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Dr ITs Tech Solution for Mobile Broadband Routers

Dear Dr. IT,

In the past you wrote about sharing a single internet connection around the boat, can you help me optimize my setup? We spend most of our time anchored outside of Wi-Fi range but regularly use cell phone data connections. Can I also share this connection around the boat to use other devices besides my laptop?

– Ramon Garcia
m/v Gordita (via email)

Sharing an internet connection is becoming easier and easier by the day; I would be happy to give you a few ideas. I assume you are referring to a piece I wrote in the past discussing sharing a Wi-Fi connection using internet connection sharing (ICS) in Windows XP with an external router. This option still exists within the newest release of Windows 7 and is a valid solution for you, although it would demand you park the laptop you are currently using in a fixed location and connect the wireless router to it.

While this may be an easy solution I am not too keen on parking the laptop in a fixed location, or being forced to run both computer and router whenever you want to have a boat-wide connection. There are some newer purpose-built devices for mobile telephony communications that will allow you a more efficient system and more flexibility when compared to running both laptop and router with ICS.

These devices are referred to as Mobile Broadband Routers; one could think of them as a standard router, but instead of picking up an internet connection from a cable modem or another traditional method you would normally use, the unit uses a cellular data connection. These come in various flavors supporting both USB based and PCMCIA based cellular data cards and various data connection speeds. You should pick a router based on where you plan to be operating, what carrier or carriers you will use, and what type of wireless data device you will own.

My favorite Mobile Broadband Routers include the MRB1000 by Cradle Point Technology and the Top Global 3G Phoebus Wi-Fi Router if you plan to change carriers, or the Linksys WRT54G3G-AT if you are only going to use AT&T. MRB1000 is not overly costly at around $150 USD and has both the cellular modem ports and a traditional wired input to obtain internet access, while providing a 802.11 N hotspot and wired connections for the users on your boat. It’s also compatible with a wide range of cellular data cards, both EVDO and HSDPA, while bringing some neat features such as load balancing to the table.

Bandwidth is always a concern when using cellular devices; some mobile broadband routers such as the MRB1000 offer dual data card ports. This allows the router to use both data cards at once and thus increase the overall bandwidth available to the boat. These sounds great, but remember this will require two data card subscriptions and increase your phone bill.

If I was setting out to build a system today I would select a MRB1000 router and couple it with AT&T or Sprint data devices. I have had good luck with both Sprint and AT&T devices in the waters of Puerto Rico and the USVI.

Leaving US waters will mean that you need to purchase a device you can exchange SIM cards in, as you cruise and change local phone carriers. There are multiple devices on the market that can do this, depending on your planned cruising range; cross reference the local carrier’s devices with the router you purchase and pick accordingly. One thing to remember is that when you buy a data card you intend to switch SIM cards in as you cruise, be sure it is not locked for use only with a single carrier.

Ramon, I hope that I have helped you here. Going with a mobile broadband router will keep your energy use down as many of them run on 12V power. Going this route will also free up your laptop for occasional or full time use while still allowing the router to provide full time connections for other devices such as the children’s social networking devices or iPhones.

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Dustin Norlund has lived aboard his Hylas 49 and sailed extensively in the Caribbean and Central America His career started in mechanical engineering and airline operations and he has been involved in IT and software solutions. Norlund has worked in the marine electric and electronics trade providing services to both small and large yachts. www.nadagato.com or email hylas49@gmail.com.

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