While boating season is finally here and you’re undoubtedly itching to spend as much time as possible on your boat, there’s a good chance you’ll also be spending a fair amount of time docked and looking to connect your arsenal of electronic devices including laptops, iPads and smartphones.
Since acquiring our boat last August we’ve had loads of fun navigating around Lake Washington and Lake Union as well as taking short voyages into the Sound including some half-day trips to Poulsbo. We’ve put close to one hundred hours on each of our two engines, surprising boating friends of ours that have adopted, shall we say, a more seasonal style of boating. Hot, cold, dry, wet – it’s always boating weather for us.
Beside firing up the engines and heading out from our marina, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time working onboard. Not working on the boat – fixing things or adding equipment – but, rather, in the boat, using my laptop computer. It has become something of a floating pied-à-terre for work.
You’ve probably noticed one or more WiFi access points in your own marina or at some of the outstations you’ve visited. There were a couple at my marina as well, but I wasn’t comfortable using them for business purposes. They also had weak signals, causing them to be both slow and unreliable. I needed a commercial solution.
LOTS OF CHOICES
I considered Clearwire and their 4G WiMax service. They appeared to have superb coverage around and on Lake Washington and could deliver fairly impressive download speeds. The only problem I saw was that while this solution would have worked well at our home port, Clearwire’s coverage footprint in less populated areas and the San Juans is spotty.
Mobile 3G and 4G service from the likes of AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon was another option but, like Clearwire’s service, suffered the same coverage penetration problem.
So, I decided to go the more traditional route and return to my original idea of grabbing onto a good WiFi signal – harnessing commercial WiFi sources at my home marina and at marinas we would plan to visit during summer trips. I’d skip trying to have Internet service while underway and accept that it was a convenience to be afforded only when docked.
The plan sounded great but was flawed by a simple matter of physics. Have you ever had trouble connecting to your own home’s WiFi because you we too far away? Maybe a wall was between you, or there was interference from other devices or the microwave. Imagine being at the end of a 200 foot long dock trying to connect to the marina’s $59 WiFi access point – along with dozens of other boaters. It doesn’t always work well. I experienced the same problem in my marina, as I noted above.
INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH WIFI
So, I started researching gear that could boost and amplify WiFi signals to give the LAIKA the opportunity to latch on to WiFi base stations no matter how long the dock. In fact, the solution I selected and installed was able to pull in and harness WiFi signals from vast distances!
I researched and acquired the following items:
What’s significant about this solution is that it harnesses the remarkable Bullet2HP from Ubiquiti, a company that has established some very impressive long-distance WiFi records. If you thought it was hard getting a good WiFi signal throughout your home imagine spanning a distance of 304Km! That was done with some of their higher-end gear and is described by this news release. The humble and relatively inexpensive Bullet2HP I selected has been capable of spanning a distance of over 60 miles! Now, that amazing feat relied upon some very specialized antennas and a clear line of site between two similar configurations. But, it goes to show what’s technically possible.
My requirements were far more modest. I simply wanted to have the Bullet2HP connect to a commercial WiFi service operated at or near the marina and bridge the service so that I could operate a private WiFi network onboard my vessel. The WiFi signal captured by the Bullet2HP would connect directly to a Netgear WiFi Access Point and appear, to that device, as the WAN (wide-area network) source.
I discovered that BroadbandXpress operated a commercial WiFi service near my marina and also had decent coverage throughout the Puget Sound area and some marinas in Canada. Since I was planning to work often on the boat, performing work for my company, I found their discounted yearly fee of $299 a fair price. It was actually quite a bit less than a comparable 4G or Clearwire contract.
Configuring all my components was fairly straightforward. The Ubiquiti Bullet2HP draws its power over Ethernet, so a small, inexpensive power injector delivers current over a CAT5 data cable. The other end of the Bullet connects directly to an antenna. In my case I opted for the AIR802 2.4Ghz Omnidirectional WiFi marine antenna. You can find this particular antenna online for around $79. I ended up having my antenna professionally mounted to the side of the LAIKA, but there are lots of mounting options available if you want to do everything yourself.
Once the Bullet2HP is connected to an antenna and the other end to a CAT5 cable connected to a Power-over-Ethernet (POE) injector which, in turn, is connected to the WAN port of a Netgear router, you can begin accessing the Internet.
During testing, well before I moved all the gear to the boat, I set things up in my house and connected my laptop directly to the CAT5 that was connected to the Bullet. Using only a web browser (in my case Firefox) I connected to the Bullet at 192.168.1.20 – the default IP address for the device. The Bullet operates its own, internal web server which is what you use to set things up. Everything about the device is highly configurable and no specialized software, beside your browser, is required to work with it.
What was remarkable then, as it remains today, is how truly impressive the Bullet’s abilities are with regard to capturing distant WiFi signals. I’ll bet that when you open up your laptop and search for WiFi signals you often pull up only a few. Maybe more if you’re in a crowded area or have a neighborhood full of WiFi networks. When I first powered up the Bullet at our marina I was amazing that it detected over 50 networks – from nearby homes and offices. Most were secured, but many were not. Had I wanted, I could have easily latched on and started using the Internet from any of the open networks.
I ended up configuring the Bullet2HP to connect to a BroadbandXpress access point located somewhere near our marina. The signal has been strong enough to deliver about 3Mb/s service both up and down.
Beside having Internet service available for computer and smartphone users, there’s another benefit to have connectivity – video surveillance. I equipped the LAIKA with a few tiny cameras that connect to a special base station that shares their images with my phone or laptop when I’m away.
The system is called VueZone and it’s about the simplest monitoring solution you can imagine – for any environment. Practically no configuration was required and clients are available for the iPhone and desktop computers.
Now, it could be argued that having this level of surveillance for your boat or home isn’t very useful, and I’d probably agree. After all, by the time you witness some tragedy it’s probably too late to act. Still, it’s fun being able to spy on your boat, especially when it’s rainy and you’re longing for the next opportunity to set sail.
Right now all my gear is running off of AC 110V when the LAIKA is attached to shore power. But, all of the components are designed to run off DC (that’s what all those little transformers that come with our electronic devices are for!). I intend to create a little junction box and connect all the components together and run them off DC ship power. This will allow the components to continue operating while close to shore. If you plan to do something similar just make sure you maintain polarity for your connections.
If you’re considering something similar for your boat here’s a list of the gear I acquired and the online merchants I used:
The next time your are out on our boat, don’t hesitate to whip out your smartphone or iPad. We’ll get you connected.