November 27, 2007

Using Wireless Internet - WiFi - While Cruising - Update

Summary of Current Recommendations:
October 20, 2009 (scroll down for earlier postings)

Technology continues to advance.  We now recommend the ALFA AWUS050NH is an updated 500 MW model which supports all the WiFi protocols 802.11 a/b/g/n.  This can give you a much faster and longer range connection for those hotspots that support the newer "n" protocol or the dual band "a" and "n" protocols.  It's available for around $70 US at http://netgate.com

If you are staying in one particular country for a while, and they have reasonably good 3G cell phone coverage (surprise!  the coverage is much better in Mexico than in the US!), you might also consider a cellular modem.  These can run a good high speed connection (often faster than WiFi), at anchorages and miles offshore.  You can get a pay-as-you-go monthly plan (with no cancellation fees) for about $50US/ Month (plus or minus) in many countries.  The adapter itself hooks up via USB (I recommend USB over PC Card) and costs between $100 and $200 US.

If you do move to another country and you get an unlocked USB adapter, you can just buy a plan in your new country and swap SIM cards.  SIM cards are unique to the carrier.

Interestingly ALFA is claiming that my prior recommendation, the AWUS036H, now is rated at 1000 MW (which is 1 watt).  Others have tested this and say they only improved the output around 7%.  In any case the increase from 500 MW to 1000 MW in my opinion is diminishing returns and not worth the bother.  Remember too that your power is only half the puzzle, you have to have the receiver sensitivity to hear the WiFi access point.  It doesn't help if the access point can hear you, but you can't hear them!

Also, Vista SP 2 and Windows 7 appear to now have built in drivers for the Alfa models which work fine.  You no longer have to worry about downloading special drivers.

Note, Netgate no longer appears to carry the AWUS036H model.  I now recommend the one above instead

We are also playing around with client bridges and found that the Ubiquiti NanoStation models seem to overcome many of the earlier drawbacks of this technology.  You still need to be at least a "geek in training" (but at least not an "alpha geek") to get it working, however.  They come with a standard directional antenna - which works best in marinas and not on the hook.

We have ours hooked up to the Power over Ethernet Injector, on to an Ethernet hub and then our multiple computers are connected to the hub.


January 1, 2009 (scroll down for earlier postings)

We have update our current recommendation to the ALFA AWUS036H. It sells at Netgate for $54.95. See http://www.netgate.com

Netgate also has 7db and 9db RP-SMA antennas for under $20.

You may also want to pick up a USB extension cable if you don't already have one.

This unit has higher power and greater range than our prior Engenius pick. It also has an Apple MacIntosh driver.

December 20, 2007 update (scroll down for earlier postings)


Engenius EUB 362-EXT High power USB adapter, available as a kit with a high gain antenna from Netgate. See: http://www.netgate.com

We suggest the "Standard RV Kit PLUS" if you already have a USB extension cable or the "Extended RV Kit PLUS" if you don't.

Be sure to download the updated drivers - see below.

As we continue cruising, helping folks, experimenting and the as technology evolves - our recommendations evolve.

After our last articles were published in the SSCA bulletin and Latitude 38, we were contacted by Bill Hallett of Netgate and who sent us a case of EUB-362 EXTs with their 7 db high gain omni-directional antenna. These units have been working great for the cruisers down here in Mexico.

We're now thinking that this unit, plus an additional antenna or two, such as a directional antenna for use in radio packed marinas, would eliminate the need for a separate unit (such as the Hawkings) for such purposes. Directional antennas are available from Netgate and other sources.

You can even make one yourself if you're feeling adventurous. You can Google "making WiFi antenna" for a great list of all kinds of antennas made from discarded Pringle's and soup cans, a Wok Spider (that's the large screened spoon used to fish out tempura) and other odds and ends.
Some of the more interesting ones are:
The Microsoft Vista Operating System is proving to be a bit of a challenge. If you have an EUB-362 and Vista, you will need the Vista driver at: http://www.netgate.com/info/NUB362/EUB_1_5_0_102.zip and there are instructions at: http://www.engeniustech.com/datacom/products/resources.aspx?faq=8&ID=154

Also, there is a new driver for windows XP. You can download it at:
http://www.netgate.com/info/NUB362/EUB862_362_XPV21.zip

If you're using the server (64bit) version of Vista, or Windows 98/ME, you'll need to go to the Engenius website to download those drivers:
http://www.engeniustech.com/datacom/products/resources.aspx?id=154&cat=6

April 21, 2007 update

Since we went cruising, we've seen all kinds of WiFi set ups on board cruising boats. We help fix many of them.

In my opinion, some people have been seduced into spending a lot more money on equipment that they're not able to keep running once they're away from the geek who set it up for them.

My recommendation is to keep things very simple. We now have and use both of the following (we also have our original HWU54D which still works fine. We're keeping it for backup. This model is no longer manufactured).

The Hawking Technologies, $60, HWU8DD see http://www.hawkingtech.com/ It comes with a 6 foot USB cable. I recommend getting a 10 foot extension cable, putting it in a zip lock baggie and put it on top of your cabin or better yet, on top of your boom. If it's windy, put a soft SCUBA weight (or something similar) in the baggie to keep it from blowing around. Also, take the unit in when you're not using it and over night to keep it out of the dew.

If you're going to be at anchor a lot, consider the Netgate's: $200, EUB-362-EXT Marine Kit http://www.netgate.com/product_info.php?cPath=26_42&products_id=328 this comes with a higher power (200mw) USB adapter, USB Cable, Coax Cable and an omni-directional external marine antenna. With this set up, you can run the antenna outside and keep the adapter down below out of the elements. You can mount the antenna permanently if you want, but we just run ours up a halyard when we're at anchor. We used this set up when we were anchored in Tenacatita and we could occasionally hit an open access point in La Manzanita about 4 miles away.

