Best boat Wi-Fi systems: Essential tech from range extenders to signal boosters

High-speed internet access is now essential to us all, both at home and on board. Duncan Kent explores the latest methods to stay online afloat.

Despite the fact that most of us take to the water to shed our worries and get away from our hectic everyday lives, having a reliable boat Wi-Fi system has now become highly desirable, even critical in certain circumstances. After all, if you can keep your family entertained when you’re happily cruising or can carry on working but on your own terms, what’s to fault it?

Depending on your needs there are a plethora of smart devices available to help you stay in touch. Firstly, almost all marinas have boat Wi-Fi hotspots for customer use, so there are simple Wi-Fi range extenders and boosted antennae that will give you a much-improved signal from a weak hotspot within a mile or so.

That said, much of the shoreside kit is already old technology and works on the slower 2.4GHz frequency so, although a booster might help keep you connected to a weak signal, it won’t help with data speed and bandwidth on a busy summer’s day.

The latest 5.0GHz routers are much quicker but their effective range is even less, so where these are installed into marinas there are multiple hotspots, usually at least one per pontoon, resulting in much less need for a booster.

Furthermore, now that 3G/4G data packages are much better value, the use of cellular networks has become increasingly popular onboard. Similar signal boosters are also available for the mobile phone networks in weak areas as well as hubs/routers to allow multiple simultaneous connections to the same cellular network link.

Some devices are specifically for data only, others can cater for voice communications as well. The former is not only great for streaming films and keeping up with your Facebook or WhatsApp community, but also offers you the ability to download weather and navigation information, send a position update to your loved ones and even update your instruments with the latest firmware and chart updates. The latter lets you chat with friends and work colleagues alike, without them even knowing you’re afloat.

The boat Wi-Fi systems described in this article are only intended for use when you’re cruising no more than 10nm or so from the coastline. Beyond that range you would need to look into purchasing or renting one of the many satellite systems available, which are outside the scope of this current guide, but will be covered at a later date.

N.B: Not all of the products mentioned have been tested in the field by MBY, so the suggested ‘Our choice’ products were derived from studying the detailed technical specifications and manufacturer’s claims and comparing those with our experience of using a number of products within that category of device.

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Best boat Wi-Fi systems available now

Single-user Wi-Fi hotspot range extenders

Those who carry a laptop on board can boost boat Wi-Fi hotspot reception simply by connecting an external, hi-gain, range extending antenna. These are usually a fairly tall pole aerial with amplification circuitry built into their base and a long cable that terminates in either a USB or Ethernet plug that you connect to the relevant port on your device or router.

Plugging it into a laptop will override its internal Wi-Fi card and software supplied with the antenna will enable you to set it up to monitor the signal strength of surrounding hotspots and to lock onto your preferred one.

High-gain antennae come in two types – directional and omnidirectional. The former, usually a box containing a simple flat plate or two, can be pointed face-on towards the preferred signal source, effectively ‘tuning’ it to the transmitter. Whereas the latter, usually a pole type, is easier to use as it doesn’t require alignment.

In tests, omnidirectional boosters offer a marked improvement over the default signal received using the laptop’s own internal antenna but they do cost somewhere between £100-£300.

There are a number of less expensive (£50-£100) caravan/motorhome signal boosters that perform reasonably well, but you do tend to get what you pay for – especially in terms of their ability to withstand the harsh marine environment. Few really low-budget devices are truly waterproof, so you’d need to put them into a watertight enclosure and you’ll probably have to fiddle around with the direction they are pointing in order to find the best signal reception.

As with all line-of-sight radio signals, however, no matter how powerful the kit is, the height of your antenna is the key to better range. The higher you mount it the longer your range and the more hotspots you will be able to connect to. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the reception quality and range will be affected by the tides too, as your boat effectively ‘sinks’ at low water in respect to the land.

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Digital-Yacht-WL60-antenna

Digital Yacht WL60 MkIII

UK marine electronics company, Digital Yacht, offers a number of reliable solutions to onboard communications. Its WL60 hi-gain (8dBM) antenna is a simple external aerial supplied with four quick-mount suckers. It is 60cm tall and comes with a 5m long cable, terminating in a USB plug.

Ideal for single devices or connection to a network router, it is said to boost your boat Wi-Fi range to over a mile in perfect conditions.

