Marine internet, a connected year on the water

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BY BEN STEIN

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My family and I just spent a year on the water. When we left, some members of our crew were hesitant about the whole idea, so I knew we needed as many comforts of home as possible. High on that list was an always-on (almost), always-available (almost) internet connection. It turns out this isn’t a simple or one-size-fits-all issue. It’s also something I’m most frequently asked about. What follows is a primer on marine internet and the start of an article series about the myriad tech options to keep your boat connected.

There are three basic ways to get internet on your boat, listed here from least to most expensive:

  1. WiFi — Land-based WiFi works well if you’re in a marina with a well-constructed WiFi network, behind your house with access to your home WiFi, or in a location with a publicly accessible hotspot. Various WiFi bridges can extend the range significantly but are very unlikely to make WiFi connectivity effective while underway.
  2. Cellular — Internet via cell most likely means using your phone as a hotspot, or using a dedicated hotspot — either marine-based like a Glomex WebBoat or WiriePro or one provided by your cellular carrier, like a MiFi. This option usually works well until you’re about five to ten miles offshore, where the signal will dwindle and you’ll be without connectivity.
  3. Satellite — Satellite communications systems can connect to the internet almost anywhere you can take your boat, but the vast and seamless coverage can easily cost orders of magnitude more than the other options. Satellite is also likely to offer both the lowest throughput and highest latency.

Internet connectivity primer

Before detailing the options and my own experience, here are some important basics about online connectivity. Internet speed — also known as bandwidth — is measured in megaBITs per second (Mbps) while file sizes are measured in megaBYTEs. There are 8 bits in a byte, so, if a file is one megabyte and you have a 1 megabit internet connection it would take 8 seconds to download that file. A 10 Mbps connection would take .8 seconds to download the same file. Megabits and megabytes are very frequently mixed up and that leads to confusion about the actual speed of data transfer.

Let’s throw another number into the mix for throughput and data transfer. Most cellular offerings are sold based upon the number of gigaBYTEs transferred. If you use a lot, even unlimited plans are usually subject to throttling (or in cell company speak “traffic management”). Data transfer is a count of the total amount of data you’ve transferred in a month. This means the faster the connection, the faster you can use up your data allotment. Meanwhile, WiFi and home internet services like DSL or cable are usually measured in terms of throughput speed, in megaBITs per second. For some sense of comparison, 1 gigaBYTE = 8,000 megaBITs, and one hour of HD television streamed at 8 megaBITs per second is about 3.6 gigaBYTEs of data transferred.

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A second important aspect to connectivity performance is latency. Latency, also known as ping, is the measure of how long it takes a packet of data to get from your computer to the destination and come back, so smaller numbers are better. Your home internet connection usually has latency between 10 ms and 40 ms, whereas, a good LTE connection will have 40-80 ms of latency. Satellite typically has latency in excess of 600 ms with real-world latency pushing over 1,000 ms (that’s a full second). The image above tries to illustrate the impact of both bandwidth and latency. Bandwidth is how much data can be delivered at once. Latency is how long it takes for that delivery to get there.

Another visual metaphor for the difference between bandwidth and latency is vehicles on a highway. A bus is a high bandwidth vehicle because it can carry a lot of passengers while a sports car is low bandwidth since it can only carry two people. A car or bus traveling at 10mph have the same high latency because they will take a long time to get from starting point to destination. If either goes 100mph, that’s pretty low latency.

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For some services latency isn’t a big deal. If you’re watching streaming television, latency is pretty much irrelevant once the program has buffered (locally storing data that you’ll soon need). For voice-over-IP (VOIP) or any kind of remote-desktop applications, latency is very important. VOIP typically degrades to a point where the conversation is difficult to sustain around 150 ms of latency, while remote-desktop applications tend to behave poorly above 300 ms of latency. Web browsing can be impacted by both throughput and latency. Every element on a page — text, images, videos, sounds, style sheets and scripts — is typically downloaded separately. Each of those elements will require multiple round trips as your computer makes requests and they are served. The time those roundtrips take is determined by latency while the number of trips required to load all the data is determined by bandwidth.

This litany of numbers is part of why your neighbor might say they’ve been experiencing great internet at the marina for a while, but you tried it last night and couldn’t even stream three minutes of Stranger Things.

Not many years ago, an internet connection was a nice to have on board and relatively unheard of while underway. But the number of people living aboard full time and working from their boats is increasing quickly, and many part-time boaters now consider reliable internet connectivity a must-have. Fortunately, the technology is getting better and the options are increasing at the same time expectations are rising. LTE cellular, for instance, is capable of delivering 10-20 Mbps of bandwidth with a latency of 40-50 ms, and that’s as good as most of us had at home not long ago.

Our connected Loop

My family and I recently spent 14 months on our boat cruising the Great Loop. We visited 97 different marinas and used their WiFi about two-thirds of the time. While we’d long complained about our home marina WiFi in Chicago, traveling taught us that our marina wasn’t unusual and also that there are few ways to predict the WiFi quality. Lovely marinas with beautiful facilities, excellent infrastructure, and great staff had some of the worst WiFi we saw. Several tiny marinas in the middle of nowhere with docks in danger of collapsing into the water delivered flawless connectivity. We did notice that marinas who contracted with onSpotWiFi offered well designed, reliable and high-speed connectivity.

