boat internet

boat internet

an introduction for the non technical

This article contains links to other websites - canalsonline.uk takes no responsibility for this external content or use of these sites. This article also lists a number of specific products; the author has no connection to these companies and there has been no endorsement or payment for the selection - other products are available. All information in this article is from experience and public sources but no liability is taken for your decisions! One last note; this article is intended as an introduction for a non-technical audience so please don’t email me commenting on lack of information about Signal-to-Interference-plus-Noise-Ratio or automatic LTE frequency selection. Do however get in touch if you think I’ve got something very wrong 🙂

Whether you use your boat on high days and holidays, spend only the summer months aboard or live on all year round, a common requirement of the 21st century, along with a working engine, a hull that isn’t leaking and a loo of some variety, is access to the Internet.

I work in IT or Information Technology - a term which covers a multitude of sins - and in 2018 started working and living full time afloat. So long as I could access the Internet then I could work on the machines located anywhere in the world so why work in an office? And more importantly - why not on a boat?

“Using an LTE capable endpoint device, connected to a mobile network providers national infrastructure over the 800Mhz radio frequency range, it is possible to create an 802.11n local area network to access a shared local resource to multiple devices…”

…and in that one sentence you may see one of the problems! Being charitable you could say that IT people have been forced by the complexities of the technologies available to us to create a lexicon to effectively communicate together. Those less charitable say we’re no better than quack doctors in using jargon to deliberately obscure and baffle those “not in the know”! The truth is I suspect somewhere in between. Add a marketing department into the mix and we’re all in trouble!

So the following is an attempt to provide a few unbiased recommendations based on personal experience of what you can use to access the Internet from a boat, tips on getting better speeds whilst hopefully explaining some of the jargon we use.

Getting to the Internet

If you’re just interested in the bits and bobs you might need to get Internet access then jump to the next section… otherwise read on!

The first thing we need to do is define the word “Internet”... which is quite tricky without falling down the jargon rabbit hole! The Internet isn’t one “thing” (as joked about here ) but instead a collection of services provided by multiple interconnected networks operated by different people, organisations and countries and states.

We use an “Internet Service Provider” (or ISP) or Mobile Provider to give us a gateway into these inter-connected networks we call the Internet.

The most obvious difference between getting “Internet” from a boat compared to a house is that, with a few notable exceptions, BT, Virgin Media and the like will refuse to install broadband using a cable onto a boat. This forces us to use radio waves rather than a physical cable to carry requests to and from the Internet so we will get access from a mobile provider - think Three, EE, O2, Vodafone and co.

Radio waves are split into frequency bands - which I find easiest to think of as the different colour bands of a rainbow - with different services being provided in the different bands [1]. There are frequency bands used by the emergency services’ radio system, frequency bands used for satellite TV and another for digital TV and some that are used for “Wi-Fi” (more on that later). But the most relevant frequency bands for “getting Internet from a boat” are 3G and 4G (and maybe if you’re in the right area 5G) which are most commonly associated with mobile phones.

You’ve probably heard of 3G and 4G because your phone uses them to get access to the Internet. 3G (the G stands for Generation so it is 3rd Generation) was the first widespread technology to provide sufficient speeds to make mobile Internet worth having. This has been widely replaced or augmented with the LTE service (Long Term Evolution) or as it’s more commonly known thanks to the marketing people - 4G - which was designed to be faster and more flexible and resilient than 3G.

mobile internet Your phone (which I’ll also refer to as the “customer endpoint”) connects to your mobile provider's nearest operational mast which in turn (eventually) connects through to the “Internet”. This miracle of modern telecommunication engineering is possible because the frequency bands are spread out for the different services (TV, Radio, Mobile Internet, etc) and within the allocated frequency band for 3G and 4G there are further divisions allocated to the different mobile providers [2]. This limitation on the frequency bands available to 3G and 4G means that mobile providers paid a lot for their allocated slot - in 2012 the Government was hoping to get £3.5 billion from the 4G frequencies auction! [3]. Fact of the day - the auction of the 4G frequency band (800Mhz) was only possible because the old analogue TV service, which was previously using it, was turned off [3]. 5G is the next faster, and better mobile service (depending on your viewpoint on its safety!) although the rollout of the service is taking some time.

So… your phone is connected to your mobile providers nearest mast using 3G or 4G and from there off to the Internet - all is good with the world! Right? Well… no...

The mast that you’re connected to has limited and finite bandwidth (think of it as a pipe that can only transport so much water at one time) to provide access to the Internet, so as the number of customer endpoints (e.g. mobile devices) connected to mast increases the amount of bandwidth available to you decreases because it is divided between the endpoints connected to the mast. This is why you can be at a festival and your phone can show full signal but you can’t access the Internet - all of the bandwidth available to your connected mast is used up!

