Wi-Fi on the Water
By Tom Neale, 8/28/2006
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Tom sitting in front of his computer on “Chez Nous,” on line, looking at the BoatUS site.
I know of a guy who cruised up and down the east coast stopping and starting every time he found an open Wi-Fi signal. These would usually come from homes on the shore, sometimes from businesses, towns, or marinas. He’d plop down the anchor and do business on the internet for awhile, and then move on. It may sound crazy, but more and more folks on boats want to get on the internet even while they’re out. Big changes are making this easier and better.
Lots of marinas have Wi-Fi. Some have signed up with a provider and you have to pay to use the service. The provider has come out and put in some “black boxes” and antennas, and set up the coverage. He normally pays the marina a part of the proceeds. More and more marinas have Wi-Fi for free for their customers. The cost of setting it up isn’t huge assuming you have a high speed carrier already via cable, a phone company or satellite and assuming you have a computer—and most marina offices have these elements already. I’ve heard reports of marinas installing marina wide Wi-Fi for well under a thousand bucks. This doesn’t sound like a bad investment if you want to attract boating customers. When they check in you give them a pass word to use the service and you have a very happy customer, who’s probably going to return rather than go to a marina without this benefit.
Some harbors are doing it for free. These include Hampton, Virginia, Annapolis, Maryland, downtown Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and more. Some support the free Wi-Fi by selling ads for local businesses. Sure, you have to deal with the ads, but this isn’t so bad considering what you’re getting and considering that if you just pulled into the harbor you might want to know something about what’s available ashore.
Equipment that we as boaters need to suck in Wi-Fi where it’s available is becoming more readily available, better, and cheaper. Most of us already have laptops with a built in Wi-Fi card. This is good, but they were originally intended for all those cool people you see in the TV ads sitting around in airports or hotel lobbies making laptop millions while bragging to complete strangers about how “my internet is faster than your internet”. If you’re sitting down at a nav station in a boat, probably only a few feet above the waterline (or less) and you’re a bit removed from the signal (there’re not many boats floating around in hotel lobbies), the built in Wi-Fi card may not do much good. But you can improve that.
We bought a Linksys ® Wireless-G USB network adapter with what they call a “speed booster” at CompUSA in Ft. Lauderdale last year. We installed the program, plugged it into a USB port and mounted the antenna (using a 6 foot USB cord extension) up on deck where it gets a much better view than the built in computer card internal antenna down below. And this will also work with a desktop through a USB port. This is important because some of us have desktops on the boat since they’re much cheaper, but they usually don’t have those built in cards or a PC slot that will accept a card.
But with the equipment mentioned above, you still have to find a Wi-Fi signal that’s close enough to get it. Wi-Fi transmissions are typically very short range. There are spots in the Bahamas where boats cluster for weeks around Wi-Fi hot spots, more eager to have internet access than to cruise around. There are antennas and other equipment on the market that significantly increase your range, but only by so much.
Here’s where it gets much better. We recently bought the KR1. It’s a “box” (called an “EVDO router”, for under $300) made by Kyocera into which you insert a Verizon or Sprint wireless EVDO card such as the KPC 650 (also made by Kyocera, for Verizon). This card also fits into the PC slot of a laptop, but as mentioned above, a laptop at sea level out in a big harbor probably isn’t going to be getting much signal. And the card does not fit into most desktops unless you install additional dedicated hardware on the desktop—and installing additional hardware on a computer, as you know, sometimes causes more problems than it solves.
This Verizon card doesn’t need a Wi-Fi hot spot to get you wireless broadband speed. You just need to be within range of one of the Verizon cell phone towers that is equipped to deliver that (and pay the monthly fee for its “National Access/Broadband Access” service). Verizon Wireless started its program of high speed data transmission several years ago and has been steadily expanding its coverage in metropolitan areas. The coverage isn’t great for boaters (we seem to have a tendency to want to get away from high population centers), but it’s getting better. And when you’re in an area where there isn’t a Verizon tower with broadband speed equipment, you can usually get Verizon’s 1XRTT speed which is much better than dial-up. If you’re in an area that doesn’t even have that available, you can probably get Verizon’s slower Quick2Net speed which is much better than nothing at all. Rates vary with different plans.
With the KR1, you can have your very own Wi-Fi hot spot on your boat. It’ll use the card to get the Verizon signal and transmit via its antenna and the computers on your boat can pick it up via their built in Wi-Fi cards, or a device such as the Linksys ® Wireless-G USB network adapter. If you want a hard wired network for your boat’s computers you can use Ethernet cables and plug them into one of the 4 LAN ports on the back of the box and into the LAN port on your computer. The speed you get depends on the local tower’s capability and the strength of its signal. But you can get greater range from the towers with equipment such as the antennas and amplifiers made by Digital Antenna of Fort Lauderdale (877 433 7007 www.DigitalAntenna.com).
The KR1 being used throughout the boat to help get on line.
Equipment such as the KR1 is cutting edge and with anything new (it’s only been available for around six months), especially in electronics, especially in wireless, you can expect technical issues. You may need customer support by people who actually know what they’re talking about (unlike me). We got our KR1 through a company called Booster-Antenna (847 462 4004, http://www.EVDOinfo.com, http://www.EVDOforums.com, http://Booster-Antenna.com .) It was around $20 cheaper than the price direct from Kyocera and we’ve found their technical help and expertise to be refreshingly superb and actually relevant to boating applications. There are other products available, much more expensive, but I’m sure that more inexpensive ones will come. For example, there’s a box called the “HotBox” by Mobile Wireless Solutions which costs over $800 (and as much as another $400 to get it up and running on your boat). It has only one LAN port but, according to its manufacturers, has other features not available in the KR1. So far, we’re happy with the KR1 and glad we have it.
I’m far from being an expert on any of this. Some of the things I’ve said may not be precisely accurate, although I’ve tried. I’m just a boat bum who needs to get on the internet to make a living. I’m sending this to you via wireless to the internet from my boat. (I also get weather info etc. etc., and my wife wants to get on with her computer at the same time.) These are some of the things I’ve been dealing with. I’m not writing this to give definitive answers. I’m just writing to turn you on to the growing neat options that you have if you have a need to get on line while on your boat. Check it all out, talk to the experts, and do what’s best for you.
Of course there’s always the risk of others hacking into your computer and there could be serious legal issues with using a Wi-Fi transmission spot without permission of its owner. Encrypt any Wi-Fi router you may get.
Wireless, almost by definition, is not going to be always perfect, and we expect and receive disruptions caused by many things, but you can’t have everything—unless maybe you’re sitting in an airport lobby instead of on your boat.
Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale