Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 09:40AM - Comments: (1)
As high-speed, cellular data service extends throughout the coastal U.S. and abroad, the ability to turn your phone into a mobile hotspot (MiFi) has diminished the need for a Wi-Fi connection to a shore-based network. But cellular data plans can be expensive, service can be spotty, and high-speed data isn’t offered everywhere. When the PS crew visited Cuba recently, logging onto the Marina Hemingway’s Wi-Fi network was still our easiest link to the outside world.
In the October 2016 issue of Practical Sailor we look at the WiriePro ($700), an integrated antenna/WiFi adapter/router that allows you to quickly connect to the internet using either a shore-based Wi-Fi network or cellular service (2G/3G/4G/LTE). Using the xG/LTE service only works with Global System for Mobiles (GSM) carriers, so Verizon or Sprint users are out of luck. What most attracted us to the device was the relatively simplicity of installation and options aimed squarely at cruising sailors.
Every sailor knows that VHF radio range is dependent upon a good-quality antenna mounted as high as possible (see “3dB VHF Antenna Test,” PS February 2007 online). Connecting with a Wi-Fi network ashore is no different. Logging on to locally available networks becomes much easier with a booster/ antenna that strengthens your signal and extends range. The difference between the two is that Wi-Fi output has greater power restrictions, so range will always be less than a few miles over water. Adding xG/LTE service offers the potential for maintaining an internet link while further offshore.
Plug “Wi-Fi” into the search box on Practical Sailor’s website, and you’ll see a number of articles dating back to 2009 on Wi-Fi boosters and antennas. These range from do-it-yourself solutions costing less than $200 (“An Experiment in Boosting Wi-Fi the DIY Way,” PS April 2014) to our recent report on the latest trend: combination antennas that work with both broadband cellular signals (2G/3G/4G/LTE) and Wi-Fi (“Wi-Fi Booster Versus 4G Cell Data,” PS June 2016). These reports also address the variety of antennas available, ranging from a unidirectional antenna that targets specific Wi-Fi networks at a great distance but won’t work on a rocking boat, to the more practical omnidirectional antenna that most cruisers opt for.
One of the first Wi-Fi boosters on the scene before the recent explosion in the “marine-grade” Wi-Fi antenna/boosters, was the original Wirie, developed by Mark Kilty and Liesbet Collaert while cruising aboard their 35-foot Fountaine Pajot Tobago, Irie. The new WiriePro uses the same basic package as the original. The all-in-one antenna/booster is bulky compared to other designs, but we’ve had a mostly good experience with The Wirie line of products (see “Details Distinguish the Best Wi-Fi Antenna for a Sailboat,” PS April 2010, and “Long-term Gear Updates,” PS March 2016). This experience—though not trouble free—and the addition of several enticing features, attracted us to try the company’s newest product, The WiriePro.
The main problem with most of the Wi-Fi equipment we’ve tested is durability in the marine environment. Very few carry long-term warranties. Canada-based Bitstorm is the only maker that we know of who offers and extended 3-year warranty. But just because it doesn’t have the marine label on it, doesn’t mean it won’t last. PS contributor, and longtime cruiser Joe Minic had good luck setting up an onboard network using equipment rated for outdoor use, though not for the marine environment (see “Building an Inexpensive Wireless Network,” PS January 2011 online).
Like systems from Rogue Wave, Bitstorm, and almost every one we’ve looked at, The WiriePro relies on a long-range Wi-Fi adapter from Ubiquiti. The Wirie uses Ubiquiti’s Bullet M2HP Titanium, which is housed in an aluminum weatherproof casing.
The WiriePro mounts the Bullet and a 2-dBi wide-band antenna for cellular service (xG/LTE) onto a hard-shell, waterproof (IP67) box. Inside the box is a commercial-grade 2G/3G/4G/LTE router, with access to the slot for installing a cellular provider’s SIM card. The integrated form factor minimizes wire runs and simplifies installation, but it also locates the router above-decks, albeit in a watertight box.
When using cellular systems, The WiriePro will work with GSM carriers worldwide using 3G/4G networks with speeds up to 21 Mbps. In areas with LTE support, speeds of up to 100 Mbps are possible. Keep in mind that the router and 2-dBi antenna are not cell-phone boosters, but they are a means of extending coverage by placing the antenna outside the boat (the higher, the better). For $100 more, you can upgrade to a compact 6-dBi, xG antenna for extended range—as far as 20 miles, according to Wirie.
There are also some upgrades specifically geared toward sailors, like an optional, integral GPS ($25) that—so long as you are connected to the internet—lets friends follow you online using the free Spotwalla service. You don’t need the Wirie to use the Spotwalla app—like other free tracking widgets it works with most smart phones—but linking the tracking function to a dedicated onboard GPS has advantages beyond user-friendliness.
For $79, you can also get The Wirie Ex, which serves as a wireless bridge and repeater to extend coverage on larger yachts (or to others nearby), or to connect hard-wired Ethernet devices to your local network. If you decide to open your network to others, the WiriePro firmware has settings that allow you to control who can log on—and you can even advertise your services, something that might appeal to the mobile jewelry-maker, sailmaker, book editor, writer, etc.
It took testers about a half-hour to temporarily install The WiriePro using the hardware provided. (This did not include running cables through the hull, which would have added another hour or so.) It comes with 25 feet of cable, enough for mounting on rails or davits. You don’t want to mount it too far out of reach, because you’ll need access to your SIM card slot. Once the WiriePro was wired and mounted, setup was quick and simple using the quick start guide.
If a solid Wi-Fi link is the only thing you want, or expect you will ever want, the less expensive WirieAP ($400) is a better fit. Bitstorm’s more streamlined antenna, the Bitstorm XTreme MJ ($390) with and three-year extended warranty ($30) would also be an excellent choice. Rogue Wave, another longtime player in this field, has also upgraded its line.
Most techies recognize that they can set up a Wi-Fi adapter using Ubiquiti’s Bullet for less money (as we have done ourselves), but the Bullet’s native firmware is not the easiest for a novice to manage. In fact, the more simplified interface is the main reason many users will pay more for systems from Wirie, Bitstorm, or Rogue Wave. The big question is need. Since most mobile phones already have a mobile hotspot function, the ability to switch to cellular may be overkill for the casual user. However, until data service is universally available through a single service provider, the new WiriePro certainly simplifies life for the sailor who needs a nearly seamless connection with the fewest hassles. Subscribers can follow updates on our experience with the WiriePro and similar products in future reports in Practical Sailor.