Internet

Best LTE antenna and booster for the boat

For almost two years I have been testing, re-testing, and re-wiring my setup on Grace in an effort to find the best LTE antenna configuration. I don’t remember another project I worked on that took so much time and effort to gather data. We use the Internet all of the time while on board, and I want it to be reliable, fast, and easy to use no matter where we are. The search for a good antenna system led to some surprising choices.

The goal was to find a setup that allowed for the following:

  • In good signal areas, provide high bandwidth and low latency allowing for multiple streaming devices and normal network operations
  • Leverage diversity antenna configuration on Peplink for more bandwidth and LTE-A features
  • In poor signal areas, improve the signal to allow for basic network operations – WiFi cell phone calling, sending emails, etc.

Why do I want to do this? Well, there are a few reasons:

Crew expect internet speeds on the boat to be the same as home. In reality, this is unlikely because LTE/cellular is still a bit behind the broadband internet market. However, to a crew member, a wireless network looks the same on a boat as at home. Even explaining it to them doesn’t mean they change their habits. So I need a fast network when we’re near civilization.

Marina WiFi is hard – I even wrote a whole article about it – and most of the marinas we visit are no exception. While we can get a WiFi signal from them, I find that in the majority of cases, it is actually better to use a cellular connection as it is more reliable and consistent. Again, having a fast network here will help out.

When we are far away from normal signals, being able to amplify what signal is available is important for safety and planning. I use a bunch of internet based tools to plan voyages and look at weather, and having access to those helps the quality and safety of the trip. Also, being able to place a phone call in the event of an emergency is also very helpful, although not required.

And of course, my boat network is significant, and I would like to have it connected via a quality connection all the time. SignalK, AIS dispatcher, Victron, FloatHub and many other devices transmit data from the boat out to various cloud and private services. In addition, with my redundant internet configuration, I wanted to ensure it was always connected not only for outbound data, but when I VPN in from remote locations to check on things.

Base Configuration

My base network includes:

What I am attempting to test and improve is the two red items in the diagram above – the LTE internet connectivity and antennas. The Peplink has two stock cellular antennas that connect directly to the connectors and extend about 6 inches, a primary and one for diversity.

The Peplink has one WAN port connected to the MikroTik which can be used to grab remote WiFi signals. The MikroTik is mounted high up outside on the stern radar pole, while the Peplink is mounted inside in the Internet Alcove.

The LAN port of the Peplink is connected to the StarTech switch where all other cabled devices connect.

The Peplink has two SIM card slots, and I have both an AT&T and T-Mobile SIM active and under test. I also did some testing for a few weeks with a Verizon SIM card.

The goal was to see if connecting things directly to the antenna ports on the Peplink, or using the stock antennas along with a booster, would give the best result.

External Antennas Tested

There are hundreds of antennas on the market, so choosing a starting point is sometimes overwhelming. Besides the antennas below, I have had over 20 other types on the boat in the last 5 years which I’ve used in various settings. I chose the ones below because they met all of my requirements, and came more highly recommended.

Configurations Tested

Test Setup & Methodology

Every time I performed testing, I attempted to gather as much data as possible about the environment, and test multiple antennas or configurations to rule out any problems with cabling, gear, and the like. All of this data was recorded in a big massive Google Sheets spreadsheet and analyzed later.

Test Setup

  • Peplink MAX Transit routers – both LTE and LTE-A versions
  • MacBook Pro 2016 connected via wireless
  • Raspberry Pi Linux system connected via Ethernet
  • T-Mobile & AT&T SIM cards
  • No other random devices (cell phones, chart plotters, etc.) connected

Test Locations

  • Elliott Bay Marina (home marina)
  • Elliott Bay and general area
  • Blake Island, Bremerton, Poulsbo, Port Orchard and all areas around Bainbridge and Vashon Islands
  • Elliott Bay to Friday Harbor to Roche Harbor, with stops in various places along the way (Port Townsend, etc.) and in the San Juan Islands – two separate trips in summer of 2017.
  • South Puget Sound trip in 2016 with stops in Tacoma, Olympia, Eagle Island, Longbranch, Jerrell Cove, and many other places.
  • Many other random day trips and areas in the central sound

Methodology

Here’s a typical test run:

  1. Reboot all associated equipment
  2. Wait for everything to “settle” after reboot, minimum 5 minutes
  3. Record signal strength from Peplink dashboard
  4. Run speedtest on Mac from beta.speedtest.net 5x times, record min/max/average
  5. Run speedtest-cli on Linux machine 5x times, record min/max/average
  6. Record signal strength from Peplink dashboard
  7. Repeat steps 4-5 at least 3 times

Besides the test runs outlined above, we used all of the antennas and configurations in various combinations for real-world use over the last year. This included trips all around Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, as well as at home or familiar marinas for longer periods of time. In all cases, there was a mix of real-world traffic from cell phones, laptops, tablets, Grace’s huge network, and the on board Roku.

General Observations

External antennas help a lot

This probably won’t surprise you, but an external antenna mounted high on the boat provided the best overall result. The higher the better, and away from other items that cause interference. The best antennas were the largest – physically – of the bunch.

Cable length & quality matter

I was surprised at the crappy cable included with some of the antennas. Having a single run with no extenders, converters or the like is critical to realizing the gains from your antenna. Bad cabling can essentially cancel out or actually contribute to a negative signal compared to no antenna!

The best cable included in my testing was from WirEng.

Boosters are worth the investment

I had both an in-line and standard booster, sometimes called an amplifier, and in both cases it improved the overall signal. The in-line booster provided less of a benefit, and I wouldn’t really recommend them because of the power draw compared to the gains. Standard boosters that have a second antenna that “rebroadcasts” the signal worked extremely well.

Multi-element antennas not worth the investment

I tested both the Panorama and the SinglePoint antennas, and saw very little benefit in either configuration. Initially I was attracted to the idea of a single antenna pre-cabled for multiple connections, simplifying the install. In reality, it made for a heck of a lot of cables all getting caught up, and poor antenna performance overall.

It’s better to spend money on two larger LTE antennas than one single antenna if you absolutely need it, which I don’t think most people would.

The multi-element antennas had dual LTE antennas, a GPS antenna and some combo of WiFi antennas, and are generally used on vehicles. They also often require a ground plane, which is hard to do on a boat.

Antenna Observations

Wilson

The Wilson Electronics 4G Wide Band Omni Marine Antenna was the most marine-ized and came with good cable and mounting options, including a standard marine sized stainless steel pole.

The BoatAnt antenna did slightly better in signal coverage areas, but it is not marinized and has some other drawbacks.

This Wilson antenna did extremely well, and is my first choice for a good antenna.

Panorama

3GStore – Panorama 5-cable roof antenna

This was one of two multi-element antennas I tested, both primarily made for vehicles. I was attracted to the Panorama after having read about the company antenna history, and was intrigued with having a single antenna with elements for 2x LTE antennas, 2x WiFi (5/2Ghz), and GPS. The antenna itself is round in shape with a fin box through the middle, about the size of a small saucer plate.

The cabling looked to be good quality, although slightly thinner than I would like, and was around 16′ long, which was a good length to get it connected to the Peplink directly.

This antenna had an individual connector for each antenna, so they could be directly connected to the Peplink’s ports and replace the stock antennas. The bigger challenge was managing 5 different cables, all 16′ long, which became a rats nest of crazy cabling while trying to run things. I ended up zip tying everything together, but it was still a bit of a bear to manage.

Unfortunately the gains I saw from the antenna did not exceed using the stock antennas on the Peplink, or at least not much of the time. Even after adding a ground plane and doing other tweaks, I just didn’t see enough of a signal increase to warrant the expense and cables. I suspect this may have been affected by the lower quality of the cable.

I did see some increases in overall throughput due to the fact that both primary and diversity antennas were given dedicated elements in the antenna. However, those gains were only where good signal existed to begin with.

Overall, I would not recommend it.

SinglePoint

I found out about the SinglePoint roof mount antenna from friends on Safe Harbour and Airship of Slowboat.com. They used various configs of this antenna on their epic Flotilla to Alaska in 2017. It is similar to the Panorama in that it has cabling and elements for 2x LTE antennas, 1x WiFi, and GPS. I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t have 2x WiFi which would have made it a direct comparison to the Panorama, but I was trying to set things up for LTE anyhow, not WiFi.

The cabling looked less shielded than the Panorama, and was quite short – only about 10′ which was very limiting. Adding extenders would almost negate the benefits from the antennas gain. I ended up having to do this for some testing because my Peplink unit was about 15′ away.

As above with the Panorama, the gains I saw from the antenna did not exceed using the stock antennas on the Peplink. The only benefit I saw was increased download/upload speeds sometimes – this was almost assuredly because of the diversity antenna configuration. To make matters worse, the SinglePoint had shorter cable with lower quality which meant either relocating everything, or extending it and actually seeing a negative gain compared to the stock antennas!

SureCall

I’ve had this antenna for almost a year and a half, having purchased it as part of my initial internet setup on Grace. It was not meant for marine environments, and it has not weathered well. It has given decent performance in the last year and a half, but was one of the main reasons I started searching for a better antenna. In areas where the signal is lower, the SureCall simply didn’t perform.

The mounting hardware is not marine grade at all, so beware – mine started corroding within months.

WirEng BoatAnt

I found out about the WirEng BoatAnt while chatting with Chris Dunphy over at the Mobile Internet Resource Center. Most of their site is focused on RV’ers, but they have gotten into boating in the last couple of years as well. They had used WirEng products on their RV and found it very good quality.

It is the largest of all of the antennas, beating out the Wilson by almost an inch. It is also very hefty and feels well made. The cabling that came with it is absolutely fantastic – the thickest provided, and with quality ends provided by WirEng.

In all of my tests, this antenna outperformed every other one I used. The specs claim a whopping 10dBi gain which is double several of the other antennas, and at least 3dBi more than the best specs.

Strangely I don’t see the ability to buy direct from WirEng anymore – only a contact form to fill out for details. It does appear you can get them on Amazon, but check the seller and make sure it is WirEng.

I would highly recommend this antenna.

I no longer recommend any BoatAnt products due to massive quality issues, lack of response from the company, and jacked up prices (2-3x!) for all of their products.

