Marina WiFi is hard

Recently I had the chance to spend a few weeks working on a local marina WiFi system. With my background in networking, and having deployed several large scale systems professionally, I knew that I was in for a difficult time to get things working as well as expected. But the configuration of their network was not the only problem. The bigger issue was the perception of the boaters throughout the marina, and the need to invest in equipment to improve the signal within their boats.

In this particular case, the vendor who had sold the marina the WiFi system did not include on-site installation. This left marina staff installing wireless access points, switches, gateways, and all of the other technical bits on their own. Phone support was provided, but the system was completely broken when I arrived.

This meant that the system was not fully configured, and in fact, it had some major design flaws. After several days of reverse engineering and sleuthing, I was able to get most of their system stable and running, and light years better than before.

Regardless of this marina’s attempt, large-scale WiFi with lots of interference is a hard thing to do. There are two major problems:

Problem 1 – The Space

Marinas are great open spaces for boats, but for WiFi signals, they are not so hospitable. You have tons of metal and fiberglass, along with moving targets due to the tides and water. On top of that, there’s usually other commercial signals bouncing around near marinas, not to mention the on-boat stuff like radars, local WiFi routers, and the like.

The wide open spaces are also a curse of sorts – to cover and blanket that much space in WiFi signals requires a ton of access points, which are the devices you see hanging around with wild antennas on them.  They usually house anywhere from 4-16 radios that broadcast the WiFi signals for your use.

My home marina, Elliott Bay

My home marina, Elliott Bay

Marinas are also usually huge spaces – much larger than many corporate campuses, and closer to the size of a hotel conference space or stadium. To blanket that much space, you would need a huge quantity of access points very carefully tuned, and constantly updated based on the various environmental conditions that change.

Problem 2 – Boaters

It is shocking to me how boat owners expect to connect to a marina WiFi network without any equipment and have the same experience they have at home.  Where I live in a condo/apartment complex, I can see over 150 WiFi networks, and I have to have repeaters and extra access points to boost the signal within my tiny 800 square foot space.

A marina is like a collection of small houses (boats) which all need the same type of technology if you expect high performance, streaming, and multiple device access.

WiFi access points near my house

WiFi access points near my house

Some would argue that at their workplace, such as a corporate campus like where I work, they have no issues using WiFi. Keep in mind that corporate WiFi is tuned to support a very narrow type of hardware – that which your company issues. They also have the ability to completely saturate a building with WiFi signals because of easy ability to install more access points – something marinas can’t usually do. Hotels do a decent job of this, although they have the same small space problem in guest rooms that boats present, and many times while I’ve traveled, I’ve had problems with performance in a particular room.

Any way you cut it, you need your own repeater, extender, booster, or otherwise on your boat, period. If you want your TV to talk to your phone, and your PC to be able to control both, you also must have an onboard router and local WiFi network – connecting to public (or private) marina networks will almost never work because of security settings and signal strength.

Another way to look at it is this:

  • 1000 boat marina
  • Assume 500 boats have 2 kids and 2 adults on board.
  • That’s 2000 devices – mom and dad have phones, kids have tablets. And that’s being conservative.

Mom and dad are checking work email, reading Facebook, all fairly low bandwidth activities, but very noticeable if they are not responding.  Mom complains very quickly if she can’t see the latest Twitter updates.  The kids are the bandwidth hogs – let’s assume one is watching Netflix and the other is SnapChatting.

That doesn’t count the TV that was left on downstairs using Hulu and updating every so often, nor the three PCs that are silently downloading Windows Updates.

Just one family alone could be consuming upwards of 4Mbps of bandwidth, which if you multiply by our 500 boats, is over 2Gbps. Your average home internet connection is a fraction of that, and no marina I’ve ever talked to has had that bandwidth.

The upstream connection is definitely a limiting factor, but the sheer amount of radio power required, in all areas of the marina, is the real culprit.

Recommendations

For Marinas

Make sure you do a request for proposal (RFP) for your WiFi design. Get at least three firms to propose how they’d install it, and make them come out and survey the site in person.

Ensure they saturate the space with both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz radios. Consider meshed products from UniFi and other vendors which allow you to add small, low power access points to dead spots, and have it “self heal”. You don’t need complex repeaters or other systems. Make sure you get a system that is centrally controlled so it can smartly manage the clients that are connecting, which will dramatically improve your end users experience.

Make sure that they do a survey before and after, label everything everywhere, secure wires and equipment in remote areas that employees might have access to, and document everything. A local employee should be trained in how to monitor things on the basic level to ensure the system is operating normally.

Pay for installation – this is a no brainer – none of your staff is likely versed in installing the correct cabling, let alone configuring the access points, gateway, security settings, monitoring, and a host of other things. Yes, it will cost almost as much as the hardware, but it is well worth it.

Pay for maintenance – this stuff breaks – how often do you reset your router at home? Get a new one from Comcast/CenturyLink/other horrible provider? Yours isn’t sitting out on a pole with seagulls crapping on it either. Having someone do a once over every 3-6 months to make sure things are working is essential.