And if you happen to be really far away from the nearest mast then the signal - which is measured in decibels like sound - will be reduced, meaning a further drop in speed.

To add to this tale of woe there are things which can interrupt, degrade and block your signal to the mobile provider's mast, such as buildings, hills, other electrical devices broadcasting on nearby or overlapping frequencies (including as I once found, an airport’s landing radar system!) and this is before we get to one of the most limiting factors for many of us - the metal hull of the boat itself which has similar properties to a faraday cage! It’s a miracle it works at all!

So how do we counter these problems to get the best signal possible which in turns gives us nice speedy Internet access?

The first way is to use an antenna fitted to the outside of the boat on a retractable mast - the higher up the better - to give you a more direct connection to the mobile providers mast.

my three dongle

As an Antenna can’t be connected to a mobile phone we’ll swap the phone for an “LTE/4G router” which is a box into which you insert a SIM card (just as you do with your phone) which takes the mobile signal to and from the mobile providers nearest mast and gives you Wi-Fi inside of the boat. Which then begs the question.. what is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi (or the IEEE 802.11 protocol if you’re feeling technical) is another way to transmit computer data without a physical cable and instead using radio waves. Unlike 3G and 4G it is used to connect local devices - that is to say your phone, computer, printer, TV, etc to a router which then sends the data off to the Internet using the 3G/4G radio signal. Like 3G and 4G it has dedicated frequency bands - 2.5Ghz and 5Ghz - but it runs at lower power because it doesn’t have to go over the same distances.

So with all this information we could now summarise your best chance of getting Internet access from a boat as:

    • Your laptop/printer/TV connects using Wi-Fi to your LTE/4G router
    • Your LTE/4G router uses an inserted SIM Card and transmits radio waves through the external antenna using 3G or 4G frequencies to connect and send data to your selected mobile providers nearest mast.
    • So long as there is enough bandwidth available to the mast, your data is sent on to the Internet.

Changing frequencies

The second way to get faster Internet access is to change the frequency you’re using - this isn't as bad as it sounds so read on!

By default phones and routers are configured to automatically use the best signal they can find. In practice this means, if it’s available, devices will select the 4G service if it’s available which is considered “faster” than 3G, even if the 3G service in that particular location is better! This automatic selection doesn’t take into account how contended (how many people/devices are on) that frequency/service and other things that effect one frequency band over another as mentioned above. Because of this I’ve often found that the 3G service can provide a faster service to the Internet than the 4G service!

To test the “speed” you’re getting to your device you can use one of the many free services such as https://broadbandtest.which.co.uk. Websites like this will return an indication of the “speed” you can download (how quickly you’re getting data from the Internet), and upload (how quickly you’re able to send data to the Internet). The figure to look for is Mbps (Megabits per second) - the higher the number the quicker your connection. I would recommend using the same website to test your speed each time so you’ve get a consistent baseline to test against - different “broadband speed testers” will have different responses based on their own Internet access and a hundred other mitigating factors.

This change, from using 4G (or auto) to 3G, would be done on the settings page of the LTE/4G router. Because of the many different models available it’s impossible here to give instructions on how you would change this setting but the manual should tell you how to get onto the settings page and from there it’s a case of searching until you find a drop-down box that says Auto, 4G only, 3G only, etc (or similar) then saving the setting. There are often YouTube clips for the most popular models so that’s another good source of information on how to do this.

I can give you an example of the difference in speed you can get between 3G and 4G where the 4G service is seemingly highly contested or less available. In Armitage on the Trent and Mersey Canal the 4G service returned around 0.6Mbps - which is virtually unusable for most modern Internet requirements such as watching TV or videos online or working. The same test done using the 3G returned 21Mbps which is one of the best speeds I’ve found outside of a city or very large town! That said, these services along with the contention is constantly changing so just because it was better on 3G one week doesn’t mean that 4G won’t be the better service the next week - when you moor up do a quick test on both using the online test website to check.

Finding good signal by map...

The third way to improve your Internet speed is to use your mobile provider’s website to check what the signal is like in an area and moor up where the signal is reported to be strongest.

All of the major mobile providers (e.g. Three, EE, O2, Vodafone, etc) have maps like this - website/Discover/Network/Coverage - which display what the signal in a specific area is expected to be. It’s not always accurate but if there is a “dead” area of no signal on their map and you need to do some work then it’s probably not a good place to moor up!

Mast hunting...

The last resource, although it’s debatable exactly how useful it is, is to use a website like https://www.cellmapper.net/map# which displays the exact location of mobile masts. A word of warning though - the information on sites like this isn’t always up to date as the data is not provided by the mobile providers themselves.

Internet TV

For many years the only option for getting a TV signal on a boat was to use an antenna which had to aligned to the nearest TV mast when you moored up. Internet TV has really taken off in the last few years, especially with the investment the big channels have put into their streaming services (such as BBC iPlayer) and it’s now a viable option to only use the Internet rather than a TV aerial (we do!).

cello tvThe options here are either to use a “smart” TV such as a Cello Android TV which runs on 12v and directly connects to your boats Wi-Fi, or use a “non-smart” 12v TV and plug in a “streaming player” such as a Roku dongle  which connects to your Wi-Fi for the Internet and a HDMI port on the TV.

Yes… but what do I actually need to get???

The simplest way of getting Internet on your boat is obviously to just use your mobile phone which has 3G/4G (and maybe 5G) capabilities. Where the signal is weak though, due to the many reasons listed above, you can find yourself hugging the window, cursing and adding to life's frustrations - not what you want when you should be chilling out (you’re on a boat after all!).

That said if you’re not on your boat often and don’t want to invest in more expensive technology then you can use your phone as a hotspot to provide Wi-Fi access to other devices such as computers and a TV. Any devices connected via Wi-Fi to your phone hotspot share the 3G/4G data service that your phone uses. Beware though - this can eat up all of your data allowance on your phone VERY quickly!

The way you’ll enable the hotspot feature on your phone changes according to what type of device you have but these articles will broadly help:

If you’re planning on needing Internet access more frequently - or a more stable connection is required - then the next step is to invest in the following equipment:

    • An external Antenna
    • A “data SIM card” from a mobile provider (possibly even two SIM cards from two different mobile providers to give you the best chance of getting to the Internet)
    • An LTE/4G router (note: some mobile providers sell this device as a bundle with a data SIM contract - see below)

The antenna

As you start looking for advice on the Internet about the “best” antenna to get it quickly becomes a minefield of terms such as MIMO, Directional, Omnidirectional, Antenna gain and radiation patterns!! If you’re interested in all of these terms then I’d recommend taking a look here . If terms like these make you start to go cross eyed (and I really don’t blame you!) then I will say:

Poynting XPOL-1 antenna

Select an outdoor antenna - you need to be outside of the boat to get the best signal.

    • The connector on the end of the antenna you select has to match the input to your router. The most common connector seems to be the SMA type but check the specification of your router before you buy!
    • Check the length of the cable provided with the antenna - it needs to be able to reach back inside the boat to where your router will live!
    • If you’re happy on taking a recommendation then the one I’ve used for three years is the Poynting XPOL-1 which is available from many online UK retailers. I’ve accidently dropped my antenna in various rivers and canals and it’s lived to tell the tale and I’m increasingly seeing this model appear on narrowboat roofs around the country.

The antenna is going to get better reception the higher up it goes but you’ll need to be able to take it down to fit under a lot of tunnels and bridges (I often forget so you’ll see me scurrying down the gunnels to take it down after we’ve set off!). I use the Kuma antenna mount that attaches using a strong magnet to the roof (so no permanent fixing required) with a pole that attaches to the antenna which is secured using a jubilee clip.

The Poynting antenna comes with two 5m cables and one of the challenges is getting the cable back inside the cabin. Some people stick the cables through a handy mushroom vent but I chose to drill two holes in the forward bulkhead to feed the cables through. I’ve used a “solar panel feed gland”  and plenty of Sikaflex to make sure that no water gets in through the holes.

The SIM

All of the major mobile providers have a “data sim package” available and whilst the options are boggling it’s very much a personal choice which you select. I will say that you want to look for a package that is:

    • Affordable - no point in breaking the bank huh?
    • Has the most data allowance for the best price
    • Comes from a mobile provider that gives you the best signal in your area if you stick in one place, or a frequently repeated area.

These packages are normally advertised by the data allowance which is normally described in gigabytes (GB). Basically - the higher the number the more data you get but also the more you’ll pay. It’s difficult to say how much data you’ll use but to give you a (very) rough idea:

We use the boat Internet for:

    • TV (I’d say around 7 hours a week on average at a guess)
    • Work (30-40 hours a week)
    • General browsing and Internet radio (10 hours a week?)

According to my last statement we used 50GB of data last month but sometimes that goes through the roof and we accidentally use over 100GB - some of this depends on the signal quality as bad signal leads to lots of retries which increases the use.

If you’re planning on only cruising in a specific area then check out the mobile providers Network Coverage maps (available on their websites) as you may find one provider has better signal in your area than another.

We selected the Three mobile provider based on price, data allowance (we use the unlimited package after maxing out 100GB a couple of times!) and information from boating forums. I also have a backup SIM from Vodafone from my employer which I use when the Three network infrequently drops out or doesn’t have any signal.

