Reliable high speed internet for liveaboard cruisers
Updated: Sep 30, 2022
Without a doubt, one of the most frequent questions we get from fellow voyagers, cruisers, and aspiring sailors is, “How do you get reliable internet on your boat while traveling?” While high speed connectivity may be a nice to have for some, it’s an absolute must for us since I still work full time. After a bit of research and some initial trial and error, I’ve figured out a setup that works the majority of the time. We’ve been using it successfully now for more than a year for full time work, home schooling, and streaming our favorite tv shows and movies.
In this post, we’re going to share everything we’ve learned and all the equipment you need to mirror our setup and enjoy reliable, high speed internet on your boat.
Note: We're not selling anything here — no hustle, no strings attached. We're just creating this post to be helpful because it is such a popular topic and it is easier to point our friends and friends-to-be to this post in the future than rehashing the topic all the time.
Connectivity helped enable the freedom to live our dream
When we made the decision to live aboard our sailboat full time, one of the most important considerations was how to maintain an income while cruising. We aren't ready to retire and we didn’t want to burn through all our hard earned savings. So, why not keep working and making a reliable income, saving money, and enjoying great benefits while also living the sailing nomad lifestyle as a family? I mean, why wouldn't we do that?!?
Many internet options explored but ultimately ruled out
Before we cast off the dock lines, we knew reliable internet was something we had to figure out. There had to be a solution. So, we're going to take a look at the options we initially explored but ultimately ruled out:
Wi-Fi Signal Booster/Antenna - A WiFi signal booster and antenna can enable you to pick up a WiFi signal 5-10 miles away. The problem is finding an unprotected WiFi network to connect to has become increasingly rare. And, as most folks know, these networks tend to be painfully slow and have limited range. Unprotected networks, like those you might find at a marina, restaurant, or coffee shop tend to be very congested and can be risky to use for security reasons. For these reasons, we decided investing in a Wi-Fi signal booster was not worth the investment and would not be able to reliably meet our needs.
Satellite - the biggest advantage is satellite can be used pretty much anywhere, as long as you have an open view of the sky. The biggest drawback is satellite is literally the most expensive way to connect, and the connection speeds are like using archaic dial-up. Even with an Unlimited data plan, our IridiumGo can only support light internet browsing and text only email. It definitely cant be used for video conferencing or sharing of large files, which means it can’t be used to conduct routine business. That said, it can support global voice calls (paid per minute), SMS, GRIB weather downloads, and GPS tracking, which are all very useful for traveling offshore or in places with no mobile reception. We do have an IridiumGo with an Unlimited data plan through PredictWind, but this solution is primarily for safety and emergency use. It simply cannot be relied on to meet our needs for full time remote work or homeschooling.
SpaceX's Starlink - is still a relatively new, low-latency high speed satellite internet service that is in beta in the US and is promising in terms of potential to deliver broadband internet speeds that rival 4G and even 5G speeds. According to Elon Musk, Starlink is not meant to replace broadband or mobile data, but to expand the availability of internet in underserved geographies.
UPDATE - we installed Starlink on our boat in the Spring of 2022 and it quickly became our primary internet solution aboard "Koinonia." Read our post on "How to install Starlink on a boat."
Smart Phone Hotspot - I already have a mobile phone with unlimited data and hotspot, so why not just use it? After all, a smartphone will deliver fast internet at 4G or even 5G speeds. And while that isn’t quite as fast as land based broadband, it’s pretty darn close and way faster than satellite and fully mobile. Unfortunately, there are two major drawbacks to using your mobile phone’s hotspot for your primary internet solution:
Nearly all smartphone data plans will throttle (seriously slow down) your hotspot connection speed after only 5-20G of data usage in a month. That’s not much data and it can be exhausted in a matter of a day or two, especially if you are working full time and streaming video conference calls all day.
Your smart phone’s range/ reception is very limited, especially from inside the cabin of your boat or in a rural anchorage. You can try positioning the phone on the cabin top or hoisting the phone up the mast in a bag, but this is obviously not a sustainable solution and could result in damaging the phone or losing it overboard.
We did opt for a GoogleFi phone because it is a dual purpose device that serves as a personal phone as well as an emergency backup for hotspot data. Again, the data is throttled once we exceed 20G. Some advantages of this service are that Google phones have the ability to dynamically swap between carrier towers to maintain connectivity in more places and can even be used internationally for up to 6 months without needing a different SIM. Also, the Pixel phone has an amazing camera — definitely superior to my iPhone 11. Our biggest complaint is the dynamic network switching algorithm seems to work but it certainly isn’t optimizing for the best connection, when compared to our other devices that run on a dedicated network, like Verizon or AT&T. This leads us to believe Fi optimizes for the cheapest carrier connection, not the best, which is super annoying.
Our internet solution of choice
UPDATE: since the writing of this blog post, technology has changed significantly. Our choice for primary internet service on boats is now Starlink. You can read more in our post "How to install Starlink on a boat."