Suitable for Windows XP/Vista/7/8/10 and Mac OS X 10.3+ operating systems and supports 802.11b/g/n protocols as well as WEP and WPA/WPA2 encryption.

RRP: £120

Buy it now on Digital Yacht

With each product is a ‘Buy it now’ link. If you click on this then we may receive a small amount of money from the retailer when you purchase the item. This doesn’t affect the amount you pay.

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Alfa-Tube-U-range-extender

Alfa Tube-U 

A low-cost universal booster/router for motorhomes, caravans and boats. Alfa is a well-known brand in this field, albeit more so in the camping world, and its kit appears to be good value for money.

The Tube-U is a GRP-encased +9dB signal booster to which a variety of omni-directional outdoor antennae can be fitted. The booster connects via a 5m-long cable, terminated in a standard USB plug, to a single device like a laptop or router (see Wi-Fi routers).

RRP: £75 / $59

Buy it now on Amazon (UK)

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best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Ubiquiti-Bullet-HP

Ubiquiti Bullet HP airMAX

The Bullet airMAX is a robust and weatherproof, low-loss radio booster with a Type-N connector designed to be directly attached to a suitable external antenna to create a powerful and robust outdoor access point. It then connects to a PC or router via an ethernet cable, which also provides the necessary power (PoE).

Both 2.4GHz (M2) and 5.0GHz (M5) versions of the popular Plug & Play airMAX are available and are supplied with Ubiquiti AirOS software, which features a signal strength meter for accurate antenna alignment.

RRP: £81

Buy it now on Amazon (UK)

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best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Yacht-Router-Micro-S5

Yachtrouter Locomarine Wi-Fi Booster s5

A robust and waterproof external booster with N-type socket for direct connection to a suitable high-gain Wi-Fi antenna.

The Booster s5 is powered by PoE and supplied with a long ethernet cable for plugging directly into a PC or boat Wi-Fi router. With a good quality antenna, a range of up to 10 miles is reportedly possible with this booster.

RRP: £320

Buy it now on yachtrouter.com

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Wifi-Bat-antenna

Wi-Fi Bat antenna

The Wi-Fi Bat is a marine-grade 2W, waterproof, high-gain (8dB) omni-directional antenna that is 70cm high and comes with 15m of cable terminating in a USB plug. Power is provided by the device’s USB port so, being plug-and-play, you simply plug it into a laptop and it works.

Downloading the Ralink monitoring software, however, which comes on a CD (also available to download from the MailASail website) will provide a signal strength meter, which is useful for optimising the antenna location.

RRP: £359

Buy it now on eBay

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Digital-Yacht-WL510

Digital Yacht WL510

The WL510 is a small and rugged 12/24Vdc-powered 600mW booster/modem designed to connect to an external, hi-gain (12dB) antenna via 10m-long cable. The base of the 0.9m/3ft long antenna connects via a standard 1in/14tpi mount and the modem, which contains all necessary drivers, is linked to a PC or router via an RJ45 CAT5 network cable.

Compatible with Windows, Mac and LINUX operating systems, the WL510 supports 802.11b/g protocols as well as WEP/WPA/WPA2 encryption and is configured via a browser.

The WL510 can lock onto a hotspot up to five miles away, depending on antenna height and surrounding buildings.

RRP: £594

Buy it now on digitalyacht.co.uk

Our choice

If it’s just the occasional use of marina Wi-Fi on a laptop you’re looking for then, unless the signal is particularly weak, a simple but good-quality boosted omni-directional antenna such as Digital Yacht’s WL60 should provide all you need to get the best from the local system.

The bonus with this is, should you later wish to expand it into a multi-user router-based system, then you can simply plug the WL60 into the DY IKConnect router for a relatively modest outlay. Those who regularly use local Wi-Fi in a berth and are happy to spend more on their kit might want to look into Locomarine’s more comprehensive offerings, which can be tailor-made to suit.

Multi-user Wi-Fi routers

A long-range Wi-Fi booster certainly helps you get the best out of a poor boat Wi-Fi signal, but they’re not much use when the whole family want to get online simultaneously. In that case you’ll need a 12V/24V powered wireless router that will lock onto the Wi-Fi source and create its own local hotspot to which multiple users can connect. In many cases a high-gain antenna can be plugged directly into a boat Wi-Fi router via an ethernet WAN port, thereby enabling the much-improved signal to be shared.

