Marine Wi-Fi systems
There are many manufacturers of marine Wi-Fi systems. Some manufacturers offer the inexpensive kind that plug directly into a USB port or work via a USB-extension cable. Examples include the WaveRV Marine WiFi System from RadioLabs, which is billed as one of the simplest Wi-Fi solutions on the market and is Mac compatible. The 5MileWIFI system incorporates a 1,000mW built-in bi-directional amplifier; the computer supplies the power. The EUB-362 Ext 802.11b/g USB 2.0 Wi-Fi adapter from EnGenius Technologies is another affordable option.
The MWB-200 Version 6 wireless bridge from Port Networks is also portable, like the above units, but it’s not a USB device. Rather, it has built-in Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) capability, requiring only a single network data/power cable connection between the unit and the computer’s Ethernet port. The 12-volt system (it also comes in 110-volt AC) includes a 12-volt PoE injector kit. The company also offers a permanently installed model, the MWB-250.
These units typically run off the computer’s power source and use an external omni-directional antenna. This antenna can be permanently mounted on the stern rail and connected when you want Wi-Fi access, or the antenna can remain portable. Some sailors attach the antenna to sail cars, insert the cars into the mainsail track, and use a halyard to hoist the antenna up the stick. This arrangement keeps the antenna from flapping in the wind and the greater height improves signal reception.
No installation hassles and relatively low cost make these systems attractive for use at a marina, on a mooring, or at anchor when long-range access isn’t a major concern, though some of the manufacturers claim a range of up to five miles. Prices for the most-basic USB system start from as low as around $150, but spending more (closer to $500) will buy you a system with greater power and a more effective high-gain omni-directional antenna.
Installations can get labor-intensive with more complicated systems. Mounting the external antenna at spreader height on the mast or at the masthead improves range, but it also means installing a weatherproof transmitter nearby to reduce signal loss that results in long coaxial-cable runs between the antenna and the transmitter. A power and a data cable, or a single PoE power/data cable with 12-volt DC or 110-volt AC injectors, is also required.
Many systems can be mounted belowdeck with an external weatherproof antenna mounted on the stern rail or other location, but range isn’t as great as it would be with a masthead antenna. On the plus side, these configurations are easier and less-costly to install, and they don’t require weatherproof enclosures for the transmitter/receiver, thus reducing the price.
Among the manufacturers offering a variety of powerful Wi-Fi systems with greater range and onboard wireless-networking capability for multiple users are GEOSat Solutions and Radio-at-Sea. These systems obviously cost more than the USB types; some can exceed $2,000.
GEOSat Solutions’s Wave WiFi EC-Series includes the EC-AP-HP Ethernet converter and bridge. It has a range of 12 miles and a built-in hotspot to allow multiple computers equipped with integrated Wi-Fi hardware—or with PC card Wi-Fi adapters—to surf the Web simultaneously. Radio-at-Sea’s Syrens Onboard WiFi Systems Max-Power models have ranges of up to 12 miles and access points (hotspots) for onboard wireless Internet from shore-based Wi-Fi hotspots.
There are all kinds of Wi-Fi solutions for your boat, ranging from downright cheap to very expensive, but with so many choices available, chances are you will find the right system at a price that fits your budget. The proliferation of Wi-Fi access at marinas and elsewhere on the waterfront means access to a free (or for pay) hotspot is only going to increase, making all of the information you need about weather, destinations, news, email, stock reports, and much more all just a few keystrokes away.
David W. Shaw is the author of seven books. He is a longtime cruiser and contributor to SAIL.