For a long time now we’ve avoided adding fancy electronic networking to our boat to build out a wifi network. One of the best things about sailing is disconnecting from the outside world – sailing and anchoring in remote areas where Internet service is weak or non-existent. Time away from the pressures and stresses of the normal world was always one thing we loved most about cruising.
Without Internet, there’s no news, no Facebook, no bills to pay, and overall much less time spent on the computer and more time appreciating nature. So losing Internet access has always been a feature of cruising to us, not a bug. It feels kind of crazy that we’re now working on adding Internet augmentation to our boat.
But we’re in our 3rd year of semi-full-time liveaboard cruising, and things have changed a bit – the fact we can no longer sail long distances north into Canada has meant we have a lot of time on our hands sitting in the same handful of anchorages. Washington inland waters span only a couple hundred miles, which isn’t really enough to consume all of our time for a 6-month season.
So we’re spending a lot more time on the Internet (see my San Juans Cellular Map for Boaters), and looking into taking on some remote work jobs now that it’s becoming more of a thing.
To cut to the chase, the simple, easy solution we decided on (for now) is a Netgear Nighthawk M1 LTE router – by plugging a data-only SIM into it, we get a device that provides a better wifi network than our phones did, because it can be positioned with better visibility to the cell tower.
Internet Enhancement 101
I quickly found that Internet enhancement options are incredibly complicated these days. I benefited from some other blogs on this:
- Steve, a local boater running SailBits.com, is a network engineer and knows a ton about this, as well as having his boat decked out with every possible antenna / networking technology. His weBoost article was particularly helpful, as well as Best Boat Internet Systems and Marina WiFi is Hard.
- Mobile Internet Resource Center / Technomadia (RVers who switched to a motorboat on the ICW)
I’m going to explain as quickly as possible the lay of the land (or water), but you’ll need some background reading to understand this.
- WiFi antennas – improve your connection to an existing wifi network (ex, marina wifi).
- MIMO – Multiple In, Multiple Out – basically the dominant technology for cellular antennas to talk to each other. MIMO means multiple connections between the two points – 2×2, 4×2, 4×4. More connections = faster service.
- Non-MIMO antennas – an antenna with just one antenna in it.
- Omnidirectional vs directional antenna – Omni doesn’t care what direction it’s pointed, directional does (point it towards the cell tower!). Omni is usually better on a boat because boats turn at anchor often. Directional could still be useful though (especially on a park dock or marina dock).
- Router – creates a wifi network for your boat (note most cellphones can already do this!). Routers range from simple to complex. Confusingly, there are different types of routers with very different capabilities built-in:
- Just a router – like a home router you might connect to a cable modem, this doesn’t do anything useful on a boat unless you have another device to provide Internet to it (ex, an LTE modem).
- LTE Router / Mobile Hotspot – These terms seem to be synonymous and is basically a router with LTE modem built-in (and likely MIMO antennas).
- Boosters – devices like the WeBoost actively boost the cellular signal. These are best for areas where you would otherwise have no signal or nearly none and want to get it to a workable level. Uses more power than a MIMO antenna.
I was under the impression that Internet enhancement on a boat meant a booster, but from the above sources I found that most boaters probably don’t need a booster. This is great news because boosters are more expensive, and power hungry.
Update (2023): We *did* eventually get the WeBoost Booster (Amazon), and it helped get Internet or make phone calls in some places we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. (Of course, all of this is pretty much unnecessary now if you spring for Starlink). We do still have the other options because they use much less electrical power than a Starlink.
Simple, Low-Budget, Low-Electricity Option
Our priorities were:
- Faster download/upload speeds in low-to-moderate signal areas like the San Juans. Also a more stable connection when we have intermittent 1-bar service.
- Low electrical usage – we’re a low electric usage boat. We don’t have a generator, don’t motor much (meaning we can’t count on the engine alternator to charge the batteries), and often sit in an anchorage for 3-5 days (meaning no alternator time for those days). We need all our power supplied by 300W of solar, which is already about stretched to its limits.
- Cheap – it’s doesn’t seem worth investing $1000s into something we’d only use occasionally or that doesn’t actually improve our signal that much.
