Internet connectivity

There are many different solutions for those of us that need Internet connectivity wherever they go. Here are some solutions that are known to work well.


Some of the time, you can get away with the built in WiFi in your laptop or iPhone, but not very often if you want to do this actually on the boat. Marinas are usually the only place with any chance of coverage without any help from special antennas. If you are prepared to install an external antenna then you can get signals from up to 2 Km away, so you can be on a cheap mooring or visitors pontoon and get a signal from a nearby marina, cafe or provider such as The Cloud. The key with booster antennae is to get them as high up the mast as you can get away with. You want an omnidirectional antenna such as the ones shown on this page: and you will need a WiFi adapter with a detachable antenna so you can plug in your booster aerial.

Mobile phone / 3G

The cheapest and fastest truly mobile Internet solution is to use a USB dongle plugged into a laptop. You can of course use a browser on a mobile phone, but even an iPhone doesn’t work brilliantly so I’m using a laptop as a baseline here. With netbooks (small laptops such as the Asus EEE PC) available from GBP 50 on eBay these days, you can even have a dedicated laptop for the boat. You can of course use such a netbook for weather, chartplottter, etc. but we’ll leave that to one side for now.

In the UK, the cheapest provider as of 18/7/2009 for occasional use is They will sell you an USB dongle from GBP 1 – GBP 99 depending on whether you are on contract or Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) and what offers they have on at the time. I personally prefer the PAYG option as you can’t accidently run up huge bills. However, it costs more – GBP 25 for 7GB of transfer on PAYG, GBP 15 for 15GB on contract. You can see a coverage map here:

In Switzerland, the cheapest provider as of 18/7/2009 is They have a contract where you pay CHF 1 for the USB dongle, CHF 10 month and then CHF 3.50 per day for unlimited use from when you first make a connection on that day until midnight the same day. So if you never use it, you pay CHF 10 per month, if you use it for one day a month, you pay CHF 13.50, two days a month CHF 17.00, etc. All the major lakes are covered – you can see a coverage map here:

If you have more than one WiFi device on your boat (e.g. laptop, iPod Touch and Internet radio), I have found the Billion BiPAC 7402GX router works well. It can run off a 12V supply and you plug your 3G dongle into the back of it and then it allows devices to connect by WiFi or Ethernet cable and share the connection.

Three are about to launch a portable WiFi hotspot/router which will allow multiple computers to share a 3G connection over WiFi – this should be the perfect 3G solution once it is available. It is supposed to be available in Three shops from 18th September 2009.

Don’t forget to put a password on the WiFi connection of either of these solutions unless you want all the boats within 100m+ to eat through your data transfer allowance in a few minutes…

Nathan Whitworth writes:

I’ve very rarely not managed to get a connection with in all the places I’ve been so far (Thames and East Coast), even out at sea. The windfarm boats use dongles and they are 14 miles offshore!

One tip – I have a 5m USB extension cable which, weather permitting, gets hauled up the flag halyard to the spreaders. I have got a connection in that case when it wasn’t possible at deck level.


Although the 3G option will work on many moorings and marinas, if you need guaranteed connectivity from the middle of an ocean, then you need an Iridium phone with a data kit. This is slow – about one thousandth the speed of 3G, but is fine for email and phone calls and has truly global coverage (even at the poles). You can get a secondhand Iridium phone (e.g. an old 9505) with a data kit for about GBP 500 on eBay and you then buy prepaid minutes or data transfer allowances from service providers such as It’s not cheap but you can make a phone call or check your email anywhere in the world.


The final option for offshore, high speed connectivity is an Inmarsat service. They used to have a service called Regional BGAN which had a terminal for GBP 199. You had to put it in a homemade stabilized radome, but it worked OK. Unfortunately this is now discontinued and the replacement is the Sailor FleetBroadband 150. This uses a 25 cm radome that looks as if it would fit neatly on a Corribee lazerette hatch for that mini ocean racer look. It has coverage most of the way to the poles as shown on this coverage map (second page):

Being brand new however, there is no cheap secondhand/ex-rental kit to buy, so one is looking at GBP 2999 for an installation. Looks like I’ll be waiting a few years before trying this solution, however Regional BGAN kit started at the same price so it won’t be forever.


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