We found the combination of the two adapters works best in the variety of circumstances we've seen. We have yet to find a place where a permanent installation with a client bridge works and either the Hawking or Netgate doesn't. In San Diego, for instance, there were too many access points around Shelter Island for the omni-directional Netgate setup to work. We saw over 40 access points online, half were on WiFi channel 6! We had to use the Hawking and aim it at the access point we were using to have any success at all. At anchor away from it all, however, where we're swinging around, the Netgate works great and the Hawking is troublesome as it won't stay aimed in the right direction.

By the way, I don't own stock or have any interest in any of the companies mentioned.

One attractive option that has seduced some is a unit called a client bridge. This unit would let you network all the computers on your boat, either via Ethernet or WiFi. So if you have more than one computer, you could use them all at the same time and ideally share files and peripherals (like printers and scanners). My advise is that unless you're a geek, forget it!

I've seen quite a few boats with permanent installations with Ethernet client bridges that just plain don't work in the real world of cruising. Remember that you will be moving from place to place. You will need to be able to connect to a wide range of shore WiFi access points - all set up differently! This also means a dealing with a wide range of methods used to control access.

Most client bridges have problems with some or all of the access control methods, some also just plain don't play well with strange access points. Remember that every time you change locations, you will probably have to reconfigure the unit to roam to the new service provider's access point(s). There are a few totally open and free access points, but not enough to rely on. I would go so far to say that of all the client bridge installations I've seen, most don't work (anecdotal evidence only)!

Some examples of the wide range of access control methods:
  1. The Vallarta Yacht Club in Paradise Village Nuevo Vallarta uses the MAC address of the WiFi adapter as it's access control method (this is the hardware address unique to every WiFi adapter made. The easiest way to get it right is to look at the printed sticker on the adapter - folks who try to look it up on the computer often give the club the wrong address!. This same approach is used by Rick's Bar in Zihuatanejo.
  2. At the Isla Navidad Marina in Barra de Navidad, you get a "ticket" with a secret code at the concierge desk at the Grand Bay Hotel. These tickets are good for a specific time frame like 1 hour, 24 hours, or a full month - from the time you first connect. This requires that you go through a curious logon process with your computer. Similar techniques were used at Marina Palmyra in La Paz last time we visited.
  3. Other locations use secret encryption keys that you need to set in your WiFi adapter's configuration.
I strongly recommend avoiding the investment in a boat wide Internet access Ethernet client bridge and other complex gear - unless you're geek enough to thoroughly understand it, reconfigure it, figure out how to connect to strange access points and generally keep it running. This gear can also cost quite a lot. I've seen installations cost well over $1,000.

Original Posting
October 10, 2005

Wireless Internet "WiFi" - is becoming available in more and more marinas and anchorages, worldwide. WiFi adapters are now also a standard feature in many computers.

WiFi can be used not just for email and web surfing, but also for very inexpensive telephone service, using a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service like Skype http://www.skype.com (which we love and highly recommend).

In many of the Marinas we've been in, the service is free. In most, though, you'll need to sign up for the service or pay on a daily basis. We're currently cruising the Pacific Northwest and up here a company, Broad Band Express http://www.bbxpress.net/ has wired many of the marinas and anchorages. So it made sense for us to sign up for their annual plan.

Hawking HWU54DThe biggest challenge to successfully using the service has been getting good reception. WiFi uses radio communications at 2.4 gigahertz, which is quite finicky. We've had little luck using the WiFi adapters built into our PCs, so we've found a good solution in a combination WiFi adapter and antenna from Hawking Technology http://www.hawkingtech.com/ their HWU54D. This unit attaches to your PC via a serial USB cable, which also supplies it's power.

We bought ours online at http://www.ecost.com for $50 US.

There are also WiFi antennas on the market that you could try, but there are a couple of issues with external antennas:

1. Most computers have no antenna jack to connect the antenna to, and

2. The cable loss at WiFi frequencies (2.4 Giga Hertz) is so high that the cable loses a lot of power.

You could also buy a marine grade external antenna and a high power PC Card, but this costs a lot more money (well over $100 US).

All our PCs have a built-in WiFi adapter. We don't use the built-ins when we using the Hawking HWU54D.

It's easy to disable the built-in adapter. Just right click on "My Network Neighborhood" (in Windows XP), select properties. All your network adapters will pop up in a window. Right click on the built-in adapter and select "Disable". When the adapter is disabled, this menu will allow you to "Enable" it - for when you take your laptop to a hotspot.

When we use the HWU54D, we run in with a 10 foot USB extension cable and put it on top of our boom. I use a high tech enclosure to weather proof it.... A zip lock baggie ;-}

I use another baggie and twist tie to weather proof the connection between the two USB cables.

If you need more than 16 feet USB cable length, You'll need to buy an "Active" USB extension cable. These amplify the USB signal and will let you cascade cables to extend a greater distance.

Hawking HWU8DDRecently, Hawking has announced a new unit, the HWU8DD. It looks interesting and I'll have to give it a try. It's listed for around $60 US.

This unit uses a small dish, and is advertised as having an 8 decibel gain vs. the HWU54D's 6 decibel gain, which should yield slightly better performance.

Keep in mind, however that generally the more gain an antenna provides, the more "directional" it is. That means that you must aim the antenna at the access point you are trying to hit to maximize your performance. It also means that if you are swinging at anchor, your signal may drop out if the swing is enough to aim your antenna away from the access point.

One particularly blustery day, that happened to us in Gorge Harbour on Cortez Island in British Columbia.
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