Equally important are the priorities that we don’t have:
- WiFi extending – most marinas don’t have great wifi, and we’re not in marinas often anyway.
- Being connected in remote areas of BC – this means we don’t need a booster or satellite Internet. We might want this someday, but right now we’re not in remote areas often.
Based on these priorities it was clear the best solution for us is a MIMO antenna and router.
Do You Really Need to Buy Something New for Boat Internet?
But the first question to ask is do you even need to buy anything to get that? It turns out our phones, and most phones made in the last couple years, already have MIMO antennas built in. The Pixel 3a I use has 4×4 MIMO, the same as the best external MIMO antennas available.
Cell phone manufacturers are already working really hard at getting you the best signal possible – because that’s what people care about a lot, whether they’re on a boat or not. Our prior working mode was to use our Android phones to broadcast a wifi hotspot – turning our Google Fi unlimited plan into a wifi network that covers the entire boat, usable by a laptop, tablet, etc.
There are a few reasons a MIMO router other than your phone can be useful:
- Outside signal can often be better than inside the boat. Yes, we did sometimes station a cell phone on deck under the dodger to broadcast a wifi hotspot with the best speeds. But that’s inconvenient if you actually want to use your phone because then you need to hang out in the cockpit when you might rather be inside.
- Different antennas are, well, different. A MIMO antenna other than the one in your phone may be better / higher powered.
- A separate device gives you more options for using different kinds of antennas – for example you can use a directional antenna rather than omnidirectional (which is what the phone’s built-in antenna is).
Netgear Nighthawk M1
What we decided on for now is the Netgear Nighthawk M1:
- Netgear Nighthawk M1 Mobile Hotspot LTE Router – typically about $350
It’s an LTE router which means it’s a router and LTE modem combined. You can buy two separate devices for that but I’d rather have one. It’s also a mobile device, meaning it doesn’t get permanently installed and can be carried with you for travel or working from shore / beach.
I can see some benefits to a hardwired installation on a boat, but this mobile option makes things really easy for now – plug-and-play. You can leave it stationary in one spot plugged into a USB charging port on your boat if you want – no need to use the internal battery.
It has 4×4 MIMO antennas built-in, or you can plug in external antennas to the two TS-9 ports. Since it already has 4×4 MIMO, we’re planning to just leave it outside in the cockpit most of the time (under our dodger, which protects it from rain and doesn’t have many interfering materials like metal).
To use a mobile hotspot or LTE modem, you also need a data-only SIM, which Google Fi provides for free. Note the Nighthawk comes in an unlocked version (use with any mobile provider) or an AT&T locked version.
Results: Testing the Netgear Nighthawk M1
So far I’ve been testing the Nighthawk in anchorages that I’ve previously done speed tests (San Juans cellular coverage map for boaters) using my Pixel 3a.
In places where we typically have no signal or intermittent signal (barely usable), such as Cypress Island (Eagle Harbor or Surprising Cove), the Nighthawk doesn’t help. For these types of places I would probably need a booster.
At other places such as Chuckanut Bay, where my phone often has a slow connection, it has approximately doubled the speeds (ex, from 0.71 down/0.03 up, to 1.65 down/0.19 up). This isn’t fast enough for great streaming video calls, but it’s still an improvement for webpages and email.
And in spots where I have a moderate connection thru my phone (33 down), it has doubled it to nearly 70 at times. This is a very significant improvement and quite nice to move from sort-of fast to decidedly fast with relatively little effort.
It’s important to note Speedtest results can be highly variable. At times, simply moving my phone from resting on my leg to holding it 4″ up improved the speed from 10 Mbps to 30. Fun fact: your body is about 60% water, and water is one of the biggest blockers for cellular signal. When doing Speedtests I try to do a couple runs and ensure the device is away from other devices, metal, and water.
Coming up I still plan to test out an external MIMO antenna (the Netgear 4×4 MIMO antenna) with the Nighthawk. What I like about the Nighthawk for our boat Internet is it’s like the network-lite option – easier, quicker to install, and more portable than your typical hard-wired boat Internet setup.