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 BayMy 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 houseWiFi 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

Request for Proposal – 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.

Design a Dense, Manageable System – 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.

Survey – 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 acMikroTik 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 as much as 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 channels2.4Ghz 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 is2Ghz 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.

19 thoughts on “Marina WiFi is hard

  1. 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!

  2. 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!

  3. 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/w… 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.

      • It was the housing. from new it wasn’t the most secure. I taped it up thinking I’d get back to it. The housing must have snapped the actual antenna at the base. I re-soldered it and taped glued and taped it up, but beating windward it tore itself off somehow.

        Now I’m thinking I should get a either a flexible antenna or connect it via a cable. That would allow me to keep Groove inside.

        Thanks for the suggestion on the router. Ideally I’d like a built in modem, but then beggars can’t be choosers.

        • I haven’t been that impressed with their antennas overall. The plastic cases for the actual unit are also a concern long term. However, at $90, I’ll just buy a new one in 2-3 years when it fails.

    • I know we’ve been chatting on twitter, but just for others in case they’re reading here….

      I put the MikroTik high up on the radar arch which is on the stern of the boat, away from as much as possible. I have an article planned on the radar arch and install coming soon!

  4. Steve,

    Our boat is currently in a City of Long Beach marina and we have to use Ecco Internet via a PPP connection with a supplied Ubiquiti antenna connected to a tiny Ecco router with average 20ms/12Mbps service. The system is simple, and not very fast, but it works ok on the weekends in the slip. I have two Reolink NVRs running 24/7 on the boat (connected via extenders) and check the cameras over the internet multiple times during week. When we leave the dock I plug the Ecco router into an inverter from the house bank so I can still access the NVRs locally while underway. I use iPads as monitors for the cameras until we get to Catalina and with my phone app but of course do not have any service. I would like to add LTE to the boat so while at Catalina we can use basic internet.
    When we get back to the slip I have to use a splash page to get the PPP router connected again.
    I have read a few of your articles about boat and marina wifi and want to map out an alternative system (with Verizon) when away from the dock. Can I just shut down the Ecco system and have a Pepwave device with SIM card and the same SSID so the devices all connect? Since Ecco is slow, and $20 month, should I just spend that on a LTE card in a Pepwave connected to a Startech 12v and just use one service no matter where I am using it?

    Thank you in advance,

    Tim Daleo

    • Hi Tim,
      $20/month is pretty cheap for the service you’re getting. An LTE connection could potentially be faster, but it will have data limits per month. If you’re watching high frame rate cameras, you could easily go through your allocation from Verizon and be slowed down, or even charged for overages. It really depends on how much data you transfer.

      The cheapest option would be to get a Verizon MiFi device and program it with the same SSID, as you mentioned. Then shut down the Ecco when you’re away, turn on the Verizon device, and things will continue to work. It’s not the most elegant, but it would definitely work.

      The Peplink device is going to cost a lot more to get started, and requires configuration and setup, where the Verizon device is pretty simple to get going.

      If you are wanting to make things more consistent, definitely go the Peplink route, put a Verizon SIM in it, and use that all the time. Verizon sells monthly plans for things like this with unlimited-like properties, but it would likely be more than $20/month, and you need to understand how much data you would be using.

      If you could help clarify how much bandwidth you think you might be using, and if you want your monthly costs to be double or more, and are willing to spend more on a Peplink, or are looking to keep that cost lower, etc.

  5. Steve,
    .
    Thank you for the quick response. While at the dock I am sure I use a decent amount of boat data over the course of a month (30GB?) although I have never measured it. I know most of the cellular carriers throttle back to 2G speeds after a certain amount of data so that is also a consideration. Ecco always runs slow but has never dropped below 4Mbps and is usually around 10Mbps depending on the tide.
    .
    My motivation to come up with other internet options is due to the fact that our club goes to Emerald Bay at Catalina and it is a dead spot except for Verizon. We spend about 20 days a year there and I would like internet access. My iPhone is ATT and turning it into a hotspot is worthless there. In addition, I do not want to leave my phone on the boat as a spotty hotspot and would like to use it at the cove. I would really like to be able to maintain WiFi to the boat while on shore and have an internet connection via the boat. The moorings are between 400 and 1600 feet from shore depending on availability and standing ankle deep in the surf gets me a weak connection 🙂
    .
    Thank you in advance for responding.
    .
    I found out about your site because a forum member recently mentioned you on Nordhavn Dreamers.
    .
    Tim Daleo
    Sweet Freedom – Sea Ray 370 AC

    • Tim,

      You’re correct that most carriers throttle you, but it at least still works. However, if it is throttled, it is likely to be slower than your Ecco solution.

      If you are thinking about 30-40GB a month, then an “unlimited” plan from Verizon might be a good way to go. You could keep the Ecco connection around for the first month or two just in case, and if you don’t go over the monthly allotment, just use the Verizon connection permanently.

      There’s a new bit of info in your last comment however – it sounds like you want to have a WiFi network on the boat that you can reach from shore, which could be from 400-1600 feet away? If this is the case, that is quite a different use case, and could be a bit more expensive. Most WiFi access points will broadcast their signal from 200-300 feet without much issue, depending on what is around them. In a building that is much lower, and in high interference areas as well. If there are a bunch of other boats with WiFi on board, even if they are not broadcasting to shore, that could count as interference.

      Going 1600 feet is definitely not an out of the box solution and would require a significant setup that would not likely be good on a boat, especially if you have limited power. You could do something with a directional antenna and re-broadcast your WiFi signal using that, but if the boat rotated while on anchor or a mooring, you would not know which way it was pointing. Even a higher powered access point would be hard pressed to reach that far.

      What might be better is to have a Verizon SIM in a Peplink or other router on the boat, and move your phone to Verizon as well, if it works out at Catalina. Then you can use LTE from your phone to check things on your boat when needed. I have two SIMs for my phone and switch between T-Mobile or AT&T depending on which one works the best, and I do the same with my Peplink router. You don’t have to go that crazy, but if moving your cell plan to Verizon is an option, that would be a good solution.

      I can think a bit more on other options using WiFi, but nothing is coming to mind that would work on a rotating boat.

      Thanks for letting me know I was mentioned somewhere! I always appreciate new readers.

  6. Once again thank you for the response. I think I will try a Verizon Jetpack as a starting point and see how much data I use while on the mooring.

    Note: I noticed that the small hotspot devices usually only have a 50 foot range so my additional comment of extending wifi range to shore was just an optional thought. I saw the different types of Pepwave antennas that they offer and was curious about what might work. For example, I read the description of the Pepwave AP One Flex with its 2,000′ range and for $300 sounded like it might work but their website implies I also need a router and balancer from them which makes the price range almost $1,500. In addition, if I installed that directional antenna on the stern light facing the island would I not get any wifi on the front half of the boat?

    • I actually had a number of AP One Flex units deployed in a remote property to cover the area with WiFi. They definitely are a much longer range unit, but it would have to be near perfect conditions to get 2000 feet out of them. I think the longest I got was around 500-600 feet, and this is in an area with almost no interference, and only sparse trees. It also did take quite a bit of power, and runs off of power over ethernet or AC power. You could get a converter for power over ethernet for 12v DC to the correct voltage, but it would be a moderate amount of power.

      The AP One Flex is an access point, and can offer a WiFi network, but you would still need a router, you’re correct. That router would have the LTE SIM card in it and connect to the Internet. The Flex is omnidirectional, I believe, and would provide a signal all around the boat without any issue.

  7. Thank you for the help. I will see how other members cell service providers signal strength is at the island over Memorial Day and come up with a plan.

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