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



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