11 March 2020

WIFI Aboard: The Network that NotWorked, Works Again

One of the earliest projects we did on Argon was to install a Wifi network. It consisted of a Ubiquity Bullet m2 Titanium Radio/Router and a Microtik Wireless Access Point. It was our "ArgonAfloat" Wifi network and served us very well. After six years of baking in the sun and freezing in (some) winters - not to mention operating in a salt-air environment, the Bullet finally bit the dust in February while in Anguilla.


Capt. Bob

We considered several options, but at the time finally decided to just do nothing. On this cruise, we rely primarily on mobile data and that will be especially true for the last leg through the Bahamas before we return to the states.

Red Line is what we've covered. Yellow is still to go!
With a stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico scheduled before our passage to southern Bahamas, we re-considered if we should replace the gear and get something shipped in. Once again we considered a few options:
  • Just get another bullet (about a hundred bucks plus shipping)
  • Get a Halo Redport system (about 400 bucks plus shipping)
  • Get a Rogue Wave Dual-Band Pro and MBR550 Router with SIM card (about two grand)
You can probably tell by the additional details in one of those lines, which one I did. We got the Cadillac system - Wave Wifi stuff from Defender in CT. They shipped it to the Marina a few days ahead of when we arrived and it was all here waiting for us.

Why The Splurge?  

We both work extensively from the boat, so connectivity is very important. The Bullet m2 always worked well, but it is complex to configure and tricky to debug issues with. Also, the old m2 version we had would only see 2.4GHz Wifi. Many times, we could see SSIDs from our laptops down below that the bullet couldn't see up on the radar mast! The Halo system also only works on 2.4GHz systems.

Removing the dead Bullet Radio in Anguilla

Wave Wifi makes high-end turn-key systems which are installed on private and charter yachts of all sizes. They offer the DB (dual band) Pro radio which will work with 2.4 and 5 GHz systems. And they have their own brand of "marine-grade" routers/access points: the MBR500 and MBR550.  The difference between these two (besides about $350) is that the 550 has a SIM slot in it and two high-gain Cellular Antennas. Interesting.

We normally buy two of whatever the local SIM card is and stick them in two different phones. Going forward, we have the option of sticking one in the SIM slot on the router and having that serve our main network. I can remember a few times in the Bahamas a couple of years ago where the BTC mobile signal was a bit weak. Perhaps having the BTC SIM in the router with those fancy Cellular Antennas will give us an edge - we'll see next month. We will have to configure the APN and other parameters for each SIM. I think the trick will be to get them to configure the card in a phone at the store and then use that phone to see which APN to use.  It should work.

The one disadvantage of serving up Mobile Data over our primary network is that we will now need to set the primary network as a Metered network on all of our devices. In the past, it was assumed that if our primary network was working, it was connected to some bar or restaurant near the anchorage. Now, we have to beware that it might be backed by expensive and limited mobile data. Windows10 and Android devices allow setting individual Wifi networks as Metered and as such, will not do super-high-bandwidth nonsense over them.

 

SIM Included

They do include a T-Mobile SIM and offer several insanely expensive monthly plans. I saw 50GB for $350 and ran screaming. I left it in the SIM slot for now just to prove that it works.  Later, we will be sticking local pre-paid SIMs in here and crossing our fingers.

 

More Benefits

The MBR550 has a series of ports that can work in a fail-over sequence.  Out of the box it is configured like this and they even name the ports to make it obvious. Previously, we used a separate router (a cheap tp-link) on our Satellite Terminal for offshore passages. Now, the sat terminal will just plug directly into our primary router and it will automatically fail over to it if the Wifi and Cellular data are down. Simple. Additionally, they provide a means to limit the data on each port. I have set the Satellite port limit to 5MB per day. That will avoid a nasty and expensive "accident" when offshore like we've had in the past. The Satellite data is $10/MB and only used for short text emails, GRIBs and to upload our Track underway for those playing along at home.

The Failover config screen. Wifi first, then SIM then Sat

Installation

The hard part of the install was actually done years ago when we installed the original Bullet/Microtik system. All the power and ethernet wiring that was done then will work now. Both the old and new radio get power over ethernet (POE). The Wave Pro DB came with a shiny new POE injector (this one with LEDs on it), so I swapped in the new one (because I like shiny things).

