Our Marine Internet Setup, Why We're Not Using Starlink, and What I Would Change
Updated: Dec 2
Note: I/we are not sponsored by any companies mentioned in this article. We cruise full time on our test bed, SV Confianza, and we enjoy sharing our tests and opinions to give back to the community.
As digital nomads aboard Connie, my co-captain Angie and I can't risk our livelihood on spotty internet. Over the years and many iterations later, we believe we've honed in on a setup that keeps us connected, even when we're bobbing miles offshore.
For those who want the meat without the potatoes, here's a list of the gear that forms the backbone of our current marine internet setup (prices were looked up as of this publishing on May 23, 2023):
1x Peplink Max Transit Cat 18 - $740 (to be upgraded to Peplink Max BR1 Pro 5G - $999)
2x Poynting Omni 402 - $400 each
1x Poynting Omni 496 - $189
1x Netgear Nighthawk MR5100 - $400
1x Netgear Omnidirectional MIMO Antenna - $55
LMR-400 Cable - $2.33 per foot plus connectors and crimping
Now let's cover each component, how it fits, and why it was chosen. Quickly jump to any section below:
Peplink Max Transit Cat 18 is the Main Event
Our Peplink Max Transit router offers us the flexibility we need to stay connected on the go. Thanks to its SpeedFusion feature, it creates a kind of VPN that duplicates data packets across multiple cell carriers, then reassembles them for an ultra-stable data stream. For folks like us who rely on video calls for work, data loss simply isn't an option.
However, SpeedFusion does consume more data, and bandwidth for the SpeedFusion VPN comes at a price (about $40 per terabyte). We only use this feature for critical tasks, not our everyday streaming.
Another important feature of the Peplink router is the ability to connect other sources of internet for SpeedFusion to blend in, such as another mobile hotspot, a marina Wi-Fi, or an ISP hotspot on land (like the ones in the USA from Spectrum, Xfinity, Optimum, etc).
Netgear Nighthawk MR5100 — The Backup We Need
Having a second source of internet is crucial for redundancy. Our Netgear Nighthawk MR5100 is connected to the Peplink as Wifi as WAN, and is the second source of internet for the Speedfusion. It also makes a nice standalone backup.
The MR5100 version of the Nighthawk is made for AT&T in the USA. And while it has a somewhat stripped-down admin interface, it works well with our AT&T sim card. If you are not planning on using AT&T, you'll want the more expensive MR5200 version. This version supports more bands and will perform much better with carriers other than AT&T in the USA.
One annoyance is that this version does not allow you to select bands individually. We had some trouble up in Maine with it connecting to a weak 5g band vs a strong LTE band.
The MR1500 is also connected to a Netgear Omnidirectional MIMO Antenna. In testing, we have found that this antenna usually gives us a boost in speed. However, even though it says that it's omnidirectional, our testing concludes that it absolutely is directional. So the performance gains are only seen when pointing towards cell towers. We've seen worse performance if the antenna is aimed on the wrong side of the boat.
The Omnidirectional antenna also forces the Nighthawk into 2x2 MIMO instead of 4x4 MIMO. So when we have good signal strength, we actually get better results by disconnecting the antenna. This switches the Nighthawk back to the built in antennas and 4x4 MIMO.
Max Transit Cat 18 vs Max Transit Duo — Cat 18 vs Cat 12
While it's true that the Max Transit Duo has two cellular modems, and we could in theory eliminate the need for the Netgear Nighthawk MR5100, the modems themselves are an older generation.
A quick digression for those less familiar with the terminology: when we talk about "Cat 18" and "Cat 12," we're referring to the different categories of LTE (Long Term Evolution) modems that are available for use in our gear. These categories differentiate modems based on their capabilities, particularly their speed.
The theoretical speed that you can achieve from Cat 18 is double that of Cat 12. It's not even worth mentioning the theoretical speeds, since you will never get anywhere close to that. In our testing, though, Cat 18 modems give significantly higher speeds than Cat 12 modems. We often get 30+mbps with a Cat 18, and we used to have under 20 with a cat 12. With multiple people on video calls, getting under 15mbps of available speed is really a problem.
Problems with Max Transit Cat 18 and Why We're Upgrading
We have run into weird hiccups with having multiple people on SpeedFusion, and even latency issues with multiple people connected that we don't experience when just connected to the Netgear Nighthawk.
Many times when we're having issues, I can see the processor spiked at 100% usage or near 100% usage. For some time, I thought we might have a defective device, until I read Steve's article on Seabits on the Max BR1 Pro. He details the higher speeds he's getting from the Max BR1 Pro with the same carriers in similar situations over the Max Transit Cat-18:
I believe that those products, in particular the CAT18 series, were CPU limited when it came to 4G LTE in many situations, and that the BR1 overcomes those limitations. That's disappointing to figure out on one hand - it would have been nice for Peplink to actually put the necessary CPU behind those platforms - but it is also good to see that you can get better performance with the BR1.
Like Steve, we now recommend going with the Max BR1 Pro if you're considering a system like ours.
Poynting Omni 402 and Omni 496 Antennas
Poynting is a trusted name in cellular antennas. Their Omni 402 antennas, which we have mounted far apart and on slightly different planes, provide optimal coverage and minimize potential obstructions. Cellular signal isn't deterred by fiberglass, but it absolutely despises metal.
However, cellular signal also hates wires. The signal can degrade quite quickly through any cabling. That's where our LMR-400 cables come in. They offer the best chance of preserving the cell signal from our antennas. Terminating your own connections can be a pain, so we recommend using showmecables.com's custom cable builder.
Each antenna is actually two antennas together, so with two 4302s, we have the capability for the full 4x4 MIMO. And with them spread apart, we have more ability to catch unobstructed signals.
We're using Poynting's Omni 496 as our long-range Wi-Fi antenna. This can add another source of internet like a marina wifi. Although marina Wi-Fi can be a hit or miss, this has come in handy a few times.
It is also the same antenna that transmits wifi, so placement can be tricky. Ours is all the way astern, again to reduce cable length, but we haven't had any signal issues throughout the boat.
We could increase Wifi speeds by adding a second Omni 496 for better 2x2 MIMO reception. Right now the second MIMO antenna is simply the stock antenna on the Peplink Max Transit. We expected that the speeds transmitting to our devices would probably not be a limiting factor, and marina wifi is rarely any good, so we didn't upgrade the second wifi antenna.
Another good option is the Peplink Maritime 20G. These came out after we installed our Poynting Antennas, and, while we haven't been able to test them ourselves, Steve from Seabits got slightly better results in the lower bands. It also generally goes for the same price as the Poynting Omni-402 that it competes with.
Why No Cellular Boosters?
The advent of MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) technology has made boosters nearly obsolete. Good antennas set up in MIMO will almost always outperform boosters.
MIMO works by using multiple antennas at the transmitter and receiver to improve communication performance. It's all about creating multiple pathways for your data, enhancing both speed and reliability. And with good antennas extending your range, there's really no comparison to a booster.
Why No Starlink?
While the concept of Starlink is appealing, its inherent instability makes it a no-go for us. We need a reliable connection, and the sporadic dropouts we've heard of make us wary.
Starlink has also been specifically defining most of their plans for land use only:
Starlink Roam (previously known as "Starlink for RVs") provides immediate access to high-speed, low-latency internet on an as-needed basis at any destination where Starlink provides active coverage. Both Regional and Global plans are available. Regional plans are geo-fenced to work on land within the same continent as the registered Shipping Address, while the Global plans work on land anywhere there is active service coverage. If you use Starlink in a foreign country for more than two months, you may be required to update your account to your new location. Starlink Roam provides Best Effort service - there is no priority access included in the plan. In-motion use is supported for designated kits.
Moreover, we've recently heard about Starlink advising customers to stop using their service in the ocean or upgrade to their marine plans, which come with very low data caps — not an ideal situation for bandwidth-heavy activities like video calls.
Seems this email is going out to everyone that has been using Starlink on the ocean. This is exactly the type of thing we were afraid of when considering it for a mission critical system.
However, we're not ruling out Starlink completely. Once we've installed our solar arch, we plan to add an extra platform to accommodate Starlink (or its future competitor) when it becomes more reliable and marine-friendly.
Our setup is by no means perfect, and like all things aboard Connie, it's constantly evolving. But for now, it does the job quite well, keeping us connected no matter where our journey takes us.
Note: Our setup has been upgraded! Please check out the new post for details: Our Marine Internet Setup UPGRADED, Including Starlink and Peplink's New Starlink Integration