Satellite Internet for Boats

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Last Updated: Dec 1, 2023
Boats are one of the most challenging locations for acquiring reliable internet connectivity.

Let’s face it: we live in a constantly connected world, and sometimes, unplugging isn’t an option. It doesn’t matter if you’re surfing in Hawaii, skiing in the Alps, or backpacking Europe. You can even get satellite internet on a boat. The point is, internet access is sometimes viewed as a necessity. It’s nice to know your options, pricing, and the upsides and downsides. From there, you can make an informed decision about the internet providers you’d like to explore further.

We’re taking a deep dive into satellite internet for boats, which includes looking at providers, the tech used, costs, service packages, and more. So for all you sailors out there, we hope that this guide will have everything you need to find the best solution.

Satellite Internet Options for Boats

Iridium, Inmarsat, and KVH are the big names when it comes to satellite internet for boats. They manufacture satellite dishes or satellite internet devices, develop internet software, and provide internet access for a monthly fee. Note that you’ll need to purchase equipment on top of that access fee, which will lock you into receiving service from that provider.

Hardware differs from what you’d get if you subscribed to a home satellite internet provider. Most maritime internet satellites take on a dome shape, and for good reason: if you’re on a boat, you’re going to be moving around. You can’t simply point a dish at a satellite like you could in a static location. So these boat-specific satellite devices have to compensate for that fact, and unfortunately (as we’ll cover later) that comes at a cost.

But there are other devices available for internet access on a boat that look a little bit different. Some providers use what’s called a BGAN terminal, which stands for broadband global area network. With these home scale devices, you can access the internet and also make calls by plugging in a standard phone. If you’re familiar with Wi-Fi hotspots, there are ISAT devices with a very similar look and focus on portability.

Satellite Internet Cost Breakdown for Boats

Gaining access to the internet on a boat is an expensive proposition. It’s nothing like signing up with your local cable internet provider or even getting access through a home satellite internet company. Substantial equipment and service costs come with obtaining the service, which are much pricier than anything you’ll be paying on land. You can expect to pay several thousand dollars — if not tens of thousands of dollars — for a device capable of delivering internet access to a boat. The low side can be as little as $1,400. Spring for something a little more fancy and a little more capable, and the price can quickly shoot up to as much as $50,000 (and that’s just for hardware). You also have to account for installation fees.

Why is maritime satellite internet access so expensive? Because it costs quite a bit to transmit data via this method. Those lower cost options — the ones that come closer to what you might pay a cable company — come with incredibly significant caps. For instance, paying Inmarsat $60 a month might sound reasonable, but look more closely at the fine print, and you’ll find that your data cap is a paltry 10 MB. If you stream a song or two, you can pass that without a problem. Plans with higher data caps can reach $1,000, though those will only provide you a few gigabytes. To get truly unfettered access, you’ll likely pay a cost of $9,000 or more. In short, it’ll cost you quite a bit to have top-tier internet access all the time.

The Speed of Satellite Internet for Boats

If you’ve ever used a DSL internet connection, the speeds you’ll get from maritime satellite internet providers are pretty similar. On the low end, you’ll find speeds of 128 kbps. On the high end, 2 Mbps. They’re certainly not the worst you can do in terms of speed — you’d have to go back to dial-up for that — but they’re not all that fast, either. Let’s say you want to send some emails and browse the internet every once in a while. The lower speeds at 128 kbps will be awfully slow for that activity, but they’ll eventually get the job done. On the higher end, you shouldn’t have a problem at all.

But, what if you want to stream a movie on Netflix? For even the lowest quality stream, Netflix recommends a minimum of 500 Kbps, which the lowest-tier maritime satellite speeds won’t achieve. But if you want to view something at the standard definition — not even HD — Netflix asks that your connection maintain a speed of 3 Mbps. At its highest highs, that’s a speed you won’t be able to hit with satellite internet on a boat. And that’s not even counting the data such a stream would consume — this could wind up driving up your internet costs even more.

As for latency, or the speed with which it takes data to travel between the devices on your boat and your internet service provider, it will make some activities — like online gaming — extremely unpleasant. Still, if internet access is an absolute must for you while you’re out at sea, and speeds aren’t as important to you , then you should find the speeds from most providers suitable for your needs.

Other Entertainment Options

You might have some trouble streaming a movie on Netflix or streaming live internet TV over a maritime satellite connection. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck when it comes to entertainment. Many of the same companies that provide satellite internet access for boats sell equipment for satellite TV access.

That will come with added costs. You’ll need to purchase some additional equipment, which can range in the lower thousands of dollars to nearly $100,000, depending on the type of vessel you’re outfitting. From there, you’ll also need to pay a satellite television provider for service, and while that can be a more reasonable cost (no more than home access, usually under the $100 mark), the provider you’re dealing with will differ depending on the region you’re boating in. For instance, you can choose between DIRECTV and DISH if you’re sailing near the U.S. If you’re in the waters of Europe or the Middle East, however, you’ll have to get in touch with a company like Astra, Hispasat or Nilesat to obtain satellite TV service.

It’s definitely possible to have internet access — as limited as it is — while also being able to watch TV while on a boat. But the equipment costs will be substantial up front, and you’ll likely have to pay for the two services separately.

It’s Not Perfect, But It Works

Maritime satellite internet access, much like the type of satellite internet access you’d get on land, isn’t quite on-level with terrestrial broadband. If you’re looking into satellite internet for your boat, know that the speeds can’t match up, the equipment costs are steep, and you’ll pay more for service and get less in the way of the data transfer you have available.

Still, you can get satellite internet speeds at sea that are at least capable enough for emailing, web browsing, and downloading small files. And if you’re okay with paying more, you can get satellite TV access to complete the package, depending on where you are in the world.

It’s not perfect — and it’s certainly not cheap — but it works. The options are there for you. All you have to do is decide if they’re worth it.