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Onboard Mobile Connectivity Update: Six months with Peplink, 5G and more

Posted by Doug Miller on 5/5/2021 to Configuration Examples
It has been six months since I installed my first Peplink Pepwave LTE router on my boat. Since November 2020, Milltech Marine has sold dozens of routers to customers and have become a Certified Gold Partner with Peplink. Clearly there is a lot of interest in mobile connectivity on boats as people look to “work from boat” instead of “work from home” as summer approaches.
During this time, I have had the opportunity to try out different combinations of products to see if I could improve on my initial set of products documented here. 
My testing has included trying out a pre-release of the Peplink Pepwave Max Transit 5G router and while this product is still in the certification phase with US carriers, the results are very promising. 
This article documents some of my testing and provides an overview of what I am using for Internet connectivity on my own sailboat.

To review, back in October 2020, I installed a Pepwave Max BR1 MK2 Category 6 LTE router on my boat and wrote about it here. Even with the bundled paddle LTE and WiFi antennas, it worked really well. It is a great solution and combines a lot of the features of higher end models, provides fast internet speeds and checks a lot of functionality boxes for a great price. I tried adding the Peplink PUMA-221 combo antenna which provides two LTE, two WiFi and one GPS antenna in a single dome format factor and tested this setup with the antenna in the headliner and then tested with the antenna mounted outside on a pole on my stern rail. With the antenna mounted on the stern rail, I typically saw twice the upload and download speed for LTE connections. I also got much better speeds and consistency connecting to our marina WiFi when at the dock. So that was definitely a worthwhile investment.

New setup

While this setup worked perfectly well, I wanted to see how things would change with a Category 18 router – which has a theoretical maximum speed of 1.2 Gbps for LTE downloads and 150 Mbps for uploads. It should be noted, that while those speeds look very attractive, no one will ever achieve those speeds due to carrier constraints, customer load, distance to cell towers and many other factors. It is also worth noting the MAX BR1 MK2, with its Category 6 modem, has a theoretical download speed of 300 Mbps. 
I chose the Pepwave MAX Transit Category 18 LTE Router which has been one of our best sellers. In concept, this router is very similar to the MAX BR1 MK2 and supports all of the same basic functions. The most notable physical difference is the Max Transit has four LTE antenna connections instead of the two found on the BR1 MK2 and other sub-Cat 18 modems. 
The setup steps for the Max Transit were the same as the steps for the MAX BR1 MK2. I paired the MAX Transit with a pole-mounted PUMA-401 4x4 MIMO LTE antenna dome instead of the PUMA-221. Since upgrading my cell plan to a T-Mobile 100GB for $50 Mobile Internet plan, I was no longer too fussed with connecting to the much slower marina WiFi so I used the bundled WiFi paddle antennas inside the cabin and dedicated those to serving the boat WiFi network. I have an old Wave WiFi Rogue WiFi bridge so I have that connected to the WAN port giving me the option to connect to marina WiFi if I want. That said, it is possible to use the WiFi radios on the MAX Transit to host both your onboard WiFi network and use WiFi as WAN to connect to external public WiFi hotspots.

Was it faster?

The obvious question is, did this upgrade result in faster connectivity speeds? The simple answer is yes
Typically, in my testing, the Category 18 modem is about twice the speed of the Category 6 modem – not the theoretical 4x difference. Much of the limitation in speed increase is again based on the carrier, the distance to the cell towers, network saturation and possibly other factors. I also found different carriers had different speeds in my basic testing. T-Mobile was typically faster than Verizon or AT&T, regardless of the signal strength and quality.
Probably the biggest factor in getting a fast, reliable, long-range connection is having decent external antennas attached to your LTE antenna ports with the shortest cable run possible. External antennas will really help to bring in cellular signals in remote areas with marginal coverage. Again, for my installation, I used the Peplink Puma-401 4x4 MIMO LTE/GPS Antenna but a lot of customers use a pair of Poynting OMNI-402 MIMO LTE Antennas and also get great results. I mounted the PUMA-401 on a pole on the stern rail with a short cable run to the router in the aft cabin. I will eventually do a more permanent install but this worked to test the effectiveness of the external antenna. I used a set of 5 meter Poynting Extension Cables for 5 in 1 Antennas to see how the loss would be with a total run of about 22 feet with the thinner LMR-195. There was marginal difference with and without the extension cable set, so I feel comfortable recommending this for customers. If your total cable run is more than 20 feet, consider higher gauge LMR-400 cables.
I jumped on the new T-Mobile Mobile Internet $50 for 100GB prepay plan just after it was announced and use that SIM card as my primary and my Verizon SIM as the backup. Unfortunately, the $50 for 100MB prepay plan is now $50 for 50MB (still not a bad deal) last I checked although I understand the original offer is still available for post-pay customers. Speeds on T-Mobile have been about twice the Verizon speeds and with lots of data on this plan I rarely use the slower marina WiFi WAN connection.
Overall, I have been super happy with this setup. The MAX Transit with the PUMA-401 has been one of our most popular combos and I think it will meet the needs of most customers. That said, if you are doing a lot of Zoom or Teams calls, having a dual modem router such as the Category 12 version of the Pepwave MAX Transit Duo LTE Router combined with Peplink’s SpeedFusion WAN smoothing capabilities should be considered, as this will allow you to combine two LTE connections into a single reliable virtual connection and address any packet drops in one connection or the other.
Using the MAX Transit or Max Transit Duo as a foundation for your Internet connectivity solution is a great starting point. Once you have the router, there are lots of possibilities for extending and optimizing the solution. For example,
  • Add external LTE antennas as discussed above to extend range, reliability and speed 
  • Use the MAX Transit WiFi WAN capabilities (instead of a separate WiFi bridge product) to connect to marina WiFi when available
  • Add external WiFi antennas if you plan on doing a lot of marina WiFi connections
  • Place the MAX Transit close to the antennas to minimize cable runs and then run an Ethernet cable to a dedicated WiFi access point or two in the cabin (such as the Pepwave AP One Rugged Wireless Access Point)

What else have I tested?

