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WIFI on Board – The Internet for Cruisers

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Okay – I have to admit it – both David and I are attached at the hip to, not only our computers, but to the Internet as well.  For this reason I was more than a little dubious about leaving our high speed ADSL line at the dock.  I soon discovered that my fears were in the wind. 

Dave invested in a WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) 802.11 card and a high gain external antenna for use while we cruised the Windward/Leeward Islands and Venezuela, and at a price that is much less than the least-expensive satellite solutions. Whenever we enter a harbor we cruise the anchorage looking for a WiFi signal so we can anchor Swan Song well within range of a WiFi provider—a hotspot.  

WiFi cards are available at virtually every computer/electronics store for less than $100, and either fit in your laptop’s standard PC Card slot or come as a USB external device. Budget Marine, among others, offers a packaged WiFi client product specifically for marine use! Most new laptops come with the WiFi card built in, some with an external antenna socket, so you have nothing to buy to access the Internet via a hotspot.

In many locations it is possible to log on to somebody else’s WiFi network without paying a penny, but I wouldn’t count on it. These are promoted by the user as free, in order to entice you to hang out near their business and possibly buy something, or because they are of the mentality that you just shouldn’t have to pay for Internet access.  Or they are operated by clueless folks who bought an Access Point and just used the default settings. We have done this in the past, but more and more of the “free” spots are being secured as operators worry about who might be using their network and what they might be using it for.

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So enter the Caribbean’s world of paid hot spots, where your marina or local business will allow you to sign up to access the Internet and charge you by the minute, hour, day, month or season. This typically costs more than your Cable or ADSL account at home, but it is easier to digest the price when you consider that it is high-speed broadband access, accessible wirelessly from your boat. We find transporting our laptop to and from the boat a bad idea—and one never gets everything done sitting shore side with the computer or using hardwire at an Internet Café.  

The ability to use Skype or Yahoo Voice for telephones calls from the boat is, in itself, worth the cost of a good connection. This reduces your sat and cell phone expenses to a minimum and allows you to call friends and family anytime you’re connected, not just when you are ashore.

When visiting Antigua I had the opportunity to chat with Arnold Baird and Gay Nichols, originators of HotHotHotSpot for most of the Caribbean.  We had purchased a week in Prickly Bay Grenada, another week in Bequia and then decided to go for a month’s unlimited time as they really are nearly everywhere we wanted to stop. More locations are coming online in the days, weeks and months ahead. 

Both Arnold and Gay are ham radio operators, have a massive background in computers and computer technology, and have been working in the islands for 35 years.  Add to this 10 years of cruising and they knew exactly what cruisers needed for high speed Internet access. Their business model is rather unique in that Arnold & Gay are the equipment providers and the administrators of the service. Good site selection, antenna quality, and focused signals are the key to good coverage of an anchorage along with the speed/quality of the signal.  For HotHotHotSpot, local entrepreneurs provide the sites and high-speed wired connection to the boxes, and are responsible for the day to day operational status of their hotspot. This provides local ownership of each hotspot yet keeps the one time sign-up seamless operation from one area to the next.

We have received signals as far as five miles on Swan Song but more typically you can expect a half-mile or so with a modest laptop set-up using an external USB device or external antenna.  There will be many changes in this area as WiFi develops but one thing is for sure – its here to stay!

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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