Internet access is integral to our modern lives and something that we often take for granted. But if you are considering investing in a boat, know that you will face some internet access challenges on the open sea. There are currently three core options: BGAN satellite, mobile hotspots and public Wi-Fi.
BGAN stands for Broadband Global Area Network. This is a global satellite internet network with telephony that is completely portable, which means that you can take it on and off your boat as needed. Currently, BGAN is the best option available for a boat, but it is not without its downsides. The equipment costs range from several thousand dollars to $50,000. The download speeds are relatively slow and often sub-broadband, and the monthly and prepaid service plans can be quite expensive as well.
On the plus side, there are a wide range of different equipment options available, and you can choose the terminal and other devices, if applicable, that are perfect for your needs. Since the system is so portable, you can use it for other purposes too. It may be easier to justify the investment if you not only have a boat but, for instance, a camper and a remote cabin as well.
2. Mobile Hotspot
A free wireless hotspot from a mobile phone is perhaps the most popular option for boaters. The typical initial investment is about $150, and monthly and prepaid cell phone service plans are rather inexpensive as well. The equipment is also small and portable, so you can take it wherever you go and get a lot of use out of it that way.
The biggest downside is range. You may lose your hotspot five nautical miles offshore, and enjoying a range greater than 10 nautical miles is not typical. You need to consider where you boat and which companies provide the best internet coverage in the area, and if you ever boat outside of U.S. waters, you will need to have a SIM card for a local provider.
3. Public Wi-Fi and a Wi-Fi Extender
Accessing public Wi-Fi via a Wi-Fi extended is by far the least expensive option. The service itself is free, and you can typically get a good extender for about $50. A top-of-the-line extended can cost $250 or more, but that may be a great long-term cost if you use it often enough.
Most marinas provide public Wi-Fi. How good that service is, however, varies from location to location. You must also be mindful that you are going to have an extremely limited range. There is also great potential for security risks with a public network so you will want to take care on that front.
How You Use Your Boat
If you rarely venture far from shore, then BGAN likely is not worth the investment. You will probably do just fine with the public Wi-Fi at the marina or perhaps a mobile hotspot and maybe you can even take advantage of your existing cellular plan to limit your additional costs. If those options will not meet your needs, then BGAN is by far the best option, and while it is also the most expensive up front, that total cost of ownership is well worth it to the boater who will access it often.
Something to keep an eye on is Starlink. This SpaceX satellite service will be publicly available some time in 2022. We already know that the company is developing more rugged versions of their hardware suitable for boating and the like, and Starlink is likely to be more affordable than BGAN.