Living in a Connected World

Connecting to the world wide web and the boat wide web is an important part of our cruising life. The Badboy system we had on La Mischief is no longer an option, a victim of Covid19, but we were never really a great fan and believe we can both do a lot better, whilst at the same time broaden the scope of our next solution. 

Our Requirements

First things first, we needed to understand our complete requirements, which are documented as follows:

  1. Extend the range of our mobile devices for when sailing or anchoring away from cell towers. 
  2. Connect to Wifi Hotspots whilst at anchor or in marinas.
  3. Provide a network in the boat to hook up computers, phones, tablets, security cameras and TVs, with network attached storage to store movies, music, personal photos and video. 
  4. Play movies from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Youtube etc as well as from network attached storage.
  5. Play music from phones and tablets as well as the web and network attached storage. 
  6. A GPS system that can track the boats position, when at anchor, with alerting to show if it moves when it shouldn’t. 
  7. Use Alexa or Google assistant for voice controls. 

I’m quite happy with using a combination of Iridium Go and InReach for Satellite.

I’ve also thought about integrating the boats ethernet network into the MFDs – mainly for Cameras – as there is a few blind spots when backing a big cat into a tight slip but I think just using a tablet to view the cameras is good enough. I use OpenCPN on my Tablet also but don’t think I need to integrate Radar and AIS onto OpenCPN as I use it only when navigating around reefs in poorly charted areas.

Components

I had originally thought Glomex’s Webboat 4G LITE COASTAL INTERNET would be my Badboy replacement but I hadn’t really done much research. Thanks to Gilbert from Vent d’Ailleurs who suggested that this was probably a bad choice, and his advice turned out to be spot on. So I needed to get serious and ramp up my research in an effort to at least become a youtube expert. Special thanks to Jeff from SV Quest, a fellow Saba 50, who shared the details of his gold standard solution for his boat. I also found some great information and advice from Steve on www.seabits.com. Finally, there are a lot of RVs out there who are trying to do the same thing and there are some excellent videos on how they are set up.

Armed with enough information to be dangerous, I was able to distill our requirements down into a list of components, that in total will meet our requirements. These are as follows:

  1. Either a cell booster or an external antenna that can boost or reach out to remote cell towers. 
  2. A Wifi Shore Extender (a la Badboy)
  3. A Router in which we can insert a SIM card for LTE Wifi access, when away from shored based Wifi hotspots. This router needs GPS capability and an app to track the boats movements.
  4. A network switch that is 12V, which we can connect TVs, Network Attached Storage and SONOS. 
  5. A Network Attached Storage unit to store music, movies, photos, video and security camera images. 

LTE Router

Now for some decisions. 

The heart of the system has to be the LTE Router. Everybody that I talked to or watched on youtube seemed to use Pepwave routers. Pepwave have several price points with varying levels of functionality, but I’ve settled on the Peplink Pepwave MAX BR1 MK2 at around $599US. This is an enterprise grade solution offering redundant SIM slots with automatic switching between Shore based Wifi and SIM card Wifi, 12V DC power capability, advanced GPS tracking (anchor alarm?), and remote management, all packed into a durable metal enclosure. The downsides of the BR1 are that you cannot bond the 2 sims for better throughput where the cell data speeds were not great; and the BR1 has a 400mb backplane, not gigabit speeds. We decided we could live with this given we don’t get great throughput from shore based Wifi anyway and we don’t chew up out Google Fi Wifi with movie downloads, etc that need lots of streaming bandwidth. We tend to download movies offline onto my tablet using Netflix, Youtube or Amazon offline functionality, when we are hooked up to free shore Wifi. We found a great little Android/iPhone application called “PlayOn Cloud” that allows us to copy movies and shows off Netflix, Youtube, Amazon etc and get a hard copy to load up onto our NAS so we can watch them using the Plex application on our NAS without internet.

