The problem. It used to be that when you were cruising on your boat, you could anchor or dock in almost any harbor and find free Wi-Fi for your laptop or other device (now including tablets). Typically someone nearby on shore had an unprotected Wi-Fi signal, and you simply hopped onto it so you could download email and weather information or surf the web. A number of companies built amplified Wi-Fi antennas and signal boosters to make it even easier for sailors to "steal" available open Wi-Fi. But things changed. More people started enabling the protection on their home or business Wi-Fi networks, and more boaters started using smartphones that gave them cellular web access without a need for Wi-Fi.
The problem, part 2. With email along with a wide range of apps available on smartphones with connectivity, many boaters moved away from seeking connectivity for their laptops and became dependent on their smartphones for functionality previously accessed through a connected laptop. Everything migrated to the small screen, then to the somewhat larger iPad screen - but still had the limitations of screen size and a pathetic touch keyboard. And the high costs of subscription plans' connectivity rose even more if you paid to tether your laptop to your smartphone to take advantage of the larger screen, real keyboard, and other software.
The Solution Begins
For those unable or unwilling to pay the high costs of laptop tethering, the best solution in recent years was the advent of mobile hotspots. For example, you could use a MiFi cellular mobile hotspot to connect any Wi-Fi device to the Internet via 3G cellular for as little as $20 a month (limited data cap) without a subscription plan. Better yet, with some plans you could pay only when you needed connectivity, such as only during the boating season. You could turn it on and use it for your laptop, your tablet, your iPod Touch without needing a smartphone at all or paying for tethering. Then in 2012, things changed again with the growth of faster 4G service, and the Virgin Mobile MiFi, for example, bumped its minimum plan up to $30 a month. Still, for those not needing unlimited data, this was the best deal around.
And Now: the FreedomPop Solution
FreedomPop is changing everything again - especially for budget-minded boaters who want connectivity but don't need huge data plans. As of this writing, their basic plan is only about $4 a month for 500 MB, after a $45 purchase of the Freedom Spot Overdrive Pro mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. Data past that limit is currently only $0.02/MB, still quite a bargain. This service uses the Sprint network, looking first for fast 4G service and then defaulting to 3G - plenty fast for most boating needs when coastal cruising.
Personal Experience and Review
It seems almost too good to be true, but it's working very well for me on my boat and elsewhere when traveling. I'm one of those people who hates the little keyboard of a smartphone, so I really like the fact that I can use my laptop (or my 7-inch Android tablet or iPod Touch) for email or boating apps or to check the National Weather Service radar before heading out. And when I'm playing hooky from work, I can sneak a peak at email.
- The Freedom Spot Overdrive Pro (shown in the photo alongside an iPod Touch the same size as an iPhone) battery lasts for 4 hours of continual use and recharges via a standard charger, 12-volt boat charger, or USB cable from a computer.
- It uses the Sprint 3G/4G network (see coverage map here - check for 4G and "3G & more") and thus works anywhere most smartphones do
- After the initial setup (a bit time-consuming because there is no manual and you have to browse around their site to get started), login is easy and automatic.
- Allows up to 8 devices at a time to connect to the hotspot.
- No annual contract required.