The RV Web: Chapter 1 – Extending Your WiFi Range

Getting online while you are on the road is always a challenge. There has been a lot of discussion about this in blogs and forums and everyone has their own favorite methods. But in general, based on today’s wireless technology, there are basically three ways to do it:

  1. Satellite Internet Service Provider (Direcway, HughesNet)
  2. Wireless Broadband from Cell Phone Providers (Verizon, Sprint)
  3. Public WiFi Access Points

Although there may be newer and arguably better options in the works such as WiMax, these 3 are what’s widely available today. I will spend some time talking about them in a few separate posts as I am currently doing research on what is best for our upcoming trips. In this post, I will focus my attention on the third and potentially the most interesting option: getting connected via public WiFi.

working in the airstream

As people get smarter about locking down their home wireless networks, it has become harder and harder to find free WiFi connections as you travel. The legality of leeching off of an unsuspecting neighbor has also been hotly contested. For the purpose of this discussion, I am going to assume that you are a respectful traveling netizen who just needs a quick eBay fix while you check your Yahoo mail.

WiFi connections is the only Internet option of the three that are available to RVers that does not usually come with a bandwidth cap. Satellite Internet usually has a daily cap of around 200 MB and both Verizon and Sprint have implemented a 5GB monthly limit on their wireless plans. Neither options are suitable for the kinds of broadband hungry Websites and services available online today. So the benefits of Public WiFi connections seem to be pretty obvious. Usually free, no bandwidth caps and fast. Sounds awesome. Sign me up!

Not so fast there sonny. Obviously there is a huge downside of this and it is the availability of open access points. You are not going to be able to magically make more open networks available just by wishing. So the only thing you can do is to make what is available come in stronger and crisper. First thing you need to do is to get an external antenna on that computer’s WiFi card. The problem with today’s notebooks is that most of them have an integrated antenna. It assumes you are using a wireless acsess point of your own that sits just across the desk which is exactly the range of that integrated antenna. By using an external WiFi network adapter with an antenna port, you can instantly gain a lot more range with very little cost.

This little guy I picked up at geeks.com for only 20 bucks shipped. It got me probably double the range compared to using the built-in wireless card.

Even better yet, by swapping out the antenna to a high gain version, I got even more range. There are all kinds of external antennas you can use depending on your needs. Omni-directional, uni-directional, panel, yagi (I know, it sounds like a healthy breakfast), you name it, they’ve got it. Spend some time researching what you want to get but anything is better than what comes in your laptop.

Now remember, Internet connection is a 2-way street. Just because you can receive better now with an external antenna, doesn’t mean you are transmitting stronger signals necessarily. The access point you are connecting to may not be hearing you as loudly as you hear them. If they can’t hear you, they don’t know that you want to snipe someone on eBay for that glass menagerie collection in the last minute. You will be heart broken. We just can’t have that. This means you want to get a higher output out of your wireless adapter as well. This is gonna start to sting a little bit because 20 bucks probably will not cut it. The higher the output, the more noise you are introducing to your transmission. It’s like when you are screaming at the top of your lungs, it is a little harder to understand you clearly. You need to hook yourself up with a Ty Pennington megaphone like this:

This little device goes for about 75 bucks on Amazon. But it will give you as much as 500 mW of output which is as much as 10 times the normal wattage.

What? You have 2 computers? You don’t want to buy 2 of these setups? Shoot. Now you tell me. Well, you are in luck. I know just the right thing for you. What you need is a high-powered WiFi bridge. One like the ZyXel G-470:

Couple this bad boy with your external antenna and you will have created an equivalent of a long wire coming from the access point to your RV. Plug that into any old wired hub/switch you will be able to split that connection with whoever you want. This WiFi bridge goes for about 100 bucks on Amazon but the good news is that it is already a high-output device. You will not need to get a power booster to get a similar range as the previous setup.

Now you are really in business. With an external, high-gain antenna and a high-output WiFi adapter, you might just be able to connect yourself to that local coffee shop down the street offering free WiFi to their cappuccino consuming customers. Just don’t forget to walk down there the next morning to thank them by getting yourself a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast.

I’ll take an onion. Toasted. Thanks.

over and out,
dan

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