Jeff Seigel, founder of ActiveCaptain, writes…
Every internet access solution onboard has to consider cellular connectivity. So when you're planning a full WiFi solution, the way that you'll connect to a cellular provider has to be a major part of your decision and planning process.
There was a time when we'd anchor and find many open WiFi routers enabling us to access the internet. Our personal log from spring 2004 shows that we found over 200 open WiFi sites near Melbourne, FL. By spring 2005, there were 4 at that same spot. In 2007, there were none.
Internet WiFi is now available at most marinas. That's a trend that will continue and we're working today with a dozen marinas to help guide them to provide very high bandwidth WiFi for streaming video, app updates, and high data usage. But there are times when you'll need other connectivity options – marinas with poor WiFi, at anchor, and while underway. And don't discount the idea of being connected while underway and moving because so many upcoming capabilities will work better when you're connected while moving.
Ignoring exotic and expensive connectivity technologies like satellite internet, cellular is your only option because cellular can hand off the connection from tower to tower as you move along a waterway. That currently limits the connectivity to coastal and nearshore use.
As we've written before, no cellular solution is complete onboard without the ability to power amplify the signal along with an external antenna. Using that, it will only be in very remote areas where you will lose connectivity. We were surprised that even 6-10 nm off the coast of Georgia this spring we had full internet access overnight.
That only happened because we have a 4g amplifier. Today this amplification requirement causes issues when configuring a complete internet solution. You'll see why.
There are three ways you can currently obtain cellular connectivity:
MiFi – this has been very popular with boaters over the last 5+ years.
A MiFi device connects to a cellular network and creates its own WiFi network allowing other devices to connect. Some MiFi's are limited to connecting 10 or fewer devices to the cellular network. MiFi's are easy to amplify and are wonderful solutions. But they don't create a router for your other WiFi devices and because they are semi-routers themselves, they are more difficult to connect to a system-wide router.
Phone hotspots – many phones today will allow you to connect to the internet and then share that connection over their built-in WiFi with other devices. This makes them similar to MiFi's. They can be amplified easily but they have the same router issue as MiFi's.
Aircards – these are USB dongles that connect via cellular and provide internet access to the single computer they are plugged into. These dongles are difficult to amplify unless they have an external antenna connector (few do). The aircard can also be plugged into some routers that support these USB devices. The market leader for that type of capability is CradlePoint but there are other routers starting to add USB/aircard support.
Our suggestion is that you should have a router for your boat that creates a LAN for all the WiFi devices onboard. You'll need cellular integration with that router causing a conflict – easy amplification or easy cellular/router connectivity. It's why we're not naming devices to purchase – there's no perfect solution for everyone today. Instead, we're hoping to provide you with some background about the issues so you can evaluate new products as they appear.
For our boat, we use a central router (a MikroTik today) with a long range WiFi modem outside. We have a MiFi for cellular connectivity but we're not adverse to changing the modem configuration to allow the outside modem to connect wirelessly to the MiFi. It's quite complicated and requires changing the modem into bridge mode – the issue is having multiple DHCP servers which is way beyond what you should have to understand. It's likely that the USB cable on a MiFi will be able to attach to a central router although USB distance limitations will effect our installation.
This summer, we're evaluating the Verizon UML295. That's a USB 4G cellular aircard with external antenna connectors. The problem is that using this would require a new 4g amp for our boat as well – it's never easy.
The next few segments of this WiFi series are going to discuss some of the capabilities possible with onboard WiFi that you might not know about. After that, we'll provide some sample configurations to show some specific options. That'll give some time for some newer devices to come out and solve all of our onboard WiFi issues.
By Jeff Seigel
Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain