Satellite Internet for Boats

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Last Updated: Aug 9, 2021 | Published: Apr 18, 2019

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 focus of our piece today. The point is, internet access is sometimes viewed as a necessity. So it’s nice to know what your options are, what the pricing is like, and what the upsides and downsides are. From there, you can make an informed decision about the internet providers you’d like to explore further.

As mentioned, 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 and wanna-bes out there, we hope that by explaining what’s available, you’ll have everything you need to find the solution that best fits your situation.

Now — let’s get to it.

Boats are one of the most challenging locations for acquiring reliable internet connectivity.

Satellite Internet Options for Boats

If you have any kind of passing familiarity with satellite internet, you might already have some names in mind, as well as some expectations in place for the type of service you can receive. You’ll want to shelve those immediately. When it comes to maritime internet access, you likely won’t be able to sign up with the standard players in the home satellite internet market. And there’s a chance the provider you wind up choosing may use a different kind of technology entirely.

Here are the big names when it comes to satellite internet for boats: Iridium, Inmarsat, and KVH. What makes these companies unique is that many of them specialize in providing the complete package for maritime internet access. They quite often manufacture the satellite dishes or satellite internet devices needed for connectivity. They sometimes develop the software necessary for connecting to the internet, as well. And they also provide internet access for a monthly fee. It’s important to note that you’ll need to purchase equipment on top of that access fee, and that purchasing certain hardware will lock you into receiving service from that provider. This makes it all the more important that you know what you’re getting before you pull the trigger.

In terms of the hardware itself, it actually differs from what you’d get if you subscribed to a home satellite internet provider. Most maritime internet satellites take on a sort of dome shape, and for good reason: if you’re on a boat, the odds are high that 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. For instance, some providers use what’s called a BGAN terminal, which stands for broadband global area network. With these devices, which are about the size of a home scale, you can access the internet and also make calls by plugging in a standard phone. And if you’re familiar with WiFi hotspots, there are ISAT devices with a very similar look and focus on portability.

With a few exceptions, you’ll primarily be using a similar type of technology to connect to the internet via satellite regardless of the provider you choose. There are much bigger differences between these companies in other areas, and below, we’ll explore them in greater detail.

Satellite Internet Cost Breakdown for Boats

Gaining access to the internet on a boat is an expensive proposition. There’s no other way to put it. It’s nothing at all like signing up with your local cable internet provider, or even getting access through a home satellite internet company. There are substantial equipment costs ahead of actually obtaining the service itself. And then you have to sort out the service costs, which are much pricier than anything you’ll be paying on land.

On the equipment side of things, 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 might also have to factor in what it might cost to have someone install the satellite device on your boat, or to have someone come and service your equipment should something go awry.

And then there are the costs you’ll pay to access the internet itself. If you’re used to paying a hundred bucks or less for what amounts to unlimited home internet access, that’s a dream you’ll likely have to let go of. There are certainly some lower cost options if you’re on a boat and accessing the internet via satellite. But they’re few and far between, and come with some substantial downsides. If you want care-free access like you might have at home or on a mobile device, you could wind up between $1000 and $9000 for the privilege.

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. If you’re only spending a season on the water, this might not be too hard a hit. But if you’re a full-time captain? Well, you can do the math. It’ll cost you quite a bit to have top-tier internet access all the time.

The Speed of Satellite Internet for Boats

And then there’s the matter of speed when it comes to satellite internet access for a boat. 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 talk about what you might do with satellite internet access on your boat. Let’s say, for example, you simply 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? Here’s where you might run into some problems. 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.

That’s nothing to say about the latency (another type of speed entirely) that you’ll experience when accessing the internet via satellite. This latency, or the speed with which it takes data to travel between the devices on your boat and your internet service provider, 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 as simply having the ability to check and receive email, log into your banking website, or perform other tasks that aren’t broadband-intensive, 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, say, streaming live internet TV over a maritime satellite connection. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of luck when it comes to entertainment. Many of the same companies that provide satellite internet access for boats are also more than happy to sell you equipment for satellite TV access.

That will, of course, come with some 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 United States. 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 certainly 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, that’s something you have to know going in. 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 a little bit of the home life away from shore, should you so desire, and should you be willing to pay the costs necessary. 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.