The Quest for High Speed Internet On A Boat

how to get wireless internet on a boat

This diagram shows how to get wireless internet on a boat. At least, this is how I’m doing it.

It’s been a month since I quit my corporate job and started getting serious about living and working from the boat. For those that don’t read this blog frequently, I took the plunge and started an online marketing business after three years of dabbling in it as a hobby. Since this business is internet based, it has the potential to allow me to cruise full time, but is dependent on a reliable internet connection.

It’s been quite a quest trying to get a reliable, high-speed internet connection on the boat. After achieving a reliable connection, I started hunting around for a reliable high speed connection for the boat. I finally found it! And I know there are a lot of people like me out there hunting for the same thing on their boat. Hopefully the lessons I’ve learned will help you avoid some of the pitfalls that snagged me.

Hacking a Virgin Mobile Phone

internet on a boat

Hacking an Android phone is a great way to get internet on a boat.

Before quitting my job, I had discovered how to hack my cell phone and turn it into a WiFi hotspot. This makes a highly reliable, moderate speed internet connection and will work for most people living on a boat.

Things are a little different from carrier to carrier. I use Virgin Mobile. For $35 I can get 300 minutes and 2.5 GB of 3G data. For $45 I can get 1200 minutes and the same amount of data. No contract. I really love their price point, and the signal is pretty good throughout the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound.

My origonal phone was an Optimus V, which is pretty old these days. It was made before Virgin started selling the WiFi hotspot service for an extra $15 a month. At the time I had to hack the phone in order turn it into a Wifi hotspot because the service was not offered. I recently upgraded to a newer phone, but made sure I could hack it before I purchased it.

The process of hacking an Android smartphone and turning it into a free wifi hotspot is a two-step process. First you have to root the phone. Second you have to install a Wifi teather app, like Barnacle. The first step is slightly different from phone to phone. Step two is the same for every phone.

The 3G connection to the internet is plenty fast enough for browsing websites and checking email. It will bog down with flashy, graphically intense websites, YouTube, or Netflix though. Plus, those videos will eat up your data allotment very quickly. This kind of connection is a great start, but it wasn’t enough for me.

Installing a Wifi Repeater

internet while on a boat

A 1 watt WiFi router can provide long distance internet while on a boat.

Also before leaving my job, I installed a Wirie wifi repeater on the boat. This little beauty has a 1 watt router for long distance (1 to 2 miles, line of sight) Wifi connections. It also has a second 1/2 watt router for wireless connection to your laptop, within the boat. Not only is it a great product, it’s built by a boater for boaters and they back it up with great tech support.

It’s been pretty amazing to get high speed wifi in some places throughout the islands. However, it’s totally dependent on there being an open wifi router within the line of site. As long as you’re boating near a city, and have the freedom to drop anchor wherever you can find a strong signal, this is a great way to get wifi on the go.

In the Puget Sound and San Juan Islands there are plenty of great boating locations that are near major cities. Saratoga Passage is a great winter and summer boating ground. Staying close to Everett or Oak Harbor is sure to allow you easy access to an open wifi router. Along the coast of Anacortes and Bellingham are plenty of great anchorages that will keep you in line of site of the cities. I can usually find a good wifi connection anywhere near these cities.

Broadband Express (BBX) Is a Scam

Home boat office

This is my new ‘home’ boat office. The table is removable while underway, or makes a great table for studying navigation maps while underway.

Unfortunately, there were no open wifi networks near our main dock. Using a smart phone app called ‘Wifi Analyzer’, I was able to track down the locations of all the wifi routers around my boat. However, I was unable to negotiate a deal with any nearby neighbors for access to their internet connection. That was a huge bummer. That left only the Broadband Express (BBX) wifi connection within the marina.

BBX is a nationwide internet service provider (ISP) that specializes in installing wifi routers in marinas. I had subscribed for access for short periods of time in the past. I was always underwhelmed by the speed or reliability of the connection. I had thought that with time perhaps their service had improved. Wrong. After paying $35 for one week of access (outrageous!), I decided to to try it out again.

The hardware connections were nice and strong, but their speed and reliability sucked. In the wee hours of morning, I could get a decent connection to rival my cell phone. Watching a YouTube video was always too much to ask, but as long as I was the only person using the connection I could surf websites reliably. I’d know as soon as other people in the marina started using the connection though, because website surfing would slow to a crawl.

However, I was desperate for a second connection. The phone was great, but I really needed two connections in order to run my business. If one connection had a hiccup for some reason, I really wanted a backup. In my desperation, I made the mistake of signing up for a year of service at $35 per month. Every other service package they offer is ridiculously priced.

That was a huge mistake. Two weeks later, I was pulling my hair out with frustration over the flaky connection. In my desperation I called their tech support to see if there was any way they could upgrade the speed. The answer was no, but the hilarity came when the tech guy tried to connect to their router to diagnose any problems. The connection was so slow and flaky that tech support could not even connect to their own router.

Hughesnet Satellite Internet

satellite internet on a boat

I was able to install the satellite dish on a nearby maintenance building in order to get high speed internet on a boat.

