Cellular and WiFi Data [Updated Feb-2018]

This is part of a series describing some of our common boat systems and their operation.

We refer to these often not only for our own use, but also when asked specific questions about systems on Denali Rose, and when participating in discussions on various forums. 
We aren't implying our choices are the best or only way to go; they just happen to be the decisions we made [...or sometimes what came with our boat...] 

And since we are talking about electronics, in the future our choices in this post may become dated and/or obsolete, so we will keep this information current regarding what we have and use, and what we are researching/considering for the future.

––––––––––––– Updated 19-Feb-2018 [by Bill] –––––––––––––
  • Added cellular plans we currently use in Alaska and Canada [in References section, below]
  • Misc. other additions and updates


When we are traveling or just anchored on the boat, we like to stay in touch with friends and family, and have access to the internet for all the usual reasons, including paying our bills, reading our [scanned] snail mail, etc.

While the internet is pretty much taken for granted on land, it is less available when one lives on the water in some areas...
  • Our options include:
    • WiFi: [details below]
      • 'Join' an existing network our central WiFi system can 'see'  
    • Cellular Data: [details below]
      • Use one of our cell phones as a mobile hot spot
      • Use the cell data side of our central WiFi system
    • Satellite
    • Radio: HAM/Marine SSB
    On a boat, we are sometimes in areas where signals are weak or non-existent. 

    If the signals are weak, we need to optimize the available signal using specialized electronic devices in order to use the WiFi or Cellular service. [The purpose of this post.]

    Sometimes we are just too far away, or the signals are blocked by mountains, etc. In those cases, at present we are limited to using either our Satellite Phone [our preference] or our HAM/Marine SSB radio.

    Which devices do we use to optimize WiFi and Cellular signals with good to excellent results?

    Wifi and Cell data in one device: 

    We installed a WirieProThis unit is also our WiFi router for the entire boat, and only needs a single 12VDC wire run to it. [No coax, ethernet, etc...]

    The WiriePro allows us to pick up WiFi signals our computers and phones don't even see. However, it is rare to find an open WiFi network these days, so this is not useful unless you can make arrangements to gain access to the WiFi networks of choice. 
    Sometimes we can reach a GCI cell service specific Turbozone WiFi hotspot via the WiriePro (access comes with our GCI cell phone subscription...) from our boat and use that instead of our cell phone data...
    The WiriePro also has a built-in cellular data modem. When you add an active cell data SIM card [internationally compatible] it behaves just like you were on a WiFi network.   
    To further enhance cellular reception, we added a 6dbi external cell antenna add-on offered by Wirie to greatly improve cellular range. [It replaces the 2dbi rubber ducky cell antenna that comes with the WiriePro.]
    Note: Our WiriePro unit is older and is limited to 3G cell speeds. [Which is all that is available around here in 90% of the locations with a cell signal anyway...] Wirie does have a 4G model available, but the upgrade and new antenna costs aren't worth it for us at this time...
    Regardless of being limited to 3G speeds with our WiriePro, we often stream movies while in remote locations without any issues. [Just no HD...] 
    We currently use the WiriePro cellular modem with a GCI phone SIM card with unlimited data [truly unlimited] to supplement our AT&T phones. Sometimes you only have access to AT&T, other times GCI; often both...] 

    We also have a Canadian SIM card [Bell Canada] for use in the WiriePro when we are traveling through Canadian waters because, in the past, roaming on either of our US Cell Data plans [AT&T and GCI]  was usually more expensive than a pre-paid Canadian SIM for the WiriePro. Today there is are AT&T plans that extend into Canada and Mexico, so we may change our plan before venturing into Canada next time... [We always evaluate what is best each time we plan to venture into Canada since cell plans are constantly changing...]

    Wirie also sells repeaters for larger and/or metal boats, and a GPS add-on which includes free tracking, etc. 

    This is a very good company founded by sailing cruisers that understand our communication needs, and provide excellent products and tech support. Consider their products if you like to plug-and-play instead of spend your time geeking and troubleshooting...

    Cellular phone booster:

    To boost reception for a cell phone [when used as a hot spot] we use a Wilson Sleek 4G Cell Booster [Now labeled WeBoost; here is the link to the latest model.]

