Networking Your Boat: How to Get Connected
Wouldn’t it be nice to get away from it all, cruise off into the sunset, and never look back? This might seem like the perfect idea, but for most of us, the thought of truly separating ourselves from the rest of the world and all of its technologies does not set our mind at ease. We want to bring our toys along with us and stay connected to the outside world. These days an internet connection on your yacht ranks high on a boat owner’s list.
Once you’ve made the decision to bring internet technology onto your yacht, what comes next?
Before jumping into the installation process, you need to set up a plan of action. What is it you would like to accomplish? What will you be using this system for and what are your own personal requirements? Be honest, how often will you be using your internet? Are you working with multiple computers, possibly a printer or other devices aboard your yacht? If so, you may want to consider creating a network.
When creating a network for your yacht, you are linking computers and other objects to a central network device, allowing them to share files, music, pictures, and most beneficially, an internet connection (See Computer Network diagram). Sharing a single internet connection simplifies the connecting process, making it a lot cheaper than having to pay for several connections and creating a safer environment for all of your computers.
When networking, there are several things to think about. First, what are you networking and where are these items? Maybe you want to install network ports in the master stateroom, pilothouse, salon, cockpit, and galley. Survey the boat and write down any locations that you might want to establish a connection. Choose a main computer, which will contain the main resources such as the hard drives, scanners, printers, cameras, and any other devices you would like to share within your network. This computer is called a server, it needs to remain on at all times so that all the other computers within the network, called clients, can access the main files and devices in the network.
Now that you’re ready to set up your network, you will need to decide what kind of network you will be using and purchase the hardware necessary for constructing the system. The Ethernet network is the most common way of connecting computers, providing a general blueprint for designing a network. In any network, there will be a central location that connects everything, as seen in the various diagrams, as well as a network interface. The central location is called a “hub” or the more advanced hub, a “switch.” The installation process for a hub or a switch is simple, just plug it in! The network interface is a card or chip that gets installed in each computer. Most new computers come with this already built in, but for older computers, you will have to purchase and install a network interface card.
The next thing to think about is security for your network. A router acts as a filter, blocking unwanted information from the internet from entering your network and preventing other computers from retrieving information from your system. Routers typically have a WAN (wide area network) port that connects to the internet and one or more LAN (local area network) ports that connect to devices that are in the network on board the yacht. When searching for routers, there are some that work with both wired and wireless connections. Some routers also provide a built-in wireless access point. With an onboard network, a “router” between your network and the Internet provides another level of separation between your computers and others using the same wireless Internet access.
Now that you’ve made some decisions on setting up a network and surfing the internet, it’s time to think about getting wired, going wireless, or maybe doing both. If you are thinking of having a wired connection, start to envision the set-up process of installing each and every wire. If you are dealing with new construction and your yacht is in the beginning stages of being built, this might seem like a viable option. The wires can be placed where they need to without any extra physical effort. You might want to set up wiring in some places that you are unsure of needing, this way you can avoid the hassle later on. If you are already using your boat, it may take more effort in placing these wires, forcing you to squeeze through tight spaces and fixtures within your boat.
There are a couple of choices for getting wired. The familiar and old fashioned dial-up is still a valid option, where a computer modem hooks up to the telephone line. This is perfect for people who stay in port most of the time and don’t use the internet too often. It can be very slow, but extremely cheap, sometimes even free! The other possibility that many of us are familiar with and use in our homes is DSL. This is a high-speed broadband network connection from your telephone line to your computer. This is much faster than the ancient dial up feature and does not tie up your phone lines. It is also a less costly option, but it only works while docked on land and may have no service in some areas. Lastly, there is the possibility of connecting through the cable television lines, which then hooks up to a cable modem. This is faster than DSL, but you are sharing the cable with other users, which can affect the speeds at different times.
For those of us who do not spend our entire time at port, but instead spend an equal amount of time at sea, we need to consider other alternatives. This would mean going wireless, which might be the simplest for those of us with used yachts. When using wireless networks, it is important to be aware of your security needs. You do not want to leave your network open, allowing anyone with a laptop to enter and utilize your internet services, while also viewing files that you are sharing with other computers in your network. You can protect your network by using certain encryption methods such as, WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), WPA (Wireless Protected Access) or AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). These systems limit those who can connect to your wireless network using MAC (Media Access Control) address filtering. It will only allow Mac addresses that you specifically identify as devices permitted to access your wireless network. Or you may choose to turn off SSID (Service Set Identifier) broadcast, this makes it harder for other users to find your network, but in turn, it may make it equally difficult for you to identify yourself.
The most popular wireless connection is called “Wi-Fi” or “wireless fidelity.” Wi-Fi is one of the less costly, even sometimes free internet options for boaters and other wireless connectors. Many laptops are already equipped with wi-fi cards, if yours does not have one, you can easily retrieve one from various electronic stores in your local community. They are fairly inexpensive, and once you have one, you can connect to numerous “hotspots” wherever you roam. Most marinas, along with other local “hot spots” such as libraries and schools, support “wi-fi” connections. A hotspot is a location, where an antenna transmits signals to a wireless router, supplying internet access to multiple users. This is a wonderful way to enjoy the internet while on land, but unfortunately, the signal is not effective when out in the water.
Another way to go wireless is to use cellular cards that are provided by cellular phone carriers, such as Verizon, Sprint, and Cingular. Cell phones use radio frequencies, providing service coverage miles off the coastline, allowing boaters to enjoy their internet while in the water. It works faster than other connections and can be relatively inexpensive. Laptops have a slot or maybe a USB port that the cellular card can hook into. There will be additional monthly fees in order to use the cellular internet services on top of the cellular phone services. Companies such as Cingular and T-Mobile provide worldwide service; however, most other cellular carriers only have U.S. coverage. Some companies will be less costly than others, but the service might not be as dependable. Once again, it will be extremely beneficial for you to discuss with members of the marina and other fellow boater, which carriers would work best for you.
The last internet service option to discuss is probably the best, with available coverage world wide, extending across the open water; it is also the most costly. Satellite service is the one and only choice for those who are going offshore and desperately need to connect to the internet. The set-up is similar to a land-based system in that it contains a dish as well as two modems. The difference is that when you’re on a boat, you need a stabilized antenna in order to pick up the signal. This is where it can get costly, ranging from $1,000 to $100,000 dollars for a stabilized antenna. On top of that there are the monthly service fees which start at well over $100 dollars per month. If you do need internet service while you are traveling on your boat, maybe you are a business owner or simply need to stay connected to others around the world, this is the absolute best option.
Now you have a starting point where you can begin the great adventure of making your boat fit your needs. It is important for you to remember that there is more research to be done and you want to make sure that you are fully prepared for the work ahead. Look in your local libraries and bookstores and read up on this topic before jumping into the actual set-up. Your best resources for learning more about these internet providers would probably be marinas or other boaters that have gone through the same experience.
How do you network your boat?