Wifi On The Boat - Part 4

Our current WiFi set-up has been functioning almost full-time on two boats for about seven years. The progress of our WiFi system has been recorded in previous blog posts, Simple And Inexpensive WiFi and WiFi On The Boat-Part 3 that details the progression to our current equipment. This blog post is possible via that same set-up. We're not ones that have to have the latest and greatest, and we have one hard and fast rule, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But change is inevitable, and we have made a few additions to our WiFi arsenal to improve our ability to get online as needed. This is very important since we run our anchorage guide business online and everything from the publishing to shipping and receiving is done exclusively from the boat. Changes to the availability of free or open WiFi signals made these additions a necessity for us.


Early on, free or open WiFi signals were available almost everywhere. Today, they are few and far between, but can still be found. Many small businesses along the waterways offer free WiFi and so do some marinas. With the amplifier system in Beach House, those signals are available if we are within a couple of miles from the access point. Although we still "see" dozens of WiFi access points in most anchorages, many times they are all secure connections and need the correct password to connect. These are the times an alternate means of connection is necessary. These alternate means will require some type of paid service. I don't want to get into all of the options for paid services, rather we will discuss the options for the hardware used to get connected.


Our choice a few years ago was the Verizon MiFi system, which acts very much like a modem. AT&T, as well as others, offer this same type of device. The device is simply a small box that has a dedicated phone number to allow you to use a cellular service to connect to the internet. Typically, it will be password protected, and logging on is just a matter of using your computer or tablet's internal wireless connection to connect to the MiFi using the units password. Most of these devices will allow multiple connections, so more than one computer or a computer and tablet can be connected at the same time. AT&T has a new touch screen device called the Unite Pro that boasts 16 hours of battery life, will allow up to 15 connections and can have an external antenna attached for better signals in fringe areas. The MiFi allows internet connection when other WiFi access points are not available. We have used our MiFi device for two years and find that there are only a couple of places along the entire U.S. East and Gulf coasts where there has not been a cellular signal. Even with the MiFi, another change is in the works.


As mentioned, the MiFi is a simple device that connects like any other phone to a cell provider, which in turn allows a data connection. For those without a newer smart phone, the MiFi device is the best alternative. Many of the newer smart phones will allow you to do away with even the MiFi device and use the cell phone as a "hot spot" to get connected, just as the MiFi does. The upside is that you will pay for one less phone line using the smart phone. The process is simply using the "hot spot" software built into the smart phone, keeping it password protected, and connecting via your computer's internal wireless connection. The MiFi device will come with a preset password that you can change later, and the smart phone will allow you to set up whatever password you like. After two years of using the MiFi, our decision is to eliminate the additional charge for a third phone line and use one of our new smart phones as a hot spot. The same connections can be made using many of the current tablet devices. Previously we had "dumb" phones that only allowed phone calls and text.


So if these new devices work so well, why even bother using our bullet and router set up at all? A very good question. Whether using the MiFi, your tablet or a smart phone to get online, you must pay for the data. Once you exceed the data limits of your plan, the charges can be considerable. At most marinas, free WiFi is offered to all slip renters, whether full-time or transient. Often, these marina connections aren't the greatest, and having our external antenna means the difference of having a good connection at the slip or having to carry the computer to the office or lounge to get online. We still often find open WiFi access points from  many towns and businesses along the waterway who offer free WiFi that can be picked up from the anchorages. These are the connections we use to watch videos, download large files and software updates to avoid using up all of our precious cellular data and incurring additional charges. By using our external antenna, we keep our data usage well below our limits. While docking for longer periods at a marina with WiFi, we use very little of our paid data.


The external antenna can also allow us to share even the data provided by our cell provider. We can connect the Bullet to whatever hot spot we're using, smart phone or MiFi, and share the connection via the router that is connected to the Bullet. It's kind of a roundabout method, but we have found it very useful at times. The other option available with the smart phone or MiFi is the ability to use a cellular booster to get a stronger signal in fringe areas. Boosters, like those made by Wilson Amplifiers, rate among the best. You will need both a booster and an external omnidirectional antenna, and even with the booster, the phone will need to be in close proximity or even mounted in a cradle to get the full benefits. These signal boosters can make the difference between an iffy connection, no connection at all or being able to get online or make your phone calls. These boosters are not inexpensive. I will note that to date, we have not needed a booster for our phones.


This brings the WiFi system on Beach House up to date. We would love to hear from others about what systems you use and how well they're working. As technology changes, there will surely be new and improved gadgets and devices to improve our ability to get connected, run our businesses and be able to continue posting to our blogs. As changes happen, we will report back to you and try to keep everyone up to date. If you want to review any of our past WiFi posts, including how to keep your connection safe, visit our previous blog posts covering all things WiFi on Beach House here.

2 comments:

  1. Chuck and Susan, where are you guys now? Chuck, how are you doing? Hope all is well.

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    Replies
    1. Will, We're on the Withlacoochee River in Yankeetown, Florida. The recovery isn't coming as well as I would like. But for the most part, doing OK. Still have some issues to work through before we're back under way again. So we will be here for a while. Thanks for asking.

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