NOTE #1: This is a the last installment of a lengthy article that is being published in three installments over several days.
NOTE #2: This article contains a number of pictures. You can view larger images by double-clicking on any picture.
NOTE #3: Part #1 of this article is available at http://rv.dickeastman.com/2012/01/how-to-build-a-long-range-wi-fi-system-part-1.html
NOTE #4: Part #2 of this article is available at http://rv.dickeastman.com/2012/01/how-to-build-a-long-range-wi-fi-system-part-2.html
NOTE #5: 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
I think the telescoping mast that I use is one of the greatest "finds" of this entire project. I first tried to find masts or towers designed to go on motor homes. I searched for a long time but couldn't find anything I wanted. On my first attempt, I purchased a military surplus fiberglass mast kit. It consisted of ten four-foot long fiberglass poles, each designed to connect end-to-end with another such pole, a lot of nylon rope to be used as guy ropes, ground screw-in devices used as anchors for the guy ropes, and a canvas bag for holding everything. (A picture of my first attempt is shown to the right.) It is big, bulky, and heavy. It is painted olive drab green, the same as most other military surplus gear. Even worse, I'd consider those guy ropes to be a safety hazard to pedestrians in any campground. It is easy to trip over the ropes and ground anchors, especially in the dark. That is probably acceptable in Afghanistan but not in the typical campground in the U.S. I used it once.
In short, it ws a kludge, completely unacceptable.
Eventually, I discovered a telescoping aluminum flagpole mount made for recreational vehicles. What's the difference between a radio mast and a flagpole? Not much.
The Flag Pole Buddy bolts to the ladder on the back of most recreational vehicles and provides a sturdy mount for flags as well as for small to medium sized antennas. The best feature of all is the unique twist-off mount. Once the mount is installed, the twist-off mount allows the flagpole/mast to be installed or removed in two or three seconds.
The Flag Pole Buddy is the mounting system but does not include the mast. I could use the four-foot long fiberglass poles mentioned earlier although I found a better solution. I obtained a telescoping mast from another vendor.
The Flag Pole Buddy is available in three sizes. I used the medium-sized one: one-and-a-half-inch diameter. It seems more than rugged enough to handle the small wi-fi router I am using, even in high winds. If you have a bigger device or if you really want to add a flag onto this flagpole, you might want to go with a heavier duty mount.
I purchased the telescoping pole for use as the mast from VIS Radio at http://www.visradio.com/cata/ncg.htm.The company sells the Flag Pole Buddy plus a telescoping mast plus a number of antennas and mounts designed to fit on the mast.
Since the base of the pole is on the ladder–about three feet off the ground–the top of the fully-extended 16-foot pole is actually about 19-feet in the air. Actually, I rarely extend it to its full length. Through experimentation, I have found that placing the wi-fi router's antenna just a few inches above the motor home's roof usually is sufficient. Making it higher will improve reception in theory. However, in actual practice, I haven't noticed any difference. Placing it just above the roofline also reduces questions from curious bystanders as well as from campground management. I'd suggest it's best to not be TOO obvious by having a very high pole sticking up from your motor home. If you do, at least put a flag on it to disguise it!
The telescoping flagpole is easily removed within seconds. Once telescoped, it fits inside the motor home for transport. I wouldn't leave it on the back of the motor home when traveling down the road.
For details, look at http://www.flagpolebuddy.com/.
Since purchasing the Flag Pole Buddy, I have found a number of other flagpoles for use on motor homes. Some connect to the ladder in the same manner as the Flag Pole Buddy. Others connect to the trailer hitch. One has its base on a steel plate where you park the motor home with a tire on the plate to hold it in place. These all look interesting, but I wouldn't trade my Flag Pole Buddy for any of them.
NOTE: If you are a ham radio operator, take a look at VIS Radio's web site at http://www.visradio.com/cata/ncg.htm.The company sells the Flag Pole Buddy plus a number of ham radio antennas designed to fit on the mast. Keep in mind that the flag pole doesn't provide a very good ground, so the only mobile whip antennas you want to use for ham radio frequencies are half-wave units or similar antennas that don't rely on metal to provide the groundplane. The folks at VIS Radio are experienced with a bunch of antennas on the flagpoles and can give you advice as to exactly what you need. Besides, I found them to be "good folks" when I purchased the flag pole, ladder mount, and a 2-meter/440 MHz. half-wave whip antenna from them.
With the mast extended and in use, you will need to run one ethernet cable from the router on top of the mast to the computer equipment in the recreational vehicle. Each installation will be different. I simply run the cable in through a window and then close the window. The thick weatherstripping around the window doesn't seem to crush or bend the ethernet cable very much.
Finally, there is the question of what equipment you use inside the motor home. If you plan to use only one laptop computer at a time, you simply connect the ethernet cable to that laptop, and you are done with the question. It is a simple solution and it works well.
In my case, I wanted to be able to use multiple laptop computers plus an iPhone and an iPad (both without ethernet connectors) plus a VoIP telephone plus a streaming video device to watch Netflix movies. The answer sounded simple: add a standard wi-fi router designed for in-home use. Actually, that turned out to be not so simple.
It SHOULD have worked. After all, any router designed for in-home use accepts an ethernet input and converts it to wi-fi for use by multiple systems, right? My use in a recreational vehicle is the same, right? Any standard unit should work, right?
I first found a Netgear in-home router on sale at a local BestBuy store and purchased that. I installed it and it worked... sort of. I received Internet signals, but throughput was really slow. I don't know why. I borrowed an Apple Airport Extreme router from my home, and it worked perfectly; signals flowed at high speeds.
Thinking I had purchased a defective Netgear router or perhaps one with a design flaw, I returned the router to BestBuy and purchased a different router. This time I paid a bit more and walked out with a Linksys router. I had the same results as I had earlier: it worked, but throughput was poor. Even worse, it was "jerky." Sometimes I would get bursts of high speed data for five or ten seconds, only to be followed by ten seconds or more of no data at all. I certainly couldn't make telephone calls over this connection!
I bit the bullet: I went to the nearest Apple store and purchased another Apple Airport Extreme router for $180. This is probably the most expensive solution of all, but it worked perfectly. I now transfer data at full speed, as fast as the wi-fi network can support.
I don't know why the cheaper routers had poor performance. I don't have the expertise, test equipment, or desire to find out. Even though the solution was expensive, I am staying with the Airport Extreme. Your experience might be different from mine.
Luckily, BestBuy has an excellent return policy on the units I am unable to use. As an extra bonus, the Airport Extreme also has the capability to plug in external disk drives and printers, all of which can then be shared by any computers on the network.
All in all, I am now pleased with the results. I get free or low-cost wi-fi coverage at most campgrounds. For the few campgrounds where wi-fi is completely unavailable, I can use the air card although I do keep an eye on the amount of data transferred. So far, I haven't encountered a situation of no wi-fi and no air card coverage; but, if I do, I'll pack up and go to a different campground.
If you are interested in long-range wi-fi, I'd suggest you think "outside the box." That is, don't use the equipment in the same manner as used by most everyone else. Get creative. You may be surprised by the distance covered.