I traveled to Portland to see my brother recently. He lives in a narrow valley that gets poor cell phone signal and is too far away to get cable internet or DSL. He had been subscribed to Hughesnet for several months and loved the service. They provide two-way, high speed satellite internet. Based on his experience, I decided to give them a try. I called them up, subscribed to their service ($40 + $10 equipment rental per month), and they sent out a technician the next morning. I was really impressed with that kind of responsiveness.

The satellite has to be mounted at a fixed location, not the boat. There is equipment for boats, but it’s in the $2000+ range. My plan was to have them mount it to a piling on the dock, but I wasn’t sure if that would work. As it turned out, the technician wasn’t crazy about mounting it to a piling either. Luckily, there was a post at the end of the dock near a maintenance shed that worked well. It had a nice electrical ground, a nice mounting point, and a nice, unobstructed view of the southern horizon. I got permission to mount it there.

boat internet access

The satellite modem and wifi router are installed in the rafters to allow boat internet access.

After a couple hours of work, he had the satellite mounted and I had a wireless router and power installed in the rafters of the maintenance shed. This allowed me to beam the internet connection wirelessly to my boat, pick it up with my Wirie router, and beam it into the boat.

The difference is like night and day. Not only is the connection reliable, it’s fast! I can watch YouTube, Netflix, and browse like crazy. It’s better than the DSL connection I had on my land home, which cost me $70 per month.

The cool thing about the way I have it set up, is that I could rebroadcast it to several other boats and have the bandwidth to not notice. If I stick around in this marina for a while and make friends, I have a good chance of splitting the cost of my connection among two or more people.

Getting Ripped Off By Broadband Express

With a reliable, high speed internet connection on my boat established, the only thing left to do was sever ties with Broadband Express. I called their billing department to cancel service, and was informed that I would be charged $100 for breaking my contract, even though the contract was only two weeks old. I tried to negotiate a charge for two weeks of service, which would only be $70, but with no luck.

The ironic thing was that when I asked to speak to a manager, the person I was talking with informed me that they had no managers. They were all equal in the business. Yet later, he changed his mind and decided to ‘escalate my case’. If there are no managers, then who is he ‘escalating’ it to?

Suffice it to say, I was entirely underwhelmed by BBX. Their tech support was unhelpful, their billing department was confused, their internet connection is flaky and slow, and their prices are outrageous. I encourage anyone and everyone to avoid their service and escape the problems I experienced. Buy a $35 cell phone from Virgin Mobile. It’s the same price and you’ll be much happier with the internet connection. Hopefully with high speed internet becoming more ubiquitous, their business model will continue to crumble and they will soon find themselves going out of business.

Related posts:

Sailing the Gulf Islands, Part 11 (The End)
The Story of Meaning
5 Responses to “The Quest for High Speed Internet On A Boat”
  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for posting this review of BBX (now Beacon WiFi), I use a local (free) access point, but it is somewhat slow. I can watch netflix, but it has to rebuffer about every 10 minutes or so when it is peak use time for others around here.

    I see the BBX signals and assumed it would be a fast service, and am now currently online looking to sign up, and all of a sudden a lot of Scam and Malware warnings are popping up every time I try to log onto their site. Then I found your review. I think I am better off keeping the free, slow connection I already have than dealing with those guys.

  2. Ante Mazalin | SailingEurope says:

    Great stuff about hacking an Android phone and turning it to be a wifi hotspot
    I didn’t know you can do that 🙂 . I’ll try that this summer on my boat.

  3. Carlo says:

    Hi Chris, I’m coming from the very same walk of life – quitting corp job assuming at living and working on a boat. Would very much like getting in touch with you in order to sharing ideas and experiences, my email is carlo DOT delforno AT gmail DOT com


  4. Carlo says:

    BTW, for mobile Internet i use a portale Wi-Fi router From Huawei, you can Find it on Amazon price at around 170€, it’s 4G/Ltd, has 150 mbps bandwidth and works like a charme

  5. David Willard says:

    I did the t-mobile hotspot hack for a deacon who was travelling and needed cell phone access plug several hot spot access points available he was demonstrating that a church, parish, or event could be wifi covered for cheap for simple email and web page access. The homeless need wifi and basic internet too. With the plethora of cheap phones out there, they can reach necessary services on the internet directly.
    However if you don’t select the data plan with t-mobile , they will notice and shut you off in short order.
    It is possible with todays off the shelf routers to bridge them together to expand coverage.
    Also you can look into for high power and even more advanced firmware to older routers and new ones for Engineer level networking solutions.
    You can get $10-15 WAP routers in surplus stores like FreeGeek in Portland, OR or Ebay.
    Then get a really good 10-18 dbi wifi antenna (omni for some) to anchor out of marina to avoid those fees. :} Albeit you have to have some wifi on land with a plan.
    In theory, if you are at the same marina for a while you could go with cable and wifi to your boat or charge a simple sharing fee with the marina users on a separate wifi channel. (oh, but that would be Anti-capitalism and possibly Socialism)

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