Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cruising Gadget: Enhanced Wi-Fi

We use Wi-Fi on board almost constantly when in port. There are many useful applications that cruisers use to stay in touch with home and entertain themselves.
  1. Skype provides voice-over-IP (VOIP). In English, this means free or very inexpensive phone calls to either other computers or phones. We have called the Netherlands and the US from Mexico for free many times. When we were in Ensenada, there was T-Mobile cell service, but international roaming can be expensive. The call quality is very good and can even include video if you have a camera. If you want to impress your elder relatives, give them a video call from Mexico on their birthday!
  2. Email is a no brainer.
  3. Blog updates help us keep in touch with friends at home while allowing us to document and remember our adventures.
  4. Streaming radio is a big use for us. We can stream traditional radio stations from around the world. This is useful in first world ports where we may not have good radio reception over our car stereo. We get most of our news from NPR. We are able to follow the San Francisco station, KQED, from anywhere we go. You can connect to a stream with a browser or a media player. We use iTunes.
  5. Pandora is a different form of streaming radio for music. You name an artist or song that you like and it uses a unique algorithm to play other music that is similar to it. This provides us a great variety of music. We also learn a lot about artists that we previously did not know. Unfortunately, Pandora may not be available in every country due to music copyright issues.
  6. PBS video is a fantastic source of entertainment. Shows such as Nova, Frontline and American Experience are available for free on high quality streams. Some programs use media players while others use Flash video.
  7. Hulu has a great variety of TV shows, feature films, and documentaries. The streams are great and use the superior Flash video format.
  8. YouTube, Vimeo and other sites serve some great short films.
  9. Paid content sources include the iTunes store, Netflix and others. We have used these with mixed results. We love the Netflix DVD service. The Netflix download service is still in early days. There is limited content and the picture quality seems to be degraded over slower connections. I was unable to play a rented movie from iTunes on my netbook. This was due to some complex technical problems. Apple Care immediately refunded my money and were generally helpful.
  10. Weather updates are very important. We can access the NOAA/NWS, Lee Chesneau, Bouyweather and PassageWeather rapidly. Connecting to Sailmail and SailDocs is fast over the net and does not use valuable airtime on the SSB.
  11. If you want to worry about the stock market, there are many ways to do it.
To take advantage of all this, you need a good connection. You can sometimes get a connection with a Wi-Fi equipped laptop as long as you are close to the access point and there are not obstructions. On our boat, we cannot get a cell or Wi-Fi connection below decks at certain angles.

This leads us to the technical portion of this post. We have installed a Wi-Fi access point on board. This is basically a very small computer that is dedicated to networking communications. The access point is very similar to what you will find on marina roofs that you will be connecting to. You need an access point that will allow it to operate as a bridge. The bridge acts as a transparent connection between your computer and the marina access point.

The access point should be mounted as high as is practical on your boat. Ours is mounted on a homemade antenna mast on our stern. The mast is about 8 feet off our deck and is pictured above. In the picture, there four antenna shown. From left to right, there is an SSB/DSC receiving whip, a thick amplified Wi-Fi unit, a small black rubber Wi-Fi unit, and a GPS mushroom that is hooked to our AIS transceiver. The access point is the gray square block below the antenna. The small black Wi-Fi antenna comes standard with the access point and it is suitable for many harbors where you are within a few hundred feet of the feed. The large gray tube is a multi-direction 8db gain antenna that is useful for longer distances, possibly up to a couple miles. Unidirectional models may work better in a fixed position, but not turning on the hook. You should note that an amplified antenna can reach longer distances, but it does so in a narrow triangular pattern that may miss many closer signals. This is similar to only being able to see what a flashlight is directly pointed toward.

The access point is powered by a technology called Power-over-Ethernet (POE) where the electricity is passed over a network cable along with the data. Typically, POE units use AC power sources, that will require an inverter. The AC unit immediately converts back to 48V DC, so this is a wasteful setup. Ultimately, it does not use much power, but it would be nice if a marinized unit that uses 12 volts were on the market. The POE unit is about the size of a cigarette pack. In the picture, the left wire is a short cable that connects to the laptop. The top wire is the power cord. A 20 foot Ethernet cable runs from the right to the access point.

Some sailors put their access point at the top of the mast, which may be superior. We did not want to run the wires up to our already crowded mast top. It would also mean that I could not easily switch the antenna from short to long range versions.

Once this equipment is mounted and plugged in, you are almost ready to go. There is some configuration of the access point required to set up network addresses and security. Reconfiguration is also need each time you want to connect to a different shore-side access point. You must enter the name, frequency and possibly a security key into the the memory of your access point. On my unit, you do this by logging into a web page provided by the computer in the AP. The software works OK, but is not as simple as the connection utility in Windows. I typically use Firefox as my web browser and I have found that the configuration web page only works correctly in Internet Explorer. These are very common problems with this type of equipment.

I am using an EnGenius/Senao wireless bridge similar to the EOC-3610S-EXT. The models may change quite often. You typically want a higher power (600mW) unit with an external antenna. I have an NPE-4818 POE adapter. This has worked very well for over year and has been out on the ocean in some fairly rough weather. A unit like this in 2009 may cost $125 to $150 plus cables and various fasteners. I have had good luck from internet stores such as NewEgg and TigerDirect.com.

In each harbor, there can be a single or dozens of Wi-Fi access points to connect to. Some private systems will require prearrangement for connection. The operator will provide you with WEP or WPA security key/password that must be entered into your configuration page. You can look for free connections that are open and don't require a security key. Some of these will require a password or payment later when you start browsing. You may need to try a few connections to get one that is free and has good reception. Sometimes paid systems are the only ones that work well.

There is a very good Wiki site that explains a lot of the technical details that I have skipped at Wi-Fi on a Boat.

An alternative to all of this is a cellular broadband modem that plugs into a USB port on your computer. These are offered by cell phone providers such as AT&T, Verison, or Cricket. They may cost $50 a month or more. Many do not work internationally. Their appeal is that they are fairly fast and simple.

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