Want to send e-mail without leaving your bunk? Call your family for free (or almost)? Get the latest hurricane update? You need wireless internet access on board.
In many marinas today wireless access is offered as a common and expected amenity. Freebie wireless networks are also available in many anchorages around the Caribbean, courtesy of nearby homes or business hotspots.
Wireless can be rewarding but frustrating. Your computer can see the network but stalls at connecting to it…you can connect to the network but data transfer is slow…or the connection drops every few minutes.
The good news is that simple solutions can give you fast and reliable access from afar. Generally the weak link with wireless networking is the RF broadcast power (signal power) of the computer trying to use the network. In plain English, the computer can hear the network but the network can not hear the computer talking back. You can fix this.
Solutions for poor RF output come in two forms, amplifiers and antennas. Boost output signal with a bi-directional amplifier or use an antenna to help signal strength. For a robust solution, use both an amplifier and an antenna.
External antennas simply provide a better signal path than the internal antenna buried inside your computer and come in various types. Omni directional antennas work by moving the broadcast location of the computer out to an external point on the boat, broadcasting equally in every direction.
Directional antennas focus the signal in one specific direction and can increase range of networking three times or more compared to an omni directional antenna. Remember, you will have to point it at the hotspot source or search around for it if you are using a source from unknown location.
One good choice is a very small directional antenna that can be mounted internally in the vessel, avoiding much work and holes in the boat.
Google searching “802.11b 802.11g 802.11n directional Wireless LAN WiFi Antennas” will reveal online retailers for this project. Antennas are available from $29 and up, but make sure that if you plan on mounting externally, you get an “outdoor” antenna and keep the signal cable run to the antenna within the limits provided by the manufacture.
Amplifiers are a bit more work to install as they generally need a power input. Amplifiers provide greater performance and work in a bi-directional way—not only will your computer speak louder to the network, it will gain a “hearing aid” to listen better when the network talks back to your computer.
Look for an amplifier in the power output range of .25 Watt to 1 Watt. These will range in price from US$150 to $250 when purchased online. Search “802.11b and 802.11g bidirectional amplifier” for multiple sources.
While ordering your amplifier and antenna, get compatible pigtail coax cables to connect all of the new equipment. To get it right the first time, search for the connector type you need on “Wireless LAN Radio Pigtails” or log on to www.hyperlinktech.com.
Most desktop based wireless cards have external antenna connections.
How do you get the wireless signal out of a laptop and to the amplifier/antenna chain? Three wireless PC cards that are known to have external connectors and work well can be found by Google searching “Compex iWavePort” or “ORiNOCO Gold card” or “Zoom ZoomAir 4103.” It is also possible to find wireless adaptors that work via your computer’s USB interface.
Once you have the equipment installation is easy. The computer will output signal to the antenna. If there is an amplifier it will go inline between the computer and the antenna. Turn off all of your existing equipment, make the necessary connections, turn on and test. You’ve got Wi-fi.
Dustin Norlund is based in Fajardo, Puerto Rico,where he and his wife Jacie live aboard their Hylas 49, Nadagato.
A new product called the WaveRV Marine Wi-Fi antenna could further simplify the process we’ve outlined for getting Wi-Fi to your boat when you are at anchor.
This antenna contains everything in one including a booster amplifier and Wi-Fi card. The one connection is a USB cable and there is no special RF cable. Your computer needs to have a USB port, of course. Mount the 8dB omni antenna outside on your deck’s deck and install the drivers that come with it on your computer. No external power is needed since the antenna is powered through the USB port.
This new gear is available at Budget Marine. Its manufacturer, RadioLabs, says that typical results give up to 30 times the range of notebooks with integrated wireless. More details on the product can be found online: http:// www.radiolabs.com/products/wireless/wireless-marine-antenna.php
We’d like to hear from readers about your experiences with Wi-Fi access in the Caribbean: [email protected]