High on Ben Stein’s list when cruis­ing the Great Loop was a solid WiFi con­nec­tion. Learn how you can stay con­nected.

In­ter­net ac­cess is right up there with food and fuel when cruis­ing the Great Loop. Here’s how my fam­ily stayed con­nected.

Power & Motor Yacht - - IN THIS ISSUE -

My fam­ily re­cently spent 14 months on our boat, a Carver Voy­ager 570, cruis­ing the Great Loop. It was an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence, al­though when we left home to be­gin the ad­ven­ture, some mem­bers of the crew (our two young daugh­ters) were hes­i­tant about the whole idea. I knew we would need as many com­forts of home as pos­si­ble, and high on that list was a solid, steady in­ter­net con­nec­tion. I did plenty of re­search be­fore and dur­ing the cruise, and I learned that con­nec­tiv­ity isn’t a sim­ple one-size-fits-all is­sue.

There are three ways to get in­ter­net on your boat. The first and least ex­pen­sive op­tion is land-based WiFi, which works well if you’re in a ma­rina with a well-con­structed WiFi net­work, be­hind your house with ac­cess to your home’s net­work or in a lo­ca­tion with a pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble hot spot. Var­i­ous WiFi bridges can ex­tend the range sig­nif­i­cantly, but are un­likely to make WiFi con­nec­tiv­ity ef­fec­tive while un­der­way.

The sec­ond op­tion is in­ter­net via cell ser­vice, which most likely means us­ing your phone as a hot spot. You could also use a ded­i­cated hot spot—a ma­rine-based sys­tem like a Glomex We­bBoat or WiriePro, or one pro­vided by your cel­lu­lar car­rier, such as MiFi. These ser­vices usu­ally work well un­til you’re about five to 10 miles off­shore, where the sig­nal will dwin­dle and you’ll be with­out con­nec­tiv­ity.

The third and most ex­pen­sive op­tion is a satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem that con­nects to the in­ter­net al­most any­where you can take your boat. How­ever, the vast and seam­less cov­er­age can get pricey. Satel­lite is also likely to of­fer both the low­est through­put (the amount of data moved suc­cess­fully from one place to an­other in a given time pe­riod) and high­est la­tency, or de­lay.

On our cruise, we vis­ited 97 mari­nas and used their WiFi about two-thirds of the time. While we had long com­plained about con­nec­tiv­ity at our ma­rina in Chicago, traveling taught us that the WiFi back home isn’t un­usual. We also learned it can be dif­fi­cult to pre­dict WiFi qual­ity from one place to the next. We stayed at lovely mari­nas with beau­ti­ful fa­cil­i­ties, ex­cel­lent in­fra­struc­ture and great staff, but they had some of the worst WiFi we en­coun­tered. And yet sev­eral tiny mari­nas in the mid­dle of nowhere with docks in danger of col­laps­ing de­liv­ered flaw­less con­nec­tiv­ity. We did no­tice that the mari­nas con­tracted with onSpot wifi of­fered wellde­signed, re­li­able and high-speed con­nec­tiv­ity. The long and the short of it is that WiFi is a dif­fi­cult thing for mari­nas to de­liver well and many places sim­ply don’t do a good job of it. That could be due to cir­cum­stances beyond the ma­rina’s con­trol, but sometimes the op­er­a­tors sim­ply don’t pay any at­ten­tion to it.

Dur­ing our time traveling, we also re­lied on a wire­less cel­lu­lar hot spot with an un­lim­ited data al­lot­ment. We used be­tween 250 gb and 350 gb of data per month; that was with the girls on YouTube, and my wife and I watch­ing TV and surf­ing the in­ter­net. We were away for 400 nights, yet we spent just two evenings in the U.S. and Canada with­out ser­vice. Dur­ing a six-week stay in the Ba­hamas, we re­lied on a mix of Ba­hamas WiMax—a net­work of high-pow­ered WiFi hot spots—and BTC, the Ba­hamian cel­lu­lar car­rier. Typ­i­cally, our hot spot got about 10 Mbps of down­load through­put, which was enough for us to go about our nor­mal on­line ac­tiv­i­ties with­out much thought to how we con­nected. And if a ma­rina had poor WiFi con­nec­tiv­ity, we had enough cel­lu­lar band­width to just switch back to our hot spot.

Be­fore we left Chicago I spent some time get­ting the boat’s net­work ready for our trav­els. The sys­tem I in­stalled is kind of com-

plex, but I built it for my par­tic­u­lar needs. Ease of use wasn’t a big con­sid­er­a­tion, which is why my wife came look­ing for me any­time there was a prob­lem with con­nec­tiv­ity.

