In years past, we’ve never had wifi aboard. Most places we were cruising didn’t have wifi available anyway … somehow it just wouldn’t have been the same hanging out at Lighthouse Reef Atoll in Belize surfing the internet … sometimes you just want to get away!
NOTE: This post was originally written in 2012, and obviously technology was out of date almost before it was published. We do not currently have a WiFi Extender aboard after ours was outdated, we didn’t replace it. I found a really good up to date discussion on the subject on Panbo, the Marine Electronics website. Here’s the link with info from 2015 via Panbo:
And continuing with the original article discussing our strategies with local cell phones purchased in the countries we cruised and also our SSB/Ham email system which we still use today. We also have an Iridium satellite phone.
Even then we weren’t totally disconnected and depended on our Icom M802 SSB/ham radio with winlink and sailmail for e-mail and weather information. At various times while we were cruising, we had internet via a local cell phone connection. TIGO worked great in Guatemala and Honduras until they discovered how to charge for it! Almost two entire cruising seasons, TIGO’s GPRS internet access was free. In the San Blas Islands when we left in 2009, there were already two local cell providers offering internet access prepaid. It was slow, but it worked.
This year rumor has it the Bahamas has more options for wifi. I’m still working on final editing for The Boat Galley Cookbook, so I began to investigate the strange world of wifi. What a complicated convoluted place it turned out to be! And the more research I did, the more I was confused, so finally I just decided to make a decision and go with it.
I can spend anywhere from $35 to $300 and up and despite the amount invested, if the island doesn’t have wifi available, I’m no better off than before. The other complication for us is that our laptop (a 5 year old MacBook Pro running OS X 10.5.8) is becoming obsolete with Apple’s cloud introduction June 2012, so I’m going to have to upgrade to OS X Lion or 10.7. This shouldn’t present any huge problem except the wifi chipmakers (Realtec in this particular case) aren’t making chips compatible with both 10.5 AND 10.7, so whatever I add now may not work next winter when we have the upgraded OS X 10.7. Can’t you just hear my frustrated Roaaaarrrrrr!!! (it IS Lion after all….)
Actually, I just lied, they are making chips that will work with both Mac’s OS 10.5 and 10.7, but there’s an additional complication. Most wifi installations now are putting out wifi 802.11g signals, apparently older technology. The new version is 802.11n (as in “N”, not “G”). The wifi chip that will be compatible with both my Mac OS 10.5 AND 10.7 is the newer 802.11n. So OK, I’m never against brand new technology until I find out that the older “g” wifi networks don’t particularly like the new “n” chips. The bottom line was that while the newer 802.11n version will work, sort of with older 802.11g networks, it won’t be as fast or as reliable as the “g” version. Are you totally confused now? I certainly was (and still am).
After spending hours researching the possibilities, I’m left with a quandrum. Best I can figure, something based on Umbiquity hardware is the industry standard and will be the best, fastest, most reliable. Most manufacturers that use this hardware, such as IslandTimePC, Bitstorm and WaveRV(?), are in the more expensive group of wifi antennas. Some of them appear to need additional power – an extra plug in. With my amp-ogre husband, just leaving the laptop on for longer than a minute uses more power than he would prefer, so using MORE amps just to power an antenna was probably not going to fly.
I found a pretty good discussion of wifi and cruising at Dalton Williams’ website, WiFi for Boats/Range. In a nutshell he says that claims of getting 5-7 miles range for wifi in the islands is possible, but more likely the range most boats will see is somewhere along the lines of 1200 feet, or a third of a mile. Hmmmm…. so why would I want to spend upwards of $250 to get range similar to the less expensive wifi options?
The other option that was discussed frequently online and that initially was definitely my top option was a Wirie. The Wirie claims that they are the easiest long range Marine WiFi system to install and use and offer top performance without the complications of similar systems. The reviews I read of people using the Wirie systems were good, everyone seemed happy. Except for the $250 price tag, it seemed perhaps the ideal solution.
Then I read that the Wirie is powered with the Alfa, which got good reviews online – it apparently is a different technology than the Umbiquity Bullet hardware that several of the competitors use. And on Amazon, the Alfa technology was significantly less expensive – under $60 in several cases. Hmmm… so what’s the difference? Most of the Alfa antennas on Amazon were little desktop units which wouldn’t really be ideal on a boat – so I e-mailed Alfa and asked some questions. Yes, they do make a waterproof outdoor antenna for boat or RV use – and the dealer recommended an online retailer, I can buy it at Rokland … here. So this is the antenna I ordered. For $54.97, I received the waterproof unit and the antenna. I opted for the 802.11g (remember the discussion earlier about the “n” versus “g” technology … after discussion with the manufacturer, we decided that although there’s no way of knowing what type of wifi operators in the Bahamas are using, the likelihood of them having the very latest technology is remote — with the “g” version, I can connect to “g” wifi spots and also “n”, although as I understand it my signal will be less for the “n” varieties) — the other downside is that when I upgrade to OS X Lion 10.7, the unit will be obsolete because this version is not upgradable from 10.5 to 10.7. But for $55, if it works and I decide I need another one, I’ll just replace the unit!
Upon receiving it, I was momentarily challenged because it came with step by step screen shot instructions for Windows, and just a driver for Mac, no instructions. I piddled around and figured out how to make it function, although I did e-mail Rokland for Mac instructions, and they promptly sent me a link … here …. I have no idea if I’m losing several available wifi networks, but I can get the marina’s transient dock wifi – the office told me there was no way I could get it, that no one could ever get it away from the transient dock – not that I wasn’t allowed to use it, just that no one could get it this far away. Things are looking good for now! 🙂
Some have suggested that by not getting the best, “you leave some signal laying on the table”. I’m sure I “left some wifi signal on the table” — who knows, it may be a bunch. But I didn’t spend a lot and I’m fine with that. If it works, great. If there’s no wifi signal where we choose to anchor, that’s still great. And if we can get wifi signal in a few places to allow me to catch up, that’s great too. And in June 2012, when I upgrade this Mac to OS X 10.7, if anyone wants to buy a cheap wifi antenna, it may be available! 🙂
And if you’d like to read a very good how to post on using wifi and online security, read this post from Attainable Adventure Cruising: Morgan’s Cloud Discussion of WiFi Security Post
Note: after writing this post, a cruiser on our dock came down to show me his Bullet WiFi setup which is based on the Umbiquiti technology. He got it from Amazon for about the same price as I paid for our Alfa — since they’re headed to the Bahamas too, maybe we’ll get a chance this winter to compare them anchored beside each other!
Do you have a wifi solution that’s worked for you? Share by leaving a comment please! THX! Jan