onboard connectivity network

Wi-Fi and Internet connectivity are becoming increasingly common on-board boats and ships. Years ago, this was only affordable for larger ships, luxury yachts and passenger vessels. However, with technology constantly advancing and improving, costs have also dropped simultaneously, making this connectivity more easily accessible to the leisure boater or enthusiast.  

Of course, there are levels to the connectivity options available, and the speeds that they offer, which is reflected in the price. We’ll unpack some of them here, with a comparison to help you understand which solution would best meet your requirements.

Why is onboard Wi-Fi beneficial?

Having internet access while at sea offers many benefits, and whilst it’s not for everyone – as some people want to sail with no distractions – others take comfort in knowing they still have internet connectivity. A common use case for internet access on board when sailing is having access to weather / meteorological sites, enabling you to view the coming forecasts and make any adjustments ahead of time. For others, they like being able to still communicate with friends and family, especially if they are travelling for longer periods of time.

onboard connectivity, wifi on boats

For local trips where you remain close to the shoreline, using a standard Wi-Fi Hub / Router can be sufficient. Most docks and marinas have Wi-Fi access (which is sometimes free) and using this in combination with a router and a decent antenna can be enough to pick up an internet connection. The obvious limitation here is the range, where you will only have connectivity when very close to the shoreline. The connection can also struggle if the port is busy, with a lot of device traffic all connected to the same Wi-Fi. In busy areas, you can expect very slow data rates, and usually a fair few disconnects.

The step above this is to use a router on board which can support 4G/5G SIM. Essentially the same as what you have in your mobile phone, the SIM is loaded with a data plan, and you are using cellular data as your source of internet connection. Some of the better routers actually have the intelligence to switch automatically and will connect to available Wi-Fi networks instead of using cellular data when possible. Cellular data isn’t overly expensive, and whilst this can be a viable option, the further you go from the shoreline away from cell towers, the weaker the signal will be. To a point, this can be overcome by using a larger antenna, but there will still be a point where cellular data connectivity is not possible.

What are the potential limitations and how can they be solved?

Whilst the previous two solutions are cost-sensitive, they have several limitations. When we are looking at large-scale travel with ocean crossings etc, there isn’t a chance of picking up a phone signal. This is where satellite communications come into play. Satcoms and Satphones have been around for a long time, and using satellites for the purpose of internet connectivity is becoming more common. The lower end of the scale isn’t actually too steep in price (it’s still not exactly cheap), however, the speed is awfully slow, and you won’t do much more than send a text or e-mail using it, with speeds running at 150-300kbps. The other end of the spectrum is systems like Starlink, which offer a comprehensive speed of up to 200MB, enabling streaming of HD videos, films, audio etc. However, the issue here is the cost. Satellite connectivity usually commands a very high price per MB of data.

internet at sea

Remember, if using onboard internet connectivity for remote monitoring of NMEA, telemetry or similar data, the packets of data being sent are relatively tiny, in most cases just a few kilobits at a time or less. You may choose to use a data logging device and either share that data sporadically or wait until you are back in range of your marina’s Wi-Fi, as another low-cost option. 

In summary, the chosen method of enabling internet access on board is determined by the requirements of the vessel user and owner. If cost is of no concern, then use satellite comms as they are the only method to provide global internet access (there may be the odd black spot but realistically it’s 90%+). If you are trying to be cost-effective and aren’t planning to cross oceans, a 4G/5G enabled router may be a better choice.