me that Mom wasn’t aboard. Panic!
Given that this was 1981, cellphones as we know them didn’t exist, nor did text messages, so Dad called home — via a marine operator — over VHF. While I was happy to hear Mom’s voice over the crackling radio, even at that tender age, I was less enthused to hear fishermen cutting in on the open line to take snarky potshots at a homesick little boy.
Fortunately for me, Dad spun the situation into a teachable moment about self-sufficiency. Fortunately for contemporary kids, today’s long-range cellular and Wi-fi boosters can help deliver private voice and data communications well beyond the reach of a smartphone’s antenna without decimating your cruising budget.
Let’s start with United Kingdom-based Digital Yacht, which has long built connectivity solutions for cruising sailors. The company splits its offerings between cellular and Wi-fi devices.
In the Wi-fi realm, Digital Yacht’s WL60 and WL70 Wifi booster antennas increase the range of a computer’s Wi-fi connectivity to over half a nautical mile. Meanwhile, the WL510, with a range of 4 to 6 nautical miles, is Digital Yacht’s high-end Wi-fi-only solution. It includes a high-gain, omnidirectional antenna and a 33-foot coaxial cable, which is used to connect the WL510 to a computer or wireless router (an upgrade to a 66-foot cable is an option).
For mariners interested in tapping into onshore cellular networks, Digital Yacht’s 4G Connect or 4G Connect Pro systems work with 2G, 3G and 4G (LTE) cellular networks. The systems include a built-in Wi-fi router so that all onboard wireless devices can catch a data fix, and both systems work with unlocked SIM cards (allowing users to purchase them from any local provider). The standard model includes a built-in multipleinput, multiple-output (MIMO) antenna, while the Pro model features both the built-in MIMO antenna and dual 19-inch external antennas for greater range and performance. More information on these products can be found at digitalyachtamerica.com; prices start at $200.
Buzz Wireless’ Hubba X4 Global (buzzconnect.co.uk) is a multiprotocol data router that’s primarily focused on the commercial marine market, but it could also interest international voyagers because this cellular communicator is capable of operating on international LTE networks. “The unit’s modem allocates frequencies and bands on demand, according to the local network’s requirement,” says Steve Smith, Buzz Wireless’ chief executive.
In addition to a frequency-agnostic modem, the Hubba X4 Global boasts dual Sim-card slots, an IP67 weatherproof rating and hardware
throughput limits of 300 Mbps for downloads and up to 50 Mbps for uploads. But, Smith cautions, the device is only as good as the network to which it’s connected. LTE networks are capable of the speeds mentioned, but whether you find them in reality is a local issue.
The Hubba X4 Global can reach cellular networks from up to 20 nautical miles offshore, giving coastal sailors a comfortable reach, while globe-girdlers will appreciate the system’s ability to network with a vessel’s existing satellite-communications system and govern the boat’s internet connections. “It works by sending out pings to all possible routes to see if a connection is available and then switching between each one according to the user’s set priorities,” says Smith. Owners typically prioritize LTE, which is the cheapest option. Additionally, Buzz Wireless’ marina Wi-fi kit enables the Hubba X4 Global to access free internet connectivity, when available. Units start at $1,730.
Satellite-communications provider KVH (kvh.com) has swung an eye toward cellular connectivity with its new
Tracphone LTE-1, which can access cellular networks from up to 20 miles offshore at download and upload speeds as fast as 100 Mbps and 50 Mbps, respectively. The LTE-1 features data transmissions that are sent over encrypted cellular networks, says Shawn Bennett, KVH’S Tracvision product-line manager. Users can stream high-definition video, live TV and music; post to social media; check email; and use Wi-fi calling to make and receive voice calls. The high-gain dual MIMO LTE-A antenna array inside the dome provides significantly extended range compared to cellphones.
The Tracphone LTE-1 will begin as a U.s.-only product; however, KVH has broad longterm horizons. “The Tracphone LTE-1 is configured to use dual cellular carriers and to automatically switch between those carriers to ensure signal coverage,” says Bennett. “With our future plans to go beyond U.S. waters with the Tracphone LTE product, we will explore LTE solutions with multiple SIM cards.”
The LTE-1 comprises a dome that weighs just 6.25 pounds and houses a high-gain dual MIMO antenna array, a cellular modem, a Wi-fi router and a GPS receiver. It can also supply fast internet or voice connectivity to numerous wireless devices within its wireless local area network.
