Using StarLink with a Peplink cellular router for reliable internet connectivity
I have been getting a lot of questions from boaters regarding StarLink. Does it work well on boats? Can I use it underway? Can I use it in Canada? And many more questions. Since StarLink does not have a marine reseller network, end users are left to find the answers to these questions on their own or from other boaters, YouTubers and blogs. But at a high level, StarLink can work well on a boat in some scenarios but it is unlikely to provide non-stop coverage given the requirement for the antenna to have an unobstructed view of the sky to connect with the StarLink satellite system. For this reason, a lot of StarLink users couple their StarLink with a cellular router to provide continuous connectivity. This article explores one way to make this all work.
[UPDATE 11/06/22: SpaceX, the company that owns Starlink, has been constantly changing its offerings over the second half of 2022. For example, a flat-dish option is now available that is designed for use in motion. Starlink has also now imposed data caps on its plans. Published data speed expectations have also been in flux. Before deciding if Starlink is right for you, be sure to check out the Starlink website for the latest on plans, hardware, terms and conditions.]

What is StarLink?

StarLink, from SpaceX, is a high-speed internet connectivity solution based on using an antenna and terminal to connect to StarLink’s satellite constellation. Local network traffic passes from the terminal to the local antenna to a satellite and then back to earth where traffic is then routed to the internet. The StarLink solution has received a lot of attention from boaters and RVers given it is priced competitively and fairly easy to setup. But again, for continuous operation the StarLink antenna needs a clear view to the satellite constellation, otherwise the signal can drop while the view is obstructed. It is also worth noting StarLink was originally designed to be used on land in a stationary setup. StarLink recently introduced an RV plan designed for portable use but again, the intention is for it to be used in a stationary location. StarLink announced a maritime offering designed for high-end commercial use and given the pricing is probably not a consideration for recreational boaters. Most boaters have been using the RV model or the residential model with the portability option.
On the right, you can see a picture of Starlink installed on my sailboat on the aft davit system. I built a custom mount for this setup allowing Starlink to be used with a standard 1 inch marine ratchet mount.

Peplink routers as a backend to StarLink

Peplink routers serve three main functions:
  • The router provides a path to the internet via a cellular connection.
  • It also can provide a path to the internet via a Wi-Fi WAN connection to an available public Wi-Fi hotspot (such as marina Wi-Fi).
  • And the router provides an access point for a private Wi-Fi network for your users and devices to connect to on your boat.
Peplink routers that include the PrimeCare and SpeedFusion feature set have the ability to combine multiple WAN sources into a single virtual reliable connection. This means you could combine StarLink on an ethernet WAN port, cellular connectivity and perhaps a Wi-Fi WAN connection to marina Wi-Fi hotspot into a single virtual connection which automatically deals with connection drops on any of the WAN connections for seamless continuous internet connectivity. In other words, with this setup if StarLink gets blocked and drops its connection, the cellular connection (or marina Wi-Fi) would still be connected providing uninterrupted connectivity to the internet. Once the connections are setup, this all happens automatically without any user intervention. 
In the past, the Peplink routers that include PrimeCare have tended to be the more expensive, top-of-the-line offerings. 
Recently, Peplink released the new HW3 version of the popular MAX BR1 Mini with PrimeCare bundled. The new model also includes upgraded the cellular modems, including a new model with a Category 7 LTE-A modem that supports T-Mobile’s band 71 long range LTE solution. The Cat 7 model has a theoretical download speed of 300 Mbps and upload speed of 150 Mbps although real world experience will be less than that. In addition, Peplink offers a feature pack for the BR1 Mini that includes all the licensing for building out a full enterprise class solution with multiple WAN connections, failover and more. This feature pack also bundles multi-year PrimeCare extensions for a very cost-effective price. The new BR1 Mini also now supports simultaneous 2.4 and 5 GHz Wi-Fi for both WAN and LAN, a faster processor, Power over Ethernet (PoE) support, faster router bandwidth and more. 
For the last year or so, I have been using a MAX BR1 Pro 5G on my boat but decided to try the new BR1 Mini Cat 7 model with the feature pack to see how it compares. While the BR1 Pro 5G is super-fast when you have a decent 5G connection, the BR1 Mini is proving to be more than fast enough for most workloads while still having all the high-end features of the BR1 Pro. Given the fully loaded BR1 Mini with the Cat 7 modem, the feature pack and 5 years of PrimeCare is close to half the price of the BR1 Pro 5G which comes bundled with one year of PrimeCare, the Mini is definitely a solution worth considering for folks who don’t need 5G cellular connection speeds.

