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WiFi on boats … beware the ‘Auto-Update’

Jeff Seigel, founder of ActiveCaptain, writes…

This week we ripped out all of the WiFi components on our boat and installed all new equipment, antennas, and wiring. We changed the way the main router is powered and now use one Power-Over-Ethernet 12v injector for the main router and the outside high-gain modem. We also re-positioned everything to allow for easy changes without ceiling tile removal in the future.

Every setup has different requirements so the specific products we're using might very well be all wrong for you. Still, we know you probably want to know what we're using.

Our main router is the MikroTik RB951Ui-2HnD (great product, lousy name). Our high-gain outside modem is a MiktoTik Groove 52HPn. We were anchored in St Michaels, MD harbour when the re-wiring and switch took place. We had been using our beloved Ubiquiti Bullet M2HP and were blown away when the new setup found 80% more WiFi spots the moment it was turned on. That's a nice way to start.

For us, the MikroTik router is a fantastic solution. It provides for guest access separated from our personal access. It also provides a lot of control, filtering, and sub-router support to allow connection to our full Garmin network of devices. It's a complex configuration but it allows our iPads to be on the Garmin network now as well as connected to the internet through the normal WiFi system. One additional plug for Island Time PC needs to be made – they figured out the Garmin configuration, provided us with support, and are the dealers for all of this MikroTik equipment. And again, Island Time is not an advertiser.

They'll be surprised to see us mention them here. Bob does an incredible job.

We've been moving through much of the Chesapeake Bay with almost no marina WiFi support for the last 10 days. Weren't we shocked when Verizon started emailing us with warnings about our cellular usage.

We bought a new 5510L MiFi device from Verizon this summer and this was the first use we'd put it through. We use both Verizon and AT&T and have a 10 GB monthly plan with Verizon. How could we use up that in just 10 days?

It gets worse…

We didn't just use up the 10 GB. We blew through it with a total of

18 GB of usage. That's equivalent to a monthly usage of 54 GB which would cost about $520.

We know better than to stream anything with cellular access and are very careful at anchor. So what caused the huge data use?

It turns out that it's a great lesson for all of us and therefore needs to be part of this WiFi series. What we didn't realize is that one of our laptops was new and one had it's operating system upgraded. We also added some new devices like the Dell Venue 8 Pro (still loving it) and updated all iOS and Android devices. In Maine, we had cable-internet with unlimited usage and didn't care or watch our internet usage. Here on the boat, we can't live like that.

All of these updates along with changes to Firefox and other products changed some of the settings and preferences without us realizing it.

It happened to almost every computer and device on the boat in just a couple of months. All of them were now allowing automatic updates to download in the background. Some would auto-install without our knowledge. The little Dell alone downloaded about 4 GB of updates over a couple of days.

So the lesson is that you need to be careful when you're on your boat and using cellular access for long blocks of time. No device should automatically download anything. It should ask you for permission giving you the option of waiting until you have real WiFi to download the large data. You have to check every device's operating system and all the major applications you use – browsers, navigation products, Adobe Flash, iTunes, app stores, and more. Some navigation products automatically download chart updates – a wonderful feature. But make sure you're in control of when the updates are downloaded.

The kicker was that even our TV was downloading new updates! We have a SmartTV from Samsung with full internet access through our boat's WiFi network. It auto-connects and "phones home" to see if Samsung has an update waiting and downloads it. It shouldn't do that automatically on a boat.

So for your boat, check all the WiFi devices and their update preferences. Be warned that major OS changes might undo your previous settings. If it bit us, it'll likely get some of you.

By Jeff Seigel

Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain



WiFi Devices for Boats – Part 5 of 5

Jeff Seigel, founder of ActiveCaptain, writes…

Continuing with our summer series about WiFi on boats, we're going to turn our attention to the central display most of us use when viewing information – a laptop, or quite commonly today, a tablet. We surely don't need to talk about iPads or Android tablets again. If you have a pulse, you know all about them.

