Coastal Marine WiFi, a winner!
Since early May I've used the Coastal Marine WiFi kit with all sorts of onboard WiFi devices and all sorts of Internet hotspots, and I'm very impressed with its smart design and easy, reliable performance. Yes, the overall system architecture is quite similar to several other good boat WiFi "booster" solutions like the various Wave Rogue and Bitstorm Xtreme kits, but there's a lot of nuance to making these systems easy to install and operate. And whereas many boaters are still understandably confused about the WiFi booster/router combo that's so unlike what they use at home or office, I'm going to dig deep into how the CMW goes together and what it can do...
Boaters baffled by the idea of one WiFi radio in the rigging connected to another one down below might first check out Panbo's entry about WiFi (and cell) booster strategies, particularly this diagram. So, above is CMW's version of the system's high-power radio, often called a booster but perhaps better termed a WiFi bridge (as it doesn't amplify an existing connection but instead bridges a shoreside Internet access point to the boat's onboard WiFi router).
Coastal Marine uses the same Ubiquiti Bullet M2HP that I first appreciated as part of the Rogue Wave system in 2010. The Bullet is designed for outdoor use, but that doesn't mean salt water spray or maybe even heavy fog, which is why CMW came up with the PVC enclosure seen above and detailed further here. While the connection between the Bullet and the 8 db WiFi antenna seems quite waterproof, it's great for installation that you can easily remove this assembly from the base. Thus, you can screw the main enclosure to a standard 1-inch marine antenna mount before running the Ethernet cable up through the mount and doing the final assembly. Note the well written and illustrated Coastal Marine WiFi instructions (PDF here).
It's a little hard to see the CMW in Gizmo's antenna forest (unless you click the photo larger), but I think it looks pretty good. I'll note that an unprotected Roque Wave Bullet survived a few seasons on the flybridge rail where all those GPS antennas are (and still works), but I like having the extra protection and also the ability to use most any 1"-14 mount (as long as it includes a cable pass through). The Rogue Wave Pro I tested and several other marine WiFi kits also include extra weather protection and use a 1-inch mount. In fact, right next to the CMW on Gizmo is a WiFi Ranger Marine2 which is still in the review process -- while the Marine Pack system is very ambitious, I keep hoping an update will make it faster and more reliable -- but which already taught me the value of the CMW antenna design. The Marine2 cannot be disassembled, which means that when you screw it to your mount you must have its included cable bundled and ready to spin (and that you cannot use an existing Ethernet cable).
All the WiFi systems mentioned so far use some sort of 12v Power over Ethernet (PoE) hardware so that only an Ethernet cable needs to be run to the outside WiFi radio, and usually the paired onboard WiFi router can also run on 12v, all of which is slick. But CMW's custom Dual PoE Injector may be the slickest. It can use one 12v or 24v feed to supply a more optimal 15v to the Bullet and 5v to the included router. (Super sharp readers may notice that the black, heavy duty Ethernet cable shown as part of the CMW kit in the top photo is not in use above. That's because it did not work properly, an unusual failure that Coastal WiFi is investigating. I had never seen an Ethernet cable fail before, but the very next day a Navico marine Ethernet cable also revealed issue. So it goes.)
Here's the TRENDnet N300 home router and WiFi access point that's included in the CMW kit and that arrived already programmed with my desired boat network name and password. For the photo I pulled it out a bit to show the white passive PoE splitter that delivers the Ethernet connection with the mast-mounted Bullet plus the 5v power feed from the PoE injector. The other gray cable is an optional Ethernet connection to Gizmo's Fusion IP700 audio system, which means that Fusion's WiFi remote control apps work on any mobile device signed in to Gizmo's Local Area Network (LAN). I'll get further into this feature in the Advanced section below, but it's why I slightly favor the separate router and booster architecture over all-in-one designs like the WirieAP or Nauticloud. The TRENDnet has three remaining Ethernet ports that could be connected to other marine devices on the boat as that becomes more and more possible.