These units range from simple mini-routers with limited features and users, to marine-specific routers that often have their own high-gain antenna.

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Digital-Yacht-iKConnect

Digital Yacht iKConnect

The iKConnect is a compact, 12V boat Wi-Fi router that provides a simple and cost-effective way to set-up a wireless hotspot onboard. The small box has its own antenna and is optimised to work either with DY’s own budget WL60 long-range external antenna or with its top of the range WL510 system.

The iKConnect router also allows mobile devices to wirelessly receive Signal-K or NMEA data, thereby providing both internet access and wireless navigational data within the same network.

RRP: £180

Buy it now on digitalyacht.co.uk

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Kuma-hotspot-kit

Kuma Wi-Fi Hotspot

Another budget system primarily designed for the caravan/campervan market but a useful low-cost device if you only need the occasional signal boost. The neat little hub has a flexi internal antenna for Wi-Fi out, LAN and WAN ethernet sockets and a USB port for the external hi-gain waterproof antenna.

Configuring it is easy via a browser page and there are LEDs on the front panel indicating the status of the device. Said to have a maximum range of 1.5km, it allows up to five users to share the same connection although the external antenna
is directional so requires aligning to the hotspot for the best signal reception.

RRP: £150

Buy it now on Amazon (UK)

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best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-WiFi-Extender-Plus-Marine

Wi-Fi Extender Plus Marine

This 2.4GHz Wi-Fi Extender provides long-range access to Wi-Fi hotspots and creates a multi-user hotspot onboard.

The kit comprises a weatherproof external aerial with a 5m-long cable and an internally mounted, 220V ac or 12V dc-powered Wi-Fi hub that creates a local Wi-Fi hotspot as well as having a LAN and WAN port.

RRP: £275

Buy it now on wifionboard.co.uk

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-RedPort-Halo-Optimizer

RedPort Halo Optimizer

This is a popular American system, but is also available in the UK via Amazon. It comprises a long-range Wi-Fi antenna (said to reach hotspots <6nm away) and the Optimizer router/hub to allow the boosted boat Wi-Fi signal to be shared by multiple users. LAN and WAN ports enable the hub to be connected to an onboard PC and to receive satellite system data from a modem.

The hub includes all drivers, a firewall and encryption facilities, plus it can operate with the optional Redport XGate in which the inbuilt compression software speeds up data transfer by up to five times.

RRP: £380 / $599

Buy it now on Amazon (UK)

Buy it now on Amazon (US)

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best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Alfa-WiFi-camp-pro

Alfa Wi-Fi Camp Pro 2

In past tests the forerunner to this device performed surprisingly well in a marine environment. The Camp Pro2 is designed to pick up a Wi-Fi signal using a high-gain external antenna, boost it and then feed it via cable into its own R36A USB router to rebroadcast it to nearby users through the boat Wi-Fi antenna mounted on the router box.

The kit includes a 9dB external, omni-directional GRP antenna with an 8m USB-terminated cable.

RRP: £113 / $150

Buy it now on Amazon (UK)

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Our choice

The most important aspect of a boat Wi-Fi router is its antenna, so it’s vital to match any router with a proper, external quality, high-gain antenna. If you don’t, then there won’t be a decent enough signal to share between multiple users no matter how good the router.

It’s also a good idea to choose one that is rated for use in a marine environment. It doesn’t need to be submersible, but at least it should be built using high quality, not easily corroded components and fixings. Most properly ‘marinised’ circuitry will have its electronic components ‘potted’, that is enveloped within resin to prevent moisture ingress.

Onboard’s Wi-Fi Extender Plus provides all this at a very reasonable cost. Should you prefer to have all the bells and whistles such as encryption, firewall and satcom compatibility, however, then the RedPort Halo Optimizer sounds hard to beat.

Mobile phone signal boosters & routers

If you regularly cruise or anchor outside the range of a Wi-Fi hotspot, but within 10-15nm of the coast, then you’ll need a GSM (3G) or LTE (4G) device to send/receive data and make/receive phone calls. Some prefer to use a cellular network even when they’re within range of a hotspot as nowadays competitive deals can be had on airtime and often the connection is faster and more dependable.

Saying that, you’ll most likely still need some form of external high-gain antenna if you want to ensure enough data speed and bandwidth for reliable streaming and down/uploading.

