Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass Home

Near-Shore Communications for Cruisers
by Joan Conover

Ways to communicate on passage or in harbor have become a critical aspect of successful cruising. Access to voice, data (messaging/text/email), or some sort of broadband/internet is an expected standard for most of the world. For those migrating from area to area, across open waters or oceans, or spending time in foreign harbors, �connectivity� is the new mantra. And while this article is focused on vessels using handheld devices such as cell phones or tablets, the same devices can be used to successfully extend communication ranges and dependability anywhere. This will also work for remote homes on land!

The current state of the art includes various types of laptops, tablets, smartphones (cell phones), cell booster systems, WiFi routers, and WiFi/cell antennas, all which connect to combinations of access points and boosters/routers, as well as to more high-end satellite devices.

Given the state of the art, cruisers can now access text/voice/data (and, depending on your plan, the internet) sometimes up to 20 to 40 miles offshore, according to communications guru Lu�s Soltero. (During an April 2021 Seven Seas Cruising Association [SSCA] webinar, Lu�s shared his experience in setting up dependable access from his vessel as he voyages offshore and near shore along coastal areas. A free summary video is available, discussing key aspects of connectivity, on the SSCA YouTube Channel on the Communications Playlist. Review his suggestions; the advice is invaluable.)
For cell access, with a high-gain LTE antenna (cell) range described by Lu�s, use of the correct devices and setup can allow a cruiser to successfully stay in touch and even work from a vessel on passage or in harbor. This same technology works anywhere there is cell service. For WiFi access to land services, a different antenna is needed. They both, however, take careful installation and setup, but it�s all well within the scope of effort of a cruiser. The following discussion covers WiFi, and then cell antennas � two different and separate antenna systems. We provide suggestions on setting up equipment, give ideas what equipment we have used, and more.

Advice on cell services
Be sure you understand your options. I can personally warn about the use of cell service plans in various regions such as the Caribbean. Read the full contract and understand what you are getting. Unless we know how much time we will be spending in an area, we do not do an automatic payment withdrawal from our credit cards/banks for local cell service plans. First, the USA cellular band plan utilizes different frequencies compared to, say, European countries. A cell phone and SIM card used in Antigua, for example, does not work with a US company plan (and SIM) in the US Virgin Islands. I can point to our boat�s pile of single-country usage hotspots and phones from the British Virgin Islands, Antigua, St. Lucia and so on. A new SIM card from a local carrier is needed for each country � bandwidth/band plans do not cross borders � and you will also need a new handheld if you don�t have an �unlocked� device. So we now use an unlocked cell phone for voice/text/data with an international SIM card service, and a WiFi extender to reach to shore-based services. We do occasionally purchase local plan services with their attendant SIM card, but only use it off and on. If we were living in an area for six or more months, this might not be the case, but we seldom stayed over a month or so in one spot prior to Covid.

This is also why an unlocked phone is important, plus an international SIM card service. A few work-arounds are possible, such as companies who have set up agreements between various service plans across countries. These work well for individual phone calls: you pay by the minute, but you are able to contact locals without having to get a new SIM card/plan or even phone. For our vessel, we use www.onesimcard.com � they have significant savings on roaming. And OneSim access to local cell numbers/messaging is automatic � no getting off vessel (often a problem with quarantines and Covid restrictions now) or finding a local plan. When electronic SIM cards (ESIM) are possible, which is more and more the case, this also will help keep the number of shore trips down.

Handheld/text-based apps such as email/SMS or social media work well in the Caribbean; it�s what most local service plans are set up for. This means social media/messaging with thumbnail camera images, and compressed and small videos requiring less data. One favorite app, �WhatsApp,� has wide use as both a VOIP phone service and for messaging across the Caribbean. While security issues have been raised in almost every app loaded, if an app is pre-installed in your device � just be aware. It comes down to the user to research what is best to utilize for security and to implement good practices.

For most Caribbean areas, there are few unlimited data plans available � you pay by the gigabyte � and unlimited or high gigabyte plans mean real dollars, separate island group by island group. No local plan has data transfers. Bottom line: this means accessing the internet can be expensive. So many cruisers use the hybrid combination of handheld cell data/voice/text services combined with some sort of WiFi access. Some of us traveling around the islands from USA to Trinidad or farther west opt for a WiFi extender. In our case we use the Red Port Halo, as we don�t use our cells for internet in the islands. I�ll discuss the generic setup in the below paragraphs.

WiFi antennas/booster systems
WiFi antennas/booster systems provide a signal enhancement, or �boost,� for WiFi signals when used with your onboard devices. These are not the ones you find with a booster system for inside; these systems have an external antenna and a long cable, and connect to a local hub or WiFi router located inside the boat. This can be used in an RV or home as well. The hub/router allows many devices to share the bandwidth.

Some hubs/routers are set up for mobile apps and can provide compression services, such as Speedmail, etcetera. Be sure to get a router that works with both GSM-based modems and satellite phones; it just makes sense to have one device that does several tasks. In our experience this is the Red Port Optimizer. Ours has lasted for at least seven years, going strong; we just update the firmware on a regular basis. And we have used it for our Iridium Glow, Iridium Go, Iridium satellite phone data services, and more, when we do not use it for WiFi.

Back to the Wifi booster antenna/services. WiFi boosters are not really mobile in the sense that you move with them, like cell service. This is the kind of system you use when you are stationary, anchored or stopped, and want WiFI access. You have to know the name of the WiFi provider and the password. This antenna will, however, allow much longer reach to shore. Some systems, such as found at marinas, may have password and login for a specific account. You first find the WiFi signal and then enter the password and such to access. However, for your WiFi antenna system, the router you use to share the signal requires the accounting information to be added each time you change WiFi addresses/locations. This is the system we currently use, marina-to-marina, harbor-to-harbor, and is especially useful in the Caribbean, where each island country has its own cell plan/SIM card, etcetera, for your phone access. We use the WiFi antenna to be able to reach WiFi services while at anchor, not so much in a marina as it can overrun the marina signals.

WiFi booster antenna setup
The WiFi booster antenna can be any of the following: Rogue Wave WiFi, Bad Boy Wifi, Alfa Tube(U), Wineguard Connect WiFi, or Red Port Halo. They are all WiFi antennas (with cable attached) and hubs/routers. This antenna should be mounted about ten feet above the waterline outside the vessel, for example on a stanchion. The cable is then run inside, to an interior cabin; be sure you have the length needed. Our antenna is mounted on the stern, away from influence of our mainmast as much as possible, and away from other radiating systems such as GPS or Iridium antennas.
Below deck the cable attaches to a WiFi hub/router (in our case a Red Port Optimizer, as mentioned). The hub/router is not waterproof and it runs on ship�s battery power. It�s this below deck hub/router that is logged into and reset for each WiFi account you use, harbor by harbor � you manually scan and connect. Then you access the router from your handhelds via the network and internet settings for Wifi � it comes up with the unique name you have previously established for its network.

Lu�s suggests, �For ranges, 2.54 Ghz is longer range but a lot of times it�s crowded and slow. 5.00 Ghz is better performance: less range but also less crowded.� He also suggests, �Red Port Halo is nice because it has a mobile app used to manage connections, which is rare for most boosters.� Since the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has established a maximum of four watts for effective power, most of these booster systems perform the same, but they should be looked at with a view to use in the marine environment. And Lu�s should know, as a router and communications developer.

Because it is at deck level, we sometimes remove the WiFi booster antenna mount and place it below if we are gone from our vessel; things at deck level have the potential of removal by �visitors.� This is not an issue with the cell antenna booster � it�s on the top of your mast!

Cell antenna/booster systems
A second type of antenna system, one especially set up for cell service, can significantly improve your signal strength and ranges. The right cell antenna/booster system can be used to extend your cell services for 20 or 30 miles offshore; no need to wait to get into town ranges! A warning: if you use internet on cell plan services high (and unknown) bandwidth use can eat up your data quickly. On a laptop set for automatic updates, just one update from, say, WIN10, can use up a month�s worth of data in a short period. Turn off your apps� automated feeds or suffer sudden halt of your services when you have used up your plans gigabytes. Expect to live differently on devices in some places.

High gain LTE antennas (cell services) are comprised of the antenna, cable and below-deck booster system. Some recommended ones are Weboost Drive Reach, Surecall Fusion2Go, or Shakespeare Halo. These all have above-deck antennas, cable, and below-deck amplifiers with internal antenna systems for internal signal. Lu�s connects his cell to the signal and, via the cell�s hotpot/tethering, to a hub/router. This hub and router then shares the signal with several below-deck devices � one cell account/signal distributed to several devices. He has found cell phones as well as MiFi router hotspots work well; park the MiFi hotpot near to the internal amplifier. And he stresses, �Do NOT use in-building designed boosters.�

The following is specific advice for success with the cell booster antenna systems. First, they are easy to adjust; leave them on all the time. As mentioned, cell service is regional, so you need to know the footprint for coverage. These external cell booster antennas, with their below deck amplifiers, have good range if correctly installed. Lu�s has documented text coverage up to 54 miles offshore.

On installation there are some important details. Top of mast or at least 15 feet away from the below-deck hub/router antenna is critical. If possible have the mast-mounted antenna directly above the below-deck hub/router antenna. As many of us have VHF antennas that will cohabitate the mast top, be sure to allow at least a foot separation between the cell booster and VHF antennas. A low gain antenna is best below deck to prevent cross talk, but if the antenna is at distance at top of mast, a higher gain below deck will work as well. Lu�s has also found best results with a high gain LTE antenna similar to the Poynting OMNI-400 (from Amazon). And he comments, �Be sure to use 50-ohm low loss cable between antenna and amplifier.�

Other communication systems
Some other communications used by cruisers, like satellite and single side band radio, also utilize antennas and various communication protocols. These systems can provide weather forecasts and email, and include tracking off and near shore. While not exactly part of the cell and WiFi boosting hardware, the devices and apps allow ways to provide email and or weather details, some chat internal to the apps, and location knowledge to your tracking teams. Several use GSM or GPS trackers, such as SPOT and InReach Iridium, while others send data via satellite or cell to tracking maps or, in the case of InReach, possible short text messages from router weather services such as www.mwxc.com. Most of the GSM devices have internal antennas, as in the case of SPOT, so placing the device topside at deck/cockpit level is the location of choice. Antennas, if needed for, say, Iridium or GPS, should be carefully located as interference is always possible. Single side band radio may not be as used as often as in the past, but in an emergency, when cell towers are down or if you don�t have a satellite phone with minutes, the traditional SSB works. Plus with the appropriate radio licenses, the cost for non-business email is certainly attractive � just the cost of equipment!

A note on weather and tracking
One very desired data element for cruisers is weather information, as well as the ability to share a vessel�s track data on weather maps while on passage. With the growing number of android and IOS apps, with weather features integrated with tracking positions maps and as ranges increase, the ability of devices to continue to extend the use cell platforms to communicate is increasing in importance. With an eye to the future, when Starlink type broadband may become a reality, vendors are building greater and greater functionality into Android and IOS apps. Unfortunately, if out of cell range, that data access/transmission can be is lost unless you have an opportunity to send receive data and tracking via satellite/iridium or SSB email (not always easy and man power intensive).

But this is changing, as the following new product shows. At least one major weather service provider, Predict Wind, has a new router in the development stage. It is set to be available in fall 2021, at around US$150. Predict Wind, the top weather model provider for boaters, provides updated compressed weather data for graphic display on their Offshore App as well as on land-based devices via internet. Wind/waves/fronts/WX text and more are all visually displayed for onboard analysis; boats can be tracked as well as be provided �in the app� routing suggestions. From Predict Wind developers: �For cruisers the product will track your boat whether you are in cell coverage or not. When not in a coverage area the unit will store position reports on an SD card and then transmit the tracks collected offline when the internet starts working again. Its all automatic and hands off, no gaps in your tracking map although the position reports are delayed if you have no internet.�

Lu�s, in the process of developing this new router, says, �For racers the unit will log all of their N2K data for playback later. This allows race teams to do detailed analysis during and after a race. Also in the near future racers (and cruisers) will be able to push a button on the unit to sample data for polar computation. This works with the automatic routing service that Predict Wind offers. You can enter the polar for your boat and the software will compute optimum routes through current, waves and wind. Not sure if you have ever played with that feature but, even on a powerboat, we use it to compute routes that provide us the fastest, safest, and most comfortable routes.� And this device also supports the rest of the boat�s devices as a WiFi router! This is an example of the growing outreach for Android and IOS services, first point to point, then longer ranges, with a combination of tool sets for cruisers, in this instance a �store/forward� design. By utilizing the right connectivity devices for your specific cruising needs, on passage near shore or offshore, cellular communications are becoming more dependable, range is farther, and connect times longer.

Future
Plus, in development phase is a new plan for worldwide accessible broadband services, StarLink. As Starlink is developmental, expectation management is needed for this new system. While the Starlink Beta has been announced, it has limited distribution locations. The antenna, a dish design, has a US$500 cost, discounted from the antenna�s actual $1,500 price.The $99 Starlink Beta plan cost is projected as the desired amount; it�s not set firmly. The devil is still in the details of a new technology: work in progress. It will happen, but current technology for high speed/broadband requires a stable base for the antenna, something that cruisers do not have offshore. Starlink is in development; don�t expect it tomorrow or delay purchase of other satellite services � you may have a long wait. The Iridium satellites, and cell services of LTE, 5G and now 6G, will be around for many years.

We are still not seamless � we are a long way from that, but getting closer. Migration to Android and IOS to smartphones and more are driving these technology enhancements. We are not broadband worldwide, and that is clearly not a reality yet, as you well know if you have cruised away from the �beaten path.� But with the correct devices, antennas, and a bit of effort to be informed on what is possible, you can stay in touch with family, and technical services as you cruise!

Joan Conover is Vice President of the Seven Seas Cruising Association. She cruises aboard S/V Growltiger.


MAIN PAGE


Sign up now and never miss an update from Caribbean Compass. We'll email you a copy of our monthy magazine, as well as other timely updates!






Top of Page

Copyright� 2021 Compass Publishing