Customers pay KVH $199 a month, which includes 20 gigabytes of data; extra data is billed at $9.99 per gigabyte. Service can be “winterized” for $9.99 per nonactive month.
Also, for anyone who sails with a KVH mini-vsat broadband Tracphone, the LTE-1 is designed to integrate seamlessly into the vessel’s communications scheme, which is smart and frugal. “KVH systems can be configured to provide seamless, least-cost routing so the customer will receive the most affordable connectivity at any given time while on the water,” says Bennett, adding that additional charges apply for this configuration.
For under $900,
Shakespeare Marine’s Webwatch WC-1
(shakespeare-ce.com) offers users the ability to access onshore Wi-fi, as well as 3G and 4G cellular networks, and it can automatically switch between services to deliver optimum speed and performance.
The dome-enclosed Webwatch WC-1 weighs less than 4 pounds and can simultaneously supply wireless internet connectivity to up to 32 different computers or wireless devices, thanks to a built-in Wi-fi router and Ethernet cable. Users supply their own 3G service from AT&T, T-mobile or Cricket, or 4G AT&T data-only SIM cards for accessing cellular networks, and they can manage their connectivity either via an app or browser-based user interface.
The Webwatch WC-1 will download data at speeds up to 100 Mbps; uploads are at up to 50 Mbps, depending on the carrier. The WC-1 can be purchased with or without an HDTV receiver, which facilitates streaming high-resolution imagery. Additionally, the Webwatch WC-1 features a built-in firewall and virtual private network for added online security.
Wave Wifi (wavewifi .com) has delivered Wi-fi
connectivity for sailors since 2004, and its contemporary offerings, which start at $350, include stand-alone cellularand Wi-fi-only systems, combination cellular/wi-fi receivers, broadband routers and other specialized antennas. The company’s flagship longrange cellular communicator and multisignal router, the
MBR-550, is designed for sailors who are looking for speed and signal flexibility, while the Rogue Reach is aimed at budget-minded mariners seeking affordable Wi-fi.
The MBR-550 can deliver a wide range of Wi-fi and cellular connections, and optional third-party satellite-communications connectivity. Users can view the signal strength and quality of all available connected hotspots via Wave Wifi’s browser-based graphical user interface. The MBR-550 features dual cellular antennas, a single SIM slot for userpurchased cellular data cards, and a signal-agnostic router (which is also compatible with satellite-communications equipment) that shares its connectivity with networked computers and wireless devices. However, it requires an external Wi-fi antenna to harness and distribute this signal to networked wireless devices.
The Rogue Wave is a rail-mounted wireless bridge and Ethernet converter with a built-in 22-inch antenna that can share its 2.4-gigahertz Wi-fi signal over a hardwired Ethernet connection to a computer or wireless router. Alternatively, users can purchase the Rogue Pro, which comes bundled in a stainlesssteel impact-resistant case that quickly sheds heat. Both Wave models can act as Wi-fi-only receivers, or they can be networked with an MBR-550 to deliver Wi-fi connectivity.
As with the other devices discussed in this article,
Yachtspot routers (inventicamarine.com) let users connect to shore-based cellular or Wi-fi networks. The range, which starts at $1,800, includes the Wi-fi-only Yachtspot
Wi-fi, the cellular- and Wifi-enabled Yachtspot 4G+
Wi-fi and the Yachtspot Pro, which features both global 4G LTE and Wi-fi antennas and the ability to merge satellite and fixed-line connectivity. All units feature the company’s proprietary DNS Blaster software, which speeds up internet browsing time, and its Safe Surf VPN software, which encrypts all Wi-fi data.
“Using open Wi-fi has always carried the risk that your internet activities can be listened to,” says Mark Luffingham, director of Eurotask Ltd., Inventica’s U.S. distributor. “It’s a complex subject, but what is sure is that by routing your traffic over a VPN, those risks are eliminated.”
Yachtspot users manage their onboard networks with Inventica Technologies’ proprietary Internet Control Center software. All models come bundled with Lte-ultra and HSPA+ data cards that provide peak cellular-network upload speeds of 50 Mbps and download speeds of 100 Mbps. However, as always, real-world performance depends on the carrier’s network.
A Wi-fi booster antenna atop the mizzen mast lets the owner of this ketch stay connected while sailing near shore.
Buzz Wireless’ Hubba X4 Global
KVH’S Tracphone LTE-1
Yachtspot Pro Uniden’s MHS335BT radio Wave Wifi’s MBR-550 router