ADAGIO’s long range wifi configuration: options for antennas, routers and local wifi

This post is for cruisers who are interested in a very convenient and easy to operate way to translate land-based wifi into your yacht’s local wifi zone. We are very happy with this configuration – this is “generation 3” for us – technology has improved since our first-generation rig installed in 2000. The first section is on antennas, the second section on routing and our local wifi bubble.

 Antenna options:

External antenna: historically we bought our antennas from L-COM. But recently we’ve bought omnidirectional antennas for for both cellular and WiFi from RF Industries (Australian company, often abbreviated as RFI). An excellent New Zealand source for RFI is Paul McKnight +649 537 2683, rfi@xtra.co.nz. Paul may have difficulty advising you what will satisfy your needs – it isn’t just distance, it depends very much on what gear the WiFi base station is using (the router, the antenna directionality, quality and gain).

We are using the RFI COL2410 which is their highest gain omnidirectional. Note there are 3 smaller (cheaper!) versions. I’m not an antenna guy so I won’t speculate whether you would be happy with less gain. Maybe ask Paul McKnight for advice? See pricing of the range of RFI sizes. The 2 dBi is $99, 6dBi is $120, the 10dBi like ours is $170. Telco Antennas is an Aussie company.

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Router options:

For your external WiFi router (to communicate with land-based wifi access point), the options have improved very dramatically in recent years. All of the expense and trouble we endured to install low-loss microwave cable from wet to dry is no longer needed. The reason is outdoor routers that convert the analog signal to digital – so we only need ethernet cable from wet to dry. And we use POE (Power Over Ethernet) to supply power to the little router. We did a good bit of research amongst contacts in the communications biz – the consensus recommendation for our needs was the Ubiquiti Bullet M-2 running AirOS on linux.

Because the WiFi connectivity is often so important to us, we now have 2 Bullets – live and backup. The live/active Bullet was bought from Amazon for about $75. Later I discovered this first Amazon unit was the N. America version which locks out the international channels 12 to 15 where the best wifi is in places like Noumea. You may not care about the extra channels as the cost is slighty higher. If you do care, I ordered the second one from HD Communications for USD $78.50.

To bring the ethernet from the wet to dry we are using the L-COM ruggedized flange mount (when we go to sea we remove the cable and close the gasketed cover).

I also bought an L-COM POE injector that allows us to feed regulated 13.8V into the cable instead of using the AC wall wart that ships with Bullet. If you haven’t dealt with L-COM before, they are my go-to place for anything communications (high quality, low price).

Once you get the ethernet cable inside, one option is to connect your computer’s ethernet port directly. Then have the PC create a WiFi zone inside the boat for your other devices. Another option is to spend another $30 – $40 for the convenience of our setup. For the in-boat WiFi we repurposed our old external WiFi router, an Engenius ECB3500,  configured as Operation Mode = Access Point, fixed IP 192.168.222.21 (Note the other fixed IP addresses must be carefully chosen – ours are Bullet IP 192.168.222.20 and Bullet-router DHCP range 192.168.222.50 – 99).

The ECB 3500 has no auto collision avoidance AFAIK, only fixed IP or DHCP. So I used the Bullet’s site survey to assess channel collisions, then assigned the 3500 to CH4. I adjusted the ECB 3500 transmit power to minimum 9dbm and removed one of its 2 antennas. That got the 3500 down to about 7 dbm below our wifi ISP as seen by the Bullet site survey. Speed tests using an iPad to sample various areas around the boat are OK at around 2Mbs.

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BOI: ADAGIO installs 3G wireless broadband for NZ and Australia

UPDATE 11 August, 2010: Australia wireless broadband. It was challenging to uncover the Telstra post-paid, no-contract 3G service. The secret words are “Browsing Pack”:

“There is a range of Browsing Pack options that start from 30MB ($5) of included data per month – up to 9GB ($99) per month of included data. You can change your Browsing Pack as your needs change. Unused included data expires each month.”

We are on the 9GB/month plan. Like Telecom NZ, credit approval for post-paid was simple and quick. Before you go in, call the Telstra shop to inquire which ID they will accept to make up your required 100 points.

6 December, 2009: We are anchored near the beach south of Roberton Island in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. I should say “happily anchored” both because this is a truly lovely spot, and because we now have aboard ADAGIO broadband wireless internet access. We are confident that the solution we have adopted will continue to work well throughout most of coastal New Zealand and Australia. It will also work in U.S. waters should we decide to sail back there.

This all started when we read a report in The Albatross, the monthly newsletter of our home Hobart club, the Cruising Yacht Club of Tasmania (CYCT). This report “Cruising the Australian coast with Broadband Internet” described the successful experience sailing from Brisbane to Hobart on Alamak. Former Telstra engineer Andrew Boon brought along for the trip an Ericsson W25 Fixed Wireless Terminal:

Essentially it is a mobile phone on steroids. It runs under 3G (or in the case of Telstra, Next G) mobile networks and contains, like any normal mobile phone, a SIM card. The difference between it and a normal phone is it has ports that allow it to be connected to a normal telephone handset and/or a computer and/or a fax machine – all at the same time.

We found that download speeds were equivalent to land based broadband speeds (Andrew can give you the numbers if you are interested) and other than dropping out a couple of times, it proved to be very reliable. For crossing Bass Strait, we rigged the external aerial, otherwise we got by on the stub aerial connected to the unit. We had good coverage the whole trip with the exception of a short break in Bass Strait.

That report really got our attention – especially because we have observed a steady stream of “success” field reports from CYCT sailors – testing their new Telstra Next G phones whilst cruising a variety of Tasmanian waters. The alert reader will recall that most Tasmanian cruising, away from Hobart, is anything but Urban.

Then we were doubly blessed when Andrew agreed to join Adagio for the New Caledonia to New Zealand passage. Andrew patiently answered a long series of questions about the technical feasibility, and how best to configure to get good results. So with Andrew’s encouragement we set about to see if there was a commercial offering that would meet all of our non-negotiable requirements:

* No contract: it is impossible for us to agree to a 24-month contract.

* Practical rural coverage, obviously.

* Enough monthly data allowance (at least 8GB).

* And enough portability so we can use the same equipment investment for at least NZ and Australia.

Before explaining what we did I should mention that we investigated whether an iPhone could meet our objectives. We decided not – principally because the iPhone is not designed for an external antenna, nor is it designed to robustly support tethering another computer to the iPhone’s 3G connection. There are workarounds, but we did not want to get into an “iPhone development program”. We’re here to go sailing!

But which network – Telecom NZ or Vodafone? From Andrew we learned that hardware-wise, the big divide is whether you choose 850 vs 900 MHz, which means the following network choices relevant to our portability requirement:

850/2100 MHz = Telstra NextG / Three (AUS), Telecom (NZ), various in USA.

900/2100 MHz = Optus YesG / Vodafone (AUS), Vodafone (NZ), various in EUROPE.

The telecom vendors do not make it easy to discover how their network coverage performance compares across locations. A key insight came, again, from Andrew, that Telstra/AUS and Telecom/NZ had both invested in widespread deployment of the longer range 850MHz cell towers, using 2100 MHz towers to infill in coverage soft spots. Contrariwise, Vodafone et al had focused upon 2100 MHz towers to concentrate their coverage where most of the people live. Since we prefer to mostly cruise where people don’t live, it became quickly clear that 850 MHz best met our “Practical rural coverage” requirement.

Now the question became commercial terms with Telecom NZ. To cut to the chase, we went to the Telecom retailer “Orb Communications” in Kerikeri, where Ms. Amanda Walker quickly set up just what we required – all of these items are what Telecom calls “Open Term”, which means we pay monthly bills, but can cancel at any time:

• a “Plan Only” sale, meaning we supply our own equipment

• a no-charge SIM card for the Telecom XT network (i.e., 3G)

• Data plan: “Mobile Broadband 8GB”, $79.95/month

• “One Rate 100” voice service, meaning 100 minutes airtime for a monthly minimum of $50.

Translation: we pay nothing up front, have no contract, but agree to pay $50 + $80/month for the voice + data service until cancelled or amended. For those who need a fair bit of data like Adagio does, we were fortunate to have the benefit of the Xmas promotion — so we get 8GB per month for same price as 4GB. Telecom’s normal price is $29.95 for the extra 4GB, then $0.10/MB over the 8GB allowance.

