Getting Satellite Internet on Your Boat

It’s one thing to have the equipment and capability to place an emergency ship-to-shore call, but quite another to be able to download a 20 gigabyte data file or watch the Arsenal-Chelsea match while you’re in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Satellite internet is a maturing industry with options geared towards light, medium, and heavy data users. For users in the lower ranges, some systems offer flexible data packages and less expensive hardware, but the trade-off comes with slower download and upload speeds. At the upper end of the spectrum, there are many manufacturers offering superb long-range products and service packages to suit every internet desire.

Challenges

For the most part, the challenge of getting satellite internet for a boat is cost, along with the fact that a boat moves. Moving requires a satellite that can maintain a connection while a boat is rocking in the water. Distance also factors in, as larger and more expensive satellite dishes are required to compensate for angled signals as a boat veers towards the poles. If you’re looking for a strong signal anywhere in the world, be prepared for a substantial price tag.

Internet boat basics

Satellite internet provides service that can be used for voice calling, messaging, high-definition television reception, and, of course, web browsing. Manufacturers adapted equipment for moving, oceangoing vessels, and if you are willing to pay the price, you can enjoy internet service almost anywhere in the ocean.

Multiple manufacturers offer dishes—basically glorified antennas—along with data plans that charge on a monthly basis just like smartphones.

If you are a boater who rarely ventures far from shore, you can consider an enhanced antenna and signal booster system that puts Wi-Fi networks in reach of your vessel. But for a more reliable, expansive (and expensive) internet connection, satellite is the only solution.

The cheapest satellites for basic internet are in the $1500 range, while at the top end of the spectrum, systems costing up to $50,000 (plus a hefty monthly data plan) will furnish a boat owner with unimpeded global broadband internet access.

How satellite internet works on boats

The hub of most systems (except BGAN, described below) is a dome-like satellite that gets mounted on a boat.  The most economical satellite internet set-ups allow some light web browsing, voice communications, and downloading weather information. At the more expensive end of the spectrum, you can expect your system to handle high-bandwidth applications like high-definition television and heavy data use.

For internet on a boat, here are your basic options:

Option 1: BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) systems

Pros

  • Completely portable
  • Wide selection of terminals
  • Rugged equipment designed for field professionals

Cons

  • Not suitable for high-end entertainment
  • Very pricey data

In essence, a BGAN system is a portable hotspot using units that look like notebook computers. You can use the units anywhere on the ground or water, which is why field correspondents who need reliable connections and need to move frequently often rely on BGAN.

BGAN provides portable internet service that works quite well on a boat. A private company operates three satellites that communicate with about 20 vendors who manufacture terminals for BGAN.

The terminals link to a user’s device through Ethernet cable, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or USB. In order for the onboard terminal to communicate with the satellite, it uses GPS, and a clear view of the sky is required for connection.

Different terminals can work at different download and upload speed with BGAN.  Paying more gets you a more expensive terminal that operates at a higher connection speed. Terminal prices generally range from $1500 to $2000, but you should know that data use is higher for BGAN versus fixed satellite.

BGAN service plans include usage plans that cost about $800 before any data is used—they basically provide the right to purchase data. Prepaid data plans are also available in almost any quantity, with data costs averaging about $5.00/megabyte.

Option 2: Satellite dish (fixed) systems

Pros

  • Biggest range of product choices
  • Ability to tailor a package to suit your needs

Cons

  • Expensive initial cost to purchase a satellite
  • Data can get very expensive

Satellite internet requires a dish for your boat, an expensive piece of hardware that ranges from approximately $3,000 at the low end to $50,000 or more at the high end. Satellite dishes for boats range in size 13–45 inches, with the larger dishes providing more extensive coverage.

For infrequent users, it clearly does not make sense to buy a very expensive dish and to subscribe to a pricey service plan. Companies like Iridium make somewhat lower-priced dishes with correspondingly slower connection speeds. They offer entry-level pricing plans starting at about $50/month up to $1000/month for 1000 MB of data, and you can expect the hardware to cost about $4,500.

If you own a yacht and need your guests to have every creature comfort, expect to pay at least $15,000 for a dish like KVH and upwards of $2,500/month for data.

Option 3: Small, lightweight systems: Iridium Go, IsatHub

Pros

  • Power system costs
  • Inexpensive data options

Cons

  • Can’t handle high data usage like running a business or streaming HD TV

The Iridium Go is a small, lightweight box that looks like a radio and costs about $1000.  The Go is designed for getting weather files and light-duty browsing.  One drawback of the Iridium Go is that a special app is needed to browse the internet, putting an extra step between you and the information you want to find.

Iridium Go data plans charge a basic monthly fee with a la carte cost for calling and data.  Plans start at about $49.00 for basic calling and data with a miniscule 5 data minutes included, and they range up to $129.00 for 150 included data minutes.

IsatHub is a portable (30 oz.) terminal that costs about $1400 from manufacturer Inmarsat.  IsatHub provides talk, text, and internet through any type of smart device: phone, tablet, or computer.  IsatHub service shows how much data is consumed in real time.

IsatHub data moves at much slower speeds than home Wi-Fi, but unlike Iridium Go, it can freely browse the internet. Think of it like the casual and friendlier little brother or sister of bigger, heavy duty boat satellites. IsatHub is primarily an option for smooth-going ocean conditions with a clear, unobstructed view of the sky and for people who are not using very large amounts of data.  IsatHub plans range from about $59.99/month for 10 MB of data to about $3000/month for 1000 MB.

Satellite setup and product options

Several dealers specialize in boat communications and sell the hardware, software, and data plans for turnkey satellite internet setup. Dealers include Global Marine, Satphone Store, West Marine, and Ground Control. Popular satellite manufacturers include Inmarsat, Iridium, and KVH.

Setup is generally very straightforward and includes mounting the dish in a recommended location and installing software. As with a home network, a dish can be connected to multiple devices.

Following is a sampling of different hardware options for boat satellite systems, along with representative plan options. Most dealers provide rate comparison charts, and some have white papers with case studies noting costs for hypothetical data usage for different vendors.  

ManufacturerTypeModelEquipmentHardware CostSpeedPrice / Month
IridiumSatPilotDish plus software$4800128 kbps$50 – $1000
Furuno InmarsatSatFleetBroadband Felcom 250Dish$11000432 kbps$106 – $2000
Furuno InmarsatSatFleetBroadband Felcom 250Dish$16000432 kbps$1060 – $2000
InmarsatSatSailor 150Dish$6000150 kbps$106/5MB
RaymarineSat33STVDish$2500$995
KVHSatMini Vsat V3Dish$130002 MbpsStarts at $49
KVHSatMini Vsat V7Dish$30000$995
InmarsatISATIsatHubDish$1400384 kbps$59.99 for 10 MB
Ground ControlBGANMCD-4800Standalone / Dish$14200464 kbps$69 – $995

The Takeaway

Boat internet connections can deliver the same broadband experience you get at home, but if you want all of the creature comforts like HD television, unlimited web browsing, and unlimited ship-to-shore calling, be prepared to pay the equivalent of a decent midsize automobile for a satellite dish that has a diameter of about two feet.  Monthly costs for a high-end satellite package are high as well, with high-use data plans coming in at the $2000/month range.

If you are mostly looking for a basic setup to do a bit of browsing and essential calling, then a lower-end system like the Iridium Pilot would work well. If you are an explorer, commander, or itinerant journalist, the BGAN network offers what is essentially a global mobile office solution that works well on and off your boat.

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