The heart of our boat net­work is a Ubiq­uiti EdgeRouter, a re­mark­ably ca­pa­ble de­vice for $75. The EdgeRouter tests two in­com­ing in­ter­net con­nec­tions and de­cides which to use. That means if we’re in a ma­rina and con­nected to its WiFi, the EdgeRouter will de­tect when the con­nec­tion stops work­ing and au­to­mat­i­cally send all traf­fic to our 4g con­nec­tion.

This Ubiq­uiti sys­tem has a down­side, though: a more com­plex user in­ter­face. It’s not the eas­i­est de­vice to con­fig­ure. (If you start with the de­vice in de­fault state and plug it in, for in­stance, it won’t pass any traf­fic.) By com­par­i­son, the Peplink brand en­joys a good rep­u­ta­tion for high-qual­ity hard­ware with good fea­tures and an easy-to-use in­ter­face. How­ever, Peplink prod­ucts come with a higher price tag, start­ing at three times the cost of Ubiq­uiti’s prod­ucts.

I use an older Wave WiFi Rogue Wave wire­less bridge—with a Ubiq­uiti Bul­let in­side—to con­nect to 2.4-ghz ma­rina WiFi net­works; for 5-ghz net­works I use a Ubiq­uiti Bul­let Bm5-Ti. LTE. Con­nec­tiv­ity is pro­vided by a Net­gear LB1120 LTE mo­dem; it’s con­nected via ethernet to the EdgeRouter. This setup al­lows the wire­less bridge to be the pre­ferred source of con­nec­tiv­ity. If none is pro­vided by the bridges, then the LTE mo­dem does the work. These de­vices con­nect to the boat’s in­ter­nal net­work; they’re not aware how the boat is con­nected to the in­ter­net. All told, the sys­tem proved highly re­li­able dur­ing 14 months of cruis­ing.

Our LTE in­ter­net ser­vice was pro­vided by a com­pany called 4G An­tenna So­lu­tions (4GAS), which started out of­fer­ing cel­lu­lar in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity in ru­ral ar­eas. The cel- lu­lar car­ri­ers fre­quently change their of­fer­ings and the rules of their plans, which can be frus­trat­ing when you’re try­ing to se­lect one for a long cruise. For­tu­nately for us, the of­fer­ing from 4GAS worked well for over a year. Nearly all of the un­lim­ited cel­lu­lar of­fer­ings come with a thresh­old, at which point the car­ri­ers warn you they may throt­tle or rate shape your traf­fic. While 4GAS has changed the cap a cou­ple of times, I’ve never seen any throttling.

Prior to our trip I had grand vi­sions of the re­mote places we would see and the need for satel­lite in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity in these lo­cales. How­ever, fur­ther re­search changed my mind about that. When com­pared with cel­lu­lar of­fer­ings, satel­lite ser­vice of sim­i­lar band­width is more ex­pen­sive in or­ders of mag­ni­tude, al­though I did find af­ford­able op­tions for low-band­width satel­lite con­nec­tions, which are suit­able for email and oc­ca­sional web brows­ing. In the long run, though, I de­cided not to go with satel­lite. I based that de­ci­sion on our cruis­ing grounds and the likely avail­abil­ity of land-based op­tions in those ports. How­ever, we’ll be traveling to new places in the fu­ture, and satel­lite could be the best op­tion then, so I con­tinue to watch satel­lite an­nounce­ments, hop­ing to see ad­vances that lower pric­ing.

Many of the peo­ple we met dur­ing our trav­els had very lit­tle net­work­ing equip­ment. They re­lied on ma­rina WiFi and used their phones or tablets when they were away from mari­nas. That could work for you, too, but if your crew is like ours, with a de­sire for ro­bust con­nec­tiv­ity when un­der­way, you may not want to rely on the vari­able qual­ity of ma­rina WiFi. I’ll be test­ing a num­ber of con­nec­tiv­ity op­tions in the fu­ture, in­clud­ing new prod­ucts with in­te­grated fea­tures de­signed to sim­plify use. Look for the re­sults of those tests at pmy­mag.com.

The au­thor’s daugh­ters, Molly and Made­lyn, were hap­pily con­nected to YouTube dur­ing a 14-month cruise on the fam­ily’s Carver Voy­ager 57.

By Ben Stein

The sys­tem on the au­thor’s boat en­abled his crew to get con­nected via land-based WiFi and cel­lu­lar ser­vice.

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