Wi-Fi Suppliers Give Advice On the Right Infrastructure and Equipment

Just as the internet has become part of everyday life, Wi-Fi access is largely expected as part of hospitality service, and marinas are no exception.

However, delivering consistent Wi-Fi at the waterfront can be more difficult than building a network for home or office. The natural elements provide challenges everywhere, and differing marina layouts require different systems and infrastructure. To achieve the best system for each facility, owners should consult qualified companies that are familiar with working on the waterfront and the needs of marinas and boatyards. MDA talked with a few suppliers to get their input on what on-site factors to consider when installing Wi-Fi infrastructure, equipment needs for the network, and how to give boaters the internet experience they expect.

Like much equipment on the waterfront, it is always challenged by the natural wet environment, not to mention storm and climate change trends. The daily tides and changes in water levels can also affect the type of infrastructure needed to make Wi-Fi work at the waterfront.

“The biggest issue that we run into is trying to think that a dock layout is the same thing as your house or your bar,” said Sam Mobley, general manager, MarinaVision. Not only do the outside elements add challenges, but marina layouts can be vast, or long and narrow, or tucked in a circular cove; each marina layout presents different layout challenges. No one shape is harder to design for, but each requires a specific shape of coverage. Mobley said the design needs the right combination of Wi-Fi access points in order to not leave any dead zones, using a combination of coverage patterns (circle, half-circle or cone shaped), in the layout.

“You really need to understand the location. A California marina vs. a Florida marina will be built with different equipment. We use different equipment and different frequencies to overcome different obstacles at both,” said Allie Bielas of Jabba Communications. For example, metal on sailboat masts can disrupt normal patterns in the Wi-Fi signal. Those challenges can be mitigated but only if the system is engineered properly.

Marinas are also dynamic environments with boats moving in and out. “One of the biggest challenges at a marina is the constantly changing layout,” said Russ Schmidt of Beacon Wi-Fi. Not only do boats vary and they move about, but they also each have their own individual equipment requirements – appliances and controls on the vessel and passenger devices and demands. The larger the boat, the more it has everyday equipment relying on the Wi-Fi, and the largest superyachts have big crew on-board with their own individual Wi-Fi needs.

Internet speed can be a challenge, considering all the vessels and all the devices, but if planned for properly, a Wi-Fi system at the docks can meet the demands of any marina and its boaters’ internet needs. No one-sized-fits-all system will work for marina Wi-Fi, for many of the reasons discussed above.

“We love doing site visits because it’s the best way to custom design a network,” Bielas said. A site map, from walking the docks four or five times, is necessary to find all the obstacles, plan solutions and place equipment properly.

Owners may also want to consider special applications like hot spots for a restaurant or office. All those options should be considered upfront, in order to design the best system.

Network Options
Traditional internet service can be wired, even at the waterfront, but most facilities installing new service opt for wireless these days. Wireless access has obvious advantages with less physical wiring and electric needed at the waterfront.

Wireless networks can come in different forms, such as a mesh network, which provides a network of access points that pass the signal between points to move Wi-Fi throughout the property. Mobley said each access point has multiple bandwidths, and they work at a different frequency for network communication.

A full network can also include TV and internet with a cable modem termination system (CMTS) over a coaxial cable.

The necessary parts of a network system include the incoming bandwidth and the software programming that controls bandwidth management. Wi-Fi companies will design the right system for each facility (more on bandwidth requirements in the next section.)

Once the system harnasses the bandwidth it needs, a controller, or the brains of the network, directs the signal where it needs to go, in order to provide consistent service throughout. The controller is located on-site but remotely managed, and programmed to manage the bandwidth and the quality of service for users.

Access points throughout the marina will carry the signal to the entire facility. Bielas recommends only using commercial grade access points, not equipment for home or small office. Equipment should be commercially rated for outdoor use and weather proofed. “We construct our networks to be easily taken down should a strong storm arise, but keep in mind, our networks are built to withstand heavy winds and lots of rain,” she said.

Access points are mounted in the air on poles. Bielas said typically the access points sit no lower than 20 feet in the air, and could be much higher. An offset conduit pole attaches the access point to the main pole, so it can be raised and lowered easily without having to move the entire pole.

The amount of bandwidth needed for marinas is somewhat of a “moving target,” Schmidt said, depending on how many boats and what type of vessels. Ultimately, the bandwidth requirements lie with the expectations of the boaters and what level of service the marina wants to provide.

Jabba uses an in-house aggregator to calculate the best bandwidth solution. “We will tell you what you need,” Bielas said. “You also don’t want more than you need.” Based on the level of service marinas want to provide, they will have different options for bandwidth.

The most important thing to understand about bandwidth at a marina with lots of users is what comes in will be split among all the vessels and users. Marinas need to decide what they want to provide each individual user and build a network from there to support those needs.

What owners decide to provide, and boaters’ actual needs, can vary, Mobley said. He recommended that it’s important to get input from boaters and talk through those issues with owners. As a reference, one Netflix stream uses about 3.4 mb (or megabits, the measurement for data traveling between points.)

Schmidt said that marinas can also provide tiered options to boaters. While some Wi-Fi service or up to a certain speed may be included in the slip fee, boaters can pay for faster service as an added option.

Most internet service providers offer full turnkey service to marinas. The systems all have remote access, which allows providers to fix issues and catch problems before they become issues. Some systems can also provide other Wi-Fi enabled services like security cameras and remote access gate control, all on one system.

Monthly reports can give owners statistics like bandwidth usage, total users, and records of outages and issues. Bielas said the reports can also be customized to provide other data or information to owners. “Everyone prefers to stay hands-off, and we stay hands on,” Bielas said.

Wi-Fi is often a big investment, but more and more necessary for most boaters, so the investment needs to consider long-term usage needs. “If you’re going to spend the money, do it properly with the right equipment,” Bielas said.

New technology is always creating higher frequencies with less noise and more speed. “Higher frequencies put the bandwidth into a smaller and smaller space,” Mobley said.

Before investing in any Wi-Fi system, discuss options with a qualified supplier, so the system meets the challenges of the facility, provides consistent Wi-Fi to every user, and serves the facility’s long-term bandwidth needs.