Getting online while cruising

Navadra Fiji

How do you get online as an active cruiser?

On one hand, the prospect of cruising means freedom from the always-on, always-connected world. Liberating, right? It can be. But if you’re like me, you might get kind of twitchy. I admit: the first year was hard. It was used to instant gratification for simple tasks. Before long, though, we became accustomed to going without access, and changing the way we consume media to minimizing our use when we could get online.

At the moment, we’ve lucked into a great internet connection. Scoring a login to wifi from the hotel fronting Totem’s marina berth means we have a window of unlimited data on a pretty good signal. The options were suddenly overwhelming, and I posted a “what should we read/watch/download” plea to Totem’s Facebook page, because really, we’re just not in tune with popular media. Among the responses (great ideas, thank you!) was a question: how do we usually get online? So Andrew M., this is for you!

Hello, mobile world

This isn’t intended as a review of all options available, but a window into what we do- as cruisers who want to stay connected. What we do has evolved a lot over the last six years, and I expect it will continue to change with technology. For the last few years, we’ve gotten online almost exclusively by purchasing pre-paid data plans from the mobile network of whatever country we’re in. It’s easy to pick up a SIM card and a data package on arrival, and here in Southeast Asia, cell towers are nearly ubiquitous. With access to that network, it’s not a problem to get online just about everywhere.

You need to have something to put that SIM card in, of course. We use a small portable modem that creates wifi on board for multiple devices to connect. With a smartphone, you can turn it into a hotspot and use a single SIM to get both local phone and online access. Otherwise, a cheaper option is a dongle that just plugs into your computer. The modems are easy to find at retail outlets for mobile service.

What does it cost? The SIM cards are usually just a few dollars, and for about $20 in this region, we get a 30-day data package of four or five gigabytes. There’s no streaming Netflix or ESPN at that price (and often, at the available bandwidth), but it’s fine for weather, news, email, and a good dose of surfing. And, it works just about everywhere we’ve sailed from Indonesia through Thailand.

What about at sea?

When we’re at sea, or countries like Papua New Guinea where mobile networks are scarce, we use our HF radio.  [Feb. 2017 UPDATE: since January 2015, we’ve primarily used an Iridium GO and not HF radio. The HF radio is still valued for nets, but overwhelmingly, we do all communication from the GO: weather updates, news, email, and update our blog, Facebook, twitter, etc. It’s slow, but it’s great to stay in touch and vastly more flexible than the former SSB + Pactor we relied on. Details about how we use the Iridium GO in this post.] It is tremendous to be able to stay in touch from literally the middle of nowhere.

Computer lessons

computer lessons on an island without roads, power, water, or a mobile network – PNG

Then there’s Wifi

In 2008, one of the last things we did before sailing south of the border was buy a wifi booster antenna. This was really helpful during our first year in Mexico, since we were often near areas with wifi signals (gringo tourists and hotspots go together) and if we stayed in a spot more than a few days, we could suss out a good network. Most are locked, but buying access directly or patronizing the host business translated internet at anchor later. Then, the Banda Ancha (broadband) service started. When you’re on the move, it’s easier to go with this mobile network service than hunt a decent hotspot when you move to a new place.

Found a hotspot

finding wifi at a restaurant fronting the anchorage – Mexico

The wifi booster antenna was really helpful for us in parts of the Pacific. French Polynesia had private services with coverage in popular anchorages. It wasn’t cheap, but it was internet access, and anchor in some of the most spectacular places we’ve cruised! I didn’t look into mobile broadband plans back then, and it might be an option now- but from what we hear, most boats do the same thing we did four years ago.

Atuona's inner harbor

Atuona, Hiva Oa. Insanely expensive and slow, but hey, there was wifi!

In Australia, there weren’t any wifi networks to take advantage of (at least, not affordably) so we switched to broadband mobile. At some point the wifi setup succumbed to the marine environment and we took it down.

[Feb. 2017 UPDATE: skipping through the windward islands of the Caribbean last year, we found many times we could have used wifi from a beach cafe we patronized out in the anchorage if we’d had a booster. We’ve since added one to Totem. Don’t expect this to regularly get you free internet, but do expect it to give you access to networks you wouldn’t reach otherwise.]

If I could add to our setup…

We’d spend the $$ for a cell-signal-booster on our wifi booster. The cell signals are usually strong enough, but a boost is nice, and it’s a convenient way to create a network on the boat from one SIM. But convenience at a cost, and we’re budget minded! For now, it’s a luxury item that doesn’t fit in our budget.

Bottom line

If your habits today include streaming entertainment, online gaming, or other high bandwidth fun…there’s a change waiting for you when you start actively cruising! Unless you have deep pockets, the kind of access that’s a basic utility in most suburban homes will go away. If you’re in a country or locality long enough you can tap into postpaid plans that are more affordable, but then you’re probably not cruising anymore.  But for the active cruiser, it’s not such a big deal. You’ll have plenty of new ways to satisfy your needs, and that twitch will go away eventually.

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4 Responses to Getting online while cruising

  1. Ley Langford September 8, 2014 at 7:27 am #

    Hi totem Crew,

    Like you, we are heavy internet users when in range of land.

    We have been using the Rogue Wi-Fi ( see here – http://svcrystalblues.blogspot.sg/2012/05/wi-fi-onboard.html), successfully for quite a few years now. If no free wi-fi hot spot is available, we connect the Rogue to our smart phone through it’s own hot spot and then with a D-Link router we share the internet to all devices on the boat. In most places in Asia unlimited internet access via a phone data plan works out to be $1 a day.

    Initial investment is a little expensive, but we believe we have recouped this over the past years by being able to joining free wi-fi spots, often quite long distances away, or by using the cheap phone/ data plans available in Asia.

    Cheers, Ley Langford

    • Behan September 8, 2014 at 10:58 am #

      Ley, that looks like a great solution on Crystal Blues. As you say, a little costly up front but nice when you can get free wifi and handy for sharing a cheaper mobile phone plan throughout your boat. For boats spending time in regions with cheaper mobile data, like much of Asia, the value definitely makes sense! In other places, not so much, but it’s still a good option to consider. For example, during the years we used a wifi antenna, I doubt think we covered the cost, but it provided access that we really wanted- that made it worthwhile. It is SO much nicer to get wifi in the cockpit than sitting on the steps of the post office- the other local option in much of French Polynesia! (and side note but I am so sorry we missed you in Keppel last week- SO MUCH FUN!)

  2. Stephan September 8, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

    Hello

    I have recently installed a 4G(LTE) WiFi router for marina use. I buy a prepaid 4G dataplan(Celcom in Malaysia), insert the SIM into the router, and use the router’s built-in WiFi to connect multiple devices.

    I have just purchased an external 4G antenna , and hope to boost my 4G signal pickup a little.

    Cheers
    Stephan

    • Behan September 9, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

      Sounds like a good plan Stephan!

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