For Boaters

Boost it

Get a MikroTik, Rogue Wave, WirieAP or other booster/extender. I personally use a MikroTik as I’m tired of paying $200-300 more for the same thing in a restrictive UI/web interface. MikroTik also comes in a dual band flavor (5Ghz/2.4Ghz) which is critical in today’s crowded 2.4Ghz world, and gives you the flexibility to swap back and forth between both bands.

MikroTik Groove A 52 ac

MikroTik Groove A 52 ac

I personally use a MikroTik Groove A 52 ac which supports 2.4/5Ghz, as well as the AC band, a higher bandwidth technology.

Use 5Ghz if possible

2.4Ghz is great for long distance connections, but modern WiFi access points have had a much faster, shorter range radios in them for years. These operate on the 5Ghz spectrum, and have a ton more channels available. Not only that, they can operate with bonded channels and other fancy things that give better overall throughput.

2.4Ghz vs 5Ghz channels

2.4Ghz vs 5Ghz channels – courtesy of MetaGeek.com

In a recent install, I helped a friend switch from 2.4Ghz to 5Ghz and saw ping times to the local router (the one at the marina, next hop!) go from 100-300ms down to 1-3ms.  That means Facebook, websites, and other things load almost instantly now, and from the user experience side, it makes a huge difference.

2Ghz WiFi spectrum scan from a recent marina visit showing how busy it is

2Ghz WiFi spectrum scan from a recent marina visit showing how busy it is

Local router

Use a local access point/router on your boat. I use Pepwave’s Max Transit, which is admittedly a bit overkill for most boats, but I prefer their hardware design and software configuration. Regardless of what you use, you need to have your booster plugged into the WAN or otherwise port on a local WiFi router that is on your boat.  That is the system that your TV, PC, phones, tablets, MFDs and everything else should connect to. It stays the same no matter where you travel. The booster is responsible for pulling the signal in from the marina and passing it off to the router.

Install it right!

When you install your MikroTik or otherwise, make sure you put it outside or somewhere where the antenna has the least interference. Fiberglass is actually not that bad to put things behind, but make sure there’s no other items in the way. Many of the MikroTik and Ubiquiti Bullet products are susceptible to weather situations, and will deteriorate if not sheltered even a bit.

While this has been a big point some folks have brought up in the past, I always ask: would you rather buy a $70 MikroTik every 2 years, or spend $500 on one of the custom setups of the same hardware? Oh and in 2 years, 2.4/5Ghz WiFi networks will be all different, so that $500 setup won’t likely work the best.

Conclusions

Large scale marina WiFi is hard. Many marinas don’t or can’t do it right because of budget or lack of technical support. They should pay for it to be designed and maintained correctly, and recommend ways for their visitors and members to access it through boosters and the like.

Boaters need to expect to spend money on a router and potentially a booster to make their experience similar to what they have at home.

About Steve Mitchell

I live in Seattle, WA and love sailing, technology, & playing and composing music. I started playing the piano when I was 3, and ended up figuring out many other instruments along the way. I'm an avid sailor and have a 2000 Beneteau 311 named Grace, and sail it whenever and wherever I can.

  • Andrew

    Great write up! I was hoping to set up some remote monitoring (camera) but quickly realised just yesterday that the marina WiFi is less than to be desired! For your MikroTik, do you just power using 12v POE?

    • Steve Mitchell

      Yes, I’m using a 12v PoE injector. I don’t have the model number handy – I’m actually planning on documenting and writing up the entire setup in the next week or two. I believe it’s a unit that can take 10-30v input, but always outputs 12v PoE. That way when my battery bank fluctuates while out and about, and then again higher when charging, it doesn’t mess up the MikroTik 🙂

      • Andrew

        Thanks for the info! Looking forward to the writeup! I saw some prebuilt kits use Ubiquiti
        Bullets, curious if you looked at those when selecting the hardware.

        • Steve Mitchell

          I did look and have several Ubiquiti Bullets. I am a big fan of Ubiquiti products on the wifi side, specifically their UniFi line, and have tons of them both personally and in a professional capacity. The Bullet is another thing – it’s great for what it does, but it can be massively finicky. I’ve had every single one I’ve configured (20+ including for others) go dark or fail on me in weird ways. Many were just corrupt configurations. MikroTik has not done that to me in the years I’ve been using theirs. Rogue Wave is a commercial version of the Ubiquiti Bullet with their own UI on it, which is far more stable, but massively restrictive in terms of the feature set. And expensive! My personal favorite right now is the MikroTik because of the flexibility, reliability, and 2/5Ghz band coverage.

          • Andrew

            Awesome, thank you again, MikroTik it is!

  • Joshua Mackey-Mitchell

    Great article! I never really thought of how many devices a typical boat/marina really need to support. I think we usually have 2-3 per guest easy!

    • Steve Mitchell

      Exactly – and 2-3 devices per guest, even if they are not active all the time, ends up being a ton of traffic. Think of a rendezvous or big gathering like JJ Dyer and I were at this last summer at Roche Harbor (SeaRay gathering I believe) and you have an even bigger load on the system. The only analog I can think of is a hotel conference center, which in many cases have a multi-million dollar system. No marina that I know of would pay for that!

  • Patrick

    Very interesting. In my experience the primary problem is something you touched on just briefly – upstream bandwidth. The overall pipe they pay for is almost always too small and/or they don’t know how to configure QoS controls. But most of my marina wifi experience is with remote and semi-remote marinas in BC, not marinas in Seattle.

    When a marina says they have wifi I don’t expect to be able to use it from the boat, in every slip, but do expect it to work if I walk up next to an access point and stand there. Particularly the onshore AP. More often than not even that doesn’t work, and I get slower than dial-up Internet speeds just trying to get the weather forecast.

    Other things I’d recommend for boaters are having a wifi analyzer installed on your phone (and knowing how to use it to find a stronger signal), and knowing how to use data usage controls. On Android a good deal is already built-in – turn on Data Saver to limit background data access and turn off wifi (or turn on airplane mode) when you don’t need it at all. On laptops you can install apps for this. You might be using a lot of bandwidth without even realizing it.

    • Patrick,
      I agree with you – upstream bandwidth is definitely a limiting factor. I frequent marinas all around the Salish Sea from as far north as Victoria (that’s far for me!) to as far south as Olympia. Even in more populous areas, they don’t seem to have enough coverage or upstream bandwidth. I’ve done the same thing as you with the same result!

      Great suggestions on the apps. I use WiFi Scanner on the Mac, and a paid application called netSpot which is used for more professional site surveys. On Android there are a number of great apps for scanning WiFi networks.

  • MrSteve007

    With the rapid spread of gigabit fiber around the Seattle area, I’m surprised that the marina doesn’t have access to more “pipe.”

    I have 1gig fiber from Centurylink at home in Ballard, and 1 gig fiber from Comcast at my offices in Tukwila.

    • I think the issue is that while they might have access to more, they either don’t want to pay for more, or have been caught in the situation where their office bandwidth is compromised by WiFi clients, and decide to cap things. This has been the case with 3 different marinas I’ve worked with. I agree, though – I have a 1Gbps connection at home, and am only a few minutes away from my marina.

  • davidgeller

    Great post! Now I know why my experience at POFH was so terrible at 2.4Ghz! I should have sprung for the extra cost of the 5Ghz Bullet. My little 2HP only does 2.4Ghz. But… a new Groove is being delivered via Amazon tomorrow!

  • Tom Eskridge

    Steve, great post. I am looking to replace my old Bullet2HP with one that will hit 5Ghz, and your suggestion of the MicroTik looks good. The link you posted has a 24V adaptor for the power over ethernet. Are you powering yours differently?

    • Tom,
      I believe it comes with a 24V wall wart plug that you can connect to AC power. I have a 12V PoE dongle that I have wired in – I thought it might have come with the MikroTik but I would have to check – I’m out on the water the next couple of days and can’t get down to that part easily with all of the other folks stuff on board. Will check in a day or so!

      • Tom Eskridge

        If yours is working with the 12V you have wired in, then I impinge that my existing 12V PoE that I have for the Bullet might work as well. Enjoy the trip!

  • Got any suggestions for a router with similar functionality, single SIM card slot but a smaller price? Not sure I stump up the £1,000 for the Max Transit.

    P.S The antenna on my Groove AC came off under sail. I soldered it back on, and the same happened a few days latter. So be careful with that.

    • Hi Mike,
      Sorry to hear about your antenna. I have three of them in different places, one on the boat on a tall mast, and have not had any issues. Maybe you got a bad antenna batch? Is it just the antenna housing itself that came apart, or?

      There are a ton of other Peplink models that have far less crazy features and a single or dual SIM slot, but the issue is that they only have a single local WiFi radio, usually 2Ghz only. I visit a lot of marinas (like the one referenced in this article) that have overly saturated 2Ghz space, so having 5Ghz is a requirement for me.

      There is another model from Mikrotik, the hAP AC, that might work for you (http://amzn.to/2xzfZx0) which has both 2Ghz and 5Ghz WiFi bands, some ethernet ports, full routing software, and a USB port for 3G/4G connection. You’d have to get a USB modem or a compatible hotspot device to plug in, and make sure it is compatible with the Mikrotik (you can find a list here https://wiki.mikrotik.com/wiki/Manual:Peripherals) and have a much cheaper solution overall. There is a ton of configurability (as you’re like aware of from having the WiFi radio one) but you an get stuck in some pitfalls.

      I have one at home that I used about a year ago in a proof of concept to see if I could get a cheaper solution than the Peplink, and liked it. The issue is the sheer complexity and lack of dedicated features and UI stuff for the LTE/4G side, which Peplink obviously has done very well.

      If I weren’t using Peplink, I would likely replace all of my equipment with Mikrotik, and upgrade pieces every year or two when things got faster, given that their hardware is dirt cheap.

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