This week we want to discuss an important WiFi concept for laptops and tablets – how you should connect them to the internet over WiFi. There are some new devices out that we'd like to expose you to because a new generation of computer hardware has come out recently and it will likely affect the computers you use onboard.

First, whenever you are using WiFi internet on your boat, you should be connecting your laptop and tablet to WiFi through your own central router. That router connects to the internet and then all attached devices, computers, TV's, cameras, and more can access the internet through the router.

The WiFi strength at your computer should be very reliable – 5 bars of strength – because the distance between the laptop and the router is less than the length of your boat. Gone are the days when you'd need to move around your boat trying to find a connection to a marina's WiFi.

Instead, one high gain WiFi modem should be installed outside your boat that connects to the marina's WiFi. Your central router then distributes that connection locally on your boat. This is a critical concept. It will make your WiFi experience significantly better.

Next, let's look at some of the new devices that you may not know about.

The overwhelming success of the iPad shook up the entire computer industry. Microsoft was sent into a spin as the first real challenge to Windows seemed to be viral. Android hardware manufacturers rose to the fight as well with a tremendous number of new tablet offerings.

Quietly, Intel was also at work producing the next set of CPU's to power these new computers.

Back when we re-built all the electronics in our boat, we left a space for a Windows display. Microsoft's Surface was just coming out and we thought it would be great to have a Windows PC at our helm. But Surface had its issues and we waited. And so did a lot of others.

Another couple of models were released including the most recent Surface 3. The specs seemed great and we wanted that Windows display at our helm, but the $1,200+ price for the system we'd need was just too expensive. So we waited.

Recently, a few things have come together – new Intel CPU's, new Windows 8.1 with some better touch capabilities, and a variety of hardware manufacturers realizing that they could create a new Windows tablet. Price is critical – we were not going to spend double the price of an iPad for another tablet.

And then the shocker. There are a few, reliable new Windows tablets with powerful new quad core i5 CPU's. The killer is that they're not the price of an iPad. They are one-half the price of an iPad.

We recently picked up one of these for our helm to see how it would perform with real navigation software. We purchased a Dell Venue 8 Pro with 64 GB of disk space, 2 GB RAM, and a 1.8 GHz i5 core CPU ($279 list). It has an SD card slot, USB, Bluetooth, WiFi, high resolution camera, and everything else you'd expect on a laptop.

Once we had it, we threw every PC navigation product we could get our hands on into it. It ran every one perfectly. There were no installation issues and everything ran the first time. We cannot say enough about this table – it's just spectacular.

Of course, there are a couple of negatives to it. It's small and parts of Windows will require fine fingertip control. You can solve that by getting a Bluetooth keyboard and Bluetooth mouse to make setup easier.

There is no GPS built in, but it'll connect with normal Bluetooth GPS's. We have different plans however.

We'll be interfacing this little tablet to all of our instruments onboard – GPS, AIS, depth, wind, etc. And because PC navigation products are generally higher end, they support the autopilot as well.

We'll use that too. We'll do all of this interfacing over WiFi. Yes, WiFi. That's the whole point of this series – you can do it all with WiFi today. There are some things to be aware of and we'll continue with those next time.

If you'd like to see some screenshots from Coastal Explorer and a video of what Nobeltec Odyssey looks like on the little tablet, go to the ActiveCaptain Facebook page and follow the thread at the top.

By Jeff Seigel

Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain



WiFi Devices for Boats – Part 4 of 5

Jeff Seigel, founder of ActiveCaptain, writes…

The previous segments of this WiFi series have tried to provide some WiFi background information. The devices to use today on your boat for WiFi are changing and there's no one set of products that will meet everyone's needs. We'll write more about some background technology later but it's time to start showing some of the incredible things you can do today with WiFi. We'll be writing a few segments throughout the summer describing some WiFi devices that you might not know about.

Today's segment is about Slingbox. Slingbox is a $150 – $250 device that we find few boaters know about. It creates some great entertainment capabilities for your boat when you also have a house with cable, satellite, DVD, TiVo, DVR, or other video capabilities.

