huawei mifi

Mobile Broadband on a narrowboat

Steve Equipment, Going Digital 8 Comments

Today I want to talk about mobile broadband on a narrowboat. Anyone who lives on a boat soon discovers that living in a metal box isn’t the best thing for getting a signal, add to that the often remote locations and it can often be a real hit and miss affair.

I have always been quite a heavy user of the internet and since we moved on to our narrowboat I have been trying to work out the best options to get online. I have a MacBook Pro laptop and an iPhone.

For the phone I am on O2 and on the boat I get a reasonable enough phone signal and can (slowly) get emails and view the odd web site. My contract includes 2GB of internet access but with the speed I can get I use very little of that. If I go into town I can pick up a 4G signal.

WiFi is supposed to be coming to the marina soon, so I don’t want to enter into any long contracts when I should be able to get it free in the next few months.

Using the laptop I have tried several options so far.

Wi-Fi on Site

There is wi-fi from on the marina but I could only get a signal outside or sitting in the cratch area. The cost varies. 1 day is £5 but 30 days is just £20. This company specialises in providing wi-fi to marinas and holiday parks. Here is a map showing their locations.


huawei dongleI also tried a 3G Dongle on the 3 network which is supposed to be the best network on the canal system. This worked fine but it is quite expensive. I am keeping this mainly for when we are away from the marina. This can be purchased for £35 with 3GB of data and then topped up as required. For example 10GB of data is £15 but only lasts for 1 month.

As the dongle requires a USB port it is not suitable for a phone or an iPad. I found reception ok but improved it by buying a USB extension cable which I hung out of the window with the dongle sealed in a plastic bag.

I found it easier and cheaper to buy the Dongle through Amazon


From there I tried a Huawei MiFi again on the 3 network. This had the advantage of being able to connect all my devices rather than just the laptop. huawei mifiOn a monthly rolling contract this was £40 for the MiFi unit and £16 for 10GB of data,but it didn’t see me through a full month and can’t be topped up beyond the 10GB. Go over your limit and the charges are astronomical. £1 for every 10mb.

(UPDATE Sept 2015) Having now moved location to a marina with no wi-fi, I have changed my contract with Three to a 24 month contract. I now get 15GB of data for just under £15.

Wi-Fi Booster

I have now purchased a wifi booster from Amazon for £40. This is attached to a pole outside the boat and I then run the supplied 5 metre USB cable in through the window. This has meant that I can now pick up a much stronger signal and can use ineedbroadband without having to go outside.wifi booster

When we do get marina wi-fi I should now be able to get a strong signal.

Scanning with this device, it picked up about 12 other users broadband signals, though of course they are all private and locked. It could be useful though on our travels to pick up any open networks. It is supposed to have a range of several hundred metres.

Typical of an item from China, the instructions were completely useless but fortunately a reviewer on Amazon had given instructions, including where to download Mac drivers.

How do you get mobile broadband? I would be interested to hear what you use and how well it works.

Comments 8

  1. For about six years and up until very recently I’ve used the 3 dongle with great results pretty much wherever Hobo goes. Then, for no apparent reason, it started dropping out and when in the signal was weak. Hopeless – was far better to tether to my phone in the end.
    Three said the dongle is now ‘old hat’ so now I have the Mifi, which so far is brilliant but am not through the first month yet. I get 2GB data included for £8.00 per month (half what I paid for the dongle) on a 24 month contract. Will have to see how far the 2GB will go…
    But, so far so good.

  2. I use a 4G MiFi unit from EE which I am very pleased with. Unless it is raining I put it in a small cloth bag and hang it from the tiller with the doors open. That way, it is outside the steel box in free air and I can sit down below in comfort. Whe it is wet, and in the late evening, I hang it up against the glass of a window but that is not as good.

    1. Post

      Im fortunate that I can get away with just having my Huawei mifi next to the window but when we have been travelling I sometimes had to hang it out of the window to get a decent signal.
      In over 6 weeks of traveling last I only had one day that I couldn’t get a signal. That was at Wellingborough and I think it was interference from the factory on the opposite bank.

  3. 15GB doesn’t sound like a lot to me. Are you able to stream films at all?

    But a MiFi does seem like the best option, based on my research so far. I think that’s what I’ll try first. I’m moving onto a boat soon for the first time in my life!

    1. Post

      Three now do a package with 20GB a month on 1, 12 or 24 month

      or EE do 25GB for £30 a month. The general consensus is that Three has the best reception on the canal network. In one month of travelling last year I only had one day where I couldn’t get reception and I believe that was a factory on the other bank causing problems with the signal. Depending on how remote you are you might struggle with a high enough bandwidth for movies though.

      Also beware charges for going over your limit Three charge 1p per MB so 1Gb extra is £10.

      Its well worth turning off automatic updates and things running in the background as these can gobble up GBs at a time. You soon learn to keep an eye on your remaining allowance and not waste it. Some months I have to be very restrictive for the last few days on others I have plenty but make sure I use it up on the last day by doing updates and downloading podcasts. In Summer I spend so much time outside I barely use the internet and we haven’t had a TV since we moved aboard.

      If you are staying in one place its worth checking out alternatives. Some marinas use though you may find you need a booster to get a strong enough signal. Remember you are in a metal box which can really hit signal strength.

  4. I have a one-month rolling contract with Three that allows me to use my phone for tethering. I am limited to 12Gb a month and its £20. If I hang my phone in a window I get a reasonable signal.

  5. I have used a WEBi unit with a dongle type sim card for several years and it has worked well in both East Anglia and the West Midlands where I have moored my narrow boat. Unfortunately, it has recently stopped working and is no longer manufactured. I am looking for alternative hardware as I already have a good sim/data contract.
    The WEBi had its own directional aerial built in and I am concerned about signal reception. The Huawei unit looks so tiny that reception concerns me. How does the WiFi booster aerial plug into such a small unit?

    1. Post

      The wifi booster and the Huawei mifi are for different things. The wifi booster is just to boost the signal for the laptop. It has a USB cable and connects to my laptop. I ran the cable out through the window and fastened the booster to a pole. It was good for picking up networks in the area and was useful for the wifi at the marina which I couldn’t get a strong enough signal for otherwise, as the mast was about 100 metres away.
      The mifi is a mini router and can run up to 5 devices at once and can be located anywhere. It only needs a USB connection to charge it. It sits on the table next to a window and picks up a signal fine on the 3 network. I have also used it with an EE sim card and this worked ok as well.I have used my iPhone, a tablet and my laptop all without a problem.
      We travelled from Nottingham to East Anglia and I only had one day when I couldn’t get a signal. This was at Wellingborough and I’m pretty sure it was the flour factory on the opposite bank that was causing the problem.
      The wifi booster and its pole has been sitting in my engine room unused for over a year.
      Several months ago I was having problems with dropped signals (It turned out to be a mast issue not my Huawei) so I tried an Osprey mifi from EE but I had problems with it. It didn’t work well with my Mac even though the firmware was up to date. Every time I closed the lid on the laptop and then opened it the connection could not be found. It would take several minutes and router reboots before it worked again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *