WiFi On Fishing Boats – Irrelevant, Or Imperative?

Do you really need WiFi on your boat? Here’s why the answer might surprise you.

It’s quite unlikely that you remember when we published New Products from Simrad, all the way back in November of 2013. That was five years ago, and it was when the NSS16 evo2 hit the streets with an option for GoFree WiFi. In a few short years, we’d see WiFi go from an optional add-on, to a built-in standard feature. And not just on big glass-bridge helms and megabucks MFDs. A number of compact MFDs currently on the market which cost less than a grand have built-in WiFi. And it’s not just MFDs, of course. Our homes, offices, and even many of our cars have WiFi these days.

Simrad wifi
Just a few years ago WiFi became an optional add-on; today it’s a standard feature in many MFDs.

But, do we really need or want WiFi on our fishing boats?

Much as we may despise the technical snafus and constant connections (read: interruptions) that may in some cases go along with it, the answer is yes. Period. MFDs have evolved to become the information hubs on boats, and having a connected boat brings with it some huge advantages. Consider:

  • Convenience gets a boost, since you can use the phone you’re already familiar with to interface with your marine electronics system.
  • Security gets a (potential) boost, since it’s possible to harness the WiFi for use with some security and/or monitoring systems.
  • Software updates for your electronics become completely effortless.
  • Chartography update also become completely effortless and better yet, you can update your own digital charts with your own depth soundings and GPS data.
  • WiFi allows for wireless integration between your MFD and many other electronics and items that communicate electronically.
wifi radar
Thanks to the wonders of WiFi, you can even eliminate the need for a radar cable with units like the Furuno 1st Watch.

The Complete Connection?

Wait a sec – what good is WiFi when you’re usually too far from those land-based hotspots to get a connection with the rest of the world? Lots. The local WiFi network an MFD can establish on your boat first and foremost gets all the pieces-parts of your boat talking with one another. In some cases that means you don’t have to rig a cable from the MFD to the radome, to use radar. It lets you use your phone as a chartplotter/fishfinder/engine monitor repeater, and in most cases, use the phone to change the settings or screen views. Chartography updates can take place on your MFD screen in real-time by tethering your plotter, fishfinder, and the Navionics app, even when you’re out of service range. Then when you return to port, the data you’ve gathered can then be shared with the rest of the world – or not, as you desire.

wifi extenders
A WiFi extender can help maintain contact with the wider world.

What about the complete connection to the wider world? You can get it virtually anywhere, but you have to pay for it. Once your boat’s beyond cell range, satellite communications are necessary to get that job done. WiFi extenders can help you get a signal at the dock or in the harbor, but are rarely effective beyond a few thousand feet of where you’d normally be able to link up. One step farther is a “bridge” system that has an external WiFi antenna and/or an Ethernet converter, router, and/or a booster/modem. Wave WiFi is probably the best known of these systems. They can increase range by up to a mile without powered boosters, and those that are boosted might increase range by up to six or seven miles. Range varies quite a bit, however, depending on signal quality and current conditions. Still, even without the WiFi link to other entities, the value of having WiFi aboard is clear.

How to Get WiFi Aboard

So, what’s the quickest and easiest way to get WiFi on a boat that doesn’t already have it?

In most cases, it’s as simple as upgrading your electronics system. As we mentioned before, most new MFD units include built-in WiFi, and virtually all that cost over $1,000 have it these days.

wifi boats

On most modern units – even ones carrying a relatively moderate price tag – WiFi comes built-in.On most modern units – even ones carrying a relatively moderate price tag – WiFi comes built-in.The second-easiest way (for those of you who don’t feel like upgrading your system at the moment) will be an add-on “black-box” type of WiFi information hub. Unless your system is over five years old, chances are this won’t take much more than buying the unit and connecting the power and NMEA2000 communications wires; most of these are plug-and-play, possibly requiring a software update for the MFD but perhaps one that will start automatically, once the system’s all set up and powered. These usually aren’t horribly expensive (plan on spending a few hundred dollars), but if you’re going to make an investment in the system, it does beg the question as to whether upgrading to a more modern unit is in order in the first place.

Does a fishing boat seem like the last place on Earth you’d want to have WiFi?

Well, to many of us the answer will be a yes. But once that boat’s WiFi-equipped you’ll almost certainly discover that you don’t regret it.

Get more great boating information and tips from Lenny Rudow on BD.

Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chief at Rudow's FishTalk Magazine, is Electronics and Fishing Editor for BoatUS Magazine, and is a contributing editor to several other publications. His...