Simple and Inexpensive WiFi

Part 1.

More and more cruisers, be they just weekenders or long distance travelers, are wrestling with the issues of staying connected and yes, I mean to the internet. My first boat had nothing more than a VHF radio and I was able to sail from the US mainland to Bermuda. Later on as the boats got larger and communications improved, a marine SSB radio was added. Then a famous person, I can’t remember who, invented the internet. With that, the ease of email crept into our lives and grew like a weed along the banks of some of the rivers we have traveled. We were hooked and began the search for the latest and greatest technology. Our first device was a hand held unit that was called Pocketmail and needed to be held up to a phone after calling a special number and it would send and receive your emails. It was a pretty neat device and very popular in the cruising circles. Next we added a Pactor modem to our SSB radio and after acquiring a Ham license, used the Winlink system to send and receive email and get that all important weather information. We still have and use extensively the Winlink system. But the more we were exposed to the internet itself, the more important it became and the more functional we found it to gather information on weather, emails and the areas we were traveling- something the Winlink could not do for us.



With the availability of WiFi hotspots to connect to, the possibilities grew considerably. Again, we would have to evaluate our needs and how to meet those needs with the changing technology. For the cruiser today there are now some great choices depending on the areas you plan to cruise, the space aboard and power requirements for additional equipment and that all important dent in the monthly cruising budget. Starting at the high end is a satellite system that can be used on a large part of the planet, even the watery parts. A satellite dish mounted inside a dome and engineered to track and hold the satellites position will give full access to the internet and all it contains.



If coastal cruising is in your plans, or even some of the more developed islands, than another option is a wireless phone card modem attached to your computer that will connect and receive anywhere you can get a cell phone signal from your provider. For simple email via text format only a satellite phone will provide this almost anywhere in the world although some folks are finding the coverage is spotty on some oceans. Finally, many cruisers are finding that with a computer that has WiFi capabilities and a device to reach out and grab those free WiFi signals found in more and more locations the costs are relatively low and the installation is fairly easy. Most importantly, after that purchase of equipment, access is free. There are pay services sprouting all along the coast that will provide access via this same system in larger ports. After considerable research we decided on the WiFi method with the free access. Free is always good for most cruisers. Once the decision was made on the what, we now needed to decide on the how.



It is no surprise the internet provided us with the answers. Research, research, research, using mostly cruising website that we have found in the past are frequented by actual cruisers willing to share their knowledge and experience. Two such sites are the SSCA Discussion Board and the great site at Cruisersforum.com. A common name came up over and over again with lots of positive input. Some cruisers also had their own way of putting the system together to improve performance and protect the equipment. We decided on a WiFi unit Made by Senao. The Engenius UEB362 EXT long range USB adapter (now updated to the EUB9603H) was recommended over and over again. Another key piece of the equipment is the antenna. Like any over the air receiver, the antenna can mean the difference between success and failure. We try and match our equipment as much as possible and decided in the Engenius 8db outdoor omni-directional antenna. A small pigtail adapter is needed to attach the much larger antenna to the unit. Your choices will be either omni-directional or directional. The omni-directional will look like the antenna you are used to seeing and the directional antenna will look sort of like a small dish that needs to be aimed directly at the WiFi access point. This works great at the docks but swinging on the anchor as most of us do would present too much of a challenge. The omni-directional does not care whether the boat is swinging so naturally that was our choice.



Having the antenna be weatherproof and outdoor suited is a big plus. Keep in mind these units are not designed to be used in the manner we have planned. The unit itself is not waterproof and the attached antenna is very small. But it is removable and many of these units on the market do not have a removable antenna. That ability limits or extends the range of the unit. We would need to either find a way to weatherproof the unit or move it in and out as needed to keep it dry. Both will work but we prefer to keep it outside while underway since we can often connect as we pass a hotspot without stopping. The final short coming of the unit as is was the short cord that attaches the unit via USB to the computer. It is only about three or four feet long and won’t get it outside unless the computer is outside and we did not want to do that for obvious reasons. But this too is easy to overcome.



Once we had the adapter and antenna in hand, the search for the additional bits and pieces began. We found that a 6X6 plastic electrical box with no holes in it would make a very good weatherproof box to mount the adapter. We purchase a weatherproof gland to pass the cable through and some coax sealer. We found we would need an “active” USB extension cable to get the unit high enough to have some range with it. Having an active cable is important because the unit gets its power from the computer via the USB cable. Be sure it is NOT a passive cable or it will not work. We have received reports that we should not exceed 20 feet for the extension cable but others might find longer will work. Finally, a bit of silicon caulk to seal everything rounds out the material.



The electrical box has plenty of room to mount everything inside and a smaller box will probably work but this was what we used. First you will need to drill a hole in the top to accept the antenna. It slides into the hole and a locking nut on the inside holds it just fine. The hole around the outside and inside should be sealed with a bead of silicone caulk. Next a hole should be drilled into the bottom to accept the weatherproof cable gland and also sealed. Remove the antenna that comes on the unit and use some double stick tape to hold the unit on the back of the box. The first thing we noticed with this unit was its size. It is not much larger than a business card. Before mounting it, attach the pigtail to the antenna and the unit itself. Pass the USB cable from the unit through the hole in the bottom and attach the weatherproofing portion of the cable gland and add some silicone sealer to help keep moisture out. Once all of this is finished, add silicone sealer around the perimeter of the box and attach the cover. The box we purchased had tabs on the corners with holes in them so we could attach different methods of hanging it. We plugged the 20 foot active USB extension cable to the one that is attached to the adapter. Here is where the coax seal comes in and makes the plugs completely waterproof where they are joined together. The seal is sticky and stays that way so be sure and cover it with electrical tape to keep it from sticking to everything (and everyone) it comes in contact with. You will be almost finished but there is one final step before you start connecting.



Before you plug in the unit, you will need to set it up on your computer. There are two methods to do this. The adapter comes with a CD with the required drivers and a program to help make your connections. If your computer is not WiFi capable you will need to install this program. If it is WiFi capable you have a choice. In our research many complained about problems using the program that came with the adapter. Your Windows operating system has a service called Windows Zero Configuration which will manage all of your WiFi connections. Many users, including ourselves, let Windows handle the WiFi with few issues, but the drivers for the adapter need to be installed. Simple - go to the disk, find a folder called drivers, open it and click on set up. It will install the drivers and ask you to plug in the unit. Once installed you will need to restart the computer, and that is should be about it. It should not take a whole lot longer than it did to read this article. Once everything is done and the unit is hung as high as you can get it with the cable attached to your computer, you will be connecting any time an open access point is within range. We have been truly amazed at the range of this set-up and how well it performs.

And now for our total expenditures:

Engenius EUB-362-EXT $45.50  (now updated to the EUB9603H)
Engenius EAG-2408 Outdoor antenna $24.99
CA100 –NM-RSMAM-12 RPSMA Male to N Male 12” cable $9.00
RJ45-FT Feed-thru adapter $1.10
104 Coax seal $2.29
Plastic Junction box with lid $12.16
20’ Male to Female USB active extension cable $12.99
Silicone caulk $5.95

Total cost: $113.98

We did find a couple of sites on the internet that sell these same units already made up for a bit more money, but we like to build these things and install them ourselves. We get not only the feeling of accomplishment, but the knowledge that the parts are of the quality we expect. This has been a great addition to our equipment list and if your needs will be filled with this kind of set up, you will surfing before you know it.

Click here for part 2. 
Click here for part 3.

31 comments:

  1. Wow! You guys are really doing a great job!

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  2. Great job on the WiFi box. I did something similar at home and it worked great. But when it came to the boat, I went with an Engenius EOC-3220 EXT mounted atop the mast. Much smaller than the grey box. Almost works too well!

    Just noticed they are on sale this month.

    http://www.engeniustech.com/datacom/products/Category.aspx?id=60

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  3. j, Glad it is working for you but we have met many cruisers that tried to use the client bridge and it almost never works. Not because the unit malfunctions but the problems involved moving from place to place and having to reconfigure the unit for several different access points. They usually give up and go with a simpler unit like ours. There are however many different ways to accomplish the same thing. We are just offering one. Good luck to you. Chuck

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  4. I am still in shock. I have just completed fabricating a unit that Chuck recommends and cannot believe the sensitivity of this unit. I am sitting in my home, surrounded with other homes, and with a known hot spot no closer than a half mile away the reception is perfect. I might add that the unit and antenna are not elevated but on my lap.

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  5. First of all, love your blog. So much good info. I am having trouble locating some of the items on your components list (mostly the antenna). Where did you get your hardware?

    Best,

    Steve
    Cincinnati

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  6. Steve, Bought most of the stuff from Pasadena Networks, LLC at http://www.wlanparts.com/
    Chuck

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  7. What has been your experience with the unit? Any comment on the max range you have achieved?

    Tom Egan

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  8. We have verifiable range of over two miles and and unverifiable ranges further. We have been absolutely delighted with the unit and it is working now as I type and post this comment. Chuck

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  9. Very Interesting! We brought our trawler down to the Dataw Island Marina in November. Being on the outside dock, the wifi has been marginal. This looks like a great project to tackle. Thanks, Don on Seaquel, Sea Ranger 47

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  10. Don, The connection there at Dataw is problematic anyway. We used this set up there with success when it was working but it seemed to be down every day. It works fine by plugging in at the office. Look for the Mariner 40 Sea Trek at the marina and that is our former boat. If you build it, it will work. Good luck and hope they have solved the WiFi problems. Chuck

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  11. Can the cable between the EUB-362 and the antenna be longer? I can unclose the 362, and would like to mount the antenna on the arch?

    Tom

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  12. Tom, The cable should not exceed 3 feet or you will experience significant signal loss, the longer the cable. As stated you need to extend the USB, not the antenna cable.

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  13. Thanks to Mark and Lynn for this updated information. Chuck

    The unit you noted is now obsolete & replaced by EnGenius EUB9603H 600MW USB Adapter - 5dBi Antenna, 150mbps, USB 2.0 (E155-2004).

    I found it at Tigerdirect.com 34.99.

    I found a booster USB active cord 39 feet with capability to over 100 ft. IOGEAR GUE2118 USB 2.0 Booster Extension Cable - 39FT, USB 2.0, Male to Female (A225-1432)
    29.99

    The antennae is as you noted. EnGenius EAG-2408 Outdoor HighGain 8dBi Omni-Directional Antenna(E155-1034) 29.99

    Tiger did not show the 12 inch patch cord. I bought from Streakwave.com

    The cord length & extensions will let us attach to the Y – split on the backstay of our ketch.

    Mark & Lynn
    SV ROXY
    Muskegon, Michigan

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  14. Great blog & lots of good info. I built a replica of your Wi-Fi amp with '2nd generation' housing design for my Islander Freeport 36 and everything works as advertised.

    The only problem I had was that the antenna design has changed a bit. Under the EAG-2408 part number the antenna supplied to me no longer had a bulkhead mounting thread on the base, just a plain shank for a pair of (supplied) wall mount brackets. I had to make a clamp collar to secure it inside the end cap. Otherwise a great upgrade for anyone who is looking for better signal reception over a wider area.

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  15. We are glad the set up worked for you. Thanks for the info on the antenna, it will help anyone else that plans to build one. The Engenius antenna is not the only one out there, it is just the one we used. We plan on testing an upgrade to the system soon and will be posting it in the coming weeks. Chuck

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  16. I have had the same antenna and radio as you for 6 months now.it seems boat movement and atmosphere do play a factor so when at rest i attached the antenna to a piling on the pier. because of the new radio's double(?)usb, and the fact of the radio not being weatherproof i opted to keep the radio and usb in the boat and run a 20' high output low loss cable to the antenna. i have good enough connection to stream free movies from a quarter mile or so. my questions are is this cable making my signal weaker? and what does "up to 2000mw" mean ?

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  17. If you are running 20 feet of coax, no matter how low loss, you are absolutely weakening your signal. The USB cable cab be pretty much any length as long as it is an "active" cable. The connection between the antenna should be no longer than 3 feet and the shorter the better. Any more will result in signal loss. As to the boat movement affecting the signal, If you are using the same omni-directional antenna or the equivalent, that we use, this should not be happening. The same with the atmosphere, I assume you mean weather. None of these have affected our unit and we have used it for over 4 years now. Both methods we have used to weatherproof the set up has worked perfectly with no moisture intrusion using the electrical box that we started with or the PVC pipe we later change to. Getting the unit as high as possible via the USB cable makes all of the difference. The "up to 2000mw" is the measurement of the maximum internally controlled output for the unit. That does not mean it always operates at maximum and will typically operate at around 1000mw. Hope this answers your questions. Your unit uses a double cable because one powers the unit. I am not a big fan of the particular one you are using, it is not the same as the unit we write about. Keep in mind that different models will produce different results. Chuck

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  18. thank you very much Chuck,your answers help greatly.it seems nobody i have run into knows much about wifi or these radios.i had the old discontinued engenius radio with 2db antenna. when i upgraded to this one I noticed it had two usb's. one tied into the other two inches from the end it works with just the main one plugged in but better with both.i assumed they added the second for a purpose(maybe additional power) but engenius doesn't offer much tech info. i had heard from a sailor to keep the usb's under 15'.but this is just hearsay. anyway thanks again.i will buy two usb extentions and some pvc. i will let you know how much better my rig works afterwards. cpt Willy s.v. salty oar at rest in tarpon springs FL

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  19. The best antenna configuration I have found is using an 8 or 9 db omni-directional antenna. Going less or even more does not seem to help. We used two 15 foot USB cables to get up high. Make sure they are active cables and not passive. Good luck and I hope all goes well. Chuck

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  20. Have any of you figured out how to connect this setup to a router so you can get wireless in the boat. I have been using this for the Summer of 2011 and it works great, but can only use one computer at a time.

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  21. Hi Chuck!
    Been using this for over 2 years now with tremendous success. Love it. Thanks.
    Got a crazy question that you or someone might know the answer to. Would it be possible to somehow connect this to some type of router in our boat and create our own hotspot??? My wife and I both use laptops often at the same time, and more and more "wifi toys" are available everyday. Be nice to be able to use more than one device at a time.
    As always...love what you do!
    Thanks
    George
    "Blind Faith" 1972 36' Gulfstar

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  22. George, Glad to here everything has been working well for you. We hear from many folks that have built this system and it's working great for them. As for a router, You should be able to find a unit that will accept a USB input to use as your hotspot. We have a Cradlepoint on board that works for us. Another option is to set up your computers to share your connection. We have recently switched over to the Ubiquiti Bullet for testing and it runs via a cat5 cable to the router and then to any computer on board. You don't have to change out your system though. Good luck and let me know if you have any other questions. Chuck

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  23. Hi Guys!
    I may have missed it, but have you posted info ragarding TV aboard? I am looking at several scenarios and would like your thoughts on what works well and what is not so friendly. I noticed you are using TrackitTV.
    We are also debating on Dish and Direct. We have Direct at home but are not married to it. I notice dish has a nice package for $14.95 call the Welcome package (anyone can get it) for folks that are not welded to their tv.
    Love to hear your thoughts.
    George Routt
    36' Gulfstar trawler---Blind Faith

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  24. George, There are several references to our TV set up. The blog is growing so that it is getting hard to find specific information but there is a search this blog function. A couple of posts are, http://trawler-beach-house.blogspot.com/2008/11/some-new-equipment.html on the TV and http://trawler-beach-house.blogspot.com/2009/01/work-work-work.html on the installation of the Track-It system. Sorry but the Comments section won't do hot links so just copy and paste the URLs if you don't feel like hunting. We have had both DirecTV and currently have Dish. Direct offers a few more channels for the package we have but Dish is over all less expensive which is why we switched. I did find repositioning the dish easier with Direct when we are moving around. But we will probably stay with Dish since it does save us some money each month. I hope this helps and good luck. Chuck

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  25. Glad to see so much interest in your set up - However I have to ask, most networks seem to want passwords even ones called "public" I am aware of software that can capture packets so on and so forth but that is not fun to do when you are on a boat. How has it been for you recently?

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    1. Most private networks will secure them by requiring a password or key. We still find plenty of open connections available almost everywhere we go. And the antenna system is a big help at many marinas that we stop in because we have the password but working from just your computer below decks doesn't always work well. Many cities like Sarasota, Baltimore and others now have open wifi and when we are anchored in those harbors it makes for easy access. Hope this answers your question. Chuck

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  26. I am having a tough time finding the connector between the antenna and the Engenious - the CA100 –NM-RSMAM-12 RPSMA Male to N Male 12” cable. I went to the WLansParts place but didn't find it. I am not so technically proficient to know about these matters. Can you point me to a place that has this piece? I followed your instructions but had to substitute another pigtale that may not be just right... I think I need the exact thing you suggest. Thanks for your help.

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  27. You should be able to find it here,
    http://www.wlanparts.com/product/CA100-NM-RSMAM-12/RPSMA-Male-to-N-Male-12-inch-Cable-LMR-100.html

    Or Here,
    http://www.roc-noc.com/product.php?productid=289

    Good luck. Chuck

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  28. The USB Ranger 2211 provides far better USB efficiency and also USB system assistance, allowing users to supply USB 2. 0 internet connections nearly 330 foot (100m) spanning a individual Cat 5e cable.
    Having variable running, power may be applied to a nearby stretcher or rural stretcher, allowing contractors to carry a single solution for just two types of installations; a single needing power next to the actual number and one needing power with the rural spot.

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  29. Hi Chuck and Susan, I use the EnGenius Network Device EUB9603H USB Adapter 150Mbps 600mW 802.11b/g/n with this antenna mounted on radar arch Engenius Outdoor High Gain 8dBi Omni Antenna (EAG-2408) with the usb like your first setup. Is there a router that will take the usb signal and wireless broadcast it in the boat for more users? I did not want to move to the bullet with Ethernet cable router you added. Hope you are doing well after your heart repairs.

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    1. Sonny, A good question. Our current Netgear router has a USB port that will allow wireless connections ot the router via Netgears ReadyShare option. But I can't say that it will do what you want and can't say it won't. I would suggest you contact Netgear/Support and ask. At first glance I don't see why it won't work. We use the option to connect our Toshiba storage drive to the laptop wirelessly. My recovery is coming long great, thanks for asking. Chuck

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