Monthly Archives: August 2020

Adding Cellular Internet Enhancement to Our Boat (Something We Never Expected to Do!)

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.

The LTE router we ended up buying

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San Juans Cellular Map for Boaters

Over the last year I’ve started recording cellular signal strength and download speeds in the anchorages we’re in. While previously we were happy to have some time away from the Internet, recently it’s become more important to stay connected. This is our third year of semi-full-time cruising with no home port, and with the Canadian border closure this year we can’t go very far. So we’ve spent more time online for video calls with friends/family, work, and entertainment.

It’s often helpful to know whether we’ll have fast Internet in an anchorage before we go there. You can look at the cellular provider’s own coverage map (T-Mobile, AT&T). However these maps aren’t very accurate for boaters, and say they have 4G coverage in places where they definitely don’t. They’re not customized to the particulars of a boat in an anchorage. Getting actual, real-world speed measurements is much more reflective of how fast and reliable the signal is in a given anchorage.

The way these cellular speed measurements were collected was through the Speedtest.net app on my Pixel 3a phone, usually from the cockpit of our boat. Our Internet service is a Google Fi unlimited plan, which uses a combination of cellular networks (T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular, in the US) and includes roaming in Canada (or other countries) with no increased data charge. I have heard T-Mobile is better than AT&T in the San Juans, so the results below are most relevant for T-Mobile/Sprint (which have merged).

A few caveats apply to cellular speed measurements: the results may vary based on many factors, including the weather, position of your phone, what kind of phone or service you have, and location of your boat in the anchorage (if you’re next to a big cliff that blocks the cell tower, you could have very different results from someone on just the other side of the anchorage).

This is just a screenshot. See below to get the interactive map.

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