The EnGenius 2610 is a magic box that provides a wired internet connection for the ship’s computer. The basic principle is that it is mounted at the top of the mast, or as high as possible, and sees available wifi networks for your onboard computer to connect to. It does this by using a wired ethernet (CAT5) cable, just like at home or in the office.
A bridge-cum-access point-cum-router like this is designed to be mounted externally on a building in order for it to ‘talk’ to networks in other buildings, so its potential uses extend beyond the yacht owner, but for kicks this dumbed-down how-to has been written with the boat owner in mind.
What Is It?
This is a high performance outdoor wireless Access Point and Client Bridge. It has high transmit output power and high receive sensitivity. The unit includes a 10bB antenna but can also be used with an external antenna. It has four different operating modes, including ‘access point’, which is only really of use if you are building a network, and ‘client router’. This latter setting is what we’re interested in as it will pick up neighbouring networks. Think of it as a very powerful wifi antenna to replace your built-in wifi card.
Why Buy This Gear?
As a heavy internet user we were finding that normal ‘external’ wifi antennas, plugged into a USB port on 3 meters of cable just wasn’t cutting the mustard. This was compounded by being at anchor when the boat has a tendency to swing. One of the most frustrating problems was picking up an open wireless network, connecting to it, swinging 90 degrees at anchor and losing that connection because we moved outside its range. We wanted something that would see networks at a distance of over 1km. Note too that the cost of all this gear is around GBP 130. I’ve spent at least this much on external wifi antennas and powered USB cables!
Who Should Buy This Gear?
If you only want to check your email then this isn’t for you. Certainly in Turkey there are now so many wireless networks in restaurants along the coast that you just take your netbook ashore as and when convenient. Also if you have an aversion to heights and have no inclination to mount extra crap at the top of your mast, or run cables down it, then forget it. Installation is quite involved. Neither should you install this if you have no means to power it: it only amounts to milliamps but you’ll need an inverter to step down the 220v adaptor to 24v. Finally if you know nothing about networking or have no inclination to learn anything about networking, then bear in mind this isn’t really a plug-and-play solution. But then we’re capable yotties who can turn our hands to anything, aren’t we?
Anyone who has connection problems at anchor, however, might want to consider this, and anyone who cruises areas where there are known open networks within range would also benefit. Also if you are finding that you are getting significant signal loss due to long cables strewn across the boat then this may be for you too: because the Cat5 cable is powered there is no loss between the bridge and the computer.
What Do I Need?
1. EnGenius 2610 Bridge/Access Point or similar plus mounting bracket
2. External 2.4GHz 8dB omni-directional antenna and bracket
3. 1-3m of pig-tailed cable to connect external antenna to bridge
4. 20m of Cat5 or Cat6 cable
5. RJ45 terminal crimper
6. Bag of 10 RJ45 terminals
7. Inverter or shore power
8. €150 and somewhere to buy all this stuff!
Who Sells It?
I bought all my gear through a recommended UK website, Solwise. The pre-sales support was excellent, answering all my simple questions and pointing me in the right direction to purchase all the parts required. It was a shame their after-sales enthusiasm didn’t match their pre-sales energy. They did ignore a number of post-sales support emails and, when they have responded, they were tight with their knowledge. If I could offer an alternative place to buy this gear I would but if you accept that you won’t get any after-sales service then I suppose Solwise is as good a place as any to purchase. Their delivery to a UK address is speedy.
This is quite painless, providing you’re prepared to spend a couple of hours up the mast drilling holes for brackets. You need to keep the distance between the bridge and the external antenna as short as possible as this is where the loss occurs. I got away with just 1m between the two items. There is no loss from the bridge to the computer because the Cat5 cable is powered. Don’t forget to switch the antenna over from ‘Int’ to ‘Ext’ if fitting the external antenna.
Because we can’t feed our cable down inside the mast we ran it down the mizzen shroud and drilled a hole through the deck. This is possibly why installation was painless!
In order for the bridge to work you need to have power from an inverter close by. I went as far as rewiring my noisy inverter, which used to sit by the navigation area, to the other end of the boat and running a fat cable from it to a socket by the chart table. I did this because the power needs to be on for as long as I want to be online and the inverter’s fan was overbearing. Of course when on shore power just plug into a mains socket.
The power adaptor goes to a tiny PoE (power over ethernet) injector box. On one side of the box is the Cat5 cable running to the top of the mast. On the other side is the LAN cable that runs to your laptop. At this point you’ll have to start making your own terminals using the RJ45 plugs, and this is where a good guide on wiring will come in useful, as well as the wire strippers. DO NOT plug the PoE end into your computer like I did: you’ll fry the network card (I now use a USB NIC, which might be of use to anyone with an crap network card).
Lessoned learned: RTFM! I make the mistakes so you don’t have to 😉
With the computer connected to the bridge you then hit the IP address of the bridge and enter the administration area to make your changes. These include changing the password and the permanent IP address, both of which will conflict with other boxes if not changed. You’ll also want to change the operating mode over to ‘client router’. There is a simple how-to on this website.
Does It Work?
Yes, so far. I’m still in Marmaris Yacht Marina where the internet connection has improved recently due to a new IT manager properly managing the network, so to claim I can now stream Radio 4 all day is a bit misleading: Liz can do the same on her built-in wifi antenna on her crappy Acer, though she does have to sit in the cockpit. However when I booted up my machine I was able to pick out all the access points in the marina, the private networks from the big motor boats, Pupa Yacht across the bay and one or two networks I’d never heard of before. When I did a ‘test’ download, I was pulling down multiple files at speeds of over 200kbs, which is fast for the Marmaris Yacht Marina network. Fast enough to get a slap across the wrists by the savvy IT manager! (It’s all in the name of science, you understand. ) That alone is a leap forward. The real test, however, will come when we are swinging at anchor so watch this space for updates in the comments section, below.
So Why Write The Article Now If It’s Not Been Tested Properly?
Because it’s my last chance to tell you about it before we head off on the rally and I wanted to give you a heads up. I’m not sure when I’ll next be at anchor with available wifi networks: I can’t see it happening in Sudan, though it will be interesting to see what’s around as we push through the Red Sea.
Pros and Cons
These are based on one week’s use, on a new installation that’s not yet thoroughly understood by yours truly.
Lossless signal = full power
Multiple operating modes (not discussed here)
There’ll always be a geek out there to help with your installation problems!
Cannot connect multiple computers without an additional router
Some networking knowledge required
Can’t enable ICS (internet connection sharing) without confusing host computer
I’m hoping that, because this equipment is currently available, this article should help anyone looking to install the same set up. I’d certainly be interested to hear from anyone who has already done something similar, or networking experts who can tell me if I’m doing anything wrong. Bring on the geeks…
This post comes with two caveats: I will not provide any technical assistance should anyone buy this gear; I write this article as a keen enthusiast, not as a networking expert!