If all you want to do is send and receive email and make a few calls, then the slower 3G GSM network is more than adequate. But for data streaming, 4G LTE is pretty much essential. A 4G device will nearly always work with the 3G networks as well, if that’s all that’s available in the area, and will automatically select the strongest signal/platform it can detect.

The simplest and most economical form of data router is a Mi-Fi – a small, portable box with rechargeable batteries and integral antenna costing between £50-£100. A Mi-Fi unit finds the strongest mobile data reception within range and locks onto it.

You can also buy a Mi-Fi dongle for similar money that simply plugs straight into a USB socket on your laptop. With the former you have the problem of ensuring the batteries remain charged. With the latter you lose the ability to put it into a weatherproof box and mount it outside for better reception.

Once a Mi-Fi logs onto a cellular phone mast it turns into a secure local hotspot for a number of mobile devices using the regular 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi band. You then connect your device to it as you would with any Wi-Fi hotspot.

There are several, more costly outdoor Mi-Fi routers available that have hi-gain antennae, a power cable and a waterproof casing. Most connect to any network via a single or dual SIM card slot at download speeds up to 150Mbps (4G) and can support 10 or more users.

Mi-Fi hubs

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-TP-Link-7350-MiFi

TP Link 7350 4G Mi-Fi

A dual-band (2.4/5.0GHz) 3/4G Mi-Fi that can be bought unlocked on Amazon and other online outlets. It includes a USB charger and cable, and its 2,550mAh battery lasts between 6-9 hours from a full charge, depending on usage.

The unit has a small display and a two-button menu enabling you to select between 3G and 4G, and 2.4GHz or 5.0GHz frequencies and to switch data roaming on/off. It also supports the use of up to 15 wireless devices simultaneously and can take a 32Gb micro-SD storage card.

RRP: £69

Buy it now on Amazon (UK)

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best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Huawei-4G-E5577-MiFi

Huawei 4G E5577 Mi-Fi

This compact router comprises a 3G/4G Huawei E5577 Mi-Fi with a single data SIM card slot and a dedicated high-gain (6dB) external antenna with 10m cable. The unit can support up to 10 users at data speeds up to 150Mbps (4G) depending on the signal strength.

RRP: £80 / $99

Buy it now on Amazon (UK)

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Multi-port routers

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Digital-Yacht-4G-Connect

Digital Yacht 4G Connect

The 4G Connect 2G/3G/4G router utilises MIMO technology with dual high-gain antennae for fast (up to 70Mbps), long-range access, and it incorporates a full function Wi-Fi network router so up to 200 devices can connect wirelessly to the boat’s own hotspot. There’s also a LAN and WAN port for connection to other devices, including a laptop PC.

The 4G Connect is supplied unlocked so users are free to fit any mobile network’s SIM card. In addition, this router can connect with Digital Yacht’s iKommunicate NMEA 0183/2000 Multiplexer via the LAN port,
to provide NMEA data over the Wi-Fi network for use with navigation apps.

RRP: £390

Buy it now on digitalyacht.co.uk

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Huawei-B535-router

Huawei B535 4G router

A new CAT-6 wireless router for 4G LTE, TDD, FDD global networks that features ultra-high speed (300Mbps) data transmission rate and provides internet access to up to 32 Wi-Fi devices as well as having four RJ45 ethernet connections for PCs.

The unit also offers VOIP with certain network connections via an RJ11 port on the hub and is supplied with an omni-directional, high gain external antenna.

RRP: £145 / $169

Buy it now on Amazon (UK)

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Buy it now on eBay

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Yacht-Router-Micro-S5

Yacht Router Micro

Capable of accepting two SIMs from different networks, the YRM creates a boat Wi-Fi hotspot using any 3G/4G mobile provider. Data download speed on 4G is up to 150Mbps, upload 50Mbps.

Thanks to its inbuilt GPS, the YRM is also able to offer free remote tracking and an anchor alarm facility that can be connected to any mainstream chartplotter or MFD.

RRP: £390

Buy it now on yachtrouter.com

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Hubba-X4-Go

Hubba X 4Go

The Hubba X 4Go GSM/LTE router has a single SIM card holder, a single LAN port for direct PC connection and a built in Wi-Fi router for use with up to 32 users. It is capable of providing up to 100Mbps data download speeds using 2/3/4G. An antenna with an 8m-long cable is included.

