How do I get wifi on my boat when I’ve got no broadband connection?

How to get wifi on boat without broadband

So. Off-grid broadband. Now there’s a thing.

Or rather, it’s not a thing.

Did you know that the UN has designated internet access as a human right? Well it’s true. Hence why, earlier this year, I spent days and days and days and weeks (ok, maybe not weeks) trawling through all my options to see whether, and how, and at what cost, I might get decent wifi without broadband from my boat.

This was just one of very many things I hadn’t thought about, until I took to the water.

The end of my tether

Ironically, the internet’s physical apparatus is entirely enabled by a sea of underwater cables which snake beneath the world’s largest oceans. Sadly that doesn’t help you get internet on your actual boat. Initially, the only way for me to access the internet from my watery dwelling, and without investing in new equipment, was to tether my phone to my laptop. So that’s what I did. I increased my monthly data allowance first from 2gb, to 8gb, then 32gb; and for the past 6 months or so, almost all my internet access has come via my mobile data.

But now my phone contract is due for renewal. Furthermore, since I recently developed a podcast addiction, I’m finding that even 32gb is not enough for me. Who knew podcasts eat data like it’s going out of fashion? And I’m not totally sure it’s very good for my phone to be used constantly as a personal hotspot. It makes my poor little handset awfully warm and I’m sure it can’t be good for its insides.

Dongle is massive

There are a lot of puzzling gadgets and offers on the internet. Should I get a dongle? Is there any purpose to a dongle when one can tether? And why is it called a dongle? And so on. What about a ‘mifi’ (mobile wifi) device? If you live in London or Swindon, you might be able to access mobile broadband services offered by the company Relish, and which are far more similar to conventional broadband. Their prices start at £22 per month, but I’ve no idea how suitable their service is for boat dwellers. (Where I’m situated on the K&A is only around 20 miles from Swindon, but too far, alas, for the magic broadband.)

Even 32gb is not enough for me. Who knew podcasts eat data like it’s going out of fashion?

Marinas often offer inclusive wifi as part of their package. Having been in two marinas during the past 6 months, I can testify that marina wifi is often less than stellar. This is not surprising. Their wifi transmitter is usually nestled in a corner of an office and struggles to beam into x-number of insulated iron boxes spread over a large expanse of water.

Starbucks is always an option

So, in a world of obfuscation, this much is clear: unless you’re in a marina with an x-ray wifi transmitter, or can access a landline-free broadband service such as Relish, your off-grid options are strictly limited to 3G or 4G mobile data which you must buy – either on a pay-as-you-go basis or on a monthly contract – from a mobile telephony provider. Or you can sit in Starbucks all day and use their wifi, but the cost of all those lattes will soon add up. (Plus, every time I’ve ever been in Starbucks they’ve burnt my coffee. )

Should I get a dongle? Is there any purpose to a dongle when one can tether one’s phone? And why is it called a dongle?

Anyway, while I’ve been pretty satisfied with the tethering option up until now, it does nonetheless feel somewhat less than ideal. In a perfect world, all of my data needs would not be running off my phone. A separate, good-quality router would mean I could connect a laptop, phone, tablet, games console and TV to its 4G mobile wifi and count on getting a reliably good connection.

Of course, since I don’t have a tablet, games console or a TV right now, I don’t actually need to think about that.

A world without broadband

And yet! Not all mobile phone companies are created equal. Not all will allow tethering on their services, and some operate limits on the amount of data that can be downloaded via a tethered connection. Why?

Because they can.

For better or worse, I’ve been married to Vodafone for a long time and, currently, I have one of their entertainment packs. And in the manner of all the best codependent and toxic relationships, it makes me feel I can’t leave them. This compelling 4G husband – my hot data-date, if you will – showers me with gifts. Well, alright, a free subscription to Spotify. I can’t possibly give it up.


On top of the Spotify I get actual telephony services – you know, ye olde-fangled phone calls and ye texts and stuff – plus anywhere up to 60gb of data. The price point, in my view, is very reasonable (although can be subject to variations, depending on whether you are any good at phone haggling).

Geoff’s Top Tip: Always use Bluetooth or, better still, USB for tethering rather than wifi. It’s a more reliable connection and it’ll help save your phone’s battery life. Plus, USB is fast. Yeah!

