Good Connectivity

How to maintain reliable internet access and cell service onboard
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If your crew needs plenty of bandwidth while cruising, invest in an unlimited 
prepaid cellular plan and a multisource router.

If your crew needs plenty of bandwidth while cruising, invest in an unlimited prepaid cellular plan and a multisource router.

My family and I have been back living and traveling aboard our Carver, Have Another Day, for about nine months. Our boat consumes a lot of bandwidth, so I’ve learned how to maintain reliable connectivity. Here’s what works for our crew.

Internet access on board isn’t yet to the level of performance of a wired home connection, but it’s certainly come a long way from the days when I had a DSL connection run to my slip. With our two cellular connections and marina Wi-Fi, we typically can get enough connectivity to work, watch some TV and catch up on the news.

Last fall, Verizon introduced a $65 unlimited prepaid rate plan that I jumped on. (I also bought the company’s Jetpack MHS900L mobile hotspot, but it wasn’t worth the $50, so I moved to a Novatel 7730L that delivered double the speed.) The service from Verizon has been fantastic. For the $65, I get consistently good performance with just a few trouble spots, and a limitless amount of bandwidth.

I haven’t been able to determine exact consumption, but I do know I’ve used several hundred gigabytes for months in a row without slowing down or receiving messages from Verizon. I’ve heard from quite a few people who have tried to buy this service from a Verizon store, only to be told the plan doesn’t exist. The plan does exist. To get it, reference the internal plan identifier: 28366. It should be $70 a month prepaid, and eligible for a $5 per month discount.

I’ve also been using my tried-and-true AT&T unlimited plan sold through 4G Antenna Shop. I’m using a grandfathered $85 unlimited plan that has served me well for more than two years now. Sadly, that plan is no longer offered, but the company has several strong options. Each of these plans comes with 35, 75 or 120 gigabytes of high-speed data, plus unlimited data capped between 2 and 5 Mbps. It appears these plans are on the T-Mobile network, though I haven’t been able to get confirmation. I’m told there are quite a few providers of similar plans.

Marina Wi-Fi is another way to get connected, although we’ve discovered that many marinas have truly terrible Wi-Fi. In fact, our family has stopped trying to connect to marina Wi-Fi unless we read a positive review, or discover the network is managed by Onspot, which provides well-engineered networks with ample connectivity.

The two biggest problems I encounter in marinas are insufficient bandwidth and radio frequency (RF) congestion. Insufficient backhaul bandwidth is easy to detect. If you notice that weekday performance is great but it slows to a crawl during evenings and weekends, there’s probably not enough bandwidth for the number of users. RF congestion is often the result of a marina network offering only 2.4 GHz, which can be used by almost all devices and has very few channels. The few available channels get so congested they become unusable.

Occasionally, we find spots where coverage is poor, and those locations aren’t always remote. We recently spent several months in Gulfport, Florida, population 12,000, and found one of those unexpected dead spots. The marina Wi-Fi was also terrible for most of our stay.

I’m not familiar with every factor influencing cellular performance, but I’ve noticed that different connections are more effective at different times. For that reason, a multisource router is a useful tool. I’ve been testing the Wave WiFi MBR 550 and have learned it makes switching very easy. Every morning, I run speed tests on each connection, and use the best one. I am almost always able to find a connection with sufficient performance. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.