Because this is a postpay plan Telecom requires a credit check. That seemed very straightforward as we only had to supply two current photo-ID, our NZ mailing address (of former neighbors on Te Wahapu), and when asked “How many credit cards do you have?” I replied “two, would you like to see them?”. Answer “no thanks”.

So, confident we had a telecom deal we could accept, we ordered the equipment:

A$ 470.00 ex-GST Ericsson W35: Fixed Wireless Terminal from Powertec Australia

NZ$ 130 ex-GST RFI CD2195: 890mm tall four-band external antenna (gain of 6.5dBi for 824-960 MHz, 3dBi for 1710-2170 MHz) from RF Industries New Zealand, Paul McKnight +649 5372683.

NZ$ 20 An inexpensive Slimline landline phone from Dick Smith

Configuring the W35 to work with the Telecom network was straightforward, taking about 10 minutes. An ethernet cable will be required until you have configured the WLAN wireless access point. The parameters required are similar to configuring an ADSL router. Fortunately we had long range wifi access, as I had to search up the Telecom Access Point Name (APN, which is internet.telecom.co.nz).

We have run just a few objective speed tests using SpeakEasy.net/Speedtest. Anchored in the Waikere River – with external antenna and without

– With antenna signal bars = 100% test #1

   – Download Speed: 3939 kbps (492.4 KB/sec transfer rate)

   Upload Speed: 457 kbps (57.1 KB/sec transfer rate)

– Disconnect antenna signal bars = 50%

   – Download Speed: 1682 kbps (210.3 KB/sec transfer rate)

   Upload Speed: 509 kbps (63.6 KB/sec transfer rate)

– With antenna signal bars = 100% test #2

   – Download Speed: 2991 kbps (373.9 KB/sec transfer rate)

   Upload Speed: 681 kbps (85.1 KB/sec transfer rate)

Some more details: the Ericsson W35 includes an internal 802.11 wireless access point. So the installation can be done where it is most convenient to connect to an external antenna. E.g., for us and for data-only we could mount the W35 near our cockpit external microwave jack. If you don’t need a landline phone, then you just need DC power and the antenna.

The landline phone is an experiment. One motivation was to get cheaper airtime than Vodafone prepaid at NZ$ 0.88/minute. The Telecom One Rate 100 plan was $ 0.50/minute. But now we have 2degreesmobile.co.nz GSM prepaids at a current promo rate of $ 0.22/minute. The other motivation was remote location coverage. We expect to get voice coverage with the W35/external antenna where we would have no useable GSM signal on Vodafone (and 2degrees uses the Vodafone network).

The external antenna connection can be a challenge on some boats. Our case is simplified in that we can repurpose our already-installed LMR400 low-loss microwave cable which we have used since Hobart 2001 to connect medium-range and long-range wireless antennas to our wireless bridge. When we have access to a 3G wireless broadband network we don’t need the 802.11 wi-fi setup, so we can switch the use of the routing of microwave cable from our nav station to a protected cockpit bulkhead connector.

I am awaiting shipments from AUS and NZ of some more antenna cabling parts I need to finish the installation. By finish I mean “all that we need for further testing”. Ultimately we will install the external 3G antenna on our radar arch, but that involves a new run of LMR400 and sacrificing one or more antennas that already have space allocated on the arch. Meanwhile the W35 will go under the nav station with our other access points and routers. This is less convenient than having the W35 on the desktop where we can easily see the indicators and operate the low-power/sleep button. But the less-convenient location is is close enough to the existing LMR400 cable to connect with a 500 mm MCX to N-Male pigtail/patch cable. We are striving to minimize connections as each connector can add 0.1 to 0.5 db to the signal acquisition losses. I also have to wire up the DC supply power properly, utilizing our regulated 12VDC supply (or maybe I can use the ship’s 24VDC as the input spec is 10 – 28VDC).

Our bottom line is that we can now enjoy cruising the more remote areas as we do not feel the need to scurry back near “civilization” hunting for a wireless signal.