October 10, 2005

Using Wireless Internet - WiFi - While Cruising

Wireless Internet “WiFi” – is becoming available in more and more marinas and anchorages, worldwide.   WiFi adapters are now also a standard feature in many computers.

WiFi can be used not just for email and web surfing, but also for very inexpensive telephone service, using a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service like Skype http://www.skype.com (which we love and highly recommend).

In many of the Marinas we’ve been in, the service is free.  In most, though, you’ll need to signup for the service or pay on a daily basis.  We’re currently cruising the Pacific Northwest and up here a company, Broad Band Express http://www.bbxpress.net/  has wired many of the marinas and anchorages.  So it made sense for us to sign up for their annual plan.

The biggest challenge to successfully using the service has been getting good reception.  WiFi uses radio communications at 2.4 gigahertz, which is quite finicky.  We’ve had little luck using the WiFi adapters built into our PCs, so we’ve found a good solution in a combination WiFi adapter and antenna from Hawking Technology http://www.hawkingtech.com/ their HWU54D.  This unit attaches to your PC via a serial USB cable, which also supplies it’s power.

We bought ours online at http://www.ecost.com for $50 US.

There are also WiFi antennas on the market that you could try,  but there are a couple of issues with external antennas:

1. Most computers have no antenna jack to connect the antenna to, and

2. The cable loss at WiFi frequencies (2.4 Giga Hertz) is so high that the cable loses a lot of power.

You could also buy a marine grade external antenna and a high power PC Card, but this costs a lot more money (well over $100 US).

All our PCs have a built-in WiFi adapter.  We don't use the built-ins when we using the Hawking HWU54D.

It's easy to disable the built-in adapter.  Just right click on "My Network Neighborhood" (in Windows XP), select properties.  All your network adapters will pop up in a window.  Right click on the built-in adapter and select "Disable".  When the adapter is disabled, this menu will allow you to "Enable" it - for when you take your laptop to a hotspot.

When we use the HWU54D, we run in with a 10 foot USB extension cable and put it on top of our boom.  I use a high tech enclosure to weather proof it.... A zip lock baggie  ;-}

I use another baggie and twist tie to weather proof the connection between the two USB cables.

If you need more than 16 feet USB cable length, You’ll need to buy an “Active” USB extension cable.  These amplify the USB signal and will let you cascade cables to extend a greater distance.    
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