This article printed in the January/February 2019 issue of PassageMaker Magazine and is adapted from this Panbo blog post by the author at Panbo.com.
When I first wrote about my installation of a Winegard ConnecT, it was because I was frustrated by the cabling and mounting scheme Winegard employs. But the company deserves high marks for their response to my concerns, as they quickly had a proposed solution, which I will explain below. While ConnecT’s all-in-one WiFi and cellular get-online system—with the cell service included—is Winegard’s first entry into the marine market, they’ve been at it in the recreational vehicle world for quite some time. And their radio frequency (RF) performance is rock solid, even if the interface seemed rather bare-bones to me.
The Winegard ConnecT 4G1xM is a WiFi bridge, 4G/LTE modem, and router in a single enclosure. It provides the option to connect either via cellular bandwidth purchased directly from Winegard or via a land-based WiFi network. If you have an existing boat network, the ConnecT can be connected to it via Ethernet or you can use the WiFi in client devices like your laptop or tablet directly with the ConnecT.
ConnecT 4G1xM has two WiFi radios, one for connecting to shore-based WiFi and one for client devices on the boat to connect to the unit. Both of these radios are single-band 2.4 GHz radios. As has been talked about a lot recently, the 2.4 GHz band presents some challenges in RF-dense areas. So while the 2.4 GHz band option comes with greater range than 5 GHz, I’m still a little sad to see 5 GHz omitted here.
When Ben Ellison and I sat down with Winegard’s leadership at the 2018 Miami Boat Show, they stressed their roots. Based in Burlington, Iowa, the company produces almost everything in-house and has an impressive array of capabilities from software engineering to an onsite print shop.
ConnecT can be mounted either on a standard 1”-14 marine antenna mount or with an included deck mount adapter. The CAT5 cable that carries power to the unit and allows connecting to the boat network comes through the hole, so you will need to find a mount with a cable slot cutout (like the Shakespeare 4188-SL I’m using) or with a hole large enough to pass through an RJ45 connector.
A power-over-Ethernet (POE) injector is included to power the unit, and I was happy to see that it’s a 12v model, which makes installation easier for most boaters. A CAT5 cable runs from the POE injector to the cable coming out of the bottom of ConnecT. This one connection is all that is needed between the unit and the POE injector. If you’re going to use WiFi between your device and ConnecT, you’re done with the installation. But if you’re using a wired connection to the boat’s network—known as a local area network (LAN)—or straight to a computer below, you will plug its cable into the LAN port on the other side of the POE injector.
ConnecT’s user interface has minimal bells and whistles. For instance, the change from 4G to WiFi is done manually to avoid any usage or billing surprises. Although the simple user interface generally worked well for me, it did feel a little clunky at times. For instance, there’s no top or side navigation function in the interface; instead, all pages are selected by scrolling to the bottom of the screen and pulling down a menu.
Some diagnostic information is available within the interface. This includes a bit of information about the client devices connected to the unit and the wide area network (WAN) or internet connection. However, there’s no in-depth diagnostic information exposed to the end user that a power-user might like. I also found myself wishing data usage was displayed more prominently when the unit was in 4G/LTE mode.
I’ve had the ConnecT on my boat, Have Another Day, since our springtime launch and during our summer cruise up Lake Michigan and into the North Channel of Lake Huron, Canada, which included spots with minimal cell coverage.
On our cruise, I also had several other marine internet devices and my trusty NetGear LB1120, but every time we found ourselves in areas of borderline cellular service the ConnecT was the last device to lose connectivity.
This was underscored when we spent a night in Baie Fine, one of the few fjords in North America and a well-known cellular dead spot. Indeed, as we pulled into the fjord we watched our phones and tablets go from full coverage to no signal. After dropping the anchor I fired up a browser and consulted ConnecT’s user interface. Though there wasn’t much connectivity, there was enough service to get iMessages out to family and send a few emails to maintain contact with the outside world. Notably, ConnecT was the only device with any service that evening, a fact that proved especially helpful when retrieving weather information about a straight-line squall headed directly over us.
I have several other data SIMs on the boat, incidentally all tied to AT&T’s network. Two are part of my voice plan, direct with AT&T, and one came from a reseller who provides (sort of) unlimited bandwidth. Occasionally during our Canadian stay I had difficulty getting any of them to work. I’d find myself swapping the cards between the Shakespeare WebWatch, Wave WiFi MBR-550, NetGear LB1120, NetGear NightHawk MR1100, and iPads hoping for activation. When these devices did activate, their performance varied widely and apparently regardless of service availability; sometimes I’d see 8 to 10 Mbps of throughput while other times I’d struggle to get 1 Mpbs. I don’t believe this was the fault of the modems or antennas, but rather the vagaries of international data roaming.
By contrast, Winegard just worked. The only variations I saw in speed seemed to correlate to cellular service range, and as I mentioned above, that was typically stronger with ConnecT than other devices. ConnecT also had very strong WiFi RF performance. It consistently pulled in the most networks and seemed to cope better with marginal signal strength.
My main concern with the product was that the original mounting setup left the RJ45 connectors exposed to the weather. But as I mentioned, I was impressed with Winegard’s response to this concern. They quickly delivered an Amphenol waterproof RJ45/CAT6 cable coupler. That coupler does a very nice job of sealing off the cable ends from any weather. I think the issues I saw stem from the fact that ConnecT is the marine version of a product originally designed for the RV world, and Winegard let me know they are considering other options to better weather-seal that vulnerable connector, which is essential consideration for marine users.
The Winegard ConnecT 4G1xM unit is listed at $479, and Winegard offers two basic types of plans: U.S./Canada or U.S. only. The U.S.-only plan is available with a 10 GB bucket of data for $65. At $6.50 per gig, this is decent value. The 1 GB, 3 GB, 10 GB, and 20 GB plans ($20, $35, $80, and $150, respectively) that include service in Canada are as cheap as $7.50/GB with the 20 GB plan. The multiple options and costs compare favorably to their competition as KVH currently offers with their LTE-1 only a single option, a 20 GB plan for $200.
Overall, ConnecT is a slightly odd looking but very effective product. The user interface isn’t sexy and there aren’t a ton of bells of and whistles; however, it just works. The unit was reliable, the RF performance was very strong, and Winegard makes getting 4G/LTE internet service very easy. If you intend to use large quantities of bandwidth or need more advanced features, you might be able to find a better fit. But for a reliable, simple system, ConnecT is easy to recommend. Online: winegard.com