The Pro DB radio in hand and the MB550 and new POE mounted inside.

Bit of a mess during the install.
The Pro DB with spacers ready to be clamped to the radar mast.
Mounted and wired in. The Fleet One Satellite terminal now feeds a port on our primary router (white wire).


A bit of a stretch and balancing act.

And done!

The Review

Don't you hate those Amazon reviews where someone reviews something after owning it for only a couple days?  Well, I'm about to do the same.

It was incredibly easy to set up. The paper instructions included were not so great but I downloaded the manual (and of course put it in dropbox with all the other ship's manuals). One thing that is buried a bit is that you can configure it by connecting to it wirelessly instead of plugging in an ethernet cable as the instructions say. The trick is that the initial password is MBR550's serial number. That said, there is not much config to do. The router allows you to require logins for your users and can even redirect them to a disclaimer page. This is probably a very popular feature on charter boats and large yachts with lots of guests coming and going.

Product placement.


I've been using it for work for several days. The Pro DB is connected to the Club Nautico Guest Wifi here at the marina in San Juan. As is often the case with marinas, the Wifi is horrible at times and not so bad other times. This marina has a 2.4 and a 5GHz guest Access point. While the 2.4 is a slightly stronger signal, I've been having much better luck on the 5 (lately).  It's nice to have the option now.

The physical mounting of the MBR550 router is much nicer than the old Microtik A/P.  It has tabbed legs with screw holes and the footprint is a bit smaller.  I mounted it inside our nav table pod with the Sim slot facing forward.

The Pro DB radio feels very rugged and heavy. It has a standard antenna mount threaded base, however we are not using that yet. I'm doing the hose-clamps to a stainless rail method of mounting for now. Perhaps a winter project will be to add a threaded base to the Edson wing and run the wire up inside it. A nice touch is that when the Pro DB gets power, it makes a quiet bootup sound - like a rapid series of clicks. It's nice feedback to let you know that your POE is working all the way to it.  Like the bullet, there are no LED indicators of power or signal.

Another advantage over the Bullet is that anything the Pro DB connects to can be saved as a Favorite. Come back next year and it will connect - so long as they haven't changed the password which is often the case. The bullet had no such memory so it required another trip to the bar to harvest a password.

Speaking of harvesting passwords, this brings me to one thing that was nicer in the Bullet. The Site Scan Survey results screen for the Bullet was a nice tight table of SSIDs and signal strength. One could sort by signal strength, take a screenshot of that on your phone and go ashore to harvest passwords. The UI in the Wave Scan screen is modern and pretty, but it spreads the list of Access Points it sees over several pages. It will now require several screenshots to capture it all - especially when there are many access points around (most of which are from other boats).

Boo - a phone screenshot only fits four Access Points in this "pretty" UI. Give me the simple text table from the Bullet please!
Something that I have not figured out how to do (or if it can be done) is to change how the Pro DB appears to the access point it is connected to. In the old Bullet configuration, I had us showing up as "Bill's iPhone". This was mainly done because some restaurants/bars in certain places are very protective of their Wifi passcodes and insist on typing them into your phone instead of telling them to you. We would use our superior technology to thwart that, but then we didn't want to appear as "Bullet m2" in their router connected user list (if they ever look). I have a feeling that we show up as "Wave... something or other" now and I don't yet know how to change that.


There is a Bug (or feature) I've run into with regards to Favorites. I had both the 2.4 and 5GHz SSIDs saved as favorites. I deleted one Favorite and... it deleted both of them. Can I put this in Jira?

Time To Get Back To Work, And Play

We're spending a few more days in San Juan and will wait on a window to make a 460 nautical mile (3+ day) passage to Grand Inagua in the southern Bahamas. Besides this little project, we have gotten several other things done on the boat including some bright work. The Bahamas will be a test for the Cellular Data capabilities of the MBR550. Between that, a second BTC local SIM card in a phone and Google FI, we hope to stay well connected most of the time.

In the meantime, we're enjoying San Juan and even dressing up a bit for nights out!







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