(0) Item Hello, Guest

How to Choose an LTE Router for Your Boat

Posted by Doug Miller on 2/24/2021 to Products & Technology
How to Choose an LTE Router for Your Boat

As the COVID-19 pandemic caused companies and workers to find ways to work remotely, many of our customers were looking for a way to stay connected while working from the boat. Others simply wanted a way to go cruising but still be fully connected for doing email, social media, web browsing, file sharing and viewing movies on Netflix and Amazon.

After an extensive review of solutions in the market, Milltech Marine became a Peplink Authorized eTailer at the end of 2020 and recently I have been certified as a Peplink Certified Sales Specialist. Peplink is a well-established leading supplier of Internet connectivity solutions including routing hardware using LTE modems for establishing full time mobile connectivity to the Internet.

This article builds on my initial first impressions of using a Peplink MAX BR1 MK1 router for enhancing connectivity on my own boat and explores how to select an appropriate router that meets both your needs and your budget.

Peplink has literally dozens of Pepwave wireless solutions ranging in price from $299 to thousands of dollars with a wide range of technology capabilities. For the average user, it can be a bit intimating trying to wade through product brochures, web pages and spec sheets to find the right solution.

This article focuses on seven of the most popular Peplink solutions I feel are appropriate for boaters and provides some guidance on how to decide which solution is right for you.

What are we talking about?

These multi-function router devices connect to the Internet using an LTE cellular modem and attached that connection to a local onboard wireless or wired network allowing multiple people and devices to have Internet access. Some solutions I discuss will also allow you to connect to a public marina Wi-Fi hotspot when available to save using up LTE data. These routers require a user-supplied SIM card associated with an appropriate data plan from a cell carrier. Once installed, the solution will allow you, your guests and your devices to have full-time, high-speed connections to the internet even when out on the water. Since these are LTE devices – like your cell phone – you must be within range of a cell tower in order to stay connected. If you are cruising in remote areas, a high-gain externally mounted MIMO (multiple-input – multiple-output) LTE antenna will greatly extend range. In addition, as mentioned earlier, some of these solutions can also connect to a nearby public Wi-Fi hotspot, if available, which allows you to maintain connectivity when Wi-Fi is available and the cell signal is weak, or if you want to save LTE data, or if you are roaming in a foreign country where LTE data is expensive.

All the routers discussed here, with the exception of the Peplink MAX HD1 Dome, can be powered by 12-24v DC or 110-240v AC power supplies. All have multiple antenna connections – usually 2-4 LTE antennas and 1-2 Wi-Fi antennas, as well as a connection for a GPS antenna. Routers include small removable antennas for each port, or you can use optional external antennas.

What about using a phone as a hotspot or a portable hotspot such as a JetPack?

Both of these solutions are possible and widely used. However, users will find the extra battery drain of their hotspot device inconvenient and the range of the LTE coverage may be limited unless boosters or external antennas are used. In addition, some phone cell plans may have limits on how much high-speed data can be used while the device is used as a hotspot.

As a result, many boaters will want a more dedicated, high performance solution that is purpose built for providing long range, high-speed, uninterrupted internet connectivity.

Considerations

Before diving into specific products, it is worth looking at several factors that will impact which solution or set of solutions makes most sense for you.

Here are some of the most important considerations:

