TV upgrades are one of the most popular off-season upgrades for many of us. This time of year, I see this topic popping up reluctantly on most of the boating discussion groups I follow.

I say reluctantly because watching TV at sea goes against the persona most boaters project for themselves. You know, sipping coffee (or wine) and gazing blissfully at the horizon.

Don’t get me wrong – we do spend a lot of time on deck enjoying the scenery, but last year we spent 85 days at sea, and sometimes you just want to watch a movie, TV show, or sporting event.

NBA Semifinals on ESPN

For us, our boat has become our other summer home, and we want access to all the usual creature comforts. And while many of the people we cruise with want the same, I know that a lot of you just want some sort of video entertainment occasionally.

This is what I know!

Traditional Technology

In 2017 I first wrote on this subject in a report titled – Who watches TV on a boat?

Much of the technology discussed in that article is still true today. In particular, the cheapest and easiest way to get TV on your boat is still the Glomex-style antenna.

This will get you the modern equivalent of a 1970s roof antenna. In most ports, you’ll get one or two major over-the-air local channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) and a few obscure TV channels like me.TV where you can find oldies like The Beverly Hill Billies or Madlock.

Glomex is an excellent option for someone who spends their nights on a mooring or anchor because it depends on a clear line-of-site to the local antenna. But if you stay in marinas in a low-profile cruiser, you’ll find that you’re reception vanishes when a Flybridge ties up next to you.

Satellite TV

Another option that’s been around for years is Satellite TV. I installed a KVH 3 system on Vigilant in 2019, and the cost was about $6,000 all-in (the KVH was $3,300 of that). I hooked it up with DirectTV for about $200 a month. It got all the channels, but it was Standard Definition.

Relentless was essentially a wealthy guy’s “day boat,” and it had no TV when it arrived in August 2020. I had Scott (SK Marine) put in a KVH 7, which gave us HDTV and multiple receivers.

I admit that I was a bit taken aback when I got the invoice for $21,500. The dish was $13,999, and the rest was labor. SK also had to rework the platform to mount it.

Up until 2023, this was probably the state-of-the-art for TV watching at sea. It’s pricey and still doesn’t give you on-demand movies. For that, you need streaming internet.

The Internet At Sea

After Gomex and before KVH, I dabbled with using the Internet to access movies and cast them to the TV. Casting from a smart device is probably the cheapest solution because it only requires a tv and an AV adapter like this one for an iPhone…

Right after I wrote my first report on Watching TV on a Boat, Scott reached out to me and suggested I install a Pepwave router with enhanced reception. The Pepwave takes cellular signals through SIM Cards that you get from ATT, Verizon, and other carriers and then generates a wifi network on the boat.

I did, and it worked like a charm until I maxed out the data allocation on my Verizon “Unlimited Data” plan.

The Pepwave creates a WiFi network on your boat which is essential for casting without a hard-wired adapter, but if it can’t be attached to the internet, it doesn’t get you TV.

In the spring and the fall, you can generally log into the typical marina WiFi and stream, but during peak season, throughput grinds to a halt.

In June of 2018, I discovered an excellent marina internet system at Nantucket Boat Basin called OnSpot and wrote a second report in 2019 called A Marina WiFi That Really Works! Unfortunately, they’re very OnSpot-equipped marinas in the northeast.

Since then, I dabbled with wire cutting several times but constantly ran into dead spots, like the outer docks at Cuttyhunk or Verizon in Menemsha. And in the summer, places like Newport will give you “four bars” but no reception due to the volume of local traffic.

In late 2021 I got an iPhone 13 with 5G that seemed to perform better, like the rainy day we got stuck in Portland and decided to watch The Guardian.

Still, there were plenty of dead internet moments, even with 5G

Blockbuster 2023 Internet Options

As I write this, two new means for accessing the internet appear on the scene. If you want near bulletproof internet right away, the Starlink system from Elon Musk’s SpaceEx is your best option.

The “Secret Sauce” behind Starlink is the use of thousands of low-orbiting satellites. The parent company – SpaceEx, is well funded as the most economical space transportation for the US government.

