While technology certainly has come a long way, there’s still something to be said for the limited connectivity available when you are literally out to sea. WiFi might be easy when you’re just offshore, but once you get more than 10 miles out, you will need more than the average emergency system or WiFi extender to stay connected the way that you want.
The evolving industry of satellite Internet for boating is creating a diverse range of options that include light-duty use, medium-duty use, and heavy-duty data use for those who have to stay connected, even when they’re hundreds of miles from shore. Those who need a simpler system will find more affordable options, while those who want premium access will find a superb selection of long-range packages and systems to suit every need.
The Difficulties of Satellite at Sea
Numerous challenges come with trying to stay connected when you are dozens, or even hundreds, of miles from shore. Distance is the biggest issue since larger, more complex satellites are necessary to provide compensation for the range. Plus, a boat is constantly moving and rocking, and satellite connections generally require a stable location, so technology had to adapt. As such, getting a reliable set up with a strong signal is typically going to have a hefty price tag.
Over time, this may change. For now, though, the technology available limits the options, and those who want the Internet on their boat will need to be willing to pay the price. When you’re cruising along the ICW or Great Loop, internet access will be vital for finding fuel, marinas, food and other basic services along the way.
Boat Internet 101: How it Works
The Internet works differently on boats and yachts, and it will work differently depending exactly how far out from shore you are. There is satellite service available on boats today that can offer connectivity for things like messaging, phone calls, Internet surfing, and even HDTV reception. Existing equipment was adapted to work on moving vessels, and those willing to pay can find plenty of options to stay connected.
Several satellite dishes are available from a variety of manufacturers that include the hardware and a data plan that is charged monthly like a cell phone or land-based Internet plan. Although signal boosters are available for those who don’t venture too far from shore, these have their limits. Boaters who want the most expansive coverage have to go with satellite. It’s the only way to get reliable service when you’re out on open water.
Of course, like all boating technology, there’s a solution for just about every price range, with basic Internet solutions starting as low as $1,500. Of course, custom and high-end Internet satellite systems are available that can provide global access with plenty of data for as much as $50,000 or more.
Your Connection Options
On a boat, there are typically three options for internet connectivity. You can choose from integrated systems or portable systems of varying sizes that fall into the following groups:
This means you rely on the wifi available in ports, harbors and marinas you stop in along the way. Naturally this can be unreliable and vary greatly in speed. Of course it is also probably the cheapest option – and in some cases even free. But keep in mind you won’t likely have access to these hot spots while you’re out on the water underway.
Many cell phone carriers will allow you to use your smartphone as a hotspot, so that you can share your cellular internet connection as a WiFi hub for other devices onboard.
Marine WiFi System
These systems are often referred to as coastal internet systems and include options like WeBBoat 4G Plus and Wave WiFi – long-range internet connectivity systems that can reach up to 20 miles from the coast and share their connection with multiple users onboard.
Fixed Satellite Systems
This system requires purchasing an actual satellite dish for your boat, which can cost thousands of dollars ($3,000 to more than $50,000, to be exact). The larger the dish, the better the coverage, with dishes available up to 45 inches in size. There are low-end plans available for basic users that start around $50 a month, and plans are available up to $1,000 per month or more depending on the amount of data needed. For those who need plenty of data and connectivity for multiple users, the monthly bill will be closer to $2,500.
This option gives you the biggest range of products and the chance to customize a data package and dish to suit your exact needs, but satellite dishes are very expensive, and the data plans aren’t that cheap, either.
BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network)
This type of network is a portable option, which essentially creates a mobile hotspot on your boat with a device that resembles a notebook or laptop. They can be used on the water or in the field in numerous applications, which is why they are popular for field correspondents. This service is offered by a private company that operates multiple satellites that connect to various terminals. They can be linked with WiFi, Ethernet, USB, or Bluetooth, but GPS and a direct sky view are required.
The biggest difference here is that you’ll pay less for a terminal, but a lot more for the data plans. Service plans start around $800, which only gives you the right to purchase data, which will incur an additional cost. However, it’s portable and offers rugged equipment, which makes it a good choice for those in field careers and on working vessels. Data averages about $5/MB.
Those who just need basic connectivity with more affordable data can use portable systems that are designed to assist with basic Internet browsing. Companies make small terminals that are designed to provide Internet connectivity with a basic monthly fee and data minutes added at an additional cost. All devices have their own fees and data charges associated with them, but these systems can be as cheap as $50 per month or as much as $3,000 per month or more, depending on the amount and quality of data required.
This is the most affordable option for Internet at sea, but it can’t handle a lot of heavy data access, such as streaming TV or handling business functions.
Product and Setup Options
Several dealers specialize in satellite Internet solutions for boating and will handle everything from selling you the terminal to installing the system so that it’s ready to use. Usually, it is just a matter of installing the terminal or satellite dish and setting up the Internet connection. All equipment includes its own speed, costs, and monthly data allowances to consider when you are buying the right products for your Internet needs onboard your boat.
The Final Call
You can get the home broadband experience when you’re out to sea, but only if you’re willing to foot the bill. Budget-friendly Internet solutions can be had for a minimal fee, but premium data plans will cost you upwards of $2,000 per month to get the kind of connectivity that you want for browsing, TV streaming, and other entertainment. Think about what you need (or want) from your marine satellite solutions and choose the one that delivers performance at a price that fits your budget.