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Old 18-07-2006, 13:44   #1
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Marine WiFi Bridge

Wi-Fi connections are proliferating and I am pleased at the increased access to email, internet, and cheap phone calls (I use Skype). Still often I am unable to get a good signal/connection in anchorages and marinas and am looking for improved performance.

In the July issue of Sail I see a Port Networks (www.portnetworks.com) Marine Wi-Fi Bridge that looks interesting. Has anyone used this or a similar device? How has it worked? Is there an easier and/or cheaper solution.

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Old 18-07-2006, 16:30   #2
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Yes, try out BeaconWifi. We've had them for about a year now, and have had very little trouble with their network. They keep setting up more and more hotspots, and have good customer service:

www.beaconwifi.com
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Old 18-07-2006, 22:54   #3
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The marine wifi bridge that Port Networks is selling is a relatively new device. I haven't heard of anybody with experience with it. That said, there is no rocket science needed to build that device -- it was just waiting for somebody to realize it is a good idea and then actually build it. Everything in it is well established technology.

I have the "high power wifi card" that you can also buy from Port Networks. It is an SMC2532 and I bought the package that includes the mag mount whip antenna for $99. It worked well (until I moved to a spot that has no wifi nearby). To be fair, I was only a hundred meters or so from the access point, but I was just beyond the useful range of my old wifi card. I did some experiments that suggest that the antenna was a big part of the improvement with the new card.

b.t.w. I was happy with my experiences with Port Networks. I used their service in Baltimore, bought the SMC card from them, and got my Dish Network satellite tv system from them. One of the reasons I like them is that they know what a boat is, and I've found them willing to help with boat-specific issues.
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Old 19-07-2006, 05:13   #4
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Sean:

I have used Beacon and others along the water way and in Bahamas. My issue is not the provider but the signal reception. I, like others have taken the laptop to the cockpit (hard to see in the direct sunlight) or carried it ashore to be closer to the transmitter antenna.

Some have recommended a "cantenna" which is just basically, a coffee can with the Wi-Fi receiver inside wired to the card. If you can point it at the transmitter, it is reputed to be a big improvement.

Others have put in elaborate built in systems on the boat. This Port Network looks like a reasonable mid-range solution. Its more money than I would like, but if it gave me a reliable connection at places like Man-O-War Cay or other notorious poor spots, it would be worth it.

Mark:

Thanks for the feed back on Port Networks and dealing with them.

Anyone out there with additional information of experience?

George Stateham
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Old 23-07-2006, 14:57   #5
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George-
A cantenna is just a directional antenna with gain. You can do better for under a hundred bucks, look for a parabolic dish or a "barbeque" dish (looks like a bbq grill bent to match the shape of a dish) for WiFi, $50-100 for a good one. You can see one at http://www.fab-corp.com/home.php?cat=276 and fab-corp is one of many suppliers "to the trade" for WiFi gear.

A good antenna can give you 3x-6x more range without anything else, but you will need to swing it until it is pointed right at the other end of the connection, these are directional antennas. There are omnidirectional gain antennas, but they are not as powerful.

Beyond that you can use a 2-way amplifier, they also sell those, as do may other vendors. Microwave amplifiers tend to be expensive, so try a better antenna firstest.<G>

A "bridge" just means a receiver and a re-transmitter built into the same box. By placing a bridge halfway between "here" and "there" you can double the range between those two places, or more if the transmitter in the bridge is more powerful than the original site is. In a sense, any WiFi router can be used as a bridge but then you get into other issues about configuring it to be used that way, that's not the normal configuration. (You need to put it in "ad hoc" mode, and the WiFi point at the other end needs to be set to support that.)

There's a lot that can be done, if you look at ham radio sites and Wifi sites the current record for distance on an UNamplified WiFi connection is about 125 miles. Using a 12-foot dish antenna at one end.<G>

Wifi is "just" a special class of 2.4GHz microwave radio, ham radio operators are allowed to use a great deal more power on it than unlicensed folks but the 125 miles shows you what can be done with "just" the stuff in the computer stores--and a better antenna, and the knowledge of how to use it.<G>
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Old 23-07-2006, 17:06   #6
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We cruised the Caribe and I use a Engenius USB wifi with external antenna with a home made parabolic refelctor. One of the big things is that this is a 200 mw vs most which are 30-80mw. It also only cost $65US. We pick up tons of free wifi sometimes as far as a mile and half with good thru put.

We are sitting in Solomons MD and there are a ton of wifi hot spots. Am looking to build a 14-20db gain cantenna to improve performance. You don't need to spend a lot of money to get a great system.

The port networks --$350 USD Major ouch, 110 volt major no-no! powere issues. The website doesn't detail that it is a true 200 mw system but I am assuming by the product name it is. I would look closer at this before spending that kind of money!
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Old 23-07-2006, 23:28   #7
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According to the Port Networks web site, their device is not a wifi to wifi bridge -- it is wifi to ethernet. You put it on your boat and plug the ethernet cable into your PC ethernet interface. It says it is 250 mW with 5.5 dB omnidirectional antenna. It also claims to work with 802.11g access points (54 mbps).

The thing I like about the omnidirectional antenna is that you don't have to point it at the access point (and keep pointing it as the boat swings, if you are at anchor). It can never match the gain of a directional antenna, but the goal is only an antenna that is good enough.

The big advantage of the Port Networks device is convenience. Pringles can antennas and home-made parabolic reflectors are great for people with that particular skill and interest. Both require careful construction. Even though I am very interested in radio and electronics, I wouldn't bother building one of these for my wifi system when you can just buy one. (Your opinion may vary, if you are more interested in experimenting with wifi and/or willing to futz with it to save a few dollars.)

The "bridge" that Port Networks is selling now was not available when I was buying my wifi card, but even if it was, I probably would not have bought it. The card I have now was only $99 with the antenna, and I knew the location of the specific access point I was using was close enough that I could get by without an outside antenna.

If I expected to be further from the access point, I might consider the bridge, or I might just buy the same SMC card and a commercially manufactured high gain antenna with a SHORT cable. (You lose signal in the coaxial cable - more cable = more loss) Ultimately, a really high gain antenna with careful pointing is the way to go if you want to get really long distances.
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Old 24-07-2006, 13:28   #8
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Mark-
"According to the Port Networks web site, their device is not a wifi to wifi bridge -- it is wifi to ethernet. " Yeah yeah. Technically, a bridge is any box that converts one media type to another, so a "cable modem" "dsl modem" and lots of other boxes are all bridges if you want to get parochial about it--or confuse the customer. Most of them do more than one function these days so several names can be applied. But generally, a box that connects (not converts<G>) WiFi to ethernet is just called called a WiFi router. The cheapest ones have one ethernet or USB port, the next step up has both (one of each) and can be found for $50 new or $12 on eBay almost new. Next step up again is $50-75 for a new one with four ethernet ports on it.
Any WiFi router will do this job. The folks at seatlewireless.com have a nice description of much hardware and the actual power ratings on it, probably the best guide on the web. Lots fo good information to clear up the hocus and the pocus.<G>
Doesn't sound like Port has anything really special, even if what they have is of good quality.
For $10 (after rebates on sale) or $30 (retail) you can buy a 6-7dbi omnidirectional gain antenna to fit almost any WiFi router. I still wouldn't bank on more than 250 feet range with any common equipment, without an amplifier, a clean line of sight, or gain antennas at both ends. The best solution on a boat is for the WiFi router to have the antenna directly attached to it (because the antenna cables have huge losses, they can't really be extended much) and then run the ethernet cable from that box down below to the computer, if you are hard-wired to it. (With a Wifi router, you can be using a wireless card in the computer as well.)
If you get a router that supports "PoE" meaning "Power over Ethernet" (not to be confused with PPPoE, which is something else) you can run one cable up to the router, with both 12V and the ethernet connection.
Between Seattlewireless, and some illumination from places like fab-corp (they support hobbyists) you'll be able to do a much better job at a much lower price.
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Old 24-07-2006, 17:37   #9
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Wow, looks like a need some time to study all this great info.

Thanks,
George
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