Click here for more information on Starlink.

Today SpaceEx has 3,000 satellites circling the earth and some level of coverage on all seven continents. About a year I discovered a Facebook group called Starlink On Boats, and since then, I’ve learned a lot about this option for getting internet at sea.

  • There is a Starlink Marine option that is very expensive and designed for Super Yachts and Cruise Ships.
  • They have offered an RV version for years with a very compelling price ($599 upfront and $135/month)
  • Quite a few have been installed on boats with good luck, but there were three problems. The specs say that it doesn’t work when you’re moving. They also state that coverage is limited to terrestrial use. Also, the dish is awkward and needs to be pointed north.
  • The specs notwithstanding, a lot of the people who mounted them on their boats reported good reception while underway. That said, the Facebook group seems to believe that the restrictions in the spec will eventually be enforced.
  • The original RV model works for sailboats underway but consistently shuts down if the vessel is traveling at more than 10 knots.
  • Starlink recently announced an “In Motion” unit for $2,500 and the same $135/month. It’s pretty sleek and can generally pick up a satellite signal lying flat.

That said, there are two schools of thought about the future of Starlink on Boats within the Facebook group.

1. Some think it’ll just be a matter of time until Starlink enforces the territorial restriction with technology.

2. The other school of thought is that sooner or later, Starlink will come up with a “near coastal in motion” option priced like the RV version.

At $2500 and $135/month, it’s far cheaper than even the SDTV version of KVH and DirectTV.

THIS JUST IN: From PC Magazine on January 31, 2023

“The hardware will include both fixed-position Starlink dishes and those that can be used in motion, such as on a car, boat, or plane. The company plans on testing up to 200 models featuring dimensions “not to exceed 0.586 by 0.385″ meters in size (23 inches by 15.1 inches).”

Clearly, Starlink recognizes the recreational boat market, but there is one more emerging option.

5G Ultra

I love to listen to Podcasts while I ride my bike. A few weeks ago, I was listening to Rich On Tech (KTLA), and he started talking about something called 5G Ultra.

A caller asked how one could figure out if they had it, and Rich said to look at the 5G signal indicator on your phone. Depending on your carrier and phone, the indicator will be different, but on Verizon, it will be a UW.

I looked at my phone, and sure enough, there it was!

Here’s an interesting excerpt from Verizon’s recent announcement on 5G Ultra:

“Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband brings power and performance comparable to a wired broadband internet connection to customers’ pockets. With download speeds up to one gigabit per second and the capacity to support data-heavy actions, 5G Ultra Wideband frees people up to do things on the go that many could only do before when connected to their home internet service. This includes everything from downloading huge documents and seamlessly streaming movies in HD audio and video, to playing console quality games and conducting video chats, video conferencing and FaceTime calls with clear sound and video.”

Rich went on to explain more…

  • Every major carrier has some version of 5G Ultra.
  • It is hardware dependent.
  • It’s rolling out in high-density areas first (although I was in the La Quinta Cove when I discovered it).
  • The carriers and the experts believe 5G Ultra will deliver better reception than the high-speed cable modems installed in many homes today.

What’s the right choice?

So many options! It comes down to three factors;

  • What, and how much TV do you want to watch?
  • Where you cruise and how the options perform in that locale.
  • Your Budget!

If you just want to watch movies and the local news, the simplest (and cheapest) option is an over-the-air antenna and a smart device with an AV adaptor. You can’t count on streaming from your device, but both Netflix and Prime Video allow one to download hundreds (thousands?) of movies, and you can build a very nice library on a 256G device.

The Starlink – 5G Ultra tradeoff is more tricky. In remote ports, you probably won’t get 5G Ultra or over-the-air reception, so you can’t count on them. But if you cruise around a major urban area, a 5G Ultra Hot Spot is a great low-cost option.

Starlink is being deployed for remote areas first. So if you cruise the outer islands, it’s your best option.

We are probably going to do “all of the above.” Last season we spent 85 days on Relentless and ended the season early due to her sale. We’ll likely be on our new boat over 100 days/year, and needless to say, we want “all the comforts of home.”