StarLink plus the Peplink BR1 Mini

With that background, let’s built out a solution that combines StarLink satellite-based connectivity with Peplink cellular and Wi-Fi-based WAN connectivity.
Technically mating these two technologies is very easy to do. If you have StarLink already, get the optional ethernet cable and connect that to the WAN gigabit ethernet port on the BR1 Mini. While this is how it is supposed to work, there are some reported issues with getting this sort of connection to work correctly. Other sites have documented this issue and have proposed workarounds but it appears this issue does not happen on BR1 models. If you experience this issue, the other option is to use Wi-Fi WAN. Connect the BR1 Mini 5GHz Wi-Fi WAN interface to the Wi-Fi network broadcast by the StarLink system.
Once that is done, management for all your internet connectivity options can be done from the BR1 web-based management Dashboard. The Peplink Dashboard uses a drag and drop priority system for determining which WAN connection paths will be used. If the Priority One connections drop or fail, then the router immediately uses whatever is defined in the Priority Two section and so on. In this example, we will set StarLink as Priority One and the Peplink cellular connection in hot standby mode as Priority Two. With this setup, if the StarLink connection is interrupted or fails for any reason, the cellular connection will immediately and automatically take over without skipping a beat. With this setup, you also get the benefit of not burning through cellular data unless cellular is used for connectivity. Wi-Fi WAN could also be setup as an option if available. For example, use StarLink as Priority One, Wi-Fi WAN to the marina Wi-Fi as Priority Two and cellular as Priority Three. If StarLink fails, then Wi-Fi WAN will be used. If Wi-Fi WAN is not available or fails, then cellular will be used. 
Another option would be to have all WAN connections set as Priority One. This would mean all the connections are fully active with the lowest latency connection carrying the traffic. The only downside would be you would potentially use more cellular data with this method.
Finally, another option would be to use SpeedFusion bonding (which is included with PrimeCare) and bind all the available connections together into a single virtual connection. There are many different ways to set up SpeedFusion. For example, you can configure it to get the fastest speed by bonding all the connections. 
Or you can opt for maximum reliability and redundancy by providing multiple paths to the internet via a single virtual connection. Once SpeedFusion is setup, you can configure a Wi-Fi network associated with the virtual link or tie specific devices to use this connection. SpeedFusion also ensures traffic is secure by wrapping all of this with its own VPN subsystem.
Regardless of the method you use, the end result will be an uninterrupted connection to the internet assuming you have cellular and / or Wi-Fi WAN enabled, and you are within range of cellular towers or Wi-Fi WAN services.

Additional benefits

In addition to using the BR1 for managing WAN connections to the internet, it also becomes your system for providing a Wi-Fi and wired access point for your users and devices on your boat. With two gigabit LAN ports, you could add a switch as well if you have several wired devices. Wi-Fi users and devices can connect to the network using 2.4 or 5GHz WiFi5 technology. You can create multiple Wi-Fi networks based on your needs. For example, create a second boat Wi-Fi network SSID for guests to use. All traffic from your boat networks will be routed to the internet based on how you setup your WAN connections as discussed earlier. There is no need to continually switch Wi-Fi networks between the StarLink system and the cellular router. Both systems are available from the single Peplink Wi-Fi network.
Another benefit of this approach is you should have continuous internet connectivity even when under way or in heavy seas or bad weather. While StarLink is not designed to be used underway and certainly would not hold up well in large waves, salt spray or high wind, cellular will work fine in these conditions as long as you are within range of a cell tower. While the StarLink system is put away and offline, the cellular router will keep you connected. This is especially important if you rely on internet-based weather information or need communications to continue in all conditions.
Another consideration for using a hybrid approach as outlined here is power consumption. On a 12 volt DC system, a Peplink router - which can run on 12vDC - will typically consume anywhere from 1/4 amp for a single modem BR1 Mini to 1 amp for a dual 5G modem BR2 Pro 5G router. The Starlink system currently runs on AC only so to power it you will need shore power or an inverter. In my testing with my boat's inverter setup, the Starlink system when powered up via the inverter consumes over 5 amps which includes the overhead of converting from 12vDC to 110vAC. This is a fairly substantial difference in power consumption which may limit how much you decide to run Starlink when not plugged into shore power. By having a hybrid connectivity solution, you can use cellular when it is available and you are not plugged in and otherwise use Starlink as needed.
While there are many other benefits to this combo approach, there is at least one more feature worth highlighting. PrimeCare also includes a remote, web-based management system called InControl2. With InControl2 you have full secure access to your Peplink router from anywhere assuming the router is on and connected to the internet via one of the WAN connections discussed earlier. This would allow you for example, to monitor the system from home, change connection priorities, monitor traffic and SIM card use and more.

Summary

This combo approach using both StarLink and a full-featured cellular router makes a lot of sense for boaters who need full time connectivity. StarLink is very attractive with its ability to provide high speed internet connectivity even in remote locations. However, if it is your only internet connectivity system then you’ll be disconnected if StarLink is not working. For example, if you are in a marina with lots of structures and masts, StarLink may have dropouts as the signal gets blocked by obstructions. Having a cellular router with the ability to connect to cellular networks, Wi-Fi hotspots as well as pass through the StarLink connection gives you the best possible opportunity to stay connected.
While the solution above could be built with almost any Peplink router, having the option to do this with a lower cost router is very attractive if you are on a budget. Of course, this could also be built out with the MAX BR1 Pro 5G or even the new MAX BR2 Pro 5G if you wanted to gain access to even higher speeds, bandwidth, and redundancy.
More information on boaters using StarLink can be found on the SeaBits blog as well as the blog for SV Renaissance. I highly recommend this  SeaBits article for more advanced details on setting up SpeedFusion and other topics beyond the scope of this article.
The Mobile Internet Resource Center has a whole section on using StarLink with Peplink routers for their premium subscribers. 

As always, feel free to leave comments or questions below.

Happy cruising

Doug Miller
 

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