Connecting to the Internet Whilst Afloat
A common question that has been asked since the explosion of the World Wide Web and the use of email, Skype, Whatsapp and social media sites for communicating is: “How do I get the internet when I’m on the boat?”
Initial things to consider are why you want the internet on the boat and where you intend cruising. The answer to these questions is important because it will decide what you need and to some extent, the costs you are going to be faced with.
Smart Phones, Tablets and Mobile Internet Options
To access things like emails, Facebook, Twitter and view websites, you can get by with a modern smartphone or tablet running on a 3G or a 4G network. However, if you need to use a laptop or notebook for more complex tasks, or because you prefer a bigger screen and a proper keyboard, there are a number of ways to connect to the internet. You can set up a local Wi-Fi ‘Hotspot’ using a 3G/4G travel router or your smartphone. Alternatively an internet dongle can be connected to one of the USB ports on your computer to give a direct connection to the mobile network. Finally you can use a cable, or Bluetooth, to make a connexion between the computer and your connected mobile phone.
Mobile phone, tablet, travel router and internet dongle connections all come with varying pay monthly and pay-as-you-go options. There are data calculator tools online that you can use to work out how much data you are likely to use and how much you might need to spend. For example, if you mainly want to read text emails, your data usage will be relatively low. Streaming YouTube videos or downloading movies will dramatically increase your data usage and costs.
The coverage of rural parts of the canal system, by mobile networks is inconsistent, and although the network providers have agreed with the government to improve coverage, it is likely to take years before things get much better. So which provider should you chose? O2, Vodafone, Three and EE (T-Mobile and Orange) are the only genuine mobile phone networks, in that they own and maintain the systems used to provide the service. Other 'networks' such as Virgin, Tesco Mobile, and Talk Talk use coverage from one of these networks to provide their services. If you want to know what coverage is like in your cruising area all the companies issue coverage maps on the web so you can see what you can expect as you move along the canal. One thing to watch out for when comparing coverage maps is the difference between 'indoor' and 'outdoor' coverage. Indoor coverage means that there is a good signal and you can expect a reasonably good service. Outdoor coverage doesn't literally mean that your phone will only work outside, but that the coverage is patchy, so your device is less likely to work in your boat.
Boosting Your Signal
Installing a passive repeater antenna can improve the signal in your boat to overcome the reduction in signal caused by the steel shell. Active booster kits are also available, which you could try, but be careful as there are many cheap imports on the market whose use in the UK is a criminal offence. Legal booster kits are not cheap, but they can make the difference between having a poor signal whilst standing on the roof of the boat; and being able to use the internet inside the boat.
An Alternative (the pub)
With no internet access through your mobile network you could head for the nearest friendly pub that offers free Wi-Fi access to all its customers. It’s a great source of unlimited data (whilst you’re enjoying a pint), but there are risks associated with a large number of users on a single network with the password displayed next to the beer pumps. It takes little knowledge to secretly monitor and/or hijack communications over a public Wi-Fi network.
Some of the major home broadband suppliers offer access to secure Wi-Fi whilst away from home, as part of the package. Websites such as Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter use a system that makes it hard for hackers to tap into your communications. There are ways to limit risks whilst using public Wi-Fi systems to carry out transactions, but they are beyond the scope of this article.
The way mobile internet is provided is constantly changing, and new ways of bundling services will give you more opportunities to reduce costs and keep you connected whilst on the move.
Find out more about on board systems.