Cellular and WiFi Data [Updated May-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 1-May-2018 [by Bill] –––––––––––––
Added: New Traveler's Guide to Mobile Internet Options for Keeping Connected in Alaska and BC Canada

Overview:



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 email, 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: [2 options; details below]
      • Use one of our cell phones as a mobile hot spot
      • OR
      • Use the cell data side of our central WiFi system
    • Satellite
    • Radio: HAM/Marine SSB
    On a boat, we are often in areas where WiFi and/or Cell 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 [GSM; 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 video...] 
    Currently we use the WiriePro cellular modem with a GCI phone SIM card with unlimited data [truly unlimited] to supplement our AT&T smart phones. Sometimes you only have access to AT&T, other times GCI; often both...] 


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

    Last time we ventured into Canada we bought a Canadian SIM card [Bell Canada] 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 [for a couple of months anyway...] 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...]


    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 magnetic 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...]

    When we are traveling in areas where our US AT&T cell phones work, but not GCI, we typically keep one cell phone [with hot spot active] in the Wilson booster. The phone hotspot is shared throughout the boat through the WiFi router in the WiriePro.


    We also have a GCI SIM card in our WiriePro cell modem, providing us with [truly] unlimited data. That is our choice when we have GCI service available...


    It is important to reiterate that whichever of these cell data options [phone hot spot or SIM card in WiriePro cell modem] we are using are beamed via WiFi throughout 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 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.  [e.g., Operating systems, applications, chart updates, etc.] 


    Therefore, sometimes we 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 Enhanced Plan 
          • Typical limited 'unlimited' data meaning bandwidth may be 'managed'  after you use so many GB data/device
            • 22GB currently
            • Meaning of Managed: data speed may be slowed down by the carrier during high traffic periods
            • 15GB tethering/ hot spot data/ month
          • Provides service [including full data allotment] in Canada and Mexico [on limited time basis; currently 2 months]
            • 22GB of cell data in 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
    What if we had to choose between AT&T and GCI for our time in Alaska? 

    Today we would choose AT&T because in our experience to date [traveling around SE Alaska by boat] is AT&T has more coverage- especially in very remote areas- and the plan extends into Canada [and Mexico...] 

    Who knows what tomorrow's choice may be?   [We will update as changes occur...]

    5 comments:

    1. Hi guys! Thanks for providing so much truly-useful information! My fiancee and I are about to head out from California to Mexico in October and are looking for cell/wifi solutions. We had pretty much decided on the WiriePro. We were going to keep our AT&T cell plan until we found out about the 2-month limit. We are kicking around the idea of using Google's Project Fi. I was wondering if you'd heard of it and if you thought there might be any issue with using their data sim card in the WiriePro.

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Hi River.

        Thank you for your compliments. It sounds like you both have a great adventure ahead of you.

        We really like our WiriePro. Great product and support.

        Re: Google Fi: We are familiar with it but it is not available in our current cruising grounds. Therefore we have no experience with it.

        I would ask the folks at Wirie. They are very responsive and quick.

        Best wishes on your journey.

        Cheers! Bill

        Delete
      2. PS: We just returned to the land of the internets. Hence our delayed reply...

        Delete
    2. Doesn't the WiriePro provide cell signal reception - why do you need a cell phone booster as well? It seems like a great product to put on our masthead, but I'd rather not put two new antennae up there. Thanks!

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Hi Tom,

        You are right: the Wirie and cell booster are independent solutions for separate use cases.

        WiriePro provides a cell data hot spot [and WiFi router] for your boat.

        Phones can be hot spots, and sometimes need boosting to get a usable signal...[Often when our phone says no service, we get 2-3 bars when put into the booster...]

        Depending upon your needs [i.e., where you travel] you may only require one of these solutions.

        We use both as we frequent remote areas often with spotty [or no...] cell service. Therefore we use a local cell provider in the Wirie [GCI] and AT&T on our phones. This approach improves our chances of having cell data as we cruise in our present area, and improves our chances of using cell phones for voice calls [saving sat phone time...]

        If we had to choose one or the other, we would choose cell phones as we need them for other reasons...

        RE: Wirie location- do some reading on their site. You have to access the wirie to install SIM card[s] as you travel, so most choose a convenient location. The antenna- which is unique to the Wirie model you select [e.g., LTE vs. 3G] - can belocated up to 4 ft from the wirie box last I knew... [Of course, confirm all of this with the vendor...]

        I hope this helps clarify.

        Cheers! Bill

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