In an upcoming post, I will attempt to present the options that I am aware of on the market that provide Long-Range Cellular and WiFi connectivity for boaters. But first, I’d like to detail some of the features that I believe are important in such a solution, features that I look for when selecting which products to offer Sea-Tech Systems customers as well as for my own use. The following is my opinion of course but it comes from 20 years of IT experience as well as my experience running a business from a boat as well as simply living and cruising on a boat full-time. These are not in order of priority.

  • Plug and Play – The whole solution should be easy to use and easy to install from the physical installation to the software configuration. While there are cruisers who are technical and want to tinker, or have every possible feature and option, this adds complexity.  What we’ve found is that most cruisers just want something that works without computer science or programming experience, that they do not need to tinker with constantly.
  • Marinized – The solution should be designed with installation on a boat in mind. This means it should not only be ruggedized for wind and saltwater, but the exterior mounting systems should be secure, take cable connections into account, and use standard antenna mounts that are used for every other antenna on a boat (ie: 1”-14TPI threaded pipe mounts should be supported).  Cables that route above decks should be UV resistant and durable, and quantity kept to a minimum.
  • DC Powered – The solution should be designed to be powered by a boats 12V DC system, not requiring an Inverter.
  • Integrated, Not Isolated – The solution should be able to integrate into a boat’s local WiFi network if one already exists, and/or should come with a local WiFi router. Some devices have a WiFi network built-in to the exterior mounted antenna module, which is a nice feature, until you realize that your computer struggles to connect to that network from the vberth due to the signal strength loss as it goes through the deck(s) and/or bulkheads(s).  A below-decks wifi access point for phones and laptops is key.
  • Upgradeable – The solution should ideally allow a customer to start with cellular or WiFi, and later add the other when desired, without having to switch to a whole new solution.
  • Universal – The cellular hardware in the solution should support global cellular frequencies. Many of the solutions on the market, while great in other ways, only support North America or European networks, but not both.   If you are never going to leave the US or the Med, this may be fine, but many Sea-Tech Systems customers desire to travel internationally, and don’t want to buy things twice.  Making sure your cellular router works around the world is important.  Did you know that just within the Caribbean you will find both North American and European cellular frequencies in use?  For this reason, a global cellular solution is important to most cruisers.
  • Unlocked – The cellular router should allow you to use any SIM card you may find where you travel. Some devices come with an embedded SIM card, and you have to pay for service on that particular card.  But this limits your service to only one provider, in only the areas they service, at only the rates they offer.  Not awesome for cruisers travelling around the world hoping to control their budgets.
  • Smart and Controlled – Cellular data costs money, either monthly or by amount of data used, or both. The cellular connection should be able to be locked down to only allow specific devices to access the Internet while using cellular.  Without some sort of control mechanism built in, every device on your boat’s WiFi network will be downloading app updates all day, costing you potentially hundreds of dollars.

One more thing–While not specifically relating to cellular, since many of these solutions include or integrate with a WiFi Extender, we should note that 5.8Ghz WiFi is becoming more widespread over time.  While not required, the optional upgrade to a “Dual-Band” WiFi Extender is ideal.  Some marinas already have both 2.4Ghz and 5.8Ghz WiFi networks implemented, and the 5.8Ghz networks have less interference and better signal separation compared to 2.4Ghz.  In addition, most of the boats in a marina have a 2.4Ghz network inside, which further interferes with the marina’s own 2.4Ghz WiFi.   Using 5.8Ghz for the marina-side connection, if available, can drastically improve your connection performance.   What’s more, 5.8Ghz networks will become more popular over time, so this is also a way to future-proof your investment.  So, having a dual-band option for cruisers who want less interference and better future-proofing is important.

Stay tuned for my next post, a sort of “buyers guide” to the Long-Range Cellular and WiFi solutions currently offered to boaters.

If you are looking for a satellite, wifi, and/or cellular device for email, tracking, sms, phone, and/or web browsing, Sea-Tech Systems is here to help.  We have communications solutions for every cruiser.