Posted by Doug Miller on 8/29/2023 to Configuration Examples
Cellular routers work great to keep you connected to the internet – as long as you are within reasonable range of a cell tower. Beyond that, travelers have been forced to go without communications or invest in satellite-based solutions. Satellite solutions have traditionally been slow and expensive and out of reach for many cruisers and RVers. Then along came Starlink from SpaceX.
About a year and a half ago, cruisers and RVers started using satellite-based Starlink as a way to access the internet, even when in remote areas. Over the year, Starlink has been a bit of a roller coaster ride with its popularity becoming its liability as speeds slowed from over congestion as well as customer confusion over lots of changes to equipment and plans. But things have settled down and we are now seeing consistently usable speeds and a set of plans that should meet most users’ needs.
So building an always-connected connectivity solution for your boat or RV is best done if you combine the speeds and ubiquity of cellular communications with the remote access capabilities offered by Starlink. Last summer, I documented the basic steps to make this happen with Peplink routers and a Starlink system.
I have been actively using Peplink routers and Starlink together on both my boat and RV for full time connectivity over the last year and wanted to document some of my observations and a few tips for people wanting to do the same thing.
First, some background on my three setups. My goal with these setups is to replicate what my typical customers would want.
On the sailboat, I have a fairly high-end system that might be more than what most people need but it is a good example of what’s possible especially for cruisers who need continuous, mission-critical access to lots of bandwidth.
On the RV, I have a more basic setup that is more typical of users who want low-cost, solid connectivity and don’t necessarily need lots of throughput or bandwidth.
I also have a Peplink setup in my home office allowing access to various business systems.
On the sailboat I have:
- Peplink MAX BR2 Pro 5G router: this router has two 5G modems, multiple WAN ports and very high throughput
- Peplink Maritime 40G cellular antenna: connected to cellular modem #1
- Peplink Mobility 42G combo antenna with an ACW-651 marine mount: connected to cellular modem #2 and the Wi-Fi antenna ports
- Peplink AP One Lite: access point for the main cabin
- Starlink Roam (formerly known as RV) with the standard Dishy mounted on the davits with a Seaview mount
- Starlink router in bypass mode.
- Starlink ethernet adapter connected to one of the ethernet WAN ports on the BR2 Pro.
- I also built a Power over Ethernet (PoE) kit so that I could use Starlink when I am not connected to shore power. More on that setup below.
On our travel trailer RV, I have:
- MAX BR1 Mini router: this router has a single CAT7 LTE-A modem. I sometimes use an older MAX Transit 5G router in place of the BR1 Mini.
- Peplink Mobility 40G cellular antenna installed on the roof of the RV.
- Starlink Roam with the standard Dishy and standard stand which I can place wherever I have a clear shot to the sky.
- Starlink router in bypass mode.
- Starlink ethernet adapter connected to the ethernet WAN port on the BR1 or MAX Transit.
I can also use the PoE kit to power Starlink when we are off the grid.
I also have a home office I need to stay connected to. In the office, I have:
- Peplink Balance 20X connected to my wired internet service provider with the LTE modem used as backup in case my ISP is down.
- Peplink SIM Injector Mini to serve up SIM cards remotely to the BR2.
- Peplink SpeedFusion Connect Relay which allows me to be virtually connected to my home network which is also helpful for appearing to be at home while watching US content.
I have all three “sites” connected to each other using Peplink VPN. This allows me to securely access my business systems in the office or access either the RV or boat. I can also manage all the systems using Peplink's InControl2 web-based remote management system.
I have a single Starlink Roam system that I can take back and forth to the boat or RV. I have a Starlink cable set permanently installed on the boat and another on the RV so that I only need to move the Starlink Dishy and the Starlink router (or PoE kit) from one to the other as needed.
Starlink is super easy to setup and works well in combo with a cellular router. Starlink is nice to have but in most cases, the cellular router works well and is almost always faster. However, in some areas such as the cruising grounds north of Desolation Sound in BC, there are no cell towers nearby so Starlink is indispensable for staying connected.
Power is a big deal with Starlink and probably the biggest reason people don't use it in off-the-grid scenarios. The Starlink Roam Dishy and router consume an average of 50-75W of power. The High Performance systems consume about double that. That means for a 12.5vDC boat or RV, it will draw up to 6 amps or 12 amps for the High Performance system. That is typically more than what you draw for your onboard fridge / freezer. So, some power management must be considered if you plan on using Starlink full time. In my case, I have a 400Ah AGM bank which means I have 200Ah of usable battery power. At 6 amps, my Starlink alone would consume about half of that in a 16 hour day which is not viable.
Before testing, I put the Starlink router in bypass mode since I was planning on using my Peplink router for my local Wi-Fi networks. This supposedly saves a small amount of power consumption. I tested four different methods for powering my Starlink Roam system on my boat and RV.
- Use your existing inverter: Most modern boats and RVs have existing inverters built into their electrical setup. My boat has a modified sine wave inverter and while Starlink recommends a pure sine wave inverter, my existing inverter worked ok. However, this older inverter is not very efficient so Starlink would draw closer to 7-8 amps of power, which greatly reduces my potential time anchored out.
- Use a dedicated modern pure sine wave inverter: I tested Starlink with a new Victron 500-watt Phoenix 12vDC to 120vAC pure sine wave inverter. This inverter was directly connected to my 12vDC battery bank and worked very well. There was no noticeable loss due to the conversion process, but I was still drawing up to 6 amps from my house bank.
- Use a Power over Ethernet (PoE) conversion kit: Starlink does not offer an option to power Starlink using DC power. To get around this, several folks have offered up plans and even fully finished kits to convert the main cable between the Dishy and the Starlink router into a PoE interface for carrying converted DC power and data to the Dishy. Details on the kit I built can be found here. This worked well and eliminated the need for the Starlink router. I plugged the ethernet cable from the kit directly into the WAN port on my Peplink router while supplying 12vDC to the kit to power Starlink. This method consumed the least amount of power but only very slightly less than using the Victron inverter and I was still drawing a lot of power from my house bank.
- Use a dedicated battery system for Starlink: The fourth approach I tried is probably the most sensible method for a boat or RV that has limited existing battery banks. I used an EcoFlow Delta Pro all-in-one lithium (LiFePO4) based Portable Power Station that includes integrated chargers and AC inverter. With 3600Wh (or about 280 amp hours at 12.5vDC), it had plenty of power to keep Starlink running on AC power for a couple of days while at anchor. However, I experienced a number of issues with the EcoFlow system and those issues combined with a fairly high purchase cost means I ultimately would not recommend it. Perhaps a second battery bank with its own charging system would make more sense.
Some other notes on power consumption. I recommend powering off the Starlink system at night since you typically don’t need internet connectivity while you are asleep. I also used my Peplink cellular based router instead of Starlink whenever I could since it consumes around an amp at 12vDC. That system I leave powered on all the time with virtually no impact on available battery power.
Starlink plans and various hardware options
For most of the year, Starlink plans were in constant flux. Rates for the RV/Roam plan went up to $150 per month. Starlink was getting more restrictive and enforcing an in-motion speed limit while using the standard dish and the Roam plan. Starlink also started geofencing the system so that Starlink Roam could only be used close to land. They also came out with a non-moving High Performance dish and made their Mobile and Maritime plans more attractive, although still quite expensive.
Owning a sailboat, I was not interested in the $2500 High Performance dish, as I could not find a location on the boat that would work for the install. I have lots of customers with larger power boats who have successfully used the flat dish so it really depends whether you have a suitable unobstructed flat surface on your boat. I also did not want the flat dish permanently mounted on the roof of the RV as we often park the RV in forested areas which would block satellite reception. Using the original RV dishy on a marine mount on the boat worked well and using a long cable and the original dish and mount on the RV meant we could move the dish to an open area while still parking in the shade.
After doing a lot of research as well as filtering out a lot of misinformation on the internet, I was finally able to talk to someone at Starlink who clarified what I could and could not do with my existing Roam plan.
I settled on staying with the Roam plan for my use on the boat and RV. This plan had the following features:
- The price is $150 per month. The Dish, router, stand and cables are $599.
- I get unlimited data usage while connected.
- I can use the system underway as long as I am going less than 10 MPH which is not a problem on the sailboat. Theoretically if I exceeded that speed I could opt for Mobile Priority by toggling that option on in the Starlink app as needed. That imposes a $2 per GB fee when turned on but allows use in motion as well as use at sea.
- Starlink shows coverage areas for the Roam plan as white octagons in covered areas and black octagons for areas at sea that are not supported with the Roam plan. In the Pacific Northwest cruising grounds, there are very few areas that are blacked out and most of the areas on the water are covered. If you needed to use your Starlink in a blacked out area, again you could toggle on Mobile Priority as needed to get your Starlink working again. Since I also use cellular via my Peplink router, I simply relied on cellular for internet connectivity most of the time while underway.
- Despite what some people say, Starlink said it was ok to use the original RV/Roam dish on the boat, out at sea and while underway (under 10 MPH). They said performance might not be as good as when used at rest on land but they no longer had an issue with those scenarios. In my experience, I did not see any performance hits while using Starlink underway or at sea.
Do you really need Starlink?
If your cruising is mainly in populated areas with cell coverage, then a cellular router and data plan will work as well or better than Starlink and potentially cost you less money over time. Plus, a cellular router consumes a fraction of the power of Starlink allowing it to be left on all the time even when you are running on batteries. Finally a cellular router can be used both at rest and in motion at any speed without issue and can be used on the water, assuming you have a cell tower nearby.
But if you are traveling to remote areas with no cell coverage (e.g. cruising to Alaska), Starlink is amazing and allows you to connect in places miles away from civilization.
Finally, most cell plans impose data limits or international roaming restrictions while the Starlink Roam plan currently includes unlimited data that covers all of North America. If you plan on consuming a lot of data, such as watching streaming video every day, or traveling to Canada or Mexico then Starlink makes a lot of sense.
Starlink and Peplink setup
When using Peplink and Starlink together, how do you get the most stable connection? I have tested all the typical methods for combining the cellular and Wi-Fi WAN connections on the Peplink routers with the ethernet WAN connection from the Starlink system. This includes using the Peplink Dashboard to set all connections to Priority One, using different priorities for each connection, using SpeedFusion for bonding or resiliency and using various outbound policy methods for traffic steering, balancing and prioritization. For me, the method that has provided the most consistent results is to set all your active WAN connections to Priority One and set up an outbound policy for weighted balance. You can play with tuning the weight for each connection if you like however using the default value of 10 for each connection typically works well. This method is super easy to setup and gives me the fastest speeds and the smoothest connection. The only downside is that you are using all your WAN connections which may incur a lot of bandwidth usage on metered cellular connections.
If you want to be more conservative with your cellular usage, then consider having Starlink setup as the highest priority connection on the Peplink router. Then have Wi-Fi WAN setup as priority two. And finally have cellular connections setup as priority three. This allows you to save on cellular data and only consume cell data if the Starlink and Wi-Fi WAN connections are not available. You can also setup outbound policies, for example, have an Enforced policy to only use Starlink for streaming video so that you don’t exhaust your cellular plans prematurely.
I setup a Peplink SpeedFusion VPN between my three sites which allows secure access from one site to the other. I also tested the new Peplink SpeedFusion Connect Relay product which allowed my boat network to appear to be part of my home network back in the US while I was anchored out in the middle of BC Canada. This allowed us to watch Amazon Fire TV shows without getting geo-restricted. I should also note that all of this works with any WAN connection, meaning if I am using Starlink as my connection to the internet, I am still able to use all the Peplink features for doing things like VPNs, SpeedFusion, load balancing and more. Starlink on its own can't do this and this is one of the most compelling reasons why Peplink routers combined with Starlink make so much sense.
We just got back from five weeks of cruising in the San Juan Islands in US waters, the Gulf Islands, Sunshine coast and Desolation Sound areas in Canadian waters and went as far north as Octopus Islands. By combining Peplink with Starlink we had full-time connectivity everywhere we went including areas well beyond cell coverage. By using Wi-Fi calling we were able to make and receive phone calls and I had connectivity to my business systems back in the US throughout the trip. I found Google Fi was the best plan for my cellular devices as it roams in Canada without issues.
As many of my customers have said, this level of connectivity is a “game changer” for folks who want to travel to remote places but need full time connectivity. It also makes working from your boat or RV something you can now do from anywhere.
Feel free to comment below if you have methods that have worked for you or if you have questions on how to make this work.