Jeff Seigel, founder of ActiveCaptain, writes…
This is part 1 of a series we'll run through the summer with a segment every few weeks talking about WiFi devices that make sense on boats. We think that some of the segments will be about devices you've never heard about (like the SlingBox in a few weeks). Other segments, like this one, will have parts that are a little more basic so we can all be at the same level about capabilities, terminology, and basic WiFi use.
Today there are thousands of WiFi devices. The ones we describe are not the only ones in their class. Nor are they necessarily the best ones for you. We'll talk about devices we have direct experience with. We know that every class of device has alternatives. We're not trying to present a buyer's guide. We're trying to spark your imagination about the types of devices you might want and the capabilities possible that you might not know about.
The first, most basic WiFi device that every boat should have in 2014 is a router. When we're at a marina or in an anchorage, we notice that only about 20% of the boats have routers. You really need one to take part in the incredible devices available these days.
A router for your boat is just like one for your house. They are pretty inexpensive as stand-alone boxes. One of the things they do is allow a single incoming Internet connection to be distributed to all devices on your boat. Connect that Internet connection to a single hotspot and now you have your own hotspot on your boat. If you have iPads, tablets, phones, and other devices, especially below deck, they don't have to reach the marina hotspot. They only have to reach your router which is probably just a few dozen feet away.
But a router on your boat does more than that. A router also creates a local network on your boat itself. As we'll see in upcoming weeks, there are some fantastic devices that can add new capabilities to your boat by producing data and putting it out over your local WiFi network.
Having a router allows those devices to distribute their data to multiple displays, all wirelessly. The key to all of it is having that central router.
Selecting a router for your boat is not a simple decision. It depends a lot on how you'll connect to cellular providers when there is no Internet WiFi available to you. There are many confusing points. For example, isn't your MiFi device a router? Probably not.
MiFi is a cellular internet device that allows multiple devices to connect to the internet over a cellular provider. By doing that, it feels like a router since multiple devices are connected together at the same time. But many MiFi's (all?) do not actually provide the routing capability that allows different devices to communicate with each other. This limitation is likely to change in future years and there are probably some MiFi devices (apart from CradlePoint and Pepwave – for another week) that do full routing also. For now, just remember that the routing capability between devices on your boat is important for being able to use the other devices that you might not even know about yet.
When we were considering a central WiFi router for our boat, an important feature for us was 12 volt DC powering. Routers are generally very inexpensive because they are used in houses, offices, and are sold by the millions. However, because they are general devices, they almost always expect to be plugged into AC power with some type of brick power adapter. This creates power inefficiencies that we are not happy with.
It requires 1) starting with DC power from our house bank batteries;
2) converting to AC with an inverter; and 3) using the brick to convert back to DC. At a marina with shore power, it wouldn't typically matter.
But it is a double inefficiency at anchor and there is loss and waste with every inefficiency.
So we looked for a router that runs on 12 volts. But even that isn't good enough. Your battery voltage is rarely at 12 volts. In fact, a measurement of 12 volts means your batteries are quite discharged.
Typically your house bank is between 12.2 and 14 volts. If the router needs a regulated 12 volt supply, your alternators and battery chargers could easily fry it if you directly connected the house bank (through a
fuse) to the router. What you need instead is a router that can handle about 11-16 volts. A DC-DC converter will also do the trick but if you knew that, you probably don't even need to be reading this. Still, a DC-DC converter here would be a waste – just choose the right router instead. Here are three examples:
First, the D-Link N300: Click on Specifications and scroll down to Power Input. It says, 5 V DC.
Nope, that one won't work without other boxes or converters. 5 volts isn't impossible and when we talk about video cameras, we'll come back to that. But for a router? Let this one go.
Next, the Linksys WRT54GL: Under Environmental/Power it says, 12VDC. That's closer but it's not giving a range so it's not going to work and might be dangerous to plug into your house bank. Let this one go too.
Finally, the MikroTik RB951Uu-2HnD (nice name, eh?): Under the specifications is PoE which specified 8-30V DC. Now that's looking good. PoE is "Power over Ethernet" which works well too and will be the topic of another segment.
There are hundreds of routers including others which will meet this requirement. This article isn't telling you which one to get, it's simply providing you with information about what to look for.
The important point is that if you don't have a router on board, you're going to need one to take advantage of all the other devices we'll be talking about next.
Next week we'll talk about strategies to combine cellular with WiFi as well as reasons to keep them apart. This will get you closer to figuring out which router is right for you.
By Jeff Seigel
Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain