Internet

Rendezvous Internet Setup for 2020

This is my Peplink and Poynting based internet system for 2020 aboard Rendezvous using LTE and WiFi sources, and marine grade components

Rendezvous Internet Setup for 2020

I am constantly making updates and changes to my internet system on board Rendezvous, but I do usually settle on a stable system that I go back to when I am not testing, or when I have guests aboard. This is that system for 2020.

For the last few years, I have been using Peplink products as the core of my system, and that doesn’t change this year. In fact, there are more Peplink devices than ever, with a sprinkling of other vendors.

System Design

Click on image for larger version

The goal of this system is to have the following:

  • Continuous internet connection whether at a marina or at anchor
  • 2x LTE sources that can be used simultaneously for redundancy and speed
  • 2x WiFi sources at 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz to capture remote WiFi signals
  • 2x internal WiFi access points for redundancy and coverage
  • Central management and monitoring
  • A booster for situations where signal is so low, even the higher gain antennas can’t pick it up
  • Physical ethernet ports for things that need direct cabling

Equipment List

You may notice that the MikroTik Groove is missing from this list for the first time in probably 5 years. That functionality has been moved to the Peplink MAX Transit, and I am very pleased with the performance as well as control that this has given me.

Details

Peplink MAX Transit CAT18 antenna connectors

This is the core of the network. It provides the internet source either via LTE or remote WiFi, is a feature-packed router that has controls for managing bandwidth, and provides redundancy through SpeedFusion Bonding. Here are the services it provides and how:

  • LTE internet source – this has 2x SIM slots currently populated with SIMs from Verizon and AT&T. It has one CAT18 radio, 4x antenna ports, leading to 2x OMNI-402 dual element 2×2 MIMO antennas on my antenna arch. I’m using LMR-400 Ultraflex cable from the MAX Transit to the antenna wires on the OMNI-402s and have kept the runs as short as possible.
  • WAN / LTE internet source #2 – the WAN port on the MAX Is connected to the SIM Injector / HD1 Dome and uses this as an additional LTE internet source. Having two LTE connections allows for amazing levels of redundancy, and combined with SpeedFusion (see below) gives you tons of additional options to always stay connected.
  • WiFi WAN internet source – the two WiFi connections on the MAX are connected via LMR-400 Ultraflex to two Poynting OMNI-496 WiFi antennas mounted on my antenna arch. This allows me to use these radios to search for remote WiFi networks and use them as an internet source. The OMNI-496s have performed as good as, or in the case of 5Ghz, better than the MikroTik Groove, and have a much easier to use interface, with additional useful options.
  • Router features – these aren’t new from previous MAX Transit products, but have been continually getting better with the free firmware updates Peplink offers. They are critical to maintaining a reliable internet connection aboard, and include things like priority levels for the various sources, bandwidth management to make sure one device doesn’t consume the entire connection, plus some new load balancing algorithms specifically for LTE connections.
  • SpeedFusion Bonding – this is also not new, but has seen some amazing improvements in the last 6 months. Essentially, this allows you to take two different internet sources, combine them into a single connection, and apply all sorts of different magic to them. You can have them both working simultaneously, use various different methods to watch performance on each, and send traffic out the best one, plus a host of other options that deserve an entire article. This has been instrumental in allowing me to work from the boat 100% of the time, no matter where I am, and participate in Zoom calls, high quality phone calls, and more.
SpeedFusion bonding using two LTE and two WiFi sources

I think this is one of the most underrated products for getting LTE internet on your boat. Not only does it not require tons of antenna wires, but it can be combined with other Peplink products to make a very robust setup. You can read more about the details in the initial review I posted here.

The dome is mounted on my arch, a single ethernet cable (originally used for the MikroTik Groove) heads down to my Internet Alcove where it connects to the SIM Injector. That device has three SIM cards in it (it can hold 8!) from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. It has a 12v to 48v DC buck converter powering the SIM Injector which in turn powers the dome on the roof via power over Ethernet (PoE). A cable from the SIM injector is connected to the WAN port of the MAX Transit as an LTE internet source.

Peplink MAX HD1 Dome CAT18

The performance I’ve seen out of the dome vs. antennas (even the MAX Transit CAT18 + Poynting OMNI-402s) is the best I’ve recorded in a long time. There are some places where the antennas do slightly better due to lower signal levels, but in almost any other situation, the dome has outperformed everything else. This of course has to do with the fact that the antennas are inside the dome, right next to the modems, with no signal loss from a cable run.

weBoost Drive Reach booster + Poynting OMNI-400 antenna

I don’t use this as much as I used to because of the quality of the signal I get with the Poynting antennas and the HD1 Dome, but I still have it setup in case I need it.

weBoost Drive Reach kit

You can read more about the weBoost Drive Reach in my review on it here. It is still the best solution out there to boost 4G and most of the pseudo-5G signals, but you should really consider whether you need one all of the time.

I have mine paired with a single Poynting OMNI-400 LTE antenna. The booster itself is off almost all the time. When I do need it, I end up having to take all of the antenna cables off of the Peplink MAX Transit, put the factory antennas back on, and turn on the booster. This is not the easiest thing to do, and tends to put wear and tear on the antennas and connectors, but it is really the only way to do this short of having a secondary Peplink MAX Transit sitting idle, turned off, and waiting to be used with the booster.

I’ve recommended these for years for anyone needing a DC-powered WiFi access point, and have used them myself as well. This year, I have two of them in different places around the boat to ensure complete coverage, and so that if I am doing work on the MAX Transit, or testing something else, I don’t have to reconfigure my local WiFi network. This creates my local WiFi networks – one for navigation critical stuff, one for my stuff, and one for guests.

The AP One Rugged runs directly off of DC power, or can be powered by PoE. I’m using DC power myself but am testing a TrendNET PoE switch that may replace the one I have in place now. The bigger benefit of the AP One Rugged is the WiFi radio transmit power – quite a bit more powerful than any of the MAX Transit line, which means better coverage across the boat.

If you need more coverage, and have a MAX Transit or other Peplink product, I highly recommend the AP One Rugged. It can be managed by the MAX Transit, as I am doing, and complements them very well.

TrendNET 8 port industrial switch

I’ve been using these for 3-4 years and they have not failed me yet. Simple to power, low power usage, and built like a tank, they are a great switch if you need more physical ports on your network. As I mentioned above, I am evaluating a 12v DC powered PoE switch that could replace this, and end up saving me some wiring to the access points, although it has less physical ports.

Poynting OMNI-402 LTE antennas

I am using 2x of these antennas connected to the 4x LTE ports on the Peplink MAX Transit CAT18 in a specific pattern recommended by Poynting. They have performed extremely well with all providers I’ve tested them with in a ton of different locations and signal levels around the Salish Sea.

I have been a fan of the Poynting marine series antennas since I found them in 2019, and while I am sure some new antennas have a slight advantage in some area, the quality of the build of these antennas and excellent marine mounting system means they are my primary choice, and probably will be for some time. You can read my review on them here.

Poynting OMNI-496 WiFi antennas

I’ve only had these antennas for about 6 months, but they are hands down the best dual band, outdoor, marine grade WiFi antenna I have ever found. Try looking for a dual band, or even a 5Ghz, marine grade WiFi antenna, and you won’t find many options. Poynting have produced an antenna with impressive performance, similar in size and shape to the OMNI-400/402, with the same quality marine mounts.

Rendezvous arch and antennas

I have seen really excellent performance out of the antennas for 2.4Ghz WiFi signals, very similar to the performance I saw with the MikroTik, and that’s saying something. The MikroTik had the antenna directly attached, while the Poynting is running down some LMR-400 Ultraflex to the Peplink MAX Transit. One could assume that connecting the OMNI-496 directly to the MikroTik would make that performance better, but I prefer having the control of the Peplink software in this situation.

The real surprise was the performance on 5Ghz – I’ve never seen an antenna perform this well in marine conditions. Usually 5Ghz is almost unusable unless you are in a marina and not moving, but I have locked on to 5Ghz signals repeatedly using this antenna, and had great performance.

Benefits

CAT18 / Performance – both of my LTE sources – the MAX Transit and MAX HD1 Dome – are category 18 modems. This has helped with both overall throughput and performance, given that CAT18 modems will connect with up to 4 different bands, but it also seems to have helped in low signal areas as well, where I’ve routinely seen 2 bands instead of 1.

Performance numbers from Fisherman Bay, Lopez Island

Central control from MAX Transit – This has been a big improvement, and allows for some more complex logic using various load balancing and SpeedFusion features. It has allowed for faster failovers during Zoom sessions, better quality connections, and better visibility into what is going on.

Ease of use – similar to the above, because the MAX Transit is doing almost everything, it means I can control the priority of the connections and everything else in one place. Previous systems I have had in years past had other components which required manual intervention (MikroTik comes to mind) or other challenges.

Various SpeedFusion tunnels and connections

SpeedFusion / Bonding – this deserves it’s own article, but in short, it allows for redundant LTE connections and constant monitoring and control of how I am connected. It can be configured to look at individual packets, LTE performance and latency, and many other factors. You can also add rules that apply different logic depending on the device – I have WiFi calling traffic use a specific type of tunnel that is optimized for that, my laptop use a very redundant and quick failover connection, and other non-critical items use whatever is available and fast.

Powerful WiFi as WAN – the Peplink MAX Transit combined with the Poynting OMNI-496 antennas make for a powerful way to grab remote signals. It’s easier to configure than a MikroTik, doesn’t appear to have the weird connection issues that have developed over the last year with UniFi equipment, and has more options specifically for connecting as a WAN source.

Redundant access points – having dual access points via the AP One Rugged inside the boat allows for redundancy, and for maintenance on the router without disturbing local traffic. It also provides better coverage all around the boat.

Challenges

Complexity – even with most of this being Peplink equipment, there are still a lot of additional features I’m using that the average user might shy away from, and would negate some of the benefits of having the hardware if you didn’t use. There are also quite a bit more boxes involved with this setup than a single MAX Transit, but I think those are worth the complexity.

Cabling & Antenna Space – this is going to quickly become more of an issue for those of us who want multiple CAT18 modems, as they require 4x antennas each. The Dome solves this, but there are pros/cons with both approaches.

Cost – a sidebar

The push to work remotely in the last 6 months has really shown both the positive and negative sides of internet solutions on boats. In particular, it has shown some of the challenges with using the different solutions available, and that simple connectivity isn’t the norm anymore – high availability and bandwidth have become even more important with Zoom calls and critical traffic.

There are many people who balk at spending a few hundred dollars for internet aboard. This isn’t a home network connection – it’s a lot more complex on a boat, and that means more cost. If you want something redundant with failover (do you have that at home? I bet you don’t…) that uses multiple LTE connections, that’s going to cost more. If you’re looking for a budget conscious solution, that’s OK too, but you’re not going to get the performance of this system, nor the features or redundancy.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has engaged with me and been frustrated at how expensive some of this equipment is, yet in the next sentence, talk about how they spent 2 weeks in a boat yard ($) replacing all of their marine electronics ($$$) and other work that was done. If being connected reliably is even 50% as important to you as having a reliable electrical system, engines, etc. then why aren’t you OK with spending money to make it that way?

There are tons of ways to get internet aboard, and many are cheaper and simpler than this solution. Those include things like hotspots, tethering to your phone, or any number of MikroTik, Amarok, and other manufacturers routers that will do just fine. However, they do not have the features, redundancy, or power of this system.

This market is also not anywhere near as big as the home / “prosumer” internet world. There are more vendors than ever before, but it is still a drop in the bucket compared to companies like Netgear, UniFi, Google, Eero, TP-Link, who sell home equipment.  Few of those vendors offer redundant internet connections, and even less offer an LTE connection of any kind – most of them are just as a backup.

This configuration provides highly redundant, always available connectivity from just about anywhere you could think of in a coastal cruising situation. I require this for my job, and I am willing to pay for it. The overall cost of this system is a bit beyond $5000, not including my labor to install it. Or, the cost of a new chart plotter and sounder, a haul out for 2 weeks with bottom paint and some other small work, 5x 100 amp hour LiFePO4 batteries (not installed)…

Wrap up

I’m always constantly refining my setup, so even a few weeks after I publish this, there will likely be minor changes to help optimize it for whatever I’ve found. I also have a ton of other equipment and solutions that I have been testing in 2020, and those slide in and out of this setup as needed depending on their capabilities.

However, just like with my NMEA 2000 / boat network, I have a core set of equipment that I always rely on when I need something reliable, and when I am not testing, and that is what you see above.

I’m very pleased with the performance and reliability of this system, and the control I have over everything. Compared to last year, I have more LTE connections with better modems, much better antennas, and a better WiFi as WAN solution, combined with more powerful internal access points. What’s not to love?


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