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Wi-Fi in the Wilderness

Back in April, we posted an early review of the WiFi in Motion MAX Marine router from SinglePoint Communications. We promised to let you know how the system performed after some extensive testing.

Now, after cruising from Puget Sound, WA up the Inside Passage through British Columbia, around Southeast Alaska (and back) on a five-month trial, we think we have enough experience to give a thorough review – of the MAX Marine system itself as well as the options for data plans.

Bottom line: This thing rocks! We had usable coverage in all but the most remote anchorages. We’d estimate we were connected at well over 80% of the locations during our entire 5-month BC/Alaska adventure. The hardware was rock-solid, the user interface was easy and intuitive, and the performance was fantastic. Many times, we had great data connectivity from the router while our phones all said “no signal”. Often, we could even stream video and TV in anchorages so remote we were amazed. (NOTE: Read the “Video” section below before streaming video on your router). When we had guests, we gave them a password and they were able to stay connected right along with us. Occasionally we even shared our connection with other boats nearby.

To recap what this “Thing” is, WiFi in Motion MAX Marine is a WiFi hub for boats. It creates a secure, firewalled, private WiFi network inside (and outside) your boat that you can use for anything that connects to WiFi. In our case, that includes laptops, smartphones, Apple TV, Xbox, and even our entertainment system Harmony remote control.

Wifi in Motion

OK, any WiFi router can do that, so what makes the WiFI in Motion MAX Marine special? It’s how it connects you to the internet. Unlike your house, your boat doesn’t have a big, fat data cable running to it connected to the internet backbone. Instead, MAX Marine connects you to the internet through the cellular data network. Or, if you’re in a place like a marina with WiFi, it can connect you to the internet through that – only with a faster, more reliable, secure connection that lets all your devices connect at once (rather than having to set the marina network and password on each of your devices separately – and potentially pay multiple times for service).

So, your devices can always stay connected to your own private, secure network, and then the MAX Marine will serve up the internet from your choice of cellular network or marina WiFi.

How is this different from the portable pocket routers such as Jetpacks, MyFi, etc? These portable routers are great in busy cities, coffee shops, hotels, and airports. But MAX Marine uses high-gain externally mounted antennas (with optional booster amplifiers) and high-performance radios to give you MUCH stronger signal and much faster data than these small consumer routers. It also provides a full-featured, firewalled, secure local network inside your boat, rather than the limited “WiFi light” networks created by typical pocket hotspots.

What MAX Marine isn’t: A cell phone booster. We heard people comment that they didn’t see any improvement in their cell coverage after installing a router like MAX Marine. It’s important to understand that these devices do not boost cell phone coverage. Cell boosters are related, but separate devices. If you want to increase the range of your cell phone for phone calls, look into cell boosters.

To make MAX Marine work, you need at least one dedicated account with at least one cellular provider. You put the SIM card for that account (similar to the SIM card in your smartphone), into the MAX Marine router.

There are several models of MAX Marine that can take different numbers of SIM cards. We have the model that takes up to 4 SIM cards. Why? As we will explain below, traveling in the areas we do there is no ONE cellular network that can meet our needs. We actually have (and pay for) 3 separate accounts with 3 different US carriers: T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T.

Yep, that means we get 3 bills each month just for dedicated accounts for our router. For us, this is critical because we operate our business full time from the water. If we don’t have an internet connection, we’re not working. If we can’t be working, we can’t be traveling. That means it’s worth it for us to spend a total of two-hundred-something dollars each month for connectivity.

You don’t have to spend that, of course.

First, we don’t have experience with this, but SinglePoint (the company that sells the WiFI in Motion MAX Marine routers) has plans available that are competitively priced and look convenient. If we were starting today, we’d contact them first and find out about their plans before “going it alone” the way we describe below.

If it’s not absolutely critical that you are connected as many places as possible, we’d recommend a single, unlimited account from T-Mobile. Why? As of this writing (and these things change OFTEN so check for yourself) the T-Mobile One+ plan (The PLUS part is critical for using in a MAX Marine router) gives you unlimited LTE (the fastest speed currently available) data speeds, unlimited mobile hotspot (which is what the MAX Marine router is), unlimited HD video streaming, and (this is HUGE) unlimited LTE in Canada and Mexico, and unlimited 256Kbps (fast enough to get work done), coverage in other countries. Ours is less than $100 per month.

All of the other carriers at this point charge for the amount of data you use, and have (often EXPENSIVE) charges for international roaming. For any of those plans, you need to pay close attention to how much data you use, or charges can add up fast! We’ll give some tips for that below.

So, why don’t we just use the unlimited T-Mobile plan for everything? Coverage. We have found that in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands (US), Verizon has considerably better coverage than T-Mobile at this point. Many of the anchorages we like in the San Juans have Verizon signal but no T-Mobile. We are lucky enough to have a SIM card with a grandfathered unlimited Verizon plan (which is no longer available), so we keep paying for that plan in order to have the best coverage and unlimited data in our home waters in the Pacific NW US.

Okay, then, with those 2 unlimited plans, why do we have a THIRD account and SIM card with AT&T? One word: Alaska. In Alaska, AT&T has significantly better coverage than the other carriers. We would estimate that about 80% of the anchorages where we had data service had AT&T only. For our company, we have a many-user shared data mobile phone plan for ourselves and all our employees, so we have added a data SIM card to that plan, and it is our go-to connection when we are in Alaska. This one charges overages ($15 per gigabyte), and we frequently have to pay those overages while traveling in Alaska.

Traveling through the Inside Passage in BC, Canada, T-Mobile is the best option we’ve found. (Although we’ve talked to some boaters who have set up accounts with Canada-based carriers like Rogers, TELUS, or Bell.) Our T-Mobile SIM had great signal throughout most of even the remotest areas of the BC coast. T-Mobile (similar to Verizon and AT&T is actually getting its service FROM the Canadian carriers such as TELUS, Rogers, and Bell, so it’s likely all these US carriers have similar coverage through BC.)

AT&T, however, is currently very expensive for Canada roaming. Their most cost-effective plan is something like $120 additional for 0.8 gigabytes of data in Canada. After that, you go onto a very expensive per-megabyte overage.

A couple notes on Verizon – all of the current Verizon plans are for a specific amount of data per month with overage charges. They do have an attractive international roaming charge ($2 extra per day as of this writing), so a conventional Verizon card should be a good option in Canada as well. However, since we have the grandfathered “unlimited” Verizon plan, the $2 per day does not apply. Instead, Verizon charges unlimited customers $10 per 0.1 gigabyte in Canada – cheaper than AT&T but still very expensive. Also, our unlimited card mostly stayed pegged on “no signal” in BC, perhaps because Verizon doesn’t enable roaming on Canada networks on unlimited accounts? It seems Verizon REALLY wants people to drop their old unlimited plans.

So that’s our three-SIM-card rationale at the moment. AT&T for Alaska (only) on a pay-as-you-go basis, T-Mobile for the unlimited high-speed including international, and our “Lucky to Have” Verizon unlimited account for the best coverage in the lower 48.

So, if you don’t have an unlimited data plan, how do you manage to keep your data costs under control?

Don’t stream video.

See how we put that line all by itself? Here’s the deal. One hour of HD video chews up about 3 gigabytes of data. At our $15-per-gigabyte AT&T cost, that means about $45 worth of data to watch ONE average TV show. Wanna stream a 12-hour binge of House of Cards? You could be looking at over $500 of data overages on a non-unlimited plan.

What about streaming audio?

Streaming audio is a DISTANT second place in data usage. Streaming audio from Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, etc typically chews up about 0.1 GB per hour. So, watching video chews up data THIRTY TIMES faster than listening to music. Still, if you listen to music for a ten-hour day on board, you’ve just used up a full gigabyte of data. Most plans include only 5-10 gigabytes per month before you go into overages, so you can’t really use streaming music as your constant background while cruising. You’ll blow your data charges up that way too.

What about email?

On average, it takes about 10,000 emails to use up ONE gigabyte of data. Yep, that’s not a typo. Watching one hour of video is the same as sending 30,000 emails. Using up a 5Gb monthly data plan with just email would take 150,000 emails, or about five thousand emails every single day. So – email away, friends. And no need to abbreviate unless it’s the most natural way to communicate 4U.

How about other web browsing?

Web browsing is pretty efficient. The only thing to consider is that many pages automatically stream video (see the data on video above). The biggest culprit for most people here is Facebook, which will automatically stream the videos in your feed by default. Facebook allows you to change the setting to NOT stream video by default (you have to press “play” if you want the video to stream.) Keep a watchful eye for unwanted video streaming, and you should be just fine browsing to your heart’s content.

What about photos and images?

Most images on the web are web-optimized and use only modest amounts of data. If you’re taking high-quality photos and storing/accessing them over the internet on a cloud-based server, you may want to keep data use in mind. An iPhone 6 photo is about 3 megabytes (1,000 megabytes equals one gigabyte), so it would take 1,000 iPhone 6 photos to equal one hour of streaming HD video.

Handy data use reference chart:

$45 AT&T overage = 3 GB = 1 hour HD video = 3 hours SD video = 30 hours music = 1,000 iPhone photos = 30,000 emails.

Oh, and watch for silent data plan thieves…

If your laptops and phones have automatic updates of apps and the operating system turned on, or if you have automatic backups to the cloud activated, you can get nasty surprises on data use. iPhones, for example, have an option to automatically update apps when new versions are available. This can quietly chew up several gigabytes – like your entire monthly data plan – in a single day. Most phones are set up to only automatically update when you’re “on WiFi” but, guess what? When you’re connected to your on-board router – you ARE on WiFi.

That brings up another point that is worth mentioning. If you have an unlimited data plan (such as T-Mobile) on a device like a MAX Marine, be sure your phone is using that WiFi network when you’re on board. Otherwise, you’ll be paying for data on your phone (and potentially roaming charges and overages) while you have a nice, fast, unlimited account sitting right there.

Finally, as of this writing, we’ve heard that Verizon has changed what happens when you reach your data limit on their plans. Instead of letting you eat into overage charges at breakneck speed, they “throttle” (slow down) your data when you hit your limit. This may be good or bad depending on whether you’d rather be protected against overages, or just know that you’re in overage territory but continue to have fast internet.

Of course, if you’re in a marina and connect the MAX Marine to marina WiFi (assuming marina WiFi is free), you aren’t running up your data charges. BUT – please be respectful of the marina’s WiFi rules. Most marinas ask you not to stream video or music (for reasons that should be obvious from above). This still applies when connected through your MAX Marine router. When people break this rule, they cost the marina money, and severely impact the use of the other people in the marina.

Staying connected offers great benefits to cruisers, from getting weather briefings to sharing the experience with friends and family. So far, after trying numerous solutions, WiFi in Motion MAX Marine is the best solution we’ve found.