Wi-Fi on board, part I

I am sitting at my kitchen table writing this on my laptop computer and using a DSL modem/Wi-Fi repeater to access both the Internet for research and my e-mail account to send this off to my editor, Tim Queeney. All of this is accomplished without the use of a single RJ-45 connection, just one short telephone cable with two RJ-11 plugs on either end, one end which is plugged into a regular telephone jack and the other end plugged into a combination DSL modem/Wi-Fi repeater. This operation allows my wife and I to get online at the same time using two separate laptop computers and do our Internet business wirelessly, without restricting our roaming ability with Ethernet cabling tying us down. The whole system works marvelously and the technology is now quite mature, but how about a similar system on board your boat so you can stay in touch with the rest of the world and continue to do your online business…read on!

Wi-Fi is short for wireless fidelity and is in essence just a wireless version of a common Ethernet connection. Instead of sending data over category five cabling, it sends this same data via radio frequencies. These frequencies are based on the IEEE 802.11 standard and are in the 2.4-GHz frequency range. This gives up to 11-Mbps data speeds and a useful range of 300 feet maximum. Wi-Fi is almost perfect for most personal pleasure boats/yachts because the signals pass through the interior bulkheads and most yachts accommodate the 300-foot signal range. The key to Wi-Fi is the need for a WAP (Wireless Access Point) that connects your wireless network to a cabled network and visa-versa. These WAPs can be accessed with anything from a smartphone for relatively short range, to broadband satellite for high seas reception.

The smartphone route can be an iPhone 4 or 3GS, or Android device, and with them you can create a personal Wi-Fi hotspot on board your boat. With a smartphone you can attach or tether up to five devices using USB, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. This is probably the simplest way to have Wi-Fi on your boat; however it will also be the most limited by range and will cost you a $20 per month service fee from your cell phone service provider. The cell phone range can be extended by using an outside antenna, but you must be careful of its placement due to the amount of protuberances topside such as masts, other antennas, etc., that can block your signal. If you are interested in finding out more about this approach to Wi-Fi then check out the following hyperlinks:

iPhone external antenna

How to set up an iPhone personal hotspot

Using an Android smartphone as a WLAN hotspot

A company in California by the name of RadioLabs sells a great turn-key Wi-Fi system with enhanced performance of up to five-miles in range. It consists of a CaptiFi USB Wi-Fi antenna which has a built-in 54-Mbps b/g card, a 15-foot USB cable and software. This antenna is fully weatherproof and designed for topside mounting. The price is $139.95 plus shipping. This will get your laptop online, but if you are wanting a true network then one can also purchase RadioLabs' USB Wi-Fi Router Repeater which allows networking of multiple devices. Simply plug the antenna into the router repeater's USB port, power up and you’re in business. Find out more about RadioLabs here: http://www.radiolabs.com.
The options that we have presented in this newsletter are mainly for in port use or very near shore. In the next newsletter we will talk about systems that can keep you online when you travel even farther from shore, and in the final iteration we will discuss systems that can keep you online practically worldwide. You should realize that the cost of any Wi-Fi system is going to track upwards with increased complexity, reliability, capability, and extended ranges. Also, in addition to the initial cost of the onboard equipment, the boater will be paying a monthly service provider fee that can become quite hefty for the casual boater, but will be a necessity for certain yachts.

Well until next time…clear skies and following seas and five-by-five Wi-Fi!

About the author:
Fredrick Gary Hareland holds an AAS degree in rescue and survival operations and in avionic systems technology and is a certified marine electronics technician and NARTE certified telecommunications technician. He has served in the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, the Military Sealift Command-Pacific and has worked for Maersk Line Limited and Norwegian Cruise Line. Hareland currently works at China Lake Naval Air Warfare Station as a microwave-communications technician. He lives in Ridgecrest, Calif.

More articles by Fredrick Gary Hareland:

Cell phone boosters

Check your shore power

Bumps in the night

Green solder blowback


By Ocean Navigator