A communications load balancing system

1 Comms

To the editor: My partner and I are both employed by Microsoft and often find ourselves working remotely throughout the Puget Sound and British Columbia. We needed a reliable Internet solution that didn’t break the bank and could work in U.S. and Canadian waters.
After reviewing options, including mini-VSAT KVH and Fleet Broadband, we realized that it would cost thousands of dollars per month for even basic email and web browsing service. These services were designed for worldwide cruising and not intended for streaming video or working remotely over a virtual private network (VPN). We continued the search for something else that would be reliable enough to support month-long cruises without costing much more than we already paid for existing cellular data plans.

Our requirements included:
• Affordable Internet connection capable of high-speed streaming when at home or in urban areas, email, web browsing, and corporate VPN connections while remote
• Voice connections needed for entering Canada or U.S. through the Nexus program, or dialing into conference calls from areas far removed (more than 10 miles) from cellular infrastructure 
• Devices should only have to connect to one wireless network, regardless of which Internet source is being used
• The system should automatically detect which Internet option is preferred based on signal quality and whether or not the connection was metered
Our solution was multiple cellular 3G and 4G services, each able to use different frequencies, and a standard 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi extender with external antennae. 
Internet Sources:
• Wi-Fi extender with external antenna (2.4 Ghz) [54 Mbps]
• 3G/GSM broadband router for data and voice with external antenna (Ericsson W35) [7.2 Mbps] 
• 4G/LTE broadband router for data+ (Ericsson MBR L21) [150 Mbps] 
• Clear (Sprint/Formerly ClearWire) LTE broadband [6-10 Mbps]
• Verizon Mobile Hotspot 4G LTE [150 Mbps]

A load-balancing device (Peplink Balance 30) automatically balances and aggregates Internet connections and exposes them as one source to our Linksys Wireless Access Point. What this means is that devices such as computers, phones and tablets can each connect to our single Wi-Fi network for our boat and not have to worry which Internet connection happens to be active whether we’re in port, underway, or at anchor. We simply pull the SIM Card out of our 3G cellular phones and insert one into the 3G or 4G device to begin using it as our internet (or voice/fax) service — no additional contract or data plan required beyond the existing one for our phones. Because GSM cellular services are used internationally, any broadband router based on such technology will serve the U.S. and most international locations, assuming one has an accommodating cellular data plan.  

When in port or hanging on the hook in urban areas, our unlimited Clear service enables high-speed streaming from services such as Netflix and Hulu, on top of typical web browsing for only $59.95 per month. Alternately, our external Wi-Fi antenna allows us to connect to marina networks as far as 4,500 feet away. As we pull away from the dock, the 3G or 4G device automatically kicks in and becomes the Internet source while underway or in remote anchorages. The CDMA-based Verizon hotspot covers gaps in the GSM network such as in the popular San Juan Islands or South Puget Sound. Each network leverages unique sets of radio frequencies that have differing propagation effects throughout the coastal and island terrain. By combining multiple services, we increased the likelihood of having access based on local topography.

While the system may seem complex at first, it is important to realize that once set up, it’s mostly “set it and forget it.” Everything just works automatically, although being able to pop a SIM card in and out may be required. Also, it is worth pointing out that other boaters may wish to start simply with one or two options like the contract-free Wi-Fi extender combined with a cellular broadband router. Individual user requirements will dictate how many devices and network types would be required. 

—Marcus Gillette is a technical program manager in Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure organization. He lives with his partner on his expedition trawler in Seattle.

By Ocean Navigator