Cellular and WiFi Data [Updated Jul-2021]

  ➛ ➛ From our list of Stuff we have and use [and do...] in the right sidebar ➛ ➛   

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 at that moment in time... [...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.



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 current capabilities include:
    • WiFi: [details below]
      • 'Join' an existing network our central WiFi system can 'see'  
        • Virtually non-existent in Alaska
    • 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.

    What are our strategic options?

    There are two approaches we consider for enhancing cellular signals: [i.e., when cell signals are too weak to use a cell phone as a hot spot]

    1. Use a booster cradle for a single cell phone which is then used as our only hot spot [current approach]
    2. Use a cell signal booster and repeater system that enhances cell signals [multiple providers simultaneously...] for all cell phones onboard  [Future consideration] 

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

    Wifi and Cell data in one device: 

    We installed a WiriePro in 2015... but...
    Update 12-Jul-2018: It seems the Wirie manufacturing company decided to unceremoniously close its doors. It is too bad as they made good products and were great to deal with.


    We will leave our write-up regarding the Wirie device in place for as long as we use the device.
    Thankfully there are many other products available, as well as DIY components.
    If you are also a Wirie orphan, there is a support forum on Facebook. As of Nov-2019 some members are working on hardware and software upgrades to keep the Wirie hardware useful for a few more years...
    WiriePro replacement considerations: [or What will we choose next?...]
    First I would check for updates from Sea-Tech Systems and RV Mobile Internet. Both entities keep an eye on the market and have the technical knowledge and first-hand experience to objectively monitor and report on current options. 
    If we had to replace the WiriePro today [as of last update to this page] 
    I would devide our needs into two categories:  
    WiFi boosting [rarely, if ever useful in our present cruising grounds] 
    Centralized cellular modem: The cellular modem in our [original model] WiriePro cell modem is limited to 3G, and US cell providers are shutting that down starting in 2019.  [e.g., Sprint the end of 2019;  AT&T in early 2022, etc. See Fate of 3G article in Resources section, below...]
    As of the latest update to this page, as an affordable replacement for the Wirie, I would consider this Netgear 4G LTE cell modem with WiFi, and this MIMO antenna [Note: Purportedly limited to US cell carriers]
    This would cover what we need and use 98% of the time: 3G*, 4G, LTE cellular data accessed via a WiFi router on the boat.  
    If we also wanted to duplicate the long distance WiFi capability of the WiriePro [i.e., connect to shore based WiFi signals] we would need to explore what is available when the time comes. 
    However, in our present cruising grounds, land based WiFi sources accessible from the boat are pretty non-existent, so we wouldn't bother adding that capability right now...

    The WiriePro is still our WiFi router for the entire boat [and this applies to whatever we might replace it with in the future see above...] Wirie 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. 

    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 the original Pro model and is limited to 3G cell speeds. Wirie later offered a 4G upgrade, but the upgrade and new antenna costs weren't worth it for us at the time- especially given that most of SE Alaska only had 3G at that 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...] 
    Until fall 2019, we used the WiriePro cellular modem [no LTE...] with a GCI phone SIM card with unlimited data [now limited to 15GB teathering as of Summer 2019] to supplement our AT&T smart phones. Sometimes you only have access to AT&T, other times GCI; often both...] 

    What about cell service in Canada? 

    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 changed our plan in late 2019 to include Canada [and Mexico...] 
    See Cellular plans we currently use in Alaska and Canada in the Resources section, below. [We always evaluate what is best each time we plan to venture into Canada since cell plans are constantly changing...]

    Cellular signal boosting: [Very important in the Inside Passage, and likely our course of action vs. a cellular modem...]

    To boost reception for a single cell phone [when used as a hot spot] we have been using a Wilson Sleek 4G Cell Booster [since 2014... 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... This is the cheapest way to try a booster.
    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. 
    This ~US$20 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 [and affordable] 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.

    Future thinking about cell signal boosting: 
    Since we currently rely on our two smart phones and one tablet as hot spots, and since- on current cell plans- each device has its individual data quota [i.e., not shared data...] it is beginning to make sense to install a centralized cell boster instead of a centralized WiFi router with cellular capability. [We will still need a WiFi router, just without cell capability...]
    This way all cellular devices on board will benefit from a boosted signal, and can be used independently for data, etc. [Compared to our current single cradle booster that only boosts one phone, forcing all data through that single connection.]  

    We also used to have a GCI SIM card in our WiriePro 3G cell modem [until fall 2019 when GCI began limiting hot spot data to 15GB/month] This provided us with [truly] unlimited data.

