Challenge 6 - Staying Connected to the Internet

A unique challenge of in and of itself when living aboard a boat or even an RV and and not frequently in one place for very long

Internet

Long-Range Wi-Fi as WAN

This allows you to connect to Wi-Fi offered by many Marinas, businesses such as Starbucks and McDonald's, or even Comcast's XFINITY Hotspot Network for $54/month. But the signals are too weak for your mobile phone or laptop, you need the highest decibel gain antenna possible with a repeater that directly mounts to the antenna to not lose signal through long cables, and capable of displaying the signal strengths and other details of the signals you sniff out, and finally an ethernet cable runs down to a Wi-Fi router inside your boat giving everyone access.

15dBi 2.4 GHz WiFi Outdoor Omni-Directional Outdoor 5 foot Fiberglass Antenna from Atelix is $66 on eBay With shipping can provide up to 0.75 mile range without obstructions, but .5 miles is more realistic - avoid the many that are shorter and smaller decibel ratings, you just don't get the range. Omnidirectional picks up signals in a circular pattern from all directions. Similar antennas can be found from Antennas Direct and SimpleWiFi for $99.  Ubiquiti Airmax Omni AMO-2G13 13Dbi 2.4 GHz Rocket Kit with a Rocket M BaseStation (~$300) would provide faster performance but is really designed more as a base station for transmitting rather than an individual receiving. 

What about 5 GHz? Everything Wi-Fi is also available in 5 GHz which has greater bandwidth capabilities and slightly better penetration, but most actively available hotspots in 2018 are still 2.4 GHz so broadest compatibility is more important.

24 dBi 50 inch Parabolic Highly Directional Antenna (~$60 with shipping on Amazon) can provide up to 3 mile range without obstructions but 1 mile is more realistic. These antennas must be aimed precisely as they only "see" within a narrow 7° slice so a heavy duty motorized antenna rotator is very beneficial such as 

Both of the antennas above need a mount. The best 30" and 40" tall, most cost-effective antenna mounts that can also be folded down I found were from Antennas Direct. A can of spray paint will make them white.

Just like the tin man in the Wizard of Oz, Antennas need a Repeater for Brains. We went with the Ubiquiti Networks BM2-Ti Bullet Titanium Zero-Variable Outdoor Wireless Radio for $114 provides a little bit more weatherproofing protection than the $70 version in a white plastic enclosure which some reviews have said suffers in Florida's high humidity. It is also slightly more technical than the PiFi from SimpleWi-Fi which for $200 provides a simple UI but molded in ethernet and antenna cable. 

Avoid numerous other models of these "Bullet Repeaters" available from Alfa and other companies, often sold as kits for $150-$500 with subpar equipment to those who don't know better (now you do) often designed with a USB cable to directly plug into your computer but then you cannot provide access to all of your other mobile phones and tablets and friends and families computers. We tried the Wavlink AP600 for $60 supporting both 2.4 and 5 GHz but its firmware crashed when plugged into a high powered antenna when presented with more than a few available networks.

Inexpensive Wi-Fi Improvements for Marinas

Sector Antenna Base Stations

Ubiquiti AirMax Sector - Antenna (AM-2G15-120) $130

Ubiquiti Networks 2.4Ghz Airmax Basestation Variable 60-120 Titanium Antenna (AM-V2G-TI) $230

Ubiquiti ROCKETM2 2.4GHz Hi Power 2x2 MIMO AirMax TDMA BaseStation $90

Or keep it simple with SimpleWiFi's 18 DBI 120° Sector Panel Antenna provides 1 mile range for $70

Any Marina can add a complete Base Station Kit with 2 of the above antennas for the Preconfigured MIMO Access Point, and Cables for $400. Tripod mounts are available and plugs into your indoor router or modem.

4G Mobile Broadband

After numerous trial and error, more hours of research then anyone would like to admit, here is the configuration we utilize on Possibilities:

Network Coverage

From Best to worst is: Verizon, followed closely by AT&T, then T-Mobile, with Sprint's coverage being the most body especially in rural areas but costs, especially for data restrictions also follow this order.

Best 4G Mobile Internet for on America's Great Loop

1) Sprint - Unlimited 4G - No Throttling from PCs4People.com via Mobile Beacon or Mobile Citizen. Restricted to Nonprofits or Low Income at $10/month.

2) AT&T - [Theoretically] Unlimited 4G $30/month, but did seem to throttle after hitting 80 GB-100 GB of data in Louisville Kentucky area

3) Verizon - Unlimited 4G via PagePlus $55/month - but probably would run into problems around 100 GB, this limit has not yet been tested.  This is a backup plan for the future if needed but not yet subscribed.

Satellite

One would initially think this is the best option, such as Exceed or Hughes that are typically less than $100 per month, but terrestrial satellite which depends on a dish being very permanently mounted in a very fixed location and  very accurately pointed at the satellite for two-way communications, simply doesn't work on a boat, at times RV, or anything else that moves even if it remains stationary at times.

I explored every option for gyros or houseboat that barely moves in a marina simply still doesn't work. The slightest deviation of 1° means a huge difference by the time it reaches the satellite in space.

The only time satellite makes sense is if you're out in the middle of the ocean and then you're roughly talking about a minimum of $1 / Megabyte. For most this is cost prohibitive at $5000 for only a 5 GB connection per month. For most this means you will only get text emails and upload a photo here and there.

There is hope in the near future of prices coming down with low Earth orbit satellite constellation being put up by Elon Musk's SpaceX, but these were also the claims of Iridium and numerous other satellite constellations of the past and the costs just never came down very significantly, because there's just not very many users out in the middle of an ocean! So most of the satellites are aimed at areas where there are lots of users on land and satellites covering the open swaths of ocean have very few users to spread the costs of operation across.

Mobile Phones

Best Mobile Phone Service for on America's Great Loop

PagePlus owned by TracFone is one of the few non-network providers (MVNO's) that uses Verizon's network. All plans get you unlimited voice and text with cost varying by the amount of data: 

  • $12/month = 500 MB
  • $30/month = 2 GB
  • $40 per month = 5 GB
  • $55 / month = Unlimited Data (though I heard they might take action if exceeds 100 GB)

Motorola phones offer full unlocked compatibility on all networks including Verizon, with the best quality for most reasonable price. I'm using the Moto X Pure, but would recommend Moto Z Play for its longer battery life. 


Touchless Voice Control Accessibility for Mobility Impaired

Uniquely these models support the ability to wake up the phone even if it's sleeping with Moto Voice and control it completely by voice with Voice Control this is also available on Moto G6 (but not G6 Play, nor G5, nor E4 which all wonderfully have huge battery life) Waking up the phone from sleep by saying okay Google is supposedly also available on HTC One, Google Pixel and Pixel 2, and supposedly most LG phones also offer this capability.