Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Internet Access in your RV

Over the years people have come to rely more and more on the internet, at home as well as when traveling. Thankfully it has gotten easier and easier. Basically there are three ways to get on the internet highway: wi-fi, satellite and cellular. Which to choose depends upon your needs.

Wi-Fi access is the most limited of the three methods. You need to be fairly close to the signal source, generally within just a few hundred feet, although there are a number of wi-fi boosters available that increase range. Many private campgrounds and some public campgrounds offer wi-fi service, either for free or for a daily, weekly or monthly fee. A fairly good source for a wi-fi signal is the local library - in many cases the signal is useable from your RV out in the parking lot. Although most wi-fi routers are now encrypted, you can sometimes find one that is not; be aware, however, that using someone's open wi-fi without permission is of questionable legality. Sometimes in a campground you may find someone nearby with a personal wi-fi network setup; if asked, they may be willing to share their access with you.
One simple method of improving range is to mount a USB wi-fi adaptor outside your RV as high as possible. It can be mounted on the crank-up TV antenna for convenience, such in this installation.

The use of portable satellite systems is decreasing these days, thanks to the near-universal availability of cellular data acess. However, if you want to be absolutely sure of internet acess no matter where you are, then satellite is the way to go. Satellite dishes for internet are larger than the normal satellite TV dish and require more care in aiming, since the communication is two-way between you and the satellite. As for dishes, you can use a portable dish on a tripod or a roof-mounted dish. As with satellite TV, a clear line-of-sight is required to the satellite, so a roof top dish may not work if you're camped under trees. If you go with the portable dish, you'll need to allow for storage space for the dish and tripod. Data speed is generally not as fast as with a cellular system and can be "throttled" (slowed down) by the provider if you exceed a daily and/or monthly ceiling. HughesNet is the most common provider, although there are a few others.

Most RV'ers today opt for the cellular road to the internet. It is extremely easy to use and the needed equipment is very small, consisting of a small USB modem device, a PCMCIA card modem device or even the cellphone itself, tethered to the computer. The PCMCIA cards are not recommended these days, as newer computers no longer have those slots. Obviously you need to be within range of a cell tower to have a connection. All the major cellular carriers offer data plans; you'll need to do some research to determine which provider is best for you, based on coverage area, type of coverage desired - 3G or the newer 4G and price. Overall most RV'ers seem to agree that Verizon offers the best overall coverage across the country. There are some third-party providers such as Millenicom that offer better priced plans with higher monthly data allowances and they use the towers of the major providers, such as Verizon or Sprint. All data plans today impose a montly limit on data use along with an often hefty fee for exceeding that limit; they also may "throttle" you for going over the limit.

Considering the need to access a cell tower, you may want to consider the addition of a cellular antenna and amplifier, which can dramatically improve your connectivity. Wilson is considered to be one of the better manufacturers of antenna and amplifiers. There are many kinds from which to choose. Antennas can have a magnetic base or can be permanently installed. The Wilson Trucker antenna is probably the most popular for RV use. There is an issue with them that warrants some consideration in mounting them: there are six small ground-plane rods near the top of the antenna that are quite fragile and can easily be broken off by a low-hanging tree branch. It's worth mounting the antenna so that it can be lowered for travel. One method is use a swiveling marine rail clamp; more convenient is to mount it on the crankup TV antenna, When the TV antenna is raised, the cell antenna stands vertically; when the TV antenna is lowered, the cell antenna lies almost horizontal to the roof, protecting those ground-plane rods. Another LDC article deals with installing an amplifer and magnetic mount antenna. If you really like to be out in the boonies, you might want to consider the installation of a directional yagi antenna on a telescoping mast.

When choosing a cellular amplifer, you'll need to decide whether you want one that is wired directly to the modem device or a wireless amp that in effect rebroadcasts the cellular signal inside the RV. The wired models will require either an adaptor cord that fits your specific cellular device or a universal adaptor that you place on the device with Velcro or a rubber band.
The next consideration is whether you'd like to use more than one computer at the same time in the RV. The cards or USB modems can be plugged directly into your computer, which is fine for one of you. However, there are devices called cellular routers into which you plug your cellular modem; the router then establishes a wi-fi network that more than one computer can use at the same time. The most common brand of cellular routers is Cradlepoint, but there are others, including Kyocera. Naturally if you go this route, you'll need to follow normal security encryption protocols to protect your system from unauthorized users. The goal here is to protect your computer as well as prevent use of your internet connection by others, which could use up your bandwidth allowance.

Two great resources for learning more about cellular internet access are the Yahoo groups InternetByCellPhone and InternetByDataCard

Contributors: WxToad, Larry Wade

Revised 7 Apr 12

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