    Update Oct-2019:  GCI changed their plan this summer without notifying customers. Now tethered data is throttled after 15GB- matching AT&T plans at that time. [AT&T has since increased teathered data, more below...] 
    We also observed over the course of 2019 [and received the same feedback from other GCI consumers] that the data service has been severely degraded in many places we have visited in SE Alaska this year.  [e.g., 5 Kbps would be a good day. GCI tech support denies there are any issues...] 
    Therefore we cannot currently recommend any GCI offerings as of this writing. Hopefully this will change back for the better in the future.

    It is important to reiterate that all of these cell data options [phone hot spot or SIM card in a device with a cellular modem] we are using can be beamed via our own WiFi throughout the boat. [Currently 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 to this page!

      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 and Canada [and Mexico...]
        • AT&T Unlimited Elite Plan 
          • [The plan name keeps changing, but the gist stays the same...] 
          • Typical limited 'unlimited' data meaning bandwidth may be 'managed'  after you use so many GB data/device
            • 100GB currently [Update Jul-2021: 100GB cap removed]
            • Meaning of Managed: data speed may be slowed down by the carrier during high traffic periods
            • 30  40GB as of Jul-2021:  tethering/ hot spot data/ month 
            • 100GB with business version of this plan...
              • If you have an EIN you can get this plan...
          • Provides service [including full data allotment] in Canada and Mexico [on limited time basis; currently 2 months]
            • 30  40GB as of Jul-2021 of cell data in Canada is a big deal; no other country is so $tingy with cell data...
          • As you would expect, this plan also works in most countries in the world, but not without add-on fees...
          • Postpaid Month-to-month; no contract; no data overages...

      • Alaska: GCI Simply Unbeatable Plan  [Paused fall 2019]
        • Without notification, our plan was replaced by the inferior Peak Unlimited plan sometime during summer 2019 while we were traveling 
        • Tethered data was was changed from truly unlimited to throttled after 15GB- matching AT&T plans at that time 
        • We also observed GCI data was generally not usable at average peak speeds of 5Kps. [Tech support denied any issues...]
        • Additional caveats: [e.g., reduced data budget] in very remote areas [read fine print]
          • We suspended this plan fall 2019 for the above reasons
        • GCI SIM card works in our WiriePro or an unlocked GSM cell phone- and as a hot spot with unlimited 15GB 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

    What if we had to choose between AT&T and GCI for our time in Alaska? 

    Today we would [still] 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...] albeit for too brief a period for our requirements [currently 2 months...]  

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

    Update June-2019 and Jul-2021: Other cruisers are reporting this is the first year their Verizon [postpaid] plans have been successful getting good data connections and bandwidth in Alaska. 


    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.

      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

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

    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!

      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

    3. When our Wirie died our electronics guru recommended Cradlepoint, an impressive unit used by ships and fleets of trucks that can be managed remotely, accepts 2 SIM cards, is amazingly small, has very low 12v power draw - https://cradlepoint.com/product/endpoints/ibr900/

      We manage our business while cruising so connectivity is everything. We currently can't go where we don't have a signal, but are working towards the day our business doesn't need us so much.

      To stay connected we have-

      ATT 100 GB plan w/router (our primary source of internet connectivity

      T-Mobile 10GB hotspot (cheapest plan eligible for BingeOn, unlimited streaming, which is how we watch TV) SIM card is in the Cradlepoint

      ATT unlimited data cell plans for our iphones that supposedly can be throttled after 15GB but I've never seen that happen

      ATT SIM card that shares our cell phone plan in the#2 spot in the Cradlepoint as a backup for the 100GB router that can't use the Cradlepont

      Google Fi phone as a back up for when ATT isn't available or we use up our ATT data (hasn't happened yet!) A great deal at $20. per month and we only pay for data tethering if we use it, currently $60. for 60GB. This is a multi carrier phone using Sprint and T-Mobile (which have now merged) so we're increasing our ability to find a cell tower with connectivity if ATT isn't available.

      Probably more redundancies than we need, but not being able to connect or running out of cell data isn't an option.

      1. It sounds like you have an excellent, very robust celllular data system. Thanks for sharing the particulars.

        A couple of recent changes that may be of interest to you are:

        - Google Fi just announced support for eSIMs- which can be purchased/converted online to free up a SIM card slot in a dual SIM phone. [Do note, if you head north into Canada, Google Fi isn't currently supported. And in Alaska, it is currently limited to 2G speeds... which is pretty worthless...]

        - AT&T Unlimited Elite Business plan offers 100GB hot spot data/device, and some enhanced priorities for various kinds of business data.


    Because of spammers, comments may be moderated [and 'Anonymous' are usually deleted...] so please be patient if they don't appear quickly... We are cuisers. Sometimes it may be days— even weeks— before we have internet access. Even Elon's... [Don't feel sorry for us... It's intentional...]