We cruise around a fair bit of the network, the furthest points so far being Gloucester in the south west, Llangollen and Wigan in the north west, Shardlow through Stoke on Trent to the north and east of the midlands, March in Cambridgeshire to the east and Oxford being the most southerly point so far, and I’ve been able to work (and more importantly Em has been able to watch the TV and browse the Internet) in pretty much every mooring - with a few exceptions like Zouch on the River Soar where we had to move to Loughborough so I could start working again!

The LTE/4G router
As mentioned above, the router is the piece of equipment into which you’ll insert the SIM card. This device connects to the mobile network using 3G or 4G (LTE) and provides Wi-Fi inside of the boat to the TV, laptops, etc.

Many mobile provider’s data packages have an option to buy a router bundled in (often for the same or similar price of just the data package). The important things to look out for, whether you select this or get a different router, are:

    • The antenna connection - make sure it a) has an external antenna connector and b) it’s the same connector as the antenna you’ve selected otherwise you won’t be able to connect the two together! Most commonly this is the SMA connector - the antenna will provide a SMA Male Connector (with a pin the in the middle) so you’d need an SMA Female connector (with a hole in the middle) on the router.
    • The power requirements. The type of router that can connect to an antenna requires power (i.e. it doesn’t have it’s own internal battery which the smaller “routers” without antenna connectors sometimes do). As most boaters want to run everything off of 12v to save the overhead of running an inverter you’ll want to check that the router you select has a low power draw (i.e. less than 12v).
    • A lot of LTE/4G routers have a very low power requirement but come with a 240v (UK) plug. Check that you can find a 12v adapter that works with the router you select before you buy! When we bought our router we purchased the 12v adapter that had a “cigarette” type adapter which I then chopped off and soldered to a fused switch on the wall.

Whilst it’s unlikely to be a problem, you may like to check that the Wi-Fi signal the router provides inside of your boat is usable by your laptop/phone/TV. Wi-Fi or 802.11 has a number of variants; b/g/n and frequencies (2.5Ghz and 5Ghz). Some routers for example could feasibly come with only 5Ghz 802.11n which some older Apple devices and laptops are unable to use. It’s unlikely to be a problem but it’s worth mentioning if you decide to select a more obscure router.

If you decide to not get the router from your mobile provider then there are a number of manufacturers that make LTE/4G routers. The one I chose is made by Teltonika Networks who have a single SIM option  and a dual SIM option (this second option allows you to insert SIM cards from two different mobile providers which can then be selected in the configuration page of the router) I purchased mine from Eurodk. The Teltonika Networks LTE routers have a massive number of features but I found them easy to configure and there is a 12v adapter available.

As I’ve mentioned though there are a fair few manufacturers of LTE/4G routers so shop around for one that suits you.

One frequent “gotchya” when setting up a router that hasn’t been provided by the same company that provided the mobile data package (SIM) is the mobile providers APN selection. I’m not going to go into this here but if you insert the SIM and it doesn’t work then it could be the APN. Give their support team a call (yes… I know how painful this can be) and they’ll be able to let you know the values needed for your router.

Conclusion
As with pretty much everything, you can get a cheaper version of the same thing but it’s normally reflected in the quality! There are a bewildering variety of antennas and LTE/4G routers being produced by Chinese manufacturers and some of them are fantastic but there’s a lot that just aren’t worth “saving” money on as you’ll find they don’t live up to expectations or the advertised specifications.

I’ve listed the products above because I’ve been using them for a couple of years so don’t have a problem recommending them (I’m not being paid for listing anything so this is an unbiased view). At the same time I haven’t tested any other products out there apart from the Huawei B310 LTE router which was ok until it unexpectedly stopped working without warning one morning! Hopefully the information I’ve listed above will give you an outline of the questions to ask and what to look out for.

Whilst there are more options available to get Internet access from a boat such as mobile broadband dongles (which can't use an external antenna) and Satellite provided Internet I haven’t gone into them here because they’re either not as effective or have a higher overall cost than a LTE/4G router with an external antenna - but they should be considered for affordability and suitability for your requirements.

It’s also worth mentioning that you can do everything listed above and more and still end up in a spot with no Internet availability - it’s all part of the randomness of boating.

Perhaps the best thing about all of these things though, albeit the one that is most often forgotten about, is the off switch. Having Internet on the boat has given us the freedom to live on the inland waterways and travel (when not in lockdown!) but at the same time it’s great to disconnect and watch the world on the water go by.

[1] smartaerials.co.uk “Broadcasting frequencies used by TV Aerial, Radio and Satellite”

[2] 4g.co.uk 4G Frequency Information

[3] BBC “Will the 4G mobile auction meet the £3.5bn target?” 12-Dec-2012

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About Martin

Martin and Emma, along with their dog Ernie are liveaboard boaters, folk musicians and continuous cruisers. They began their canal adventures on NB Jambo in 2017, only moving onto NB Digalou after the Covid Lockdown of 2020. Martin invites you to join him aboard as the trio continue their adventures.