Steve Mitchell does an excellent job explaining the many factors marinas face when building their WiFi networks in his article Marina WiFi is hard on his blog Sailbits. The long and the short of it is that marina WiFi is a difficult thing to deliver well and many marinas simply don’t do a good job. Sometimes that’s due to circumstances beyond their control and sometimes because they simply don’t pay any attention to it. Steve also points out the balance between what marinas can do to improve their WiFi network and what boaters can do to improve their ability to receive WiFi, and I’ll spend most of my time on the latter part of that equation.

During our time traveling, we relied on a wireless cellular hotspot with an unlimited data allotment. With a mix of my children’s YouTube habit, my wife and I watching TV, surfing the internet and other incidental uses we used between 250gb and 350gb (that’s gigaBYTES) of data per month. Of the over 400 nights we were gone, we had just two in the U.S. and Canada without service. During about six weeks in the Bahamas, we used a mix of Bahamas WiMax, a network of high powered WiFi hotspots and BTC, the Bahamian cellular carrier. Typically our hotspot got about 10 Mbps of download throughput, which was enough for us to go about our normal activities online without much thought to how we connected. We had enough cellular bandwidth that if a marina had poor WiFi connectivity we simply switched back to our hotspot.

My boat system

The system currently installed on my boat may sound complex, heck it is kind of complex. I built it for me and my uses, ease of use wasn’t a big consideration. Any time there’s a problem with internet connectivity my wife comes and finds me. There’s a lot of new, designed for marine use, product on the market since I built my system. I’m going to be testing a lot of those products and hope that I’ll be able to find easier to use products that still deliver the range of capabilities I have now.

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Before we left I spent some time getting the boat’s network ready for our travels. The heart of our boat network is a Ubiquiti EdgeRouter, a remarkably capable device for $75. The router allows for multiple internet connections, powers passive power over Ethernet (POE) devices like Ubiquiti WiFi Bullets, offers a robust user interface and supports enterprise-grade features like VLANs, QOS, dynamic routing, and VPNs. On our boat the EdgeRouter tests two incoming internet connections and decides which to use based upon those tests. That means we can be in a marina, connected to marine WiFi, when we pull out the EdgeRouter will see the WiFi connection stop working and send all traffic to our 4g connection. Branching out from the EdgeRouter I use an Engenius EAP1200 access point to provide WiFi connectivity to devices in the boat.

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One potential downside to Ubiquiti’s products is that all that power and features at a low price do come with a more complex user interface. It’s not the easiest device to configure and, in fact, if you start with the devices in their default state and plug them in they won’t pass any traffic. Peplink enjoys a good reputation for high-quality hardware, good features and an easy to use user interface. Unfortunately, Peplink’s blend of features and ease-of-use also comes with a higher price tag, starting at 3x the cost of Ubiquiti’s products.

I use an older Wave WiFi Rogue Wave wifi bridge — with a Ubiquiti Bullet inside — to connect to 2.4ghz marina WiFi networks, and for 5ghz marina networks I use a Ubiquiti Bullet Bm5-Ti. LTE connectivity is provided by a Netgear LB1120 LTE modem connected via ethernet to the EdgeRouter. This setup allows the WiFi bridges to be the preferred connectivity, and if no connectivity is provided by the bridges then the LTE modem provides the connection. The devices in the boat simply connect to the boat’s internal network and aren’t aware of how the boat is connected to the internet. This stood the test of 14 months of use and proved highly reliable.

Our LTE internet service was provided by a company called 4G Antenna Solutions (4GAS), which started out providing cellular internet connectivity to rural areas. Equally desirable to boats and RVs, I found this service offering at RV Mobile Internet, a resource that tracks the best connection options. The cellular carriers frequently change their offerings and the rules of their plans, so an option that worked a couple of months may not be viable any longer. Fortunately, the offering from 4GAS has worked well for over a year. Nearly all of the unlimited cellular offerings come with a threshold at which point the carriers warn you they may throttle or rate shape your traffic, and while 4GAS has changed the cap a couple of times, I’ve nearly never seen any throttling.

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Prior to our trip I had some grand visions of the kinds of remote places we might be and the potential need for satellite internet connectivity, further research ultimately change my mind. Satellite internet of similar bandwidth to cellular offerings is orders of magnitude more expensive. In looking at the options I found more affordable options out there for much lower bandwidth satellite connections suitable for email and occasional web browsing. Considering our cruising grounds and likely availability of land based options I decided not to pursue satellite. As we consider more travel to different places that may change. I watch satellite announcements carefully hoping we will see advances that bring the price point down.

What’s next

Many of the people we traveled with had very little networking equipment on board. They relied on marina WiFi internet and used their cell phones or cellular-enabled tablets when away from the marina. Depending on your expectations and use of the internet, this might be a fine solution for you. But I suspect that many readers are boaters like me who desire robust connectivity underway and are reluctant to rely on the variable quality of marina WiFi.

This spring and summer I’ll be testing a number of different internet connectivity options, assuming the weather in Chicago ever warms up. Many of the more recent products introduced to the market are trying to simplify the litany of stuff I described above. Instead of separate devices for WiFi and 4G we are seeing lots of products with everything built into one unit. I’ll be testing a couple of those as well as the most recent products from some of the familiar names in onboard connectivity.

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