I have tested a full range of other Peplink solutions and installation scenarios on my boat. The following are worth sharing.

Remotely mounted MAX Transit with Power over Ethernet (PoE) splitter

As mentioned, one challenge with installing an LTE router is keeping the cable run as short as possible which may mean installing both the router and the antennas in a remote location on the boat. That can work well for getting a good signal but can be challenging if power is not available in the remote location or if the router is too far away to get a good onboard WiFi signal in the main cabin. One solution to this is to use Power over Ethernet (PoE) to provide both power and data to the router with a single Ethernet cable. That would be great except the MAX Transit routers do not support PoE. So, we have a simple solution which is a PoE splitter that works with the standard 12vDC port on the MAX Transit to provide power while also providing a data link via ethernet to an Access Point in the main cabin. This solution set allows you to install the main router and antennas wherever you can get a good signal and install a separate WiFi access point in the cabin where your users are. Note, that in order for PoE to work, you need an appropriate PoE inserter. We now have a range of these here.

Peplink MAX HD1 Dome with SIM Injector and AP One Rugged Access Point

Of course, the other way to address the above scenario is to purchase a Peplink MAX HD1 Dome or MAX HD2 Dome and install it as high as possible on the boat and run a single Ethernet cable down to the cabin connected to a WiFi Access Point. The Peplink HD Dome has the LTE modem (two modems in the HD2) and the LTE antennas in a single PoE-powered weatherproof dome. A popular add on for this device has been the Peplink SIM Injector which allows you to install the SIM cards for the HD Dome in a convenient location in the cabin. The SIM Injector also provides power to the Dome and if you use a PoE-enabled Access Point such as the AP One Rugged, the SIM Injector can provide power to the Access Point as well as act as the Ethernet switch for connecting the HD Dome to the access point. This combo of products has also been very popular with customers. 
I have even tried two Category 18 MAX HD1 Domes connected to the SIM Injector and then wired to a Peplink Balance 20X router / access point. This resulted in crazy fast speeds and a super reliable connection. So there are lots of possibilities depending on your needs.

Peplink UBR LTE dual modem router

If you are looking for a lower cost dual modem LTE router, the UBR LTE is a great solution at a very attractive price of just under $500. It features a Category 6 and a Category 4 modem that can be used in either a failover scenario (e.g. the signal from one carrier is poor so the modem quickly fails over to the other modem with a different carrier) or both can be used together in a SpeedFusion bonded scenario for a more reliable connection via a single virtual connection. This small device also has four gigabit LAN ports and one gigabit WAN port, plus 2.4 or 5GHz WiFi for WiFi WAN and / or a WiFi onboard access point. With a bonded connection, I was getting over 70Mbps download speeds anchored out in Poulsbo – more than enough speed for most online workloads.

Pepwave MAX Transit 5G

I am getting a lot of questions about 5G and while we don’t yet have a 5G model certified by all the carriers in the US, I have been lucky enough to get my hands on a pre-release of the new PepWave MAX Transit 5G router. I have been testing this unit for the last two months and have seen some interesting results. This product looks just like the MAX Transit Category 18 router. The biggest difference is the Thales MV31-W modem inside the case which supports 5G as well as Category 20 LTE-A Pro. There are lots of so-called 5G networks out there but for the most part, the 5G of interest for boaters will be Sub-6GHz 5G. mmWave 5G is faster but has very short range.
For my testing, I have tried my T-Mobile, Verizon, Google Fi and AT&T SIM cards in the MAX Transit 5G. I also did my testing with the Peplink PUMA-401 antenna which already supports the 5G frequencies.
So far, the results have been best with T-Mobile which immediately allowed me to connect to their 5G network and where I have seen download speeds approaching 150Mbps in the marina. But I have also seen speeds under 10Mbps in areas with weaker 5G signals. Google Fi also worked on 5G and had similar results which makes sense since it is using T-Mobile’s network.
After applying some fixes from the Peplink engineers, I was able to get the MAX Transit 5G to connect to Verizon’s DSS 5G network. So far, the results here are less impressive and I typically find speeds faster on Verizon if I force the modem to use 4G. This, by the way, is the same experience I have with my 5G iPhone on Verizon. For now, Verizon download speeds are faster on 4G. 
I have tested both prepaid and postpaid AT&T SIM cards and have been able to connect with LTE and LTE-A with carrier aggregation. I was not near any AT&T 5G cell towers so was not able to see if the MAX Transit 5G would connect to the AT&T 5G network or not.
It should be noted that the 5G model is still going through carrier certifications. But the initial results look very promising. A bonus with the 5G model is the selectable Category 20 LTE-A Pro capability so if 5G is not available, you can have the modem automatically try 4G or even force the modem into 4G mode if you know it will be faster.
The Pepwave MAX Transit 5G Router is now available for order with the caveat that it may or may not work on your chosen carrier until that carrier and cell plan is certified. For best results, I would recommend a T-Mobile SIM.
As the Peplink 5G models get closer to certification, I will provide an update on final pricing, carrier support and availability.

If you have questions about any of these configurations, feel free to leave a comment below or Contact Us.

Safe boating.

Doug Miller

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