Here's the magic part illustrated, but first some background. The Ubiquiti Bullet and other high-power WiFi radios can be used in many ways and thus the control software they come with tends to be quite complex. So Wave WiFi and other developers of premium marine WiFi systems make replacement software that's designed specifically for what boaters do, mainly hunting down and connecting to Internet hotspots. The user accesses the control software using a Web browser and it's generally fairly easy to use. In fact, easy software is probably the biggest reason that many cruisers will pay upwards of $350 for a bunch of components that cost far less before they've been fashioned into a boat WiFi kit. Coastal Marine WiFi has gone further in this regard by creating Android, iPad/iPhone, and Windows EasyBullet apps that make the hotspot hunt even easier.
The three screens above illustrate the process. In the first, I've just connected my Android phone to the TRENDnet router called "MV gizmo cmw" and in the second I simply tapped open the EasyBullet app which then got the Ubquiti M2 to scan for available WiFi hotspots. Note that my phone (in Gizmo's cabin) only saw one hotspot besides the TRENDnet (which was not yet an Internet hotspot) while the high-power Bullet on the mast saw 15. This is a fairly typical example of how much further a good marine WiFi system can receive (and transmit). Note, too, that EasyBullet first sorts hotspots by signal strength, but one tap re-sorts them by security status -- open or obviously password protected -- or by name. The next step was simply to tap/select the strongest access point from my remote slip at the Brewer Essex Island Marina and in a few seconds the Bullet was online, which meant the TRENDnet was also online as well as my phone, iPad, computer and a couple of other boat devices that are always logged into the TRENDnet. Gizmo was fully connected in moments!
Above are Windows and iPad EasyBullet screens illustrating other aspects of the app and also the bigger picture of shoreside hotspot availability in 2015. On the left side, Gizmo is at its home float in Camden with 42 hotspots visible but most of them protected with passwords I don't have. As seen on the lower left Connection Status screen I was connected to the Camden Public Library's open hotspot, which is 0.2 miles away, obscured somewhat by masts and trees, and not designed for long range anyway. I could sense the hotspot's balkiness in use and EasyBullet confirmed it by flipping regularly between Internet "Connection" and "No Connection"; and that same ability to regularly check Internet access on its own means that you won't get dropped off a good connection just because you didn't use it for a while.
At any rate, my next move was to activate my phone's WiFi hotspot and connect the Coastal Marine WiFi system to it (as diagramed here) and you can see that Windows EasyBullet is collecting my WPA password, which unfortunately it doesn't yet save (though the iPad and Android versions do). CMW is a very new product and it could use a few minor improvements like that, but overall it's fast, easy, and reliable, and it nicely handled every sort of WiFi sign-in I've encountered, be it some direct password type (that it can detect on first scan) or the type where you must log in via a dedicated Web page (like the not-really-open hotspots at Wayfarer Marine). But, wait, why bother with an elaborate marine WiFi system if a popular harbor like Camden only offers lots of closed hotspots?
It's true that I have far fewer local choices than I used to, and that the days of accidentally open home and business hotspots everywhere are waning, but that's not the whole story. Wayfarer, for instance, offers reasonable package deals of parking, tender tie-up and access to their excellent WiFi (if you have the equipment to reach it). Brewer's and several other marinas I've stayed in (or near) have completely opened their WiFi, possibly because of unhappy paying customers who don't have good equipment and/or the hassel of managing passwords. And I'll note here that the CMW system automatically adjusts its output power to the minimum needed so you will not be be a bad wireless citizen around a busy hotspot.
Note, moreover, the one "open" site visible on the colorful iPad EasyBullet screen above (taken when Gizmo was underway near Gloucester). A web sign-in is required but if you're already an xfinity Internet subscriber at home -- or possibly Comcast too, it's confusing -- you may already have free access to thousands of quality xfinity hotspots along our coasts. And this is a rapidly growing trend as communications companies which already have the major infrastructure in place add value to their offerings with free hotspots (and/or take pressure off their cell networks). I use Time Warner for cable and Internet at home and am a somewhat more loyal customer because of the Internet access I've gotten on the boat (particularly available in the New York and New Jersey area). In Plymouth, Massachusetts, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a CableWifi hotspot accepted the TimeWarner user/password already stored on my iPad and led to two days of excellent Internet connectivity that didn't add to my strained Verizon cell account. The CMW WiFi system was partly responsible for that and many other good WiFi experiences, and I am not hesitant about recommending it. I think that any reasonably able boater can install one and can certainly enjoy using it.
