Off Grid Internet Access on a Narrowboat

It’s been four years since I went Off Grid / Nomadic / whatever you want to call it.  You may be picturing a log cabin in the woods, but no…

I sold my house, paid off the mortgage and used the money to buy a boat to live on.

narrowboat off grid uk autumn

With hot and cold running water, gas central heating and plenty of electrical sockets, it had pretty much everything I needed. However, the lack of a landline telephone connection meant I had to find an alternative way to get on the internet…

Step 1 – Osprey 2 4G

EE 4G mobile broadband dongle USB
EE’s Osprey 2 Mini

At the time I didn’t even have a smartphone that could have been used as an internet hotspot, so I started with a rechargeable 4G dongle from EE. While this was a nice enough bit of equipment, the area I was staying in had very weak 3G (and no 4G at all).

This meant the only way I could get a signal was to balance it on a window ledge.  Doing this meant I wasn’t able to keep the device powered from my laptop, so had to run it from battery.  This lasted 3-4 hours which tended to fly by.  It also meant that once it ran low I had to stop all internet use until the battery recharged which would take more than an hour.

Being a heavy internet user I decided pretty quickly that I wanted a better long term solution.  My two priorities were:-

  1. Being able to plug into the mains so as not to need to keep recharging the battery.
  2. Something that could be connected to an external aerial.  This could then be mounted either in a window or (even better) raised above the roof on a pole to hopefully pick up a stronger signal.

I settled on a Huawei B593-s22 which met both of the above requirements and was a reasonable price (around £110 back then).

Related:-

Step 2 – Huawei B593

The B593 which I bought has since been superseded by newer models, although may still be available.  If you’re looking for something similar today, I’ve drawn up a shortlist of 4G routers, with a feature comparison and explanation where I go into far more detail on 4G Routers in general.

Huawei B593 – Results

As the router needed to be within reach of a power socket, it couldn’t be positioned in a window.  The built in aerials worked but only just.  Certainly better than the EE Osprey, but still a very weak signal which would drop and reconnect a couple of times per hour.

So next up, an external antenna was needed. I found the video below which was helpful.  But the antenna mentioned there cost around £100 so I first tried something similar off eBay for £20.

Window Mounted Antenna

Being able to use the suction mount to position the aerial high up in a window was a vast improvement as you can see below.  At the time 4G was not available, but whereas before 3G would only offer 1-2 Mbps download, with the aerial in the window I got nearly 10 Mbps down (and nearly 2Mbps upload).

3G speeds from the window mounted antenna

I stuck with this setup for several months, but then decided to splash out on the Poynting XPOL-1 mentioned in the video.  The main reason for this was that the eBay version had only a suction mount so had to stay inside, in a window.  The Poynting also included fittings to mount on a 1-2” diameter pole.  This meant it could be placed higher, above the roof, for hopefully an even better signal.

In the mean time 4G had become available in my area.  As you can see, raising the antenna by around 3 feet almost doubled my download and upload* speeds. 

4G speeds showing the improvement from pole mount antenna…

4G, aerial in window
Speedtest.net 4G internet with antenna mounted externally
4G, outside aerial

* I don’t know why the upload speeds were still so low.  I think it must be something to do with EEs network, as these days I’m on Vodafone and while the download is slightly slower than EE, the upload speeds now usually match the downloads).

In summary, the Poynting is better built and comes with 5 metres of (thicker) cable compared to the eBay version with only 2 metres.  However, the speed and signal strength when mounted in the same position was around the same on both antennas.

The Poynting XPOL-1 justifies its higher price by being able to be pole-mounted and so can pick up a stronger signal.

Strong signal but slow speed??

External antennas can really improve things in low signal locations.  However, last year I moved from right out “in the sticks” to my current location near a town centre. On arrival I was pleased to see a full 5 signal bars.  Before I’d usually only have 3 or sometimes 4 bars. I was expecting to break personal records with regard to speed, but in fact get slower speeds than I did before!

I put this down to too many people connecting to the same cell mast causing congestion.  There’s nothing that can really be done if this is the case, although speeds have improved over time so I think Vodafone have increased capacity in the area.

Additionally at this location I’ve found that I now get a slightly stronger signal if I disconnect the external antenna and use the Huawei’s built in aerials! This could be because the external antenna’s cables are 5 metres long and some of the signal strength to be lost between the aerial and the router. It’s certainly something to bear in mind before purchasing an external antenna if you already pick up a good strength of signal.

12v or 240v?

One great thing about these 4G routers is that they use very little power.  My B593 only needs 1A at 12volts.  This makes them ideal to run from the boats 12v battery supply rather than converting down from 230v mains.

You do have to be slightly careful here as some of the very cheap “cigarette lighter” PSUs are not “regulated” which means they do not filter the voltage they output.  This can cause them to supply higher than 12v which could damage or destroy any equipment plugged into them.  The 12v adapter I got prevents this by taking up to 30v input but only outing at a safe and steady 12v.

Going Beyond…

Having worked in IT networking and support, I chose go a step or two further. The following is probably overkill on a boat or other small interior, but I did it anyway. Additionally, these things could later be transferred back to dry land if circumstances change.

Wired Networking (Ethernet)

I installed a Cat 5e cable run from the front of the boat where the router sits, to the middle where I have a desktop PC. This joins the 4G internet into a Gigabit switch. Yes, probably fairly rare to have network cabling on a canal boat, but I had all the cable and ports (RJ45) from before so I thought I may as well use them.

While some wireless protocols are on paper even faster than Gigabit, in reality wired still copes better when transferring a large files. On slower wireless networks as soon as a large file starts being moved everything else can effectively grind to a halt.

Network Attached Storage (NAS)

I used to store all my files centrally on the hard disk of a small, low powered PC. After a while I replaced this with an entry level NAS drive – a 3TB WDMyCloud.

WDMyCloud and Huawei B593 4G router
My WDMyCloud and Huawei 4G router running happily off the battery at 12v on my boat. Note 3G only and just one signal bar. This was taken in the bad old days back in 2015.

The WD NAS provides everything I need including serving files directly to my TV meaning I can watch all my videos and TV programs on a large screen instead of sitting into front of a PC or laptop. It also (of course) takes up much less room and uses less power than a standard PC.

These days it’s getting a little full as I’m wanting to move from re compressed Blu-ray (1080p resolution) to native UHD 4K (2160p). More on that soon I hope!

IP CCTV

This was something I brought with me from my old house. It’s an outdoor dome CCTV with 720p resolution. Once connected to the wired network it can be viewed remotely and also capture images and/or video if motion is detected. The 720p resolution is fine and back when I got the camera 1080p models were quite a lot more expensive These days you can find 1080p models for less than I paid for my 720p model!

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