WiFi Internet access on board

I’ve finally got our Internet access working the way I’ve always wanted. Now, whenever we arrive at a new destination, we can flip a single switch on our main panel, sniff out a nearby WiFi network and get online.

In a marina finding a WiFi network to connect to is straight-forward. When at anchor, it means searching for a decent WiFi signal from a coffee shop followed by a trip to buy an espresso or two, and leaving with their network password in our pocket.

WiFiPowerSwitch

Unlike much simpler solutions which can be plugged directly into a PC’s USB port, we have a large, permanently mounted high gain antenna which is capable of connecting to networks miles away. Once connected, our ship’s WiFi router allows all our devices (laptops, phones, iPads) to share the same Internet connection without having to re-enter user names and passwords.

Today, our neighbours have been complaining about the poor quality of the WiFi provided at the marina, yet we’ve had a reliable connection all day and have even been able to stream video.

This setup is the result of a couple of years of trial-and-error using a variety of hardware, made all the more difficult as everything has had to be restricted to 12 volts.

In this article I’ll give a brief overview of how it all works. I hope it proves useful to others who’d like to set up a similar installation in their boat or camper van.

A list of parts:

A similar all-in-one ‘Pro’ solution from a commercial marine vendor can be expensive, but if you buy the parts individually and are willing to spend a little time setting it up, then you’ll be left with change from £200:

  1. Ubiquiti Bullet M2
  2. 8dBi Omni-directional antenna
  3. UV resistant CAT5 ethernet cable
  4. 12v power over ethernet (POE) injector (to power the Bullet)
  5. USB powered WiFi router
  6. 12v to USB power adaptor (to power the WiFi router)

The Bullet is the key component in the system. It attaches directly to the high gain antenna and contains all the jiggery-pokery-magic that sniffs out WiFi networks for you. I bought the Titanium model (actually made from aluminium) as it looks much more robust and weather proof than its only slightly cheaper plastic counterpart. I chose an 8dBi antenna, as higher gain means a narrower beam angle that might miss a WiFi base station. It works well, and given clear line of sight has a more than adequate working range of over 5 miles. I found the guys at broadband buyer really helpful when I phoned for advice on this, and they helped to select a model that was more suitable for marine use, and very reasonably priced too.

You’ll need a short patch cable too. I decided to make my own and bought some RJ45 connectors and a crimping tool from eBay (it’s possible to learn how to do just about anything on YouTube). This also meant that I could terminate cables where I wanted to rather than having untidy coils of cable hidden behind panels around the boat. The cable tester proved invaluable as the first few leads I made had faults in them.

Tools_SMALL

The trickiest item to find was a decent antenna bracket; they were either ugly, poor quality or laughably expensive. In the end, I had one fabricated from stainless steel specifically for the job – it looks great and only cost €20.00.

Putting it all together:

I’d spoken with a few vendors of all-in-one WiFi solutions at the London boat show, and the general opinion was that the ‘sweet spot’ for a WiFi antenna is about 3m above the water line. We already have an Navtex antenna mounted on the pushpit, so I just added the WiFi antenna to the same pole and ran the CAT5 cable from there inside the boat.

M2_PushPitC_SMALL

In the  closeup image, you can see the bracket I had made, and the nice weather proof fixings on the Bullet Titanium model. The only cable that runs to the Bullet is the CAT5 ethernet cable; the POE injector sends it power up a pair of otherwise unused wires in this cable.

At the other end of the CAT5 cable, the remaining components are attached to a plywood board:

LaidOutInside_SMALL

Power from the switch panel (1) is supplied to the POE injector (2) and the USB power adaptor (3), which in turn powers the TP-Link WiFi router (6).

The CAT5 cable from the Bullet plugs into the POE socket of the injector (4) and 12 volts is sent to power it up. The network signal from the bullet is sent back down using different wires in the same CAT5 cable and relayed via the patch cable (5) to the TP-Link WiFi router (6).

The TP-Link WiFi router creates our ship’s WiFi network (to which we connect all our devices with a single password) and it forwards all requests for web pages to the Bullet.

The plywood board is backed with heavy duty Velcro which holds it snugly at the back of a cabinet by the chart table. The blue monkey-fist knot allows the board to be easily pulled out for maintenance.

Installed_SMALL

Network configuration:

Wiring the components together is relatively simple. Configuring the networking can be quite tricky and I suggest that you get this all working on a bench before even thinking about installation. If you have some experience configuring networks, then you’ll be fine – if not, it might be worth buying a friend who has experience a couple of beers.

As far as I’m concerned, the trick to configuring everything is to be methodical and take small steps. Start with the Bullet and no WiFi router. To do this replace the patch cable shown above with a cable connecting the LAN side of the POE injector directly to your laptop or PC. Then follow the configuration instructions in the Bullet’s user guide. Set it’s network mode to ‘Router’ and enter the I.P. settings you want it to use.

Once you’re in a position where you can connect to a remote WiFi network using the Bullet, it’s time to start thinking about setting up your own local WiFi network for your devices to connect to. Again, do this with the Bullet turned off so that you can focus on the WiFi router. Importantly, you should make sure that the WiFi router will use a different subnet address from the Bullet. So, for example, if the Bullet is configured to use 192.168.1.X, then the WiFi router must be configured to use something like 192.168.2.X. Once this is working as you’d like, use the patch cable to connect the Bullet to the WiFi router and you’re done.

You should now be able to connect to the Bullet’s configuration pages via your local WiFi network and search for remote WiFi networks:

Survey

Sort the networks by signal to noise ratio.  Counterintuitively the best signal will be the one with the lowest value; in this case, the Vodafone network shown at the top of the list. Select this network and click the button to make the Bullet connect to it.

You should now be able to connect any number of devices on board to your local WiFi network, and they will all have internet access.

 

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29 thoughts on “WiFi Internet access on board

  1. Great post about your setup. I installed a similar setup on my boat, but screwed the components in to the bulkhead/overhead of a small locker. I like how yours is easily removable! Great thinking.

  2. I did the same setup about a month ago. However, I wasn’t convinced that the 8db antenna was going to get the range I wanted, so I replaced it with a 15db antenna. It picked up a few more WiFi networks but they were encrypted so it didn’t buy me anything. When you determine the range are you looking at the main page for the Bullet?

    • Hi Mike. Yes that page gives an idea of how far away the base station is. But also, we can get a rough idea simply using Google maps if we know which cafe we’re borrowing the signal from. It’s all estimation though.

  3. Whereabouts do you sail, mostly? Would this work anywhere? We are in the Greek Islands and just use a wifi ‘bat’ mounted high on the mizzen mast, with USB connector to laptop, which then becomes a hotspot for the two iPads on the boat. Never had a problem, and can pick up wifi from quite a distance.

    • We’re in Portugal at the moment and are heading to the Med. This setup has worked all the way here from the UK, and should work just about anywhere. WiFi is broadcast in two frequency ranges 2.4gHz and 5gHz. The Bullet M2 is for 2.4gHz, and the Bullet M5 is for 5gHz. The vast majority of non-commercial WiFi networks (i.e. the ones you’ll want to connect to) are 2.4gHz so the Bullet M2 is the better option. We’ve not been anywhere where we’ve wanted/needed a 5gHz radio. That said, if the bat is working for you, then why change?

  4. Hello there,
    I’m trying to recreate your wifi set up but your link to the Poe injector is to the 12 volt charger piece. I had to search for all of them a second time as all of your links went to the Amazon UK site, which promptly informed me it would not ship to the US. I would have thought that it would convert to the correct site, but alas it did not. Anyway…I’m having trouble finding a Poe injector that is 12 volt. Which one did you use?
    What are those green connectors you used to go to the 12 volt? And what is the 4 connection white piece that connects the wires and is secured on your board?
    Thanks a lot for the write up on the wifi. Hopefully I’ll get it set up soon.
    Donna

    • Hi Donna,

      I bought the POE injector on eBay (UK site again I’m afraid). You don’t need to find a 12v one specifically if your voltage on board is 12v; you just need something that will feed your on board power up the ethernet cable. Just search for ‘POE injector’ on eBay, there will be dozens of results.

      The green connectors were also bought on eBay and are sold as security camera power supply plugs. The white block is just a power connector block that you should be able to pick up at any decent hardware/electrical store.

      I’d have liked to have been able to paste a few more links in here to help you but we’re back on land at the moment and ironically don’t have broadband internet set up yet.

      Best of luck, and let me know how you get on.

      Steve.

      • Steve,
        Thanks for the response.
        I’m stuck! I can’t get the Bullet to let me access the internet alone. And I can’t seem to get the router to find the Bullet. There is something I’m missing and I can’t figure it out. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
        Thanks,
        Donna

      • Hi Donna,
        As much as I’d like to help, this is the sort of job that you need to be there to do – any advice I offer will probably not be relevant. I suggest that you grab someone with some experience of home networks and ask them to go through it with you; it can be fairly complicated in places.
        Steve.

        [UPDATE] Take a look at Rob’s recent post with a link to the Ubiquiti support community forum which may be able to offer more specific advice.

  5. Hi Steve,
    Fantastic post and a great help. We are heading to the Med for 2016 and was looking how best to get wifi configured onboard. A quick tech question, it appears you are using a 12v DC to 5v POE converter but according to the M2 Tech specs and the POE unit supplied with it requires a 24v input voltage. Did you check this out to see if a lower voltage was within its operating capability?
    Cheers
    Rob

    • Hi Rob,

      I figured that a lower voltage wouldn’t cause much damage so just tried it. My backup plan was to buy a small step-up transformer (seen them on eBay) if it didn’t work, but it’s worked perfectly well on 12v.

      Steve.

      • Thanks Steve,
        I had a very quick response back from the Tech Team @Ubiquiti last night. They confirmed the M2 is OK for a supply voltage of 12-24v and will work as low as 11.5v. I also found they have a support community which Donna might find useful: https://community.ubnt.com The tech help email is support@ubnt.com

        I did consider running a mains AC feed to their supplied POE (via an inverter) but the 12v DC boat feed to a 12v POE output is a much better (and neater) solution.
        Cheers and thanks again for the info
        Rob

      • That’s great Rob, thanks for the update. I also considered the 240v option but that would have meant running an inverter when at anchor and that would have taken its toll on our batteries. Good luck with your setup – let me know how it goes.

  6. Brilliant write up, have purchased the various parts, and set it up as per the instructions I have a couple of issues though, my I-phone doesn’t want to connect to the TP-link unit?? Also I can run a site survey and see various wifi networks including my home network, but I can’t seem to connect to it, any ideas???

    • Hi Michael,

      I didn’t have any problems with my iPhone – I can only suggest you try resetting it and clearing out any unused wifi networks before trying again. I also connect an iPad and MacBook Pro to the TP-Link without problems. Can you connect any devices to it at all?

      Did you remember to enter the password for your home network before connecting? I know this seems obvious but the password field isn’t placed in the most obvious spot.

      Let me know how you get on.

      All the best. Steve.

    • Hi Curt,

      It’s not a branded item, just a cheapie from eBay. If I were to rewire it, I’d go with something more flexible, like these ones designed for use with security cameras:
      poe adapter
      Just search for ’12v poe injector’ on eBay and you’ll see dozens of options that should all work with a little creativity.
      Let me know how you get on!
      Steve.

  7. Hi,
    We have a system that is similar but no need for the POE (Power Over Ethernet) injector as we use the Mikrotik MAP as our onboard router that comes with POE out to the UBNT BulletM2. If you would like a diagram or list of parts and where to order please contact me.
    PS I’m the CTO of a wireless broadband company (Celtic Broadband Ltd) so have many years experience with wireless connection.
    Jay
    WHUATI

  8. We also step up from 12v to 24v with a low cost DC transformer we also use in the field in our company. This improves the UBNT Bullet M2 performance. Also have 11db and 16db gain antennas still with wide vertical beam width, as 8db is not a lot of gain.
    If in a marina where you are not swinging then a UBNT NanoStation M2 is a better option but that s must be aimed towards the signal location.

  9. A very informative article. It’s inspired me. In fact – I’m connected via mine in an Italian marina as I write this 🙂
    Have you put your router into ap mode though?
    I’m trying to get mine to work in ‘wisp’ mode so that I can maintain boat wide connectivity when the bullet is off line – mostly to allow connection to a raspberry pi based music player. But in that mode I can only connect using a static ip in the range for the bullet, which gives me internet access, but no access to the tp-link…
    Did you have to set up the routing table in any particular way?
    Jon

    • Hi Jonathan,

      Great to hear you’ve put this into practice, I’m using ours at the moment to reply to you from an anchorage in Greece and I’ve got a great WiFi signal here today. I’ve had the TP-Link set to the third option (3G/4G) for the times we can’t find WiFi to use. I’d be interested to know how you get on though, so please update me here if you find a way to use it separately from the Bullet.

      Cheers, Steve.

      • Thanks for that Steve. I’m up and running now. 3G mode is what was required with a preference set for lan (no dongle here). I wrongly assumed the router would expect a dongle for this mode. My non-bullet use will be away from wifi, I intend to leave the router running so, I can interconnect iPads, iPhones, laptop, a satellite drive and (mainly) a raspberry pi running volumio with our music on it (some +700 hrs of mp3s).
        I owe you a drink if we ever bump into one another. We’re heading for Greece next year.
        Cheers, Jon
        (s.y. Tickety-Boo)

      • Sounds good. Where in Italy are you? We’re heading to Sicily later in the year and will spend the winter there.

  10. Very good description.
    I use the MicroTik Groove instead of the Bullet because I also supports the 5GHz band, but the Ubiquiti products are fine, too, since most. shoreside APs operate in the 2.4 GHz band. To use NETGEAR N600 dual band routers and connect all possible Denice’s to the onboard LAN on 5GHz Sotho LAN traffic is not competing for air time with the link from the Groove to the shoreside AP. That helps improve performance by eliminating collisions.

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