But I'll also add that many marine electronics installers these days know how to install gear like this, and can probably do it faster and/or better. And that there are some geekier reasons you might want an onboard WiFi system...
First, an interesting aspect of CMW's use of apps instead of simplified firmware is that the Ubiquiti Bullet airOS control software is still available, reachable by browser as seen in the screens above. I can't offhand give an example of what a boater might do with it -- and you should probably check with Coastal Marine first, to avoid interfering with the app control -- but there certainly is a lot possible. I enjoyed opening it mainly as a reminder of how much easier it is to use the CMW apps, Rogue Wave firmware, and other cruiser solutions. It would take four screens and more mouse clicks just to connect to the Library hotspot I soon changed!
More important is how valuable a good onboard WiFi router can be even when an Internet connection is not possible, i.e. when it's just a Local Area Network (LAN), not also a Wide Area Network (WAN). The first screen above shows the Fusion remote app working over that Ethernet cable I noted above and then via boat WiFi to my phone (and iPad, etc.). That connection has worked effortlessly and flawlessly with at least three routers I've tried on the boat (though Fusion is introducing similar Bluetooth remote apps with new 750 series models that may not have an Ethernet port). The middle screen shows the Vesper AIS app running through Gizmo's LAN because the Vesper XB8000 can join a WiFi network instead of just being a standalone access point like most marine WiFi implementations so far. And finally the third screen shows how the new Nobeltec TimeZero V2 iPad app can be set up to see the Vesper data on my LAN and thus display AIS, Depth, and Heading while using Vesper's high quality GPS output. I can run all these apps without changing the access point and if the LAN is online, apps like TimeZero can also bring in weather data. Similarly, the Furuno TZT14 is always on the LAN now and can download weather files if a shoreside WiFi hotspot or the cell phone is connected, and soon I hope it will take routes from TimeZero wirelessly, Internet of no Internet. This is all good stuff in practice and hopefully coming to more gear and more boats soon.
But connecting to a marine device via a boat LAN can be more complicated than just connecting a phone or tablet directly to an MFD or other standalone boat WiFi data source. The Vesper, Nobeltec, and other apps that can utilize boat data over WiFi have to be told the exact IP address and port it's streaming on, numbers that you have to find in the Vesper's system or, say, in the GoFree sections of Navico systems. And ideally the LAN is able to make such addresses static so that some system change doesn't suddenly make all the dynamic addresses you've entered into apps invalid. So I was pleased to find it fairly easy to access the TRENDnet's internal software and created a fixed address for the Vesper XB8000, though I've only done half the job so far (I still need to tell the XB8000 it has a fixed address, which has to be done over USB not WiFi.)
And, yes, we've seen now that the Coastal Marine Wifi system includes not just easy apps but complex control software for both the high-power Bullet WiFi radio and the TRENDnet WiFi router, which may seem daunting. But a lot of boaters will be satisfied with just the apps, pro expertise for the advanced functions is more and more available, and wireless devices are constantly getting better at this stuff anyway, the little world of marine wireless included. I'll close with another positive boat LAN setup as seen in recently appreciated Coastal Explorer. In the screen below, CE is running on Gizmo's "Chart Table 21" and I've clicked on the My Boat icon to show it has a choice of GPS or AIS-derived positioning coming over the same IP stream. That's because the underlying Mac mini/Win7 system is on the "MV gizmo cmw" LAN via WiFi and thus getting all sorts of data from the Vesper XB8000, as detailed in Port Troubleshooter dialog I also opened. If the LAN is also a WAN, as it usually is thanks to Bullet or cell phone, I can jump right to the Conditions page and get current weather; or check my email, or whatever. It sounds complicated, but it works great. Are you with me?