But continuing to tether doesn’t seem like a great long-term option. Now, I could take that 32gb sim out of the phone and stick it in a separate router… but then I don’t get to use all my calls and texts.

Although I don’t really do that much calling or texting these days. Mostly I just talk to Geoff.

And sometimes I wonder how much he really listens.

ALL the hot data

So! Either all of this is VERY complicated or I’m making it very complicated. At this stage, I can’t tell.


Here (tan-tan-tarraaaa), for your perusing pleasure, is the NT breakdown of current mobile data options, price-points, pluses, minuses, multiplications and division signs…

Giff-Gaff offers an ‘Always On’ sim only deal, with unlimited calls and texts, plus 20gb 4G data, then unlimited data at lower speeds. This costs £25 per month and offers unrestricted tethering. However, I’m not sure just how I feel about those lower speeds.

Tesco Mobile has a top offer of 50gb of data with 5000 minutes each of calls and texts. For the sim only you’re looking at £30 per month, and tethering is unrestricted.

Geoff’s Top Tip: Mobile phone companies often have special offers on data, and it’s always worth getting on the phone with them to haggle. Works for me every time!

Virgin offer a standard 40gb for £23, but if you’re a Virgin Media customer (which, if your primary residence is a boat, you won’t be) you can get unlimited data for £25. Which seems like excellent value, but it’s not clear whether or not they allow tethering. They do sell their own mifi router with a maximum 10gb plan, which comes in at £20 per month plus an upfront payment of £39.99. However, 10gb won’t get you far and without the tethering option, it’s not much use for the boater.

Vodafone sells a 50gb data only sim (no calls or texts) for £30 per month, and will throw in a mifi router for free if you take out a 12 month contract. This sounds like a good deal, but not if you end up paying way over the odds for Spotify (or NowTV, SkySports etc), calls, texts, and a fancy phone separately. It also sells a value 60gb package (including calls, texts, the Red Entertainment pack and a phone) starting at £42.  Vodafone is happy for you to tether all your data, if you so choose.

EE offers up to 50gb on their sim only deals, and 60gb on some of their higher end phone plans. There’s no Spotify, or Netflix, although they do throw in BT Sport. But who wants that? Their maximum data-only plan is 50gb which will set you back £40 per month for 50gb. A 40gb sim with unlimited calls and texts is £30 per month and, yes, you can tether.

Man, this is all confusing.

Three offers a series of both 100gb and UNLIMITED data packages (I’ll say that again – UNLIMITED). These start at £24 but all are restricted to 30gb of tethering. So remember that all the rest of those lovely gigabytes will only be accessible through your phone. If you listen to a million podcasts each day, maybe that’ll suit you just fine.

Three also sell a 40gb data-only sim for £30, and another 40gb sim for £22 (calls and texts optional). Why one costs less than the other I have no idea. None of these prices make ANY sense to me. It’s less of a pricing structure, and more a pricing freestyle. Still, if you can navigate your way around this jamboree of  a website, there appear to be some good offers to be had.

It’s less of a pricing structure, and more a pricing freestyle. Anyway, if you can navigate your way around this jamboree of  a website, there appear to be some good offers to be had.

O2 offers a 40gb sim deal for £30. This includes tethering plus 6 months of Netflix. Some of their more expensive phones come packaged with 50gb of data. However, the navigation of O2’s website is a complete ‘mare. Also, Geoff just reminded me that O2 were responsible for the totally racist ‘Be More Dog’ campaign, so they’re already in the DOGHOUSE (see what I did there?).

Just as I was about to wash my hands of O2, I took a quick (exasperated) look at their pocket mifi machines and find they’re offering a standard 50gb of data, plus free mifi gadget and Netflix, all for £31 per month…

Is that a good deal? I can’t tell any more. Clear as mud, as my nan used to say.

And if you can shed any light on this cameraphone obscura, please comment below or get in touch…!

Meanwhile I’m going to have a lie down.

UPDATE: After fighting with Vodafone’s crashing app and website, and a weird haggly instant chat with a Vodafone rep called ‘Rachel’ (who may or may not have been human), I finally got a new phone, two sims, 68 gb of data, AND Spotify, for marginally less than I’d been paying before. Result!

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I'm Victoria. Hi.

I'm afraid I write most of the nonsense on this site, apart from the stuff written by Geoff. (Geoff is the cat in orange.)

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