We've been writing about marina WiFi directly to marinas for a few years. I've been involved with about a dozen new installations in the last 18 months at marinas wishing to upgrade their WiFi to something significantly better. It's an extremely complex and expensive upgrade. I'll give a little flavor of the issues.
It used to be that a boat would pull into a marina and they'd want access to email. Browsing websites and perhaps paying some bills were were occasionally done but many fewer hours were spent in front of a screen. Most boats had a single laptop.
Move forward just a handful of years and today, most boats arrive as a typical couple. They each have a laptop. And a smartphone. There's often a tablet in the mix along with a multitude of other devices that want to get online. Our off-the-shelf Samsung flat screen TV gets online when there's a WiFi connection - it grabs the TV Guide and other things. It will automatically stream from many sources.
Added to that is Facebook and other online access needs (like this forum). Consider the bandwidth difference between T&T (email) and TrawlerForum (web-based multimedia content). One thread of TrawlerForum requires more bandwidth than a month of T&T at it's highest use!
Then there's streaming video, movies, Skype, chart downloads, app downloads, and on and on.
These last few years haven't witnessed a doubling of bandwidth. The marinas have experienced a 10x increase. Maybe 20x.
So the WiFi infrastructure that the marina owner's brother-in-law installed in 2005 from pieces bought at Best Buy, just won't cut it. It has become a major IT issue in an extremely unfriendly (noise/interference-wise) environment.
The marina is also experiencing issues that they don't know how to deal with. Many boaters expect to bring their iPad deep into their stateroom to surf or watch video. But connecting that iPad through the boat, outside to the marina's antenna is a losing proposition. So the boater complains and the marina has no idea what to do.
We've been trying to help in two ways:
1. Explain the issue to marinas to help them realize that the digital world is a lot different today than just a couple of years ago. We've tried to align some marinas with companies capable of designing and installing higher-end WiFi for marinas. Like I said, about a dozen have gone in with great results although it has been expensive.
2. Explain the issue to boaters to help them realize that they need a better infrastructure on their own boat. Expecting their iPad to connect from the stateroom is unrealistic unless they upgrade their own equipment. Our WiFi newsletter segments have discussed the architecture, products, and suppliers of what's needed on a boat. I'd estimate that 25% of cruising boats have a network today appropriate for WiFi access.
To the marina, this is a very expensive endeavor. I can't give specific costs at specific marinas because that might violate some confidentiality so I'll have to be general about it. The typical marina can't upgrade their equipment for under $20,000 - and that's for a fairly small marina. Added to that is the additional monthly service fees which will add a few thousand dollars per year. Add some difficulties in the installation and the costs get much higher. Within the last 2 months, I was in the middle between a marina and an IT company helping the marina evaluate quotes received. The marina is a 60 slip marina. The installation is rather difficult. The quote for the hardware and installation was $52,000. Realistically, the hardware will be good for about 3-5 years.
All of that said, WiFi today is a utility that boaters expect. It's like water. Unless you're in the Bahamas where they produce each drop through expensive RO means, everyone expects it to be free. Charging extra for WiFi has never worked. Beacon pretty much went out of business trying that model at marinas. We believe that enhanced WiFi will bring more boaters into a marina just because of the WiFi. You might not realize it (because there are so few) but marinas with exceptional WiFi have a special icon in ActiveCaptain (spreading to all apps by the end of this year). Check out Atlantic Yacht Basin's icon where I'm at right now on the ActiveCaptain website:
WiFi here is about 5-10 mbps for every boat. I routinely stream video while working on software all day here.
Within the last month, I met with an investor interested in creating a business in boating. The entire face-to-face meeting was about marina WiFi. It's a very large opportunity - I'd guess that at least 200 marinas have contacted us for guidance without even looking for potential customers. The market is easily a few thousand marinas at $20K creating a good $20-$50MM business. But neither of us could figure out a good model that would be affordable to marinas and acceptable to boaters in performance. There's even a fantastic funding capability right now at about 50% of marinas - cable TV. At a few of the marinas we've been involved with, we helped them realize that great WiFi would allow them to eliminate their cable TV hookups. One marina was paying $25,000 per year in cable charges. Their new WiFi system costs $20,000. They saved money in just the first year. They saved nearly the whole cost the second year. To them, it was a no brainer.
There's a very large marina we're talking to today. They pay - get ready for this - $60,000 per year for cable TV. Converting that to WiFi would pay for itself within 2 years. You'd think that would be a simple decision. And yet they sit there right now with no internet access at all. It's a municipal marina and their IT department doesn't like the idea of a high end network but they understand cable TV perfectly. So at $2/foot, there is no WiFi.
I recently thought that mesh networks would solve the entire problem inexpensively. Consider this...
Every boat at a marina is in proximity to the pedestal where they plug into and get water. In most marinas, it's a waterproof structure with power. Mesh networks automatically connect to each other. If one goes out, the others take its place and form the network. Check out this video - Wireless Networking Simplified:
Mesh repeaters can be obtained for $79-$200 each. And you don't need one in every pedestal - even every 4th or 6th would probably do the job if the boat had a central router too. So that 60 slip marina with the $52,000 quote could expect to pay 60 * $100 = $6,000 for a complete solution. Now we're talking. Every marina would jump at that.
OK, so modeling it with the typical marina topology fails. Slips further out have to go through too many gateways to get to the central connection. All gateways along the path end up getting too swamped with data. The result is that the geometric progression of data flow kills it from working. That $6,000 will be thrown away.
And all of this is going to get worse. There is only more connectivity coming and more expectation of being always connected. I'm working on a new type of boat server that shares sensor/instrument data between boaters. If you consider that we help boaters share their experiences through reviews today, the next generation of that is sharing their real boating data. As you're approaching a shoaling area - you should be able to see the tracks of people earlier in the day or even last week. Want to know where people were actually anchored in an area? See their swing path, depths, and wind conditions they experienced - it's sort of like an automatic review. The Locations app I hope to release this week is an obvious first step - it shares GPS position between boaters and cuts the display in a variety of ways based on the relationship you have with the boats being viewed.
Anyway, my fear is that marinas will install an expensive system only to find it failing in a couple of years.
At the same time, cellular networks are picking up the slack very nicely. Speed is acceptable and access has become pretty great along the east coast and even Bahamas. We just jumped from the Florida border to Beaufort, NC in a 2 night passage and except for about 6 hours after Frying Pan Shoals, we had cellular internet access the entire time. 15 miles off West End at Grand Bahama, we had high speed cellular internet. The problem is that it's expensive. I sadly pay more per month for cellular internet than the monthly rent for my first apartment in 1978. And we often blow away those plans without doing any streaming video.
There are also some access issues in other areas. The west coast of the US has difficult cellular access in the remote cruising areas. Cellular costs through the rest of the world are quite expensive. BTC/Bahamas charged us $30/2GB of use. We can drink that in a good afternoon (without streaming video).
I hope that gives a little flavor into the problems. It's a really difficult one to solve. I know it seems like it should be simple and I'd certainly love to bounce around ideas to come with something that no one has thought about. Marinas all know the problems and would love to buy something to solve it.