What it does is allow you to use your home video capabilities remotely and especially on your boat. Whatever video capabilities you have at home – including added cable packages like HBO, Showtime, NFL Ticket, or even a DVD left in a player – can all be viewed remotely. You can watch it on your phones, tablets, computers, and even the TV's on your boat.

With Slingbox you don't need a cable TV hookup at a marina especially since marina cable provides only the most basic service. No HBO. No NFL Ticket. No Showtime. Instead, with a Slingbox, you'll watch your own home video directly on your boat with all your favorite channels.

Here's how it works. At home, you connect the Slingbox into your mix of video equipment. The exact configuration depends on the equipment you have and Slingbox provides articles about connecting everything. HDMI components are pretty much required because they allow full control over the video to be remote too. Today, it's hard to find a TV or cable TV controller without HDMI.

The Slingbox also connects to your internet at home. The main difference between the lower cost 350 and 500 model is that the 350 uses Ethernet to plug in at the house. The 500 will work with Ethernet or WiFi. Slingbox puts the HDMI control and video display out over your home internet connection. Now when you're away, you can control and view whatever is playing on your home system. It works anywhere and especially on your boat if you have good WiFi capabilities at the marina.

This is the time to say that these high bandwidth uses will work over cellular too – directly on your phone or using MiFi's and other cellular connectivity solutions. But don't do that. 4G cellular is plenty fast enough to watch the video but you'll easily blow through your cellular plan. That free World Cup match will end up costing $20 of cellular cost. Mad Men Season 7 will be more than a fuel purchase!

In order to make this work, you'll need to have upload internet speeds of 256 kb at a minimum at home although the display is barely usable at that speed. If you have 2 mb upload at home, the display will be perfect. That's usually not a problem for home internet.

On the boat, the faster the connection, the better. Streaming video seems to like 1.5 mb WiFi connections or faster. This level of WiFi speed should be available at EVERY marina, everywhere. If it isn't, have the marina contact us – we'll show them how to make it happen.

In the next segment we'll talk about viewing Slingbox video on your boat. That'll start to tie in a variety of other video capabilities you might not know about for your boat like AppleTV, Roku, and a bunch of apps.

One other thing. All of these devices are options. They are meant to make it more enjoyable to stay onboard. They aren't required and we definitely get the idea of using a boat to get away from it all. And that's why every device we talk about will have an Off button. Make sure you know how to use that button too.

By Jeff Seigel

Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain



WiFi Devices for Boats – Part 3 of 5

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



WiFi Devices for Boats – Part 2 of 5

Jeff Seigel, founder of ActiveCaptain, writes…

There are a few newsletter subjects that always generate a lot of emails, questions, arguments, and debates. WiFi is one of them. But last week's response of 400+ emails and comments was, well, a little too much love! It's our policy to respond to all questions and comments. If you've written to us before, you've seen a pretty quick response. But we're going to have to change that. You're welcome to write to tell us about your experiences with WiFi but please don't expect a response. With so many users, there's just no way we can respond to all of the comments.

Our goal is to give you the information you need to understand your options and make intelligent decisions about WiFi for your boat. Over the last 7 years, we've written about a variety of technology subjects.

Invariably, technology moves on and the wizbang product of today becomes old within a few months. So we're not going to talk about many specific products – there are too many of them. Please don't be offended if we don't mention your favorite product or company. This isn't about showing you exactly what you should buy.

There are a couple of companies that we think can provide you with help if you need to buy something now. These are companies that we have had direct experience with. They know what they're doing and can provide exceptional solutions. Those companies are:

Island Time PC – they're great at putting together pure WiFi solutions that are inexpensive and a little do-it-yourself. The WiFi solution on our boat is from Island Time PC:

Wave WiFi (Rogue Wave) – they modify other WiFi products to make them easier to use, adding some cost to the solution. If you have absolutely no idea what you should use and are completely non-technical, Wave WiFi has a solution for you.

These are not the only excellent companies out there. But they're the ones we've had contact with. We know that both companies provide fantastic support which is so important when you're installing anything on a boat.

So moving on to this week's subject…

After last week's segment, you should be convinced that you're going to need a router on your boat so you can have a real local area network onboard. Having that router will allow all devices to connect together, share information, and provide displays on many different screens. This is a much different environment from current marine electronics where few things were networked unless they are all from the same vendor.

What we're moving toward is a world where all of the information on your boat can be viewed on any screen. Add the internet and you can even view information from other boats in proximity – like the depths they're experiencing while avoiding a shoal (it's coming). WiFi is the common network interface needed to make that happen and a router on your boat is the first step to getting there.

One of the first things to consider with a router is the mechanism used to connect the router to the internet. If the router is connected, then all devices on your boat will be immediately connected to the internet too. Instead of having to connect your phone, tablet, laptop, and TV individually, you'll be connecting over WiFi to your router and your router will be connected to the internet once.

There are two main ways that we can connect the router to the internet today while onboard – cellular and WiFi. There are other exotic ways but they're too expensive or too rare to talk about. This newsletter segment is going to discuss WiFi connection to the internet. Cellular is just as important and will be covered in a future week.

If you look at the connections on the back of a router, there are often LAN connectors and one WAN jack. Some specialty devices also have USB connections to connect other devices. LAN jacks are for connecting other local devices to the router over Ethernet cables. As normal chartplotters start to add Ethernet networking, you'll be using the Ethernet LAN connections to bring your chartplotters into your boat's network. All of our Garmin equipment today connects over Ethernet and we have the capability of connecting one cable, hardwired from our pilothouse, into our router. Doing this all wirelessly is a much nicer solution since you don't need to run network wires and chartplotters of the future will certainly have WiFi. You'll see the advantages of wireless/WiFi devices when we talk about video cameras onboard.

The WAN connection is for a Wide Area Network. This means the internet.

One of the most common uses for that WAN jack is to connect it to a long-range WiFi radio with a larger antenna mounted outside your boat.

When that outside antenna connects to a marina or other hotspot, it will feed that internet connection down to your router and distribute it to all devices on your boat. This is the way that most long-range WiFi works and certainly the way we've been doing it for the last 5 years on our own boat. We connect that high power, outside WiFi radio to the hotspot once. Then every phone, tablet, laptop, and TV, along with other devices connected to our router have internet access. And because of the router, the different devices can also communicate with each other within the boat.

The key to having a great long-range WiFi radio is to select one that can be mounted outside with an omnidirectional stick antenna. The radio should output at least 500 mW to get good 4+ mile range when used with a larger antenna. Ubiquiti and Mikrotik are example manufacturers of these high gain radios. Other companies like Wave WiFi also use these radios in their products.

There is another device that is worth mentioning – Pepwave Surf On-The-Go. This is an interesting combination device that bundles a WiFi WAN radio with a router in one box.

Pepwave Surf On-The-Go is a $99 box allowing you to connect to a marina that feeds into its own integrated router within a device that fits in the palm of your hand. We have one onboard that we've been testing and it works pretty well within most marinas. It doesn't provide long range WiFi because it has a small built-in antenna, but it can be the perfect thing to distribute a marina WiFi connection to all devices on your boat. It also has cellular connectivity solutions which we'll discuss another time. Pepwave info can be found at:

There are multiple companies that have other long-range WiFi with router solutions too. Island Time PC and Wave WiFi would be starting places to learn more along with a good Google search.

One warning for cruising boaters – don't run out and get a router and long-range radio yet until you understand cellular connectivity issues.

Cellular internet has become the most important way to access the internet from your boat because it provides reliable connectivity in many locations while underway and even offshore (to 10 nm). Having a way to add cellular connectivity has to be considered today – so if you start looking for products and talking to companies now, make sure you understand how to connect cellular into your router.

….More on that in the next WiFi segment…

By Jeff Seigel

Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain