Reliable Mobile Connectivity While Onboard

[Originally posted on Milltech Marine in December 2020]

As someone who has come out of the tech industry and also likes to spend as much time on the boat as possible, I have been searching for a decent way to stay connected for well over 20 years. During those years I have tried numerous options for Internet connectivity: cellular modems, laptops and tablets with cell modems, using a phone as a hotspot, a Verizon Jetpack, long range Wi-Fi, WiMAX routers, cell amplifiers and host of other solutions.

Each solution has worked to some extent but none of these have provided a seamless, full-time, cost-effective, fast connection. 

I have been following Steve Mitchell’s SeaBits blog for some time and was interested in the latest setup he has installed on his boat. After doing some more research and some back and forth with Steve, it appeared the combination of a Peplink router and Poynting external Wi-Fi and cellular antennas appeared to check all the boxes for me. After buying and testing some initial combinations of equipment, I made the decision to add these products to our online store. Milltech Marine is now a Peplink Authorized eTailer and we have also signed up to sell Poynting antennas.

This article describes the decision process and installation steps I used to get a fully functioning, full-time Internet solution working on my boat. 

Your requirements may not be the same as mine but fortunately we now have a wide range of router and antenna solutions that can meet even the most demanding needs.

Old solution

Before diving into the new system I setup on my boat it is worth reviewing my previous set of solutions and highlight what I felt was missing. 

My old solution set included:

  • Verizon Jetpack: This was a simple way to route Internet traffic via an LTE connection to an integrated Wi-Fi router.
  • ASUS Novago Arm-based Windows PC with Gigabit LTE modem with a Sprint SIM: This always-on, always connected PC is a surprisingly good single-user computer for checking email, doing web tasks and editing Office documents. One major benefit is battery life with it often going a couple of days between charges. 
  • Surecall cellular booster: A cell booster works well when you are in areas with marginal cell coverage. This works for both cell calls and the data devices listed above.
  • In addition to the methods above, I would occasionally try to connect to a marina Wi-Fi from a computer in the cabin with limited success.

Given that, here are the issues I was hoping to address with a more modern, integrated solution:

  • The Jetpack was an older unit, not very fast. While it has an embedded battery, it needs regular recharging. I tried an external antenna I purchased off of Amazon to extend the range, but it made no difference.
  • Occasionally there was weak or no Verizon coverage. So, I would have to switch to using my backup Google Fi phone as a hotspot which uses T-Mobile or Sprint networks.
  • The Arm-based PC was ok, but it is a single-user device and using it inside the cabin meant signals were sometimes degraded.
  • Verizon throttles data bandwidth while roaming in Canada, but Google Fi uses the same data plan as the US so when we were cruising in Canada, I was constantly swapping devices to try and find the best connection.
  • Overall this was a cumbersome set of solutions that required constant monitoring, changes and adaptations depending on location, coverage, workload and data cost. 

With that, my goals for building a new solution were as follows:

  • Install a single solution in a small package to do LTE and Wi-Fi access for an internet connection and provide an internal Wi-Fi router for the boat.
  • Ruggedized, industrial strength construction and able to withstand the environmental extremes and vibrations of a boat.
  • Powered by 12vDC (and/or AC).
  • Provide an automatic connection to marina Wi-Fi if available.
  • Allow auto-switching to a primary LTE connection when Wi-Fi is not available.
  • Auto-switching to a secondary LTE connection if the primary has weak or no coverage.
  • High performance, modern LTE speed with at least 100Mbps in normal coverage conditions.
  • Provide a high-speed Wi-Fi router with both 2Ghz and 5Ghz support for the boat network.
  • An easy-to-use console or app for configuring the router and setting up each connection and establishing rules and priorities for each connection.
  • Seamless and automatic switching from one connection to the next.
  • Support for external antennas – either inside the cabin or mounted externally.

New solution

Now to the new solution I chose to use on my boat:

  • Pepwave MAX BR1 MK2 Category 6 LTE Router
    • This router has an LTE Advanced Category 6 modem capable of download speeds of up to 300 Mbps. This router works out of the box with all major cell carriers in North America. It also supports both 2 and 5Ghz Wi-Fi for both connecting to an external public Wi-Fi system for accessing the Internet as well as providing an internal Wi-Fi network for the boat. There are two ethernet ports – one for an optional alternate inbound internet source such as a cable modem and one setup as a LAN port for connection to a wired client device or secondary router. The MAX router even includes a GPS module which is accessible as a NMEA data stream over the network.
    • I initially tried the bundled antennas (2 x LTE, 2 x Wi-Fi, 1 x GPS) and they worked surprisingly well inside the cabin.
    • I installed two SIM cards, one for Verizon and one for Google Fi.
  • Peplink Mobility 22G Combo LTE/WiFi/GPS Antenna
    • I added this antenna in the headliner with a clear shot through the fiberglass. The overall signal strength and bandwidth were better. 
    • This antenna provides 2 x LTE, 2 x Wi-Fi, 1 x GPS antennas in a single dome enclosure with 6 feet of cables for each connection. The LTE antennas support all the appropriate bands and frequencies and is even 5G ready. 
    • The cables are terminated with the appropriate connectors for the router, so it makes it super easy to install with the router. 

I also tested the Poynting OMNI-402 MIMO LTE Antenna which worked well but I did not want to install another external antenna and cabling. This antenna has a single body but incorporates two LTE antennas inside the casing and two antenna connections. But again, the separate external antennas are optional. For some installations, the bundled antennas may be perfectly adequate, especially if you tend to cruise in more populated areas. 

Step-by-step instructions

[NOTE: A more current version of these instructions can be found in our new guide here.]

Here are the steps I went through for my installation:

  1. The first thing to do is take a picture of the label on the bottom of your router. This has important information such as the Wi-Fi password, IMEI, serial number and more which you will need later.
  2. Initially I connected the bundled antennas. On the BR1 Mini and other CAT12 or lower LTE routers, there are two LTE antennas, two Wi-Fi antennas and one GPS antenna. 5G and LTE CAT18 or higher routers have four cellular antennas, two Wi-Fi and one GPS antenna connector.
  3. I then inserted a Verizon data SIM card in the top SIM card slot. You can add a second SIM card which can be configured to be used in case the primary connection is not available. I also tested the router with a Google Fi SIM card in the second slot. Note older Peplink routers use Mini SIM cards (25x15mm) so you will need an adapter if you are planning on using a Micro or Nano SIM. Newer routers take Nano SIMs.
  4. For testing I plugged the router into AC power using the included power adapter but for a permanent boat install, you can use the included DC terminal block to connect the router to a 12-24 volt DC power breaker.
  5. Once the router is powered up, you can configure the router by connecting to its Wi-Fi access point. The SSID name is PEPWAVE_xxxx, and the default network password is printed on the product label. Or you can connect to the router with an ethernet cable connected to the LAN port and a computer.
  6. With your computer or tablet connected to the router network, open a browser and enter the IP address of in the address bar. Login using the defaults of “admin” for the username and “admin” as the password.
  7. The first thing you will be asked to do is change the default password for the admin account. With newer releases you will also be asked to change the default Wi-Fi password.
  8. You will then be taken to the Dashboard page. From there you can:
    • Setup the cellular connection. Note if you are using a SIM card from one of the four big US carriers, the connection should automatically happen. I used a Google Fi SIM for my second SIM card which required me to enter their APN “h2g2” allowing it to connect via the T-Mobile network. If your modem won't connect, check with your carrier to ensure you have the correct APN and that your data plan supports connecting a router device. For more information, see my article here.
    • Setup a Wi-Fi WAN connection if you want to connect for example to your marina Wi-Fi. You can set up multiple profiles for different public Wi-Fi networks, for example one for your home marina and one for a remote marina you often visit.
    • Setup your internal boat Wi-Fi network and set up security for that network. This is done using the "AP" menu item and click on "New SSID" to create your own custom Wi-Fi network name and to set the security and password for the new network. For instructions on setting up a custom SSID and access point, see my article here.
    • With the BR1, you can choose 2.4Ghz and/or 5Ghz bands for your WAN and internal Wi-Fi networks. In my case I chose 2.4Ghz for the WAN connection to my marina Wi-Fi and 5Ghz for my boat Wi-Fi network. Generally speaking, 2.4Ghz will work better for longer distances and 5Ghz will be faster but does not have as much range as 2.4Ghz. Also note that the two Wi-Fi antennas work for both the WAN connection and the internal boat network. 
    • Finally, you will want to drag your WAN connections to set your priorities for each connection. This establishes how your router will connect to the internet. Drag the connection you want to use by default to the “Priority 1” panel. This could have more than one connection type if you like. Then drag your back up connections to the “Priority 2” or “Priority 3” panels. Once you have finished, hit “Apply Changes”.
      In my case, I have my marina Wi-Fi under “Priority 1” and my Cellular connection under “Priority 2”. This means that the router will use the marina Wi-Fi whenever it is available but as soon as I leave the dock and am out of range of the marina, the router will automatically switch to use the LTE cellular connection. That way I am not consuming LTE data while at the dock.
    • As a final step, connect your mobile devices and computers to the internal boat Wi-Fi network you have set up. You can also connect a wired client to the ethernet LAN port. 

That’s it to get a basic setup working that will provide full-time internet access for your boat while you are in Wi-Fi or cell range.

For my setup, after initially using the bundled antennas, as mentioned above I decided to try the Peplink Mobility 22G Combo LTE/WiFi/GPS Antenna. It is a single 5.25 x 1.5-inch dome antenna that incorporates all five antennas used by the Peplink MAX BR1 MK2 router. Currently I have this installed in the headliner of my boat with only fiberglass between it and the sky. Generally I have found Wi-Fi, cellular and GPS antennas work fine under a fiberglass deck. At some point, I may mount the antenna on a pole off of the stern rail.

There are numerous other features and configurations with the Pepwave products – a way more than most boaters will use – but it is good to have these available in case your needs change in the future. Some of these more exotic features include VPN support, firewall, captive portal, remote monitoring and alerts, cell network prioritization and rules, dynamic DNS and more.

For example, on my boat, I have two SIM cards – one for Verizon and one for Google Fi. If I cruise outside of an area with Verizon coverage, the router will automatically try the Google Fi network which uses the T-Mobile network. If I am cruising in Canada (once the border reopens), I can setup a rule to use Verizon until it gets throttled and then switch to Google Fi which allows use in Canada (or any other country) without incurring any roaming charges. It is important to note, that only one SIM card is used at a time. There is only one cellular modem and the second SIM card is used for failover or redundancy. If you want to use more than one cellular connection at the same time, then we offer other Peplink products such as the Pepwave MAX Transit Duo LTE Router with two cellular modems plus there are other multi-SIM possibilities.

Peplink also provide a mobile app for iOS and Android that allows me to monitor the router from my phone while I am on the boat as well as make basic changes to connection priorities and more.

One other consideration which I have touched on is the possibility of using external antennas. We sell a range of external Wi-FiCellular and combo antennas than can be used with these routers. If you are in an area where you have marginal cell or Wi-Fi coverage, then an external antenna mounted as high as possible will definitely improve reception and speed. The challenge with external antennas is the requirement to have high quality antenna cables and connectors for longer runs, otherwise any gains from the external antenna could be cancelled out by loss from long cable runs. Again, this router uses two LTE antennas and two Wi-Fi antennas, so your cable runs need to accommodate that.

In summary, I am very happy with the Peplink router setup on my boat. I finally have a router solution I feel comfortable recommending and supporting for our customers. It should be noted that the Peplink routers are designed for industrial use and the most demanding environmental conditions. They are widely used on railways, cruise ships, offshore cargo ships, public safety, first responders and many other mission critical scenarios. These products are more than capable of working well in the most demanding recreational or commercial marine environments.

I’ve run multiple LTE speed tests with this setup and to be honest, they vary wildly depending on the cell signal strength but in general I am seeing 20-100Mbps for downloads. I could probably improve on that with a pole mounted external LTE or combo antenna using the appropriate LMR-400 cabling if cable runs go beyond 10 feet. Testing with the Pepwave MAX Transit Category 18 LTE Router gave me speeds about twice the MAX BR1 MK2, so if you need really fast connections, then consider that router. The setup steps for it are essentially the same as they are for the MAX BR1 MK2.

This article is designed to provide the steps for a fairly basic setup. If you have more exotic needs, I recommend you visit the SeaBits site for in-depth reviews and details on advanced configurations.

As always, feel free to provide feedback or ask questions in the comment area below.

Safe boating!

Doug Miller

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