Getting Mobile Internet On-Board

It is some years now since I started posting from Albert; it's almost a decade. Originally I sent emails via a mobile phone and they were compiled into a post, but images could only be uploaded from home where there was sufficient bandwidth. Eventually I bit the bullet and started posting via an on-board laptop. This brought many improvements and incorporating images directly into posts soon became routine. However, it was not plain sailing.

External Magnetic Aerial -used to improve signal strength

I had a mobile phone contract with O2 and decided that a dongle based modem was the simplest way to “go mobile”. Although it could work well at times it was an unreliable system since O2 didn’t (and still don’t) have a good reputation for coverage along canals and rivers. I would often log on to O2 and find that only GPRS was available which was only just fast enough for loading text onto BlogSpot but was useless for loading images. Even mooring up in the centre of small towns like Stone didn’t provide me with sufficient 3G coverage. I tried to improve matters by using a magnetic external aerial attached to the dongle via a sleeve, on the basis that getting radio signals in a metal box was likely to be difficult (a Faraday cage) and receiving a signal from outside “the box” must be better. However, the external aerial but did not improve coverage, it only improved the number of “bars” and certainly did not help “upgrade” a GPRS signal to 3G, my basic problem. 

Sleeve for USB Dongle with Aerial Connector

I then joined the gang. Nearly all boaters I talked to who were happy with their mobile internet coverage used the provider Three, particularly those continuous cruising and blogging. I bought a Three SIM, installed it into the “O2” dongle (actually an Ovation MC930D) and it was a revelation. I had 3G at most locations on the canal and when it was not available I didn't waste my time trying to manage GPRS. The best set-up I found was to use a remote USB cable connection, hang the dongle near the window and put the magnetic “booster” aerial out on the boat roof. It worked fine and I was content – my blogging was reasonably reliable and emails were perfect. 

That was until I discovered mobile hotspots and we started using more internet devices on-board. I got an IPhone, we “inherited” an IPad (what a wonderful device), and eventually Maggie got an IPhone 5. A discussion with Mike Kinnings of NB Blue Pearl led me to the mobile hotspot Zoom 3G router. It operates using a USB connection to a mobile internet dongle (or similar) and provides enough Wi-Fi coverage for the whole boat. I used the same dongle + magnetic booster aerial system that I had used before. It worked well and the extra freedom of having boat-wide Wi-Fi was a great particularly since we could use the IPad for web browsing. The only negative sides of adopting a router-based system is that monitoring SIM usage is not straightforward and devices on-line show excellent Wi-Fi connection (i.e. internal to the boat) but it cannot show (external) internet connection quality.

Zoom 3G Router/Mobile Hotspot with USB Dongle and Sleeve for Magnetic Aerial

Solwise 3G Modem/Router with built-in SIM socket

After around 18 months of using the Zoom router I decided that I wanted a better “engineered” solution. A cable going through the window to the roof aerial and a dongle suspended from the curtain rail, didn't look good. Also, untidy cabling can cause connection problems and they did occasionally happen. I therefore took the plunge and went for what I hope is a “proper” boat-based system Wi-Fi system.

I selected a router that could accept a SIM which removed the need for a USB dongle. I also wanted a “proper” external 3G aerial rather than a magnetic patch, so I went for Solwise 3G Modem/Router (3G-51R_EXT) with their matching external 3G 5dB Omni antenna. It worked well over the summer providing us with effective Wi-Fi that we managed to share with our visitors (Smart Phones etc). So to provide a more permanent solution, I recently rewired the cratch putting in a new conduit that could take more wires, including a cable to the 3G aerial. It was a bit of work but I hope it is worth it. I also installed an additional 12v power socket near the television point to power, for among other things, the FreeSat box.

Solwise 3G/4G 5dB Omni antenna 

Having just finished my rewiring project, I found that Graham Booth had just reviewed getting mobile internet in the December’s edition of Waterways World. Graham covers mostly laptop/tablet/modem issues so the thoughts and experience described above could be complementary to his article. I am glad he starts with premise that Three is the canal “standard” service provider.

Since purchasing the Solwise 3G Router I note that it is now discontinued but they appear to be offering another higher specification device, as always for a bit more money.