NOTE #1: This is a lengthy article that will be published in three installments over the next few days.
NOTE #2: This article contains a number of pictures. You can view larger images by double-clicking on any picture.
NOTE #3: If you did obtain a TP-Link 2.4 GHz High Power Wireless Outdoor CPE Model TH-WA5210G as described in this article, you may be interested in my follow-up article, Configuring the Outdoor Access Point at http://rv.dickeastman.com/2012/11/follow-up-how-to-build-a-long-range-wi-fi-system-configuring-the-outdoor-access-point.html
This project grew out of necessity. I now live in a Winnebago motor home, and I move it to new campgrounds frequently. I also feel that I need frequent Internet connectivity. At a minimum, I want to be online at least once a day. I'd really prefer to be connected 24 hours a day, if possible. I now can accomplish that goal most of the time although I had to experiment a bit to find the best combination of devices and techniques.
I will describe usage in a recreational vehicle, or "RV." However, the same techniques should work anyplace you want to establish a wi-fi connection over longer than normal distances.
Most commercial campgrounds advertise that they have wi-fi connectivity available. State and national parks and other government-owned campgrounds generally do not offer wi-fi connections. I have heard of a few exceptions, but very few. The few government-owned campgrounds that do offer wi-fi connectivity generally use a commercial sub-contractor who offers wi-fi for a fee.
I have found that wi-fi connections in commercial campgrounds work well in most cases – but with significant caveats that might not be mentioned in the campground's brochure.
First of all, some campgrounds charge fees for wi-fi access while others do not. One place I stayed charges $50 for the connection and then a monthly fee besides with a minimum of one month payment in advance. Admittedly, this was at an RV campground where most of the "residents" apparently stay for the entire season. I was the exception; I only wanted to stay for a few days. I have found other campgrounds that charge anywhere from $2 a day to $12 a day for wi-fi access. However, many other campgrounds will offer free wi-fi connectivity.
HINT: Read the ads closely. If the wi-fi connection is free, the ads usually say so. If the word "free" is not near the word "wi-fi," you can assume there is a charge.
Since I want to stay at many campgrounds, not just the ones with wi-fi connectivity, I purchased an "air card." These are wireless devices that connect to a local cell company's tower and offer data connections. Some air cards plug into a computer's USB connection and therefore can only be used on one computer at a time. Others, often called "Mi-Fi" devices, are completely wireless. You simply place the Mi-Fi card near the computer(s) you wish to use. Your computers connect to the Mi-Fi device via wireless wi-fi connections to the Mi-Fi device which, in turn, connects on different frequencies to a cell tower within a few miles.
A Mi-Fi device is shown in the above picture. Notice there are no cables and no connectors, other than a battery charger connection you cannot see in the above picture. It is otherwise completely wireless. You simply place it wthin 25 or 30 feet of the device(s) you wish to connect to the Internet. The computer or other device (cell phone, iPad, iPod Touch, Nintendo, Wii, whatever) connects to the Mi-Fi by wi-fi. In turn, the Mi-Fi connects to a nearby cell phone tower by 4G or 3G wireless networking.
If you have multiple computers, such as when two or more family members want to connect simultaneously, or if you use an iPad or iPhone or iPod Touch or any other networked device that does not have a USB connection, you need a Mi-Fi air card. Most Mi-Fi cards support at least five simultaneous users although throughput will slow down quite a bit if several users attempt to download files or graphics at the same time.
Unfortunately, all air cards have a number of drawbacks:
1. They are expensive. Purchase prices vary from free to $200 or possibly even more. The free devices usually require you to also purchase a minimum of 24 months of service. Pricing is very similar to that of cell phones. It may say "free," but you know there are fees involved someplace. The cell phone companies always get their money.
Most of the air cards include data plans with a $40- to perhaps $60-a-month minimum payment. That fee typically includes some amount of data. However, if you exceed that data amount in any one month, additional fees will be charged. A few air cards are available with a "pay as you go" plan in which there is no monthly minimum and you pay only for the amount of data you use. These "pay as you go" plans are great for the low-usage user who doesn't expect to use it often. If you only need connectivity for a few weeks each year, get a "pay as you go" air card. However, for anyone who wants to be online daily, the fees on the "pay as you go" plans usually add up to much more than a monthly plan that includes 4 or 5 gigabytes of data.
2. Wireless air cards are great when they work, but they don't work everywhere. Your campground might be in a "dead spot." Even worse, coverage varies from one cell phone company to another. Your favorite cell phone company might provide great wireless data coverage where you live, but it might not have as many cell towers in the locations where you vacation. You might have zero signal in your camping spot, but the person in the adjacent camping spot might have full access if he or she is using an air card from a different cell phone company. Air cards from all the cell phone companies seem to work well in urban areas, but I don't camp in urban areas very much. I am usually in rural areas where coverage is spotty.
Some cell phones offer "tethering." That is, you can use the cell phone as a wireless modem, similar to using an air card. Late-model Apple iPhones and many Android cell phones and almost all Blackberries can be used as wireless modems. However, check with your cellular provider for the charges involved. Some cell phone companies charge a lot of money for tethering a cell phone. In some cases, it might be cheaper to purchase a separate air card.
Another option is to use satellite data connections. Satellite signals are usually very reliable if you have a clear view of the southern sky. (The satellites are in geosynchronous orbit over the equator.) Trees, mountains, and heavy rain can block satellite signals, however.
I found the biggest drawback of satellite data to be the price. Satellites are probably the most expensive Internet connectivity option available, especially for the heavy user of Internet services. I am on a budget, so I am cautious about running up expenses. When I started calculating the prices for sending and receiving a few megabytes of data per day via satellites, I quickly dropped the idea of satellite connections.
After evaluating all the options and experimenting a bit, I arrived at the following plan: use free wi-fi whenever possible. If not possible, use any low-cost wi-fi connection that might be available. For situations where wi-fi is unavailable or too expensive, purchase a "pay as you go" air card. With this plan of multiple devices, I now have free or reasonably-priced Internet connections available most places.
In the few instances where none of the above work, I can visit Starbucks or McDonalds or any of thousands of other coffee shops or restaurants or most any public library to use their wi-fi connections. However, that certainly is inconvenient, and I try to avoid traveling to such locations as much as possible.
Of course, I can always exercise the right that all motor home owners use: I can move to a different campground.
For the rest of this article, I will focus only on free or low-cost wi-fi connections in campgrounds.
While the campground may advertise that wi-fi connectivity is available, that doesn't mean that it is available at your campsite and inside your recreational vehicle. Many campgrounds provide free wi-fi only at one location, usually the main administrative building or the campground's store. That may work well as long as you are within 200 feet or so; but, if you are camped at a spot in the back of the campground, you may find signals to be weak or non-existent. In addition, the camper itself may have enough metal and other obstructions that will attenuate the wi-fi signals. After all, wi-fi is really two-way radio signals. Even if your camper is made mostly of plastic, it still probably has aluminum ribs and steel underpinnings and all sorts of wiring in the walls that will attenuate signal strength. Step outside the RV, and you might find that signals get stronger. Of course, that's not helpful if it is raining!
After reading various advertisements, I thought perhaps all this could be solved by obtaining a wi-fi "repeater." After all, a repeater picks up wi-fi signals and re-broadcasts them. The ads all sounded great, claiming that a repeater will extend the range of a wi-fi network by hundreds of feet.
I soon learned that repeaters are a waste of time in a campground.
To be sure, a repeater will pick up a signal and will rebroadcast it hundreds of feet IF IT IS ABLE TO DETECT THE SIGNAL. In practice, this means that the repeater should be placed somewhere near the middle of the desired coverage area. It must be able to receive reasonably strong signals from the base station (the wi-fi hotspot) as well as from your computer. This means the repeater should be installed someplace about half way between you and the base station or hotspot. RVers who rent campground spots typically don't have that option. If you cannot detect the wi-fi signals inside your recreational vehicle now, adding a repeater inside that vehicle isn't going to change anything. That repeater won't detect weak signals any better than your computer does. You need to install the repeater in a location where moderately strong signals are received from the hotspot.
Sure, you might be able to put the repeater in a weatherproof box someplace between you and the hotspot, but how will you power it? Maybe you can ask the campground owners to allow you to put it someplace in the middle of the campground. Of course, they might refuse. In short, I couldn't find a practical method of using repeaters in all situations. The repeater I purchased is now sitting in a box, gathering dust.
However, there is a better solution: get an outside antenna for your recreational vehicle. Every ham radio operator knows the secret for sending and receiving strong signals is to use the proper antenna. You want the highest gain antenna possible, mounted as high as possible. You will need to address some issues with feedlines, which I will discuss shortly. I have been a ham operator since I was in junior high and have proven this principal dozens of times before wi-fi was invented. Wi-fi is simply a new variation of radio technology that has been known for years.
The antenna built into your computer's case is really designed for use within 100 feet or so. If placed in a good location and connected to a high-powered base station, you might obtain a range of 200 or 300 feet. By contrast the system I installed regularly connects to wi-fi systems a quarter mile away. It is mounted on a telescoping mast that bolts to the ladder on the back of my motor home, and if unobstructed by trees, hills, or buildings, it sometimes makes connections a half mile away. I once made a connection across a lake to a hotspot about two miles away, but that certainly is unusual.
My new external antenna and associated hardware has solved the problem of wi-fi connectivity in the back of the campground. It also solved a recent problem at a campground that charged $10 a day for wi-fi access: I simply connected to a Panera coffee shop about a quarter mile away and used the coffee shop's free and open wi-fi service. I even made phone calls over the same connection, using a computer VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone. That certainly saved money on my monthly cell phone bill!
NOTE: I am not giving any advice about connecting to unsecured, anonymous hotspots. I have read various claims that it is or is not legal to connect to a hotspot without the owner's permission. In the case of Starbucks or McDonald’s or certain campgrounds or other commercial entities that establish hotspots for use by their customers, you obviously have permission. In the case of surreptitiously connecting to an unknown neighbor's in-home hotspot, however, the legal issues are less clear. Such activities apparently have not yet been tested in any precedent-setting court cases. The only advice that this non-lawyer can offer is: "If you don't feel comfortable connecting, then don't do it!"
Another issue to keep in mind is that of signal attenuation in the feedline that connects wi-fi equipment to the antenna. Wi-fi signals typically operate at 2,400 megahertz while a few use 5,000 megahertz. Those ultra high frequency (UHF) signals do not flow easily through standard, thin coaxial cable. While you might have strong signals at one end of the cable, feeding that signal though 50 feet of thin coax will result in very little signal at the other end of the cable. In short, you need to avoid long runs of coax feedline.
I solved the problem easily: I purchased a wi-fi router that mounts in a weatherproof box right at the antenna. The feedline is about two inches long, meaning that signal loss is essentially zero. I then mounted the box and antenna at the top of the mast on the back of the motor home. I used a standard ethernet cable to connect to computers inside the motor home. (Sending standard ethernet signals over cables of a few hundred feet or less results in no significant degradation at all.) The other end of the ethernet cable can connect to any computer, router, or any other device that supports ethernet connections. Most laptop computers have ethernet connections, although cell phones, iPads, and other handheld devices probably do not. Connecting to those devices can be solved by a method I will describe later. The telescoping mast I used is easily removable in four or five seconds for travel and also will be described in detail later in this article.
This concludes Part #1 of this three-part series. In Part #2, I will describe installation and the "aiming" of the wi-fi router atop the mast. In Part #3, I will describe the very nice, but inexpensive, mast that I discovered.