  • Speed and bandwidth: Understanding your bandwidth needs is probably the most important first step. Are you mostly wanting to do email, web and document access or will you require lots of bandwidth for watching movies, doing Zoom or Teams calls? Are you looking for connectivity for just yourself or for the whole family? There is no harm in investing in a solution with more bandwidth and speed than you need but like everything, the higher the speed, the more expensive the router. There are a few factors that impact speed:
    • Router raw speed: The cellular modems in routers have a category rating that defines the raw speed potential of the device. The solutions we are discussing in this article range from category 4 LTE with a theoretical download speed of up to 150 Mbps all the way to category 18 LTE-A Pro with a theoretical download speed of over a gigabit per second. But in reality, regardless of the router category rating, speed will be more impacted by antenna placement, distance to the cell tower and the number of subscribers accessing the same cell tower. Generally though, the higher the category rating, the higher the speed of your connection.
      CATEGORYLTE TYPEDOWNLINKUPLINKMIMO ANTENNAS
      4 LTE 150 Mbps 50 Mbps2
      6 LTE-A 300 Mbps 50 Mbps2
      12 LTE-A Pro 600 Mbps 100 Mbps2
      18 LTE-A Pro 1.2 Gbps 150 Mbps4
    • Two or more modems bonded together: Peplink has developed SpeedFusion to allow you to, among other things, bind multiple Wide Area Network (WAN) connections together to form a single virtual connection. This not only increases speed, but it also increases reliability and security. Some of the router solutions feature multiple LTE modems allowing you to combine the speed of multiple connections to form a much faster bonded connection.
    • External antennas: As with other marine communications, antennas and antenna placement may be the single biggest factor for getting the most out of your LTE router connection. All routers come bundled with small antennas for the LTE and Wi-Fi interfaces. These will work ok in most boats, but if you have antennas mounted outside the cabin – high and free and clear from other metal obstructions – then you will often double the download speeds when compared to using the inside antennas. But installing external antennas can be challenging so we will discuss them in more detail next.
  • External antenna considerations: Using external antennas on LTE and Wi-Fi routers presents an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, your router will perform best if it is connected to high gain antennas installed outside the cabin as high as possible and away from other vertical metal objects. One the other hand, the longer the cable run, the more loss that will occur to the extent that the gain from the external antennas could be wiped out by the loss due to a long cable run. For long runs you will need to use low loss cable such as LMR-400 for the LTE and Wi-Fi antennas but this cable tends to be bulky and expensive. Plus, you have multiple antennas – in some cases as many as seven antennas (4 MIMO LTE, 2 Wi-Fi and one GPS). Having six LMR-400 cables for the LTE and Wi-Fi ports would require a cable chase and deck opening about three inches in diameter. That is probably unworkable for most recreational boats. Keep in mind, that even LMR-400 cable with a 50 foot run will have 2-4dB loss for typical cellular frequencies.
    The solution is to get the router as close as possible to the external antennas and use a shorter extension cable pack such as the Poynting Extension Cable for 7 in 1 Antennas. These kits use smaller diameter LMR-195 which is adequate for shorter runs. The other option is a use a combination of internal and external antennas for the MIMO setups. Or just use the small, bundled antennas and place the router in a location with no metal objects directly above or near the router.
    As mentioned, some routers require up to seven antennas. Installing seven individual external antennas on most boats would not be possible. To overcome this, we offer single antenna housings that have multiple antennas contained within the housing. For example, the Peplink PUMA 221 antenna has 2 LTE, 2 Wi-Fi and one GPS antenna in a nice small dome enclosure and includes six feet of cable for all the connections.
    One other solution I will mention is the Peplink MAX HD1/2 Dome family of routers. These weather-proof devices have the LTE antennas and the LTE router electronics in a single dome enclosure. The dome has a single ethernet cable connection which provides both power using Power Over Ethernet (requires a PoE 802.3at power insertion adapter) as well as gigabit ethernet data connected to a separately purchased router inside the boat. The advantage of this solution is you get great reception quality when installed outside with no antenna / cable loss and the ethernet cable can be as long as you need (up to 100 meters) again without incurring signal or data speed degradation. These devices are only LTE routers – in some cases with multiple LTE modems – but they can provide the absolute best speed and range.
  • WiFi as WAN: This term refers to connecting the router to a public Wi-Fi access point as an alternate Internet source instead of connecting to a cellular network. Routers that support this feature can connect to public Wi-Fi when available and then automatically switch to an LTE connection when you leave the dock and are out of Wi-Fi range. This can save LTE data connection charges when you have free Wi-Fi access available. The setup is easily configured and allows you to set up networks and priorities in advance so that the switching is seamless and automatic. Note that it is possible to use the single router to both connect to the external Wi-Fi hotspot and have the router provide a private Wi-Fi network for your boat – both at the same time.
  • One modem or two: All the routers discussed in this article have at least two SIM card slots. This allows you to insert a primary SIM card into one slot and optionally add a second SIM in the second slot which can be used – either manually or automatically based on rules. This can be handy when cruising in areas with variable coverage. For example, in the San Juan Islands, Verizon might have great coverage in one anchorage, but T-Mobile is much stronger in another area. Or perhaps you want to have a US SIM in slot one and a Canadian SIM in slot two ready to be used when you cross the border. In these scenarios, there is only one cellular radio but the possibility to use one SIM or the other.
    We also offer some routers that have two cellular radios and therefore can have two simultaneous connections at once. With the Peplink SpeedFusion technology, this can allow you to have faster, more reliable speeds and smoother connections. The Pepwave UBR LTE router pictured here is a dual modem router (one CAT 6, one CAT 4) and a great deal at $499. With both modems connected and bonded with SpeedFusion, I typically get over 20 Mbps of smooth download speeds. The MAX Transit Duo model with a pair of CAT 12 modems has been very popular as a high-end solution.
  • Ethernet LAN/WAN ports: LTE routers discussed here include at least one ethernet LAN port. This allows you to connect ethernet wired devices such as computers or printers to the network. If you have multiple Ethernet devices, consider getting a router with multiple ethernet ports. In addition, routers typically also have a WAN ethernet port that can be connected to an alternate wide area network internet routing device such as a cable modem or a satellite communications link. Again, these routers allow you to setup rules and priorities for which connection to use for maintaining internet connectivity. In addition, you can usually repurpose the WAN ethernet port as a second LAN port if it is not needed as a WAN port.
  • Fast onboard Wi-Fi: The Wi-Fi networking world is constantly evolving with different standards and frequencies used all with the goal of providing better speeds, stability and security. With the exception of the MAX HD Dome series, all of the routers discussed here support some form of connectivity over Wi-Fi to the router and in most cases the ability to also connect the router to an external public Wi-Fi internet source. Some routers only support 802.11b/g/n 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi which is typically slower but goes longer distances while others support the latest protocols with multiple connections, multiple frequencies (i.e. 2.4GHz and 5GHz) and MIMO antenna support. If you need super-fast Wi-Fi network speeds, be sure to get a router that supports the latest protocols.
  • Enterprise features: Peplink offers a range of enterprise features that in some cases are bundled with the router or are optional or come with the first year of an annual subscription plan. The Peplink SpeedFusion suite features multi-WAN bonding, WAN smoothing, Hot Failover, VPN support as well as InControl2 centralized web-based management. For example, if you often use a public marina Wi-Fi access point, having a secure VPN connection can help keep your devices and communications safe from others. InControl2 is a great way to manage your router from remote locations to make changes or monitor activity. For more information on these enterprise features be sure to visit the Peplink website.
  • Carrier: The routers mentioned in this article support all US and Canadian carriers so theoretically you just need to get a data plan-supported SIM card from your carrier of choice and insert it into one of the router SIM slots. These are unlocked devices and they should configure themselves for the appropriate carrier, although you may need to enter an APN if you are not using one of the big three US carriers. Be sure that you have a SIM card that is designed to work with a data device as opposed to a cell phone SIM card. Some phone SIM cards will not work in a data-only device such as a router especially if you try to use a 5G SIM card in a 4G device. Also be sure you understand the data limits, throttling thresholds and roaming costs or other issues associated with your cell data plan. For more information on this subject, check out Steve Mitchell’s SeaBits blog article here.
  • Budget: Finally, there are considerations for how much to spend on your initial purchase vs. additional purchases down the road. Routers range from $299 to thousands of dollars but it is possible to put together an excellent router and antenna solution for less than $1,000. Some routers, such as the Peplink Balance 20X, can be upgraded with additional, more powerful cellular modems at a later time. External antennas can be expensive so it might make sense to get your router first, then purchase the antennas and cables that you want once you have tested the router in different locations.

Unfortunately we are unable to publicly show the list price for some Peplink products however if you create an account and log into our site, pricing will be shown.  

Recommendations

Here is a summary chart comparing our top Peplink LTE routers:

 Model

Modems

 LTE speed

 Wi-Fi as WAN

 Wi-Fi LAN

 Enterprise features

Cost

 MAX BR1 Mini LTEA CAT6

1

 Good

 Extra cost

 2.4GHz

 No, extra cost

$

 MAX BR1 MK2 LTEA CAT6

1

 Good

 Yes

 2.4GHz and 5GHz

 Yes

$$

 MAX Transit CAT18

1

 Best

 Yes

 2.4GHz and 5GHz

 1 year included

$$

 MAX Transit Duo CAT12

2

 Better

 Yes

 2.4GHz and 5GHz

 1 year included

$$$

 MAX HD1 Dome IP67 CAT18

1

 Best

 No

 None

 No

$$$$

 UBR LTE CAT6/CAT4

2

 Better

 Yes

 2.4GHz or 5GHz

 1 year included

$

 Balance 20X CAT4

1

 OK

 No

 2.4GHz and 5GHz

 1 year included

$

For full details, check out the product page for each of these routers.

Given all this, here are some recommendations based on addressing selected top line objectives:

What about 5G

You’ve probably noticed by now that all the routers mentioned in this article are 4G LTE routers. There are multiple reasons why 5G routers are not included:

  1. Currently Peplink does not have entry-level or mid-range routers with 5G but do have products in development. Since every router needs to be certified on the various carrier networks, it may be some time before these are available and fully supported by all the popular carriers.
  2. 5G network infrastructure is still being built out and true 5G speeds are not yet possible on the water given the propagation limits of 5G and the limited deployment of true 5G cell towers. Some carriers are advertising 5G coverage but in reality, these are pseudo-5G networks which honestly don’t appear to be any faster than 4G. For example, when I use my Apple iPhone 12 on the water, I see slightly worse data speeds using 5G vs. using the phone in 4G mode. So even if you had a 5G router, it is unlikely it would be usable in cruising areas for the foreseeable future.
  3. Overall, the current Peplink products can achieve 5G-class speeds using 4G LTE-A Pro CAT-18 modems or multiple modems combined using SpeedFusion WAN bonding. That said, data speeds are totally dependent on the carrier, your proximity to cell towers and congestion on the network. For example, a CAT 18 LTE-A Pro modem in a product such as the MAX Transit router can theoretically achieve download speeds of 1.2 Gbps and upload speeds of 150 Mbps yet you will never see those speeds in real-world use. The best I have seen is around 200 Mbps downloads on the water. This is still an incredible speed, and more than most people really need.
  4. Keep an eye on this space. There will definitely be 5G routers coming - in fact some, such as the Nighthawk M5 5G WiFi 6 Mobile Router, are already available. I recommend giving it some time for both the router technology to stabilize and for the 5G infrastructure to get more fully built out.

Summary

This article has turned out to be a lot longer than what I originally envisioned as a short buyer’s guide. Given the intersection of various LTE internet access technologies, Wi-Fi and a host of intersecting technologies this can rapidly become a complex topic. There are lots of options available and different models will appeal to different people depending on what they want to achieve.

I would recommend starting with just the LTE router but don’t skimp on the modem speed. The Pepwave MAX Transit Category 18 LTE Router is the fastest multi-function, single modem router we sell and is also our best seller. It basically checks all the boxes. If you feel it is more power than you need or more money than you want to spend, consider the Pepwave UBR Dual Modem LTE Router or the Pepwave MAX BR1 MK2 Category 6 LTE Router. With the UBR, I like the dual modem capability with the primary being a CAT 6 and the extra LAN ports. The MAX BR1 MK2 basically has all the features – including the enterprise extras – of the MAX Transit but uses a CAT 6 modem instead of a CAT 18 modem.

Once you have your router up and working with the bundled antennas, consider if you need external antennas and where those would be installed and most importantly, where to locate both the router and the antennas in order to have the shortest cable runs. The Peplink PUMA 401 and 221 antennas are great cost-effective, external, combo antennas that come with 6 feet of cable for all the connections.

In the end, all these devices are great solutions and are engineered for use in extreme environments. If you have questions on any of these solutions, contact us or leave questions or comments below.

Safe Boating!

Doug Miller

Tagged Products

 
 

Add Comment

What's This?
Type the code shown