What a modern cruising day problem, isn't it?
So you're cruising and of course, these days, are choosing your anchorage based on… WIFI service to the boat. So you can pick-up your emails, see kids and friends on Facebook, pay your credit cards, read the news, skype the world and so on… I do the same, no need to feel ashamed. Or at least I used t : a good solution will free you of anchoring at the wrong spot for that reason !
You have a better antenna not pleasing you most of the time, or are considering buying one, and likely came to a budget of $300 to $400 and want to be sure…. And are reading all the posts on the cruiser boards about the subject… I've been there, done that. I also spent gadzillions of dollars on systems who work… time to time.
As pressure was mounting for job and comfort considerations, I finally put together a WIFI system that: - Works 90% of the time, while anchoring mostly where I want - Costs about $150 and is fully scalable - Is 12v powered - Gives me a private "hot-spot" on board, so can serve PC, Skype phone, smartphones, tablets, etc… all at once conveniently. - Let me add some nice extras like all my WIFI devices talking to each others. This is likely to be one solution and others exist. But that one works like a charm….
And the solution is...
.(links to Amazon.com product pages are listed at the end. Just in case you decide to sponsor me :).
I'll pass on the endless discussions on antennas and placement, and this and that, it's all over if you want to read them…. At the end of the days, only two things are critical: you should be able to place your antenna above your boat structures (say above the bimini and arch) and it must be as vertical as possible. Forget the mast top…. Do not be too concerned about the infamous "line of sight". Now, my working solution…. Within reasonable budget.
The core is from Alfa Network, the R36 air router. ($55 or less) It's easy to configure, has enough power to offer a hot-spot for a 50' boat (metal boats might have to tweak its placement) and will accept from 9 to 15v DC power input (so straight wire to the battery is OK… well, with a fuse). The R36 will create your own hot-spot on the boat, allowing whatever WIFI to connect.
Of course it must itself get some connection on land to provide Internet service, so here we come to antennas… The R36 could get its signal from either an Ethernet RJ45 cable itself connected to internet or via an USB dedicated WIFI antenna. Before solving the mysterious first option, let's look at the second one. (note : it could do this with a limited number of dongles, allowing you to use a 3 or 4 G wireless subscription, but this is not really discussed here..).
The Alfa 36H ($35 or less) is the USB antenna compatible with the R36. Get it with the optional 9 DB antenna and an USB cable 15' or less (the maximum for USB cable. Repeater cables over 15' feet will NOT work!). This will give you the long range WIFI connectivity: 1 to 4 miles. The antenna itself with its 9dB option is encased in a pipe of PVC (waterproof therefore, and costs only a few $) and placed about 6' above decks. More isn't required.
It's omni-directional, it just have to be installed as vertically as practical. Because the 9 dB antenna has a narrow "vision" (the price to pay for the high gain), it will only works nicely on distant signals. Close to them, it's less than perfect. So basically you plug the 36H to the R36, antenna outside as mentioned, you power everything and voila, a new hotspot appears named ALFA-AP. From your browser you open the internet page indicated on the user manual (no software to install), choose "easy Setup", then "USB connection", pick up the shore WIFI signal you want/can connect to, click clik clik and it's done, you're very own boat hotspot is on and live. (a few more clicks inside the configuration pages allow to change its name, secure its access, all very simple to do).
You could stop here and be very happy with this solution, skypping on networks as far as 3 or 4 miles. Then you are done. Now, if the performances on nearby signals (remember you pay the high gain with a narrow eye..) are an issue, you want to add something significantly more efficient.
Such as an Ubiquiti NanoStation LOCO M2 antenna, for about $50. This device was made for ISP deployment, and is outdoor use (so it is rain/splash-proof). It's a "semi-directional" antenna, covering a 60 degrees angle (so you might have to adjust it as the boat swing, but 60 degrees isn't high precision either). Its range goes from "close-contact" to about 1.5 miles. It's powered via POE (Power Over Ethernet, nothing to worry about but allows long RJ45 wires up to 300') and a passive POE injector plugged to the boat 12v works fine.
The drawback of the NanoStation is that it's made for pros, and it comes with no user manual and no tech support. The cure is to google and download an pdf file named "ubn_M2_Series_Beginner_Guide", and follow it step by step. Once this is done, and the NanoStation is configured, then all is easy.
You just plug it to the R36 via an Ethernet cable, and from the R36 menu Easy Setup you choose Bridge, one click more and done. The R36 will get its WIFI connection via the Ubiquiti device and act as the good hot spot you start to enjoy ( same name, same password when going between the two antennas no changes for the users) Getting 54 Mbps between the Ubiquiti and a station ½ miles away is not exceptional, and live streaming videos are now at reach from the comfort of the boat. The NonoStation should be put outside, vertical, directed toward the signal ; I use a ¾" wide Velcro scratch to put it on any piece ¾ " to 2" vertical pipe when in port, and pack it away while sailing.
The extras you may love…
Everything on the boat connects to internet via the Alfa R36, whatever antenna is used to connect to internet. So you can easily set up your own network, and have all your devices interconnecting to each other on your WIFI. The end of USB dongles and adaption cables for computer to computer transfer, tablet to smartphone etc….
The Alfa R36 has an extra Ethernet hardwire port. It could be used to attach an NAS (Network Attached Storage), basically an external hard drive of as many Gb you want, similar to the USB ones you're likely to have but with an Ethernet port. This could become your server for pictures, movies, music for all your devices, as well as process the automatic back-ups of your other drives, yes that back-ups we always put back until it's too late….
Note : there are package deals for the 2 or 3 together.
Add the correct USB cable (for the 36H to R36 connection) and RJ45 cables (NanoStation to POE, POE to R36).