I’ve now purchased the Peplink Pepwave MAX BR1 MK2I and connected it to a separate MikroTik Shore Extender and the Poynting 5 in 1 Antenna, all running at home for the time being. I have plugged in a Google Fi SIM, which works all over the world (provided Google don’t disconnect our service because we are out of the USA too often), and maybe use the extra slot for local SIM cards if this makes sense in a particular country. Our Pepwave router will provide access over Wifi throughout the boat as well as Cat5 connections to TVs, our Synergy DS118 Network Attached Storage and the SONOS system, via an attached network switch (which I have yet to buy). 

Wifi Shore Extender

The choice of a Wifi Shore Extender was a bit more difficult. Badboy was out so I started looking at the Wave Rogue Pro at $633 US. This seemed like an ideal solution except for the pricetag. I had a look at Ubiquiti airMAX Bullet M Range at Simon’s suggestion, but the problem here is that Bullet has either a 2.4Ghz model or a 5Ghz model that you need to choose between, rather than one unit that does both.

Steve from Seabits uses the MikroTik solution at around $100. It was also encouraging to see someone else on the Internet pointing out that the Rogue uses the MikroTik solution under the covers. The downside of the MikroTik is that its supposedly complicated to set up;  but I managed it using the Seabits Step by Step instructions.  


LTE Antenna

The next step was to find a solution to give me better wifi when there was a weak signal from cell towers. This came down to using either a cell amplifier or an external antenna or both. The WeBoost Drive Reach cellular amplifier was the unit that most seemed to use and recommend. This was around $500 and you needed to leave it off most of the time, only turning it on in remote situations. Leaving it on when there is good signal was detrimental and therefore I decided that spending $500 on something that could turn out to be a pain in the rectum was not where I wanted to go. So that meant using an external LTE antenna on the spreaders to give me the extra range that we require. The Poynting Omni 0402 was the gold standard but at $400 US I kept digging. Seabits used a Wilson Antenna at $200, but Steve did a review of the Poynting Omni 400 at $209, which he rated higher than the more expensive 0402 unit. $200 seems a reasonable amount of money to get better internet access when hopping along the coast or nearing a new country. 

Other Components

To round out the solution I will need a Gigabit network switch, to allow good streaming of Movies from the NAS to the TVs. Could go with one from Trendnet that Seabits recommend, but this is pretty expensive and I will do a bit more research first. I went with a Synergy DS118 Network Attached Storage solution, with a 6TB NAS Drive, as the data I will store on it (Movies and Music mainly) is not precious enough to justify the additional expense of $100 at a time redundant drives. I also bought a Reolink Lumus camera as they don’t require a base station and work over Wifi direct to a tablet or phone and this looks good enough for as a backing camera, doubling uo as a security camera.

Next Steps

 After getting a lot of feedback from you lot; I’ve gone ahead and ordered all the above components (except for a network switch) and have built out my solution on land. And I’ve got to say everything is pretty good and well integrated at the moment. I will then pack them up in our luggage and cart them off to France, where we can install them on our new boat. This was a fun little project to keep me amused and get me ahead of the game.  

5 thoughts on “Living in a Connected World”

  1. Not sure if it applies in your case but when I bought a wifi extender a couple of years , I bought a mesh extender. this meant that the download rate was the same as when connected to the router directly. If I’d just bought a normal extender, the download rate is halved.

    1. Thx Kim. The Mesh extender deals with dead spots in a house. Don’t think the boat is big enough for their to be dead spots but you never know….

  2. FYI, Google Fi has started to fire customers who use it out of the US too much. Guess they include that info in their terms of service now. Haven’t had to use it but my plan for this season was to have two numbers and alternate using them. Would send the “Off” one back to my son and have him use it (a lot). Would put a VM on one not being used to call the other number. PITA, but I think would have solved the problem if it came up. When you get to the Caribbean, Digicel on the French islands have a very good plan that is apparently good all over the Caribbean.

    Bill

    1. Hi Bill…Have heard the stuff about Google Fi also. Luckily we are in the US for an extended period of time so may take them a while to put us on their target list. We don’t intend to spend much time in the Carribean. Heading for the Pacific so only short stops in Martinique (or St Martin) and then Bonaire and Colombia (before the Xmas winds) before hitting Panama.

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