RRP: £795

Buy it now on buzzwireless.co.uk

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Hubba-Wave

Hubba Wave

The Hubba Wave is a compact 4G wireless router for those cruising up to 15 miles offshore. It can be accessed wirelessly by any laptop, tablet or smartphone, or directly via the ethernet LAN port. It comes with a phone handset and an external antenna with 12m of cable.

Interestingly, the Hubba Wave can also be supplied as a SIM-free, hardware-only package or on a 24-month contract with 40Gb of data (19Gb in the EU) and unlimited minutes per month for £47.95, plus a monthly charge of £47.95, reducing to £35.95 when the contract is renewed.

RRP: £395 or £47.95/month

Buy it now on buzzwireless.co.uk

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Peplink-Max-BR1

Pepwave Max BR1 LTE

One of the smaller units in a wide range of rugged cellular routers from this company, the BR1 has dual SIM slots providing the ability to automatically switch to a second 4G network should the primary signal fade or disappear altogether. With its built-in GPS receiver, it can also offer GPS tracking with remote monitoring and single LAN and WAN ethernet ports provide connectivity to most other devices, including a PC or a satellite network.

The shockproof metal enclosure comes with a terminal block for secure 12/24Vdc power connection and a cross-polarised, 4dBi gain external LTE antenna (£79) is also available.

RRP: £650 / $590

Buy it now on Amazon (UK)

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Buy it now on eBay

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-AirLink-RV55

AirLink RV55

The AirLink is a rugged and compact, multi-band LTE router that is fully loaded with features, yet simple to install and easy to configure and manage.

Supplied by a company used to designing bespoke communication systems for those on the move, in addition to datacoms, VPN capability, multiple port (ethernet, RS252, USB) accessibility and local Wi-Fi connection for up to 10 smart devices, the RV55’s impressive 600Mbps downlink speeds provide real-time remote connectivity for monitoring and security cameras and has a GPS/GLONASS receiver for remote tracking.

Its robust construction, low power consumption and 12/24V compatibility make this router ideal for marine use.

RRP: £682

Buy it now on eBay

Our choice

For short, holiday cruising where you want to stay in touch with friends and family, Digital Yacht’s 4G Connect system is an easy and economical method of providing an onboard internet connection for multiple devices.

If, however, you’re planning to go long-term cruising, maybe abroad, you’ll more likely want a flexible, fit-and-forget system that offers optimum data speeds and connection options. The Hubba X 4Go is a fully-marinised MIMO device that has proven to be reliable, fast and easy to install.

If you want to carry on a business from your yacht and staying connected 24/7 is vital, then choose a dual SIM, satcom-enabled device such as the Hubba X4 Global or a bespoke, purpose-built comms system such as the Airlink RV55.

Combined Wi-Fi + cellular routers

Combi routers offer access to Wi-Fi hotspots and the 3G/4G cellular networks, either by plugging in a USB mobile data dongle/antenna, or by providing one or more network SIM card slots plus an integral cellular transceiver and antenna.

As with the shoreside hotspot connection, the cellular link can be made accessible wirelessly or directly to a number of different users and devices within Wi-Fi range of the router.

Glomex Webboat 4G Lite

Glomex Webboat 4G Lite

Available from several mainstream UK chandlers, the weBBoat 4G Lite provides high-speed connections up to 15 miles off the coast. The kit comprises a Wi-Fi antenna, two high-gain 3/4G antennae, a single internal SIM card slot and a super-fast combi 3/4G and Wi-Fi router that creates an onboard hotspot for up to 24 devices to be used.

The unit’s advanced switching software allows ‘least cost routing’, saving the user money by automatically switching to shoreside Wi-Fi when it’s available.

The plug & play weBBoat 4G Lite requires minimal setup and all its functions are controlled by an app, which is available for both Android and iOS devices.

RRP: £500

Buy it now on Amazon (UK)

Buy it now on eBay

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Red-Box-Mini

The Red Box Mini

The stylish red alloy box has a neat row of ports at one end and two Wi-Fi antennae on top. There are two USB ports, one for a 3G or 4G dongle (it doesn’t have its own SIM card slot or external cellular antenna), the other for an optional Wi-Fi Bat hotspot booster. A WAN port allows connection to a satellite comms system and the LAN port is for a direct PC link.

Advanced features include data compression for faster transmission, least-cost routing to automatically activate the cheapest method of connection, an NMEA data multiplexer that can be used to monitor your yacht’s navigation instrument data wirelessly, a GPS tracker and an internet firewall.

RRP: £580

Buy it now on mailasail.com

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Yacht-Router-Locomarine-WiFi-Booster

Yacht Router Micro + Wi-Fi

For Wi-Fi connectivity on this dual-SIM router you simply add the optional Wi-Fi booster s5 to increase the signals from land-based hotspots within a 10-mile range.

RRP: £710

Buy it now on yachtrouter.com

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Digital-Yacht-4G-Connect-Pro

Digital Yacht 4G Connect Pro

The Pro version of Digital Yacht’s 4G Connect router is supplied with its WL510 Wi-Fi booster, which connects to the WAN port and automatically switches between shoreside hotspot Wi-Fi and 4G connectivity, to ensure you get the least expensive connection.

It comes with two external MIMO antennae for more reliable connection and faster data transmissions speeds.

RRP: £690

Buy it now on digitalyacht.co.uk

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-Peplink-Max-Transit-Duo

Peplink Max Transit Duo

Peplink’s Transit Duo LTE router has two modems and SIM slots, providing instant failover from one network to another to ensure you remain connected.

It also supports VPN and provides simultaneous dual-band 801.11ac Wi-Fi for up to 100 users within a 300-metre range.

The router offers single ethernet LAN and WAN ports and integral GPS for tracking. It also sports twin MIMO Wi-Fi antennae (two for each modem), two LTE and one GPS antenna socket.

Input power is 12/24Vdc and it consumes just 18W.

RRP: £875

Buy it now on peplink.com

Our choice

Combination Wi-Fi/cellular devices such as these allow you to hedge your bets and save money at the same time. Mailasail’s Red Box Mini has evolved over the past decade and the company is very experienced in marine comms, so can give helpful advice if you’re installing and setting it up yourself.

For an all-singing/all-dancing system the Peplink Max Transit Duo offers multiple features including ‘failover’ between networks for uninterrupted connection and GPS tracking, or it will create a bespoke installation to perfectly suit all your requirements – at a price.

Latest antenna technology

Though single-pole omnidirectional antennae are easier to use than the flat plate type as they avoid the need for directional tuning, the most recent development in antenna technology is that of MIMO (Maximum Input Maximum Output) devices, whereby a single data stream is broken down into multiple transmissions before being sent out simultaneously over a number of separate antennae.

MIMO receivers have multiple (usually two or four) antennae, allowing them to receive all the signals simultaneously and then recombine the various data streams into one. This process greatly increases data transmission speed, frees up bandwidth and improves signal retention.

Wi-Fi NMEA multiplexers

A multiplexer (mux) is a device that collects data from a variety of sources and at varying BAUD rates (data speeds) and then retransmits them over a single, high-speed output.

A Wi-Fi mux does the same, only it transmits the output data wirelessly. Where this is most useful to boat owners is when you are using a navigation programme on a smartphone or tablet and want to feed the information from your instruments into the device.

Some of the routers we’ve mentioned here feature a built-in Wi-Fi mux, so if you’d also like this facility it might pay to choose one of these to save fitting a separate device.

5G and the ‘Internet of Things’

Recently launched, the super high-speed 5G cellphone network is currently only available in major cities in the UK but will be rapidly expanded over the next few years. In addition to lightning-fast data transmission for messaging, browsing, weather and navigation information downloads, the worldwide rollout of the 5G system will enable the use of the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT).

Initially, this will most likely be used by large vessels to control security and for alarm monitoring but it will rapidly spread to areas such as remote and automatic engine diagnostics and telemetry, software and firmware updating and equipment troubleshooting, on small private craft as well.

Voice over Internet

The easiest method to boost voice calls is to use the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system via an internet connection, although this is only allowed by certain networks and the connection needs to be 4G/LTE for speed. Most routers achieve this by connecting a special VoIP phone into the router’s LAN port (see Hubba Wave), so the number of LAN ports available must be born in mind if you also wish to plug a PC in directly as well.

If you also want to boost cellular voice transmissions then a different type of router is required that can lock onto the network, amplify the signal, and then retransmit it to cellphones within a local zone. Unfortunately, these require type approval by Ofcom in the UK to be legal and are primarily designed to be land-based and their boost power limited.

They are often network specific too, which means if your guests’ phones don’t use the same network provider they won’t work. They’re also very expensive. Hopefully, this will be improved in the near future, especially with the advent of 5G, as there is a temptation for some to buy the much cheaper, non-approved, imported kit.

best-boat-wifi-systems-buying-guide-boatyard-illustration

Conclusion

In the past finding an open Wi-Fi hotspot was the goal of ‘shoestring’ mariners. Marina operators were stringing up Wi-Fi transponders outside their offices and offering their customers unlimited free Wi-Fi, which was great at first but soon became a battle to grab and hold onto the pathetically slow signal they offered.

Certainly, downloading or streaming a film for the kids was a no-no unless you could cope with watching the little circle going around and around in the middle of your screen every few minutes.

More recently, with some of the larger marina operators installing multiple 5GHz high-speed routers (broader bandwidth but weaker signal strength) on individual pontoons or even fingers, the local Wi-Fi has become somewhat quicker and more dependable, but on a busy weekend you’ll still be lucky to send an email if matey in the next berth is busy streaming the entire Downton Abbey boxset.

For this reason, unless you’re lucky and are right near an antenna, I wouldn’t want to have to rely on local Wi-Fi. Besides, even with the best signal booster you’d lose the signal once you’re 2-3 miles offshore, despite the over-optimistic claims some manufacturers make.

Though they’re fine if their limitations are understood and accepted, you need to bear in mind the majority of hotspot signal boosters on the market were designed for static caravan/camper use, not for boats bobbing about at anchor.

These days, with good 3G and 4G cellular reception in most coastal areas and data package costs dropping dramatically, it makes far more sense to opt for the cellular route if staying connected is important. Even a £50 mi-fi will offer better, faster internet than most local hotspots unless, maybe, you’re cruising the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

It’s likely, however, you’ll have family or friends on board who’ll all want to hook up their own devices, so you’ll be needing a multi-user router too. The techies amongst you will probably have no trouble building your own kit from the myriad options available online, but if you’re not that way inclined, I’d give one of the companies who specialise in marine communications a call.

Yes, it’ll cost more initially, but you’ll get specialist advice on your own particular vessel type and specific requirements, plus you’ll have someone to complain to if it goes wrong.

Furthermore, if you choose to go with them, the ‘marinised’ kit they supply should at least be rugged enough to withstand the harsh marine environment and you can be fairly confident that when it says it has a MIMO antenna system it really has and not just a piece of copper plate with a wire badly soldered onto it.

If it’s important for you to stay in touch all the time then I’d recommend a dual-SIM router with ‘failover’, as that will automatically select the best reception between two different networks in weaker signal areas.

However, if the lack of a decent cellular signal is a particular problem where you regularly cruise and staying connected is a vital, then really you have to consider satcoms, or at least choose a cellular router with least-cost routing that can also accept a satellite signal via an WAN port in the future.

Even satcoms are coming down in price, though, and their air/data time becoming more affordable, especially equipment that utilises the Iridium network. Satcoms will become even more reasonable, too, once other new LEO satellite constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink come online in a year or two.

Common boat Wi-Fi acronyms

APN (Access Point Name) – The name of a gateway between a mobile cellular network and the internet. A mobile device must be configured with an APN to determine what type of network connection and service should be provided.
Bandwidth – Data capacity of a communications link.
DCHP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) – Allows simultaneous multiple-user connectivity.
GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) – 2nd generation (2G) digital cellular network.
GSM (Global System for Mobiles) – 3rd generation (3G) digital cellular network.
Kbps/Mbps – Kilabits/Megabits per second data transfer speed.
LAN (Local Area Network) – A computer network which is limited to a small area.
LTE (Long-Term Evolution) – 4G high-speed mobile network.
MIMO (Multiple-Input Multiple-Output) – These receivers have multiple antennae, resulting in improved link retention and increased data capacity.
PDN (Packet Data Network) – A method of transmitting data so that multiple users can share a single connection.
PoE (Power over Ethernet) – Method of powering a device using an ethernet port.
VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) – Phone calls via the Internet.
VPN (Virtual Private Network) – Method of browsing anonymously.
WAN (Wide Area Network) – A computer network unlimited in area, such as the internet.
WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiplexing Access) – Used with the 3G cellular network.
WPS (Wireless Protected Setup) – A button that enables quick connection to Wi-Fi devices.

First published in the November 2020 issue of Motor Boat & Yachting.

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