Booster Observations

Wilson in-line

I have had the Wilson in-line booster amp for a couple of years, and looking at the newest version online, it hasn’t changed much from what I can tell. It cites a 15db gain, which I saw consistently when it was connected.

In terms of overall upload/download performance, it didn’t seem to improve things unless we were in a place with terrible signal coverage. In almost all cases, two external antennas gave a better result even in low signal areas.

The bigger issue is that it only has one output port, so only one of the two LTE connectors on the Peplink could be connected. This meant that the secondary diversity antenna would be un-amplified, and using the stock antenna inside the boat.

weBoost RV kit

Wilson also owns the weBoost product lines, and they came out with the weBoost Drive 4G-X booster which included the amplifier, external antenna, internal antenna, and cabling for all components. I didn’t care for their provided antenna, and while I did test it, it didn’t really impress me.

What I did like was the amplifier and internal antenna. This booster ended up providing the best overall performance no matter where we were. The internal antenna is mounted only a few inches away from the stock Peplink antennas, and the outdoor antenna was a mix of all of the above antennas.

With the boosters internal antenna near the Peplink, that meant that both the primary and diversity antennas on the Peplink could use the boosted signal, which resulted in not only better signal strength, but faster download speeds.

I would recommend this booster.

Best Configuration

Updated March 2019

The best configuration I have tested is as follows:

This gave the best signal in hard-to-reach areas, increased overall bandwidth in decent coverage areas, and has performed well in marine conditions.

I originally started out hoping to only have an external antenna, directly connected to the Peplink – no booster or amplifier. But I found in places with very poor signal, an external antenna alone was not enough. A booster adds more power usage and complexity, but as important as the Internet is for the crew and all of my network, I would rather have a quality signal everywhere at the cost of more power usage.

I also have a coupler taped near the amplifier, where the outside antenna meets the inside antenna cable. Worst case scenario, I can join the two together, bypassing the amplifier, and remove the inside antenna and connect the cable directly to the Peplink. Or, worst case scenario, simply turn off the amplifier and use the stock antennas on the Peplink without any external antenna.

Performance

I have been using this configuration now for 6+ months and have been very happy with both the coverage in bad signal areas, and overall performance when in better areas.

At my home marina, I regularly get about a 25ms ping time, 20-40Mbps download, and 10-20Mbps upload on T-Mobile. That’s pretty good for an LTE connection.  AT&T shows a 25-35ms ping time, 20Mbps download and 20Mbps upload.

Crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards the San Juan Islands, we usually lose signal somewhere around Smith Island, and gain it back a while later. With this configuration, we had signal almost all the way across, albeit very slow 3G for a time.

This is exactly the outcome I had been hoping for – something that is super fast and able to handle multiple streaming devices when near civilization, and coverage when in the boonies enough to do the basics.

Parts List

It is important to note that you don’t need all of these to improve your connection. If you don’t have a Peplink device, you can still add the outdoor Wilson antenna and weBoost amplifier and gain considerable coverage and improve your throughput. Whatever you’re using now, if it has an LTE radio in it, it will need to be close to the indoor antenna. Many people also simply use the indoor antenna with their cell phones, although you do need to be relatively close for this to work reliably.

All of the things in the diagram above:

Piano playing technology nerd who can be found on the water geeking out most days. Love the Puget Sound and Salish Sea and cruise as often as possible.

  • I just installed these same wonderful devices on Grace when I re-did her battery banks. Absolutely love them! More details on her battery bank redo in a future post….including MasterVolt systems.

  • I just installed these same wonderful devices on Grace when I re-did her battery banks. Absolutely love them! More details on her battery bank redo in a future post….including MasterVolt systems.

  • Great article, and thanks for the mentioning the Mobile Internet Resource Center.

    FYI – we have an article about MIMO antenna technology that explains some of the geekiness behind the scenes, and why boosters and MIMO often conflict with each other.

    Sometimes – turning on a booster can actually cut your speeds in half!

    When you have your booster on, you are essentially eliminating the capability of the aux/diversity antenna to pick up a differentiated signal since everything is going through the funnel of the booster.

    In strong signal area – this will result in a performance drop since the 2x speed mode benefit of MIMO gets eliminated. But as you’ve seen, in weak signal areas a booster can come in extremely handy. The improvements can be especially dramatic for upload performance.

    Here’s the article – though the bulk is member content:
    https://www.rvmobileinternet.com/resources/understanding-mimo-multiple-input-multiple-output-lte-speed-cell-booster-implications/

    Cheers,
    – Chris

  • Great article, and thanks for the mentioning the Mobile Internet Resource Center.

    FYI – we have an article about MIMO antenna technology that explains some of the geekiness behind the scenes, and why boosters and MIMO often conflict with each other.

    Sometimes – turning on a booster can actually cut your speeds in half!

    When you have your booster on, you are essentially eliminating the capability of the aux/diversity antenna to pick up a differentiated signal since everything is going through the funnel of the booster.

    In strong signal area – this will result in a performance drop since the 2x speed mode benefit of MIMO gets eliminated. But as you’ve seen, in weak signal areas a booster can come in extremely handy. The improvements can be especially dramatic for upload performance.

    Here’s the article – though the bulk is member content:

    Understanding MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) – LTE Speed & Cell Booster Implications

    Cheers,
    – Chris

  • Very helpful report, thank you.
    For a setup with a MIMO capable router, without booster: would you recommend a single BoatAnt antenna, or twin conventional antennas for best performance?
    Cheers
    Wolf

  • Thanks to Chris at technomadia.com who sent me your link. I really enjoyed your article because it is well detailed. I also like to see OTA (Over The Air) testing like this and all the install/cable/radios involved. I design and mfg antennas including the 4G items 700-2700MHz plus enjoy testing many off the market models. About 5 years ago we settled on a design which is very popular now. The aprox 2.3″ diameter and 7 to 11″ length for the 4G omni. All of this type are basic wide dipoles however very well tuned with careful control of diameters and lengths of the radiators. I knew, and later confirmed that the laws of physics always win, when playing against marketing and sales departments. All of these, size and bandwidth will always be in the 1.5-3 dBi (at the horizon where its wanted) even if the sales guys call it 10 dBi. A big factor as you already well know is the cable. Just a week ago a client company was testing my marine antenna and others on a boat, using the included 15 to 20 FT thin and “easy to install” RG-58 type cables. They found minor improvement with that Vs. the blade antennas on top of the modem itself. However, I later provided an update version with a short 24″ cable just to get in the hull, then connect an LMR-400 cable for the rest of a 20 FT run and there was a real improvement. The original cables can loose 3 dB or a full 50% of the signal either TX or RX. Ive included a picture of an early test unit “fat dipole” which Chris calls a beer can. Im using that name now too! This was a marine and RV version done last year.

  • Steve,

    I was pointed to your blog by Sam and Kevin from Slowboat – great information! We are doing some extensive cruising in B.C. and Alaska this summer where there is very limited cell coverage and people in our group using the Weboost 4g-x boosters are able to pull in LTE or 3G signals where we are seeing none so I am likely going to purchase one of these boosters and the WebAnt antenna that you recommend.

    How I integrate it to my current setup is where I have questions. I did a fair amount of research and ended up with a WiriePro with the LTE modem built in after reading reviews on Panbo and other sources. On paper it is a great idea with an all in one piece of hardware for boosting Wi-Fi and using cellular data. My success with using it has been less than satisfactory so far however. It works great to boost weak Wi-Fi signals, but the LTE/4G/3G connection has been problematic. I can often see a decent LTE connection on an iPhone inside out boat where the externally mounted WiriePro wont see the cellular network at all or will see it and not work well. I even purchased the external cellular antenna that they market for it (http://www.thewirie.com/the-wirie-products/marine-lte-antenna-details/), which did not seem to help much if at all.

    One other thing I don’t like about the Wirie router is that it doesn’t allow me to assign a static IP address that my Furuno electronics want to see to allow me to connect to them remotely with an iOS app without having to create their own Wi-Fi network. That is something that I could deal with though if I am able to get a better cellular connection.

    So finally to my question: What do you think about using the Weboost 4G-X booster with the WebAnt external antenna, but rather than locating the internal antenna inside my boat, mounting it close to the external 6dB gain Wirie antenna? I have the Wirie mounted to the false stack on a Nordhavn 40 just aft of the pilothouse, so I would be able to mount the internal antenna Weboost antenna almost next to the external WiriePro antenna but in a dry location separated by a layer of fiberglass.

    Maybe I am trying too hard to salvage the usability of my almost new WiriePro device (which was not exactly cheap) but I am curious to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks!

  • Steve,

    Thanks for the detailed reply to my comment. I am in the process of upgrading my system to get cellular data on board and just installed a 4G-X booster connected to the “high gain” (allegedly 6dB) optional Wirie antenna. I attached the cheap little 3 inch magnetic external antenna that are with the booster to the antenna connector on the Wirie device and ran that inside my pilothouse next to the internal antenna.

    So far it measurable improves the signal seems to have improved performance but not as much as I would expect. I am seeing a 3G (HSPA+) connection on the wire device where we are docked for the night in Kassaan while my phone is picking up an LTE signal. I am guessing the external antenna is the bottleneck.

    I tried to order the WebAnt antenna that you recommend when I both the booster but after placing an order with Amazon I got an email that the order couldn’t be filled and contacted Wireng directly. Turns out they are discontinuing and sold out of the original WebAnt and now in early production and selling a new BoatAnt-Plus device. On paper it looks good but they are asking close to $500 for it so I definitely want to understand the claims before spending that kind of money for an antenna.

    Have you heard about this new product by chance or could you comment based on the spec sheet? There is a page 2 with mechanical drawings and another graphic but I could only upload he first page to your site.

    Thanks!

  • Unfortunately I didn’t get an antenna other than the little 3 inch magnetic one with the booster package that I bought because I was planning on purchasing a separate antenna. I can find the old BoatAnt antenna on eBay but not cheap – I saw one for $374 which is almost as much as the new one! I’m tempted to purchase the Wilson model that you lost as being second best on performance to the BoatAnt as it’s roughly $100. If the BoatAnt will allow me to pull in distant signals while we travel I would consider it a decent investment by don’t want to waste money on something with very incremental performance gains.

    The issue with LTE bands is something more troubling and I wish I’d known more about all the s before I’d spent he money on the Wirie. It seems to be a one man show and they are relatively quick to respond to tech support issues but always seem a little to eager to defend the product and blame problems on things outside their control. I don’t want to bash the product on a public forum but there is a long thread on the cruisers Sailing forum brining up issues with the device.

    I am actually getting LTE both on my phone and the Wirie now I’m soitheast Alaska north of Ketchikan. Below is copied from a reply on a troubleshooting ticket from Wirie a month or so ago:

    These are the bands supported by The Wirie pro:

    LTE (optional) B1/B2/B3/B4/B5/B7/B8/B13/B17/B20
    HSPA+/UMTS (3/4G) 850 (B5), 900 (B8), AWS (B4), 1900(B2), 2100 (B1)
    GSM/GPRS/EDGE (2G) 850, 900, 1800, 1900
    Band 30 is not supported at this time.

    It does not seem like they offer hardware upgrades or very frequent firmware updates.

    I’ve got AT&T service on the iPhones and an AT&T sim from the 4G Antenna Shop and curiously with this sim even with roaming turned on I only once picked up a network in Canada where our phones would pick up roaming signals in a lot of places.

    After we leave the Northwest we plan to cruise down into Mexico so trying to plan for the future as far as what we are able to pick up down there with both hardware and cell plans.

  • Dougal, Ive been following parts of your thread here as I work a few hours today at the office. I wrote some info about antennas before because I design and make antennas (since 1991).
    Just a reminder that “4G” antennas are having to work at a huge band width covering 700-2700MHz. And on a mobile station that means omni-directional. That massive bandwidth results in fairly low gain. That gain is “directivity in a wanted direction” needed at the horizon, plus or minus 10 degrees on a boat.
    If you could know that for example you could get by with a dual band antenna such as the older 3G 850/1900 MHz bands, it would be double or more gain thatn the 4G antenna. If you knew you needed only 1 band like 700 LTE or 1900 GSM etc then double that again. (assuming a well designed antenna).
    Cable loss: Sometimes the “stick” antenna that comes with the modem device performs as good as an outdoor antenna. The cable losses can quickly eat all the increase in performance obtained at the new outdoor antenna. The net amount of signal at the device connector could end up the same or lower. Note however, the outside antenna may be doing 2.5 dBi across 7 bands, the little stick on the device will never do that. The device maker may KNOW that the device will be on 850MHz 90% of the time then they provide e the antenna that best performs at 850. The other bands may be quite quite poor. Finally, be wary of any omni-dir 4G antenna claiming over 3 dBi. At the popular prices and size being sold, anthing over 2.5 to 3.0 dBi AVG is phyisically impossible. OK excuse the long text, have a good week.

  • Raul,

    Thanks so much for the feedback. I feel like I have hijacked the comments section of Steve’s excellent review but I won’t pass up the free advice. I’m a mechanical engineer by training and RF stuff seems like black magic in a way to me so I am trying to soak up knowledge.

    I am wondering if antenna placement on a mobile application like moving boat is equally important as the antenna design? There is a lot of lot of metal rigging above deck on our boat and a fairly packed array of Antennas for other devices.

    The cellular antenna the my booster is currently connected to is the little white cylinder that I circled in red in the photo. I am wondering if moving whatever antenna that I end up using higher up on a pole or extension might increase reception in remote areas…?

  • Dougal,
    I see your picture. Its real crowded there for sure. The cell antenna needs to be higher by a few inches than the dome that blocks the view of the antennas lower 1 to 3 inches.
    Whats really killing signal is the apparent short distance to the large diameter tube that might be a sailing mast. Thats probably metal. The antenna needs to be 18 inches away from such a metallic diameter to avoid a shadow in that direction.
    As it is now not only is there a large shadow behind the mast but the signal is probably not close to being within 1 dB of omni directional in all the other directions. It might be very oval or distorted.

  • Hi Steve,

    This is great information! Thank you for taking the time to put it together!

    I’m curious what you think would perform better – two external antennas each with their own in-line booster going directly to the Pepwave or a single external antenna going to a 4G-X which would then transmit to the stock Pepwave antennas? In terms of “performance” I have two use cases – one near shore where MIMO is a factor and the other where there is very little signal.

  • Great stuff,

    The Groove, Halo, and Bullet are all good.

    Im considering a Shakespeare WebWatch antenna, WCT-1 This includes WIFI (w/firewall & VPN), Cellular (GSM only), and TV (which i plan to connect to an HD HomeRun Connect box). The antenna is supposed to use WIFI until signal is lost then switch to Cellular, includes a wireless WIFI and wired network output. This keeps it simple I hope. Any thoughts, insights or corrections is appreciated.

    Tim Welch
    Planning for our Great Loop trip.

  • Hi Steve, Im also in Elliot bay marina and exploring both wifi and cell service antenna setups and determining which route to go. couple of questions. Reading the NMEA guidance on antenna placement, it seems there are distinct implications of placing certain antennas within a certain distance of other antennas. – especially VHF. have you investigated any challenges with placing your cell and Wifi antennas too close to other antennas? I am trying to fit two VHF antennas, wifi, cellular, Radar, Satellite, and GPS pucks within a short amount of space…

    in Seattle, (I’m T mobile customer currently) but when looking at pay as you go short term data sim cards I have a choice, would you go T mobile for the data sim?) if so, would you still recommend the peplink max transit and specifically the LTE-A model?

    happy to provide beers and talk in the marina if easier and more fun! 🙂

  • Great article- thank you so much! We currently have a Coastal Marine WiFi antenna (ubiquiti bullet) with a 3g/4G Wilson amplifier, both connected to a Pepwave Surf Soho router. The Wilson amp has a USB modem in between it and the router that accepts sim cards and it is connected to an external Wilson marine-grade antenna. We are in Mexico on our sailboat. We have been happy with set up for the most part but are in the process of changing it. We’re removing the Wilson 3g amplifier and putting in a WeBoost Drive 4G-X instead. We are thinking that boosting the cell signal coming into the boat for all devices will be more beneficial than running it to one sim card and having to keep recharging it. My question is the placement of the external antenna. We have about 10 feet of low loss cable coming into the boat from the antenna going to the Drive 4G-x but it limits the placement of the internal antenna to the length of the cord of it and it is in the very back of the boat. It would be more ideal to place the internal antenna in a more central location, however that would require adding another 10 feet of low-loss cable from the antenna to the WeBoost Drive 4G-x. What are your thoughts? Will we lose a lot of gain by extending it further into the boat?

  • Hi Steve,

    This was super helpful as we are setting up our sailboat for extended cruising on the west coast as well. I just had one question… would it be safe to say you use the coupler as a booster bypass for when you are in strong signal areas? Essentially a manual workaround for the potential booster attenuating effects?

    Thanks,
    Chris

  • That is great to know, Steve. We are going to order your #2 recommended antenna (Wilson) since we can’t get the BoatAnt anymore. Thanks for sharing your hard-won experiences onboard, it makes all of our lives so much easier.

    I am also thinking of following Lisa’s advice (I connected with them through their sailing blog). We’ll keep the wifi and cellular data systems separate. As they pointed out we could run into a situation where our laptops are syncing to the Cloud using cellular data without us knowing through the automated router. We have a 15 gig cap for hot spotting with AT&T, even on our unlimited plan. This way if we can’t get wifi, we can just put one of our phones beside the internal antenna to hot spot to. Not as elegant but we’ll always be aware of how much data we are using. Does that make sense to you?

  • I am also loving this blog thread… I am also choking on the $500 antenna… But I am in love with the dam technology + design of it… Maybe WirEng just made a strategic choice— Hey– we could be charging more for this…. lol… And re-packaged the same dang thing… ? Its not far fetched to believe here in the states as it is done all of the time to fool the gullible American public in thinking it is a NEW product…

    Cheers,

    Thomas
    SY EXPLORAR CONMIGO

  • Hello all.
    I wrote some notes here a few months ago. I wont repeat those thoughts now. I dont know what antenna is being discussed now but I can take a guess and comment. Any wide band (4G cell 700-2700MHz) Omni directional cannot be over aprox 3dBi across all your bands. Its probably the “beer can” size 12 or 16 oz can like the Wilson or AirWave Marine or Digital conehead. Ive tested them all or consulted or designed some of them. Been working with antennas for 40 yrs and run a lab. I know. And dont pay over $120. Did I see mention of $500?

  • Hi Explorar,

    I called WeBoost yesterday and was told to order the 470410, not the 470510. The 410 has a more powerful internal antenna because it was designed for RVs while the 510 was designed for cars apparently. It just means you have to get closer to the 510 antenna. so probably not a big deal.

  • I am in the process of installing a system almost exactly following your advise. I am however using a Peplink Max BR1 mini router. I was hoping to add the Max BR1 to my Verizon plan by just adding another device, but I found out that they do not offer unlimited data plans for this router and that the cost is much greater ($80 for 10 MG for the BR1 vs $45 for unlimited data on all other cellular devices. I am wondering if this is true for other carriers as well. I am also planning to sail to the Bahamas and was hoping to install a local SIM in the BR1, but I am not wondering if this will be possible. I guess I am not understanding how the Max BR1 is different from any other cellular device or hotspot and why it is treated differently by Verizon.

    I am also reading on some discussion board that the BR1 uses a lot of data when I phones or I pads are being used since they think they are connected to WIFI and start using data (other app and cloud backup) for some unknown background usage. Have you experienced this? Do you know of a way to manage this?

    Here is a link to one of the discussions: https://forum.peplink.com/t/br1-bandwidth-usage/7278
    Any input would be appreciated.
    Thanks,
    Christoph

    • Hi @christophspath:disqus,
      Unlimited data plans aren’t really unlimited anymore. I use T-Mobile’s Unlimited One + International plan, and at around 30GB of monthly usage, they slow it down considerably to the point where it is almost not useful. So just be aware that none of them are really, truly unlimited.

      That being said, getting non-phone device activated on a provider can be a bit more challenging. For T-Mobile, they treat it like a tablet and allowed me to add the International option so that I could travel to Canada and not be charged roaming charges. Other providers may not even know the device, and refuse to activate a SIM the first time around. Verizon is notorious for having very close control over the devices on their network, so that may be why they are confused.

      To resolve this, I would look at others on Peplink’s forums and how they may have activated it, or check out @radven:disqus ‘s site at https://www.rvmobileinternet.com/ which has a lot more current detail on the various plans and providers.

      In terms of data usage – Apple devices are notoriously bad on using lots of data. I have the same problem on my boat, and it is not specific to Peplink at all. One of the worst features is iCloud backups and Photos sync. After the crew is out and about exploring an anchorage, when we arrive back at the boat, the Internet is almost unusable because our iPhones and Android phones are uploading all of the fun photos to the cloud.

      If you have an iPad or Mac, and they also sync to those devices, as soon as the phones are done sending the photos up to the cloud, they start downloading to the iPad and Mac! More data usage.

      There are ways to disable these services so that you don’t have these issues. You can read about them in Apple’s forums. I agree, it would be nice for Peplink to provide some sort of filter to block these services, but it is quite hard to identify the traffic, and Apple changes things constantly.

      Windows actually has a nice feature that allows you to flag a WiFi network as being “limited bandwidth” (I mention it in my article on the Surface Pro https://sailbits.com/surface-pro-4-great-boat-computer/) so that it does not do software updates or sync things and eat up your bandwidth. We’ve all been hoping for something like that from Apple….

  • Great article, and great site! Very inspiring, I’ve been looking for someone like me in the middle of the geek / sailor venn diagram. Much appreciated.

    I was wondering, we’re finalizing the outfitting of our new catamaran, where we have a couple of options regarding position of the antennas – on the roof, up the mast, in the top or the spreaders. This cheezy product photo shows the options rather well: https://www.catamarans-fountaine-pajot.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/lucia-40-ban-12.jpg

    Any thoughts on the best place to mount them? We also have a radar that’ll be mounted somewhere in the mast, not sure where precisely.

    Thanks again for your articles!

  • Thank you very much for this great article. Is there an automatic solution for switching to Marina Wi-Fi from LTE when you get the signal?

  • Steve I installed almost the exact setup. I’m using the pepwave br1. Everthing else is the same . My issue is getting the mikrotik to talk to the pepwave. How are you accomplishing that? I talked with a Mikrotik service provider and after a lot of programming we have a signal that I can see, actually sometimes multiple signals, if I plug the ethernet cable from the Mikrotik into a laptop, then using winbox, I can select which WAN I want to use, enter security user passwords, unplug from my laptop and replug into the pepwave. Needless to say that is a pain. Is there anyway I can do this using the pepwave web admin page or incontrol2 ? I would like to use the Mikrotik WAN connection similiar to the way I use the wifi wan built into the pepwave . The pepwave can pickup external WAN and rebroadcast as my boat wifi and is very easy to use, however it uses small anteneas inside the boat, the Mikrotik seems to pick up more signals and they are stronger, it is mounted high on radar arch. I’m not very tech savy and sorry if I’m using incorrect terms here but hopefully you understand what Im doing. Please comment.

  • Hi Steve,

    For the Groove 52ac that you recommend, what antenna have you screwed into the top of the unit?

    Thanks,
    Roger

  • I’m so glad I stumbled onto this article. I’ve been researching the issues for awhile before making any decisions.

    One thing that isn’t really mentioned is the software setup to get everything to work. For example, I checked out the Mikrotik software and it is extremely technical. I have used a Picostation and AirOS and I’m comfortable with setting those up, but the Mikrotik is clearly intended for use by another level of technical expert. I’ll have to check out your website for how to set one up, maybe it isn’t that complicated with your guidance.

    There are low-low-loss cables for LTE frequencies, http://www.panorama-antennas.com/ makes some of these. Their CS400 is only 2dB loss over 10 meters (but it is thick at 0.4″). I’m trying to figure out if I should mount the LTE antenna on my lowest spreader and run 10m down inside the boat to the Peplink. In the comments, there is mention that getting the LTE high isn’t that important, but my other option is mounting it to the cabintop or somewhere on the deck at the aft of the boat (out of the way of toes). If you had to choose between the deck and a shorter cable run and the spreader and a longer cable run, what would you recommend? Also, is an internal diversity antenna “good enough”? I’d rather not run two external antennas.

  • Steve! As a former software engineer I cannot explain how grateful I am for the meticulous research you have done. Thank You!

    We now run a decent YouTube channel and need internet at least twice a week as that is how we cover our costs. In many places (South Pacific) we often get E or 1 bar 3G. Some places (Vanuatu/Tonga) may not even broadcast LTE. Does your recommendation work just as well for E and 3G as it does for 4G/LTE?

    At the end of the day my main concern is just getting that video uploaded and pushing it out on social media. That’s how I make a living.

    Finally, how can we give back? What is the best way to help you?

    Thanks!

    Ben & Ash
    https://www.youtube.com/sailingnahoa

  • Hi Steve,
    I’ve enjoyed reading your articles and discussions. I had purchased that Wirie AP several years ago and was about to upgrade to the LTE router when the company went belly up last year. When I went to the boat last week to look at my electronics I discovered that the Wirie AP is no longer working and keeps blowing fuses.
    My thought is that rather than try to repair the obsolete until, to purchase a Pepwave BR1 mini and use that in place of the WiFi router components in the original Wirie housing. I always liked the Wirie idea of minimizing the antenna cable runs by putting the router as close as possible to the atnennas themselves. I’s also consider putting the whole BR1 mini together with antennas in a waterproof housing. Just not sure what the signal attenuation might be through the walls of the plastic box. Do you think I could get away with just using the BR1 WiFi antennas and omitting the Ubiquiti or MicroTik?
    I would very much appreciate your thoughts on the matter.
    Best regards,

    Dan

  • Hi Steve,
    Through a process of elimination I’ve concluded that the short in my system is in the Ubiquiti antenna. I sent in a warranty replacement request only to be told that it was more than 1 year old. So now I’m faced with purchasing a new dual-band antenna as well (still cheaper overall than the Wirie setup). I see that you seem partial to the MikroTik. It seems to have an external signal strength indicator as opposed to the Ubiquiti which has nothing. Only way I was able to determine that it was the failure culprit was through successive disconnections…
    I’d appreciate your thoughts on the best antenna to buy!
    Thanks again…
    Dan

  • Thanks for the ultraprompt response!
    I thought the Ubiquiti Titanium Bullet M2HP (I thinks is the full description), was a dual band antenna. In any case, I don’t like it because there’sno way to tell if it’s working other than it passing a signal! I will look at the Altelix. Thanks again!
    Dan

  • Hi Steve,
    I just wanted to let you know that I’ve put together my system and bench tested it at home.
    You were right about the antennas!
    I bought the Wilson cellular antenna. The RSSI with the included 20ft RG58 cable is -80dBm, with a 20 ft LM400 cable (and SMA adapter), it’s a tiny bit better at -78 dBm (the cheaper adapter is probably hurting the signal), but with just the little antennas that comes with the Peplink its -74dBm!
    So I think I’m going to try your suggested configuration with the BR1 in the boat cabin and a Wilson booster using the Wilson cellular antenna.

    Thanks for all your suggestions!
    Best,

    Dan

  • Hi,
    Great article, thank you for all the info.

    Approximately how far off shore – or what distance from a cell tower – can one expect the Wilson antenna and WeBoost to work, assuming ideal conditions? I tried in vain to get this info from the Wilson website… Thanks

  • Steve – to echo others here, thank you for the invaluable information in this article, and on the site in general. I have read through the comments and could not find anything to address my question:

    We are effectively implementing the solution described above. But it’s part of a larger package which includes a KVH v7 HTS. These run on Intelsat and SKY Perfect JSAT Ku-band satellites. This will ensure we have coverage even when there is no Wi-Fi or LTE to be found. My concern is with interference.

    Our boat has a hard top, and my plan is to have a custom SS bracket made that will hold the satellite dome, and the LTE and Wi-Fi antennae, all in one neat installation. We’re using the Wilson for LTE and the MikroTik for Wi-Fi. My question is, if we have the antennae on the same mount as the satellite dome (spaced so there is maybe a 5 inch gap between each antenna and the dome on either side) will the LTE/Wi-Fi/Ku-band satellite communications all generate interference with one another?

    One thing to note: I am not going to enable least cost routing on the entire system. The Wi-Fi/LTE will implement LCR, but the KVH will be manually enabled/disabled as I want more control over the $$$. So the typical use case will not see LTE/Wi-Fi/Sat working at the same time. I guess that kind of answers the question but I am still worried about having all the signals coming into devices placed in such close proximity (but would like to retain that close proximity of possible for practical and aesthetic purposes).

    Any thoughts would be much appreciated.

  • Great article. I am happy I stumbled upon it. And I now have your blog in my RSS feed so I don’t miss any of your future posts. Thanks.

    We are on a Tayana 37 and need to have access to the internet for work. This past season we volunteered on St. John with the Virgin Islands National Park. Multiple times a day, we climbed to the top of a mountain to pick up a signal from St. Thomas, fire up the cell hot-spot, and take care of some work (mainly email and up/down small files, no streaming). As another option, we could occasionally put the cell phone in a bag, hoist it up the mast, and get a slow signal. As we consider returning for another season at the park, we are looking for a solution that will give us internet access from the boat.

    In reading over your post and the comments, it seems like the weBoost Drive 4G-X and the Wilson Electronics 9.88-inch 4G Wide Band Omni-Directional Marine Antenna would be our best solution. Our spreaders are 25 feet off the deck (with at least another 15 foot run to where we could install the booster), which from your advice in the comments, sounds like too long of a run. Do you think rail mounting the antenna with a 10 to 20 foot run would provide enough of a gain for us to get internet under the conditions described in the previous paragraph?

    Thanks again for your great blog.

  • Steve, great article and the research. Thank you ! I am sailing currently in the UK and planning to unstep my mast to do some rigging on my boat. I already have setup pepwave max br1 mk2 with LTEA-W modem and Wave Rogue Pro DB. I am planning to use Google FI while sailing Europe and hopefully in S. Americas after we cross. I have an opportunity now to install new antennas on my mast while the rigging being replaced. I already got just ONE Wilson 4G Wide Band antenna based on your research and I wonder if you would recommend two antennas. Second, question is about the placement and the length of the cable. My mast is 65 feet and I was originally thinking just installing just one Wilson antenna on my first spreaders. Is there a significant advantage to move to the top of the mast? What about the cable length and the gain? Would you install two antennas on the same height or spread them? What else would you advise doing while my mast is worked on?

    Thank you for your help!
    Sergei

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