    Wilson seems to support the most carriers and frequencies. i.e., as universal as it gets right now...
    For the best performance you need to use a different antenna than the tiny one that comes with it. We use with this antenna for experimenting and land-based use [e.g., when using our truck camper] and this marine grade antenna [With appropriate marine grade antenna coax cable...] for the permanent install on the boat.
    Note: I want to reiterate that the antenna that comes with the cell booster we have is not very good. You need something like one of the two antennas above. 
    The US$18 antenna in SS is very good.... And needs a small diameter ground plane to optimize transmission... e.g., a 10-12 inch pizza or pie pan- or the like. 
    The marine antenna doesn't require the ground plane- or at least ours doesn't seem to suffer from the lack of one...
    This is a great device that- with the proper 3rd party antenna- adds additional bars of signal strength over what the phone can 'see'... [But it won't conjure up a cell signal where none exists...]

    While we are traveling in the areas where our US AT&T cell phones are supported [and because we have a large, cost-effective data plan; 40GB/month for US$125] we typically keep one cell phone [with hot spot active] in the Wilson booster. 

    We also have a 34GB/Mo [$70/month] GCI SIM in our WiriePro, providing us with a current total of 70GB/month- which is pretty comfortable for the two of us... [This includes 3 active cell phone numbers on two different services...]
    Why not an 'unlimited' data plan?  As of Sep-2017 [when we acquired the GCI SIM card] none of them available here really were, and all have some limitations that make them a no-go for us... [Read the fine print- this applies to the US-Canada-Mexico roaming as well...]  
    Update: As of Jan-2018, GCI now offers unthrottled, unlimited data on the plan we signed up for in Sep-2017. [Plans change often, so do as we do and re-investigate what is available before signing up...]

    For WiFi on the boat, we either  subscribe our WiriePro to our phone's hot spot WiFi signal or use the internal cell modem with a SIM card- securely beaming internet connectivity [through the one cell phone hot spot or a SIM in the WiriePro] to every device on our boat. This suits our needs well in our current cruising grounds. [Alaska and Canada]

    Public WiFi:

    We have enough devices demanding routine upgrades and updates to sometimes warrant using [fast] public WiFi resources for this need. Otherwise they devour a significant portion of our cellular data to keep them all up to date- but now we use our GCI unlimited data in the WiriePro to ameliorate this... [e.g., Operating systems, applications, chart updates, etc.]

    Therefore, when it is convenient, we typically let updates accrue to the point that a visit to a local WiFi hot spot is warranted- which typically means a library in Southeast Alaska...

    The Admiral tending to our collection of electronic devices as they assimilate gigabytes of updates and upgrades during a typical multi-hour visit to a library about every month or so...
    [Not a bad place to spend time regardless; note the Cruising World magazine in lower left corner of this photo...] 

    Additional Resources:

    • Cellular plans we currently use in Alaska and Canada [as of last update, above]

    • We include this info for those of you planning on transiting the Inside Passage of Canada and Alaska. We encounter many summer cruisers who are very disappointed to discover their popular cell plans don't work as expected here. Or that only the phone and text work, but they cannot use any data... Therefore we are sharing what we know works, and how we choose to spend our hard earned communications budget...
      Note: The following plans are not limited to Canada and Alaska. Shop wisely...
      • Alaska
        • GCI Simply Unbeatable Plan 
          • Truly unlimited data
            • Some caveats in very remote areas [read fine print]
          • GCI SIM card works in WiriePro or an unlocked GSM cell phone- and as a hot spot with unlimited data...
          • Purportedly also works in the continental US, and possibly elsewhere [not important to our current needs; not tested by us...]
          • Month-to-month; no contract
      • Alaska and Canada [and Mexico...]
        • AT&T Unlimited Plus Plan 
          • Typical limited 'unlimited' data meaning bandwidth is throttled after so many GB data [22GB currently]
          • Only 10GB tethering data/month
          • Provides service and data in Canada and Mexico [on limited time basis; currently 2 months]
            • 22GB of cell data is Canada is a big deal; no other country is so stingy with cell data...
          • As you would expect, this plan also works in most countries in the world, but not without add-on fees...
          • Month-to-month; no contract

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