That said, we still leverage an unthrottled, unlimited hotspot data plan for our secondary internet service and this is still a valuable solution for cruisers and voyagers who are working full time remotely as digital nomads or those who need to stay reliably connected. This starts with finding a provider who specializes in these data plans.
The first thing you need to know is “unthrottled“ and “unlimited“ data isn't something any provider will actually be able to deliver all the time. Since mobile data rides on the same network/ towers as regular mobile voice and data traffic, carriers will always prioritize voice over data. If your area is currently experiencing heavy congestion, it will result in throttled data speeds. This is automatically monitored and enacted by the network’s software. The good news is we have never encountered this problem since we are rarely cruising in areas where congestion might be a problem.
Also, “unlimited“ isn’t really unlimited. It just means a very high threshold. Anything above about 500GB per month could get you flagged as an “abusive user“ by the carriers. The fact is, these mobile networks aren’t designed to serve as replacement for broadband internet service at scale. So if your device is sucking up tons of this bandwidth over short amounts of time (ex. data intensive video streaming or online gaming), you may be at risk of getting flagged by the carrier and having your line permanently disabled. 500GB is a lot of data. You should have no trouble staying under that threshold with normal usage, including work and streaming music and a few movies a day.
How we set up internet on our boat
Okay, let‘s stop beating around the bush and get into the nitty gritty. We’re going to tell you our secrets for how to get online and stay reliably connected on your boat.
For us, a reliable mobile network afloat meant:
A mobile hotspot provider with dependable service and great customer support.
Redundant, carrier diversifier data plans.
Routers that are easy to configure and perform with minimal fuss.
Optimized mobile signal strength and range (our system has delivered mobile data up to 20 miles offshore).
Hardware made for the demands of the marine environment.
Disclaimer: we are not marine electronic installers. We do not sell hardware or hotspot data plans, nor are we affiliated in any way with anyone who does. We receive no monetary benefit from this post. This is old fashioned, free advice offered to our fellow cruisers based on our real-world experience.
Our Mobile Hotspot Service Provider
After trying out a few different hotspot data providers, we have had excellent service and support from Viper Broadband. The service is reasonably priced (currently $120 US per month, per line). We have an AT&T plan and a Verizon plan for redundancy, each on separate dedicated routers. While we have never pushed the limits on usage, we understand you can expect to have unthrottled, and virtually unlimited service. You will need to purchase your router from Viper, which is a little pricey but worth it. We have been very pleased so far and highly recommend this provider for their excellent pricing, communication, and service.
Required Hardware to Optimize Mobile Signal Reception
This is the inventory with links to most of the equipment you will need to maximize the effective range and quality of your mobile data signal. We do not get any affiliate kick-backs for these links, we just used Amazon for simplicity.
1x Wilson Electronics 9.88-inch 4G Wide Band Omni-Directional Marine Antenna w/ SMA Male Connector. This antenna should be mounted outdoors as high as possible, since mobile signal reception is based on line of sight, like VHF. The top of your mast or cabin is the ideal location, but a spreader or electronics pedestal will suffice.
2x Low Loss RG6 coaxial cable between the outdoor antenna and the WeBoost mobile signal booster and from the booster to the indoor antenna.
2x RF Coax female to SMA male adapter to connect the cable from the outdoor antenna to the input side of the WeBoost mobile signal booster and from the output side of the booster to the indoor antenna.
1x weBoost Drive Reach - Vehicle Cell Phone Signal Booster | works to boost 5G & 4G LTE signals for all carriers. This device comes with a tiny outdoor and indoor antenna but you can toss these.
1x 12v cigarette plug adapter to accept the plug to power the WeBoost signal booster.
1x 12v low amp draw computer fan. This should me mounted to move air across the aluminum fins on the mobile signal booster. The booster tends to get warm, especially in warm climates and we learned a computer fan will keep it cool.
2-4x SMA Female to SMB Plug Adapters. You only need one foe the install but they have a tendency to lose their “grip” over time and need to be replaced about every 6 months, so it’s good to keep a few on hand.
1x Wilson Electronics 311155 Dual-Band 75 Wall-Mount Panel Antenna. This should be mounted as close to the location of your router(s) as possible.
1-2x unlocked mobile routers. You can install just one router and one carrier but we recommend having two for redundancy on separate carrier networks. Depending on your service provider, the router may be purchased separately or as part of activating your data plan. We have a permanently mounted router as well as NightHawk M1 mobile router, which can be mounted or disconnected from the mounting cradle and carried for use on the go, thanks to it’s small size and long battery life. The NightHawk router only works with AT&T but it’s our favorite router for its small footprint and versatility.
Thats it! This entire system can be installed DIY in a day or less. The DC power draw of the entire system is less than 2 AMPs, including the router. If you are really conserving AMPs, just be sure to wire everything to a dedicated switch on your DC panel so you can turn off the power anytime it‘s not in use.
We hope this post will help other cruisers in search of a solution for staying connected. We would like to hear about your solutions for staying connected and any feedback or suggestions to improve our setup. Also, check out our new page on No Foreign Land to track our journey!