Lots of people have questions about our on-the-road internet setup. Here's the current state of affairs. (Warning - this gets a little technical and messy. I'm an electronic engineer, so I like that stuff.) There are some tips at the end for simplifying the setup to be easier to use and understand.
First, read our old blog post about getting connected...
Our current setup all comes from 3gstore.com (great selection of stuff, excellent service - been buying from them for years)
Starting on the outside of the trailer, we have a couple of these antennas.
We had the Airstream dealer mount them and run the wires into the trailer. We used 10' wires like these.
These wires are available in longer lengths depending on your mounting location and so forth. 10' was plenty for us. These cables have an "FME" connector (to connect to inside stuff) on one end, and an "N" connector (like the outside antenna) on the other end.
In this situation, I recommend NOT getting the "Ultra Low Loss" cables. You can't really tell from the pictures on the site, but those cables are HUGE - about the diameter of a (small) garden hose. I didn't want to be drilling those gigantic holes in the trailer and I didn't want to be trying to work with that extremely-thick not-too-flexible cable. The cables above are just "low loss" not "ultra low loss". They work just fine.
Those antennas are great for several things:
- Boosting campground WiFi
- Boosting 3G service
- Boosting 4G/LTE service
They work over a broad frequency range so they're good for all of those applications. However, you can't install any kind of switch to let one antenna do all of those things, so you'll need to decide if you want to run 1, 2, or 3 antennas (depending on what you want to boost) or be swapping antenna leads around as you change modes on the road. I went for 2 antennas - one for WiFi and one for 3G/4G/LTE.
Inside the trailer, we have a PepWave Surf-on-the-go WiFi router to create our secure, in-the-trailer WiFi network. This lets all our devices (2 laptops, 2 iPads, 2 iPhones, Mac Mini, Xbox) connect to the same, secure, private WiFi network all the time. We don't have to go around changing all our devices every time we are near a different WiFi hotspot. All our devices can use this to share one 3G/4G USB datacard. Ours is like this one.
The good things about this router are:
- It's small, reliable, and easy to set up.
- It supports WiFi as WAN - which means it can connect to campground WiFi and use that as the internet connection when it is available. This also provides a firewall that keeps us secure from other users on the campground WiFi.
- It supports an external WiFi antenna. This gives MUCH stronger signal on campground WiFi than we'd get on our laptops inside the metal trailer. In our tests this weekend, that translated into 5x-10x faster speeds from campground WiFi and much better reliability.
- It doesn't support the kind of protocol that would let you do file sharing between machines across the local WiFi network.
- It has only one USB port, so you can only have one 3G/4G card connected at a time. Some other models will connect 2 or 3 devices at a time, and can load-share between them. (However, those other devices all have some other limitation that disqualified them for me - like no WiFi as WAN, or requiring 2 or 3 external antennas, or not supporting external antennas at all.)
- The user interface screens give pretty simple and primitive information. I'd like to see more about my connection - particularly whether I'm connected to 3G or LTE, for example.
In our setup, one of the external antennas is connected to the antenna port on the PepWave. That requires an adapter to match up the incoming antenna cable to the PepWave connector. 3G store will sell you the right one depending on your setup. This means the PepWave is always using the outdoor antenna for WiFi.
For data cards, we actually carry 3. Verizon UML290 LTE/4G/3G, AT&T Sierra Wireless LTE/3G/4G, and Sprint... something. We carry these because we want to have a shot at a good connection no matter where we are. Having all three gives us a better chance, and also allows us to spread our use out over multiple data plans so we don't go over our limit on just one card. We work online every day from the road, so we use a LOT of data.
That being said, we are planning to drop the Sprint card. We've been all over the US and the Sprint connection has always been worse than the other two. More often than not, we can't get a decent Sprint connection at all. Verizon is clearly the champ in our experience. We've been all over the US except the Northeast (check our map) and Verizon beats AT&T pretty consistently in terms of signal strength and availability. Sometimes, though, it doesn't work at all and we're glad to have AT&T as a backup.
The datacard plugs into the PepWave (or 3G store may sell you a USB extension cable that lets you put the datacard farther from the PepWave router for better signal).
So, to recap where we are so far in our discussion, we've got an external antenna connected to a PepWave router - which boosts campground WiFi, and we have datacards we can plug into the PepWave router for when we don't have campground WiFi.
Now, things get tricky, but we could also stop here. The 3G/4G datacards will work just fine plugged into the PepWave.
But, we want more range and more speed. There are several ways to get that and they're all a little ugly.
First, you could get another one of those external antennas and the proper antenna adapter cable for your data card. Plug the external antenna into your data card (which is plugged into the PepWave) and you get stronger, better signal and a faster connection.
To take it another level, you can add booster amplifiers. This part gets very very messy. Here's why:
First, you need to decide what you want to boost. Sometimes you get LTE/4G service, sometimes you get 3G service. Sometimes you get older-than-3G service (booooo). Different amplifiers are required for LTE versus 3G and below. Only one amplifier can be connected to an external antenna at a time. Only one can be connected to your 3G datacard at a time. So - if you wanted to boost both 3G and LTE signals, you'll be swapping cables around a lot - switching the external antenna cable between 3G and LTE amplifiers, and switching the antenna cable on your datacard between amplifiers.
Making matters worse, most of the antenna connectors on the datacards are tiny, clunky, and fragile. There's a special note on the 3G store site warning how easy it is to break the connector on the Verizon UML290 card. UGH. I'm careful.
Not only are different amplifiers required for 3G vs 4G/LTE, but different amplifiers are required for Verizon LTE and AT&T LTE. Each amplifier is around $200. Knock yourself out... :)
For 3G (and also cell phone) boosting, there is another option. Instead of connecting the amplifier to your datacard with a cable, you can get a signal booster that uses a little indoor antenna that you put near your data card (or cell phone) to boost the signal. These don't give as much boost as direct connect, but you're also not futzing around with tiny, fragile connectors on datacards.
Hopefully, they'll get this sorted out eventually. For now, we have 3 amplifiers:
- An LTE amplifier for Verizon
- A 3G-and-below direct-connect amplifier that will work for Verizon or AT&T on 3G connections (but doesn't help on faster LTE connections), and
- A 3G signal booster to use with our cell phones to help us get cell service when we're out in the boonies. The 3G signal booster is actually our old Wifi-in-Motion setup (which has its own little roof-mounted antenna) so altogether we have 3 antennas on the roof for 3G/4G/LTE/WiFi/Cell phone boosting.
I have to first fire it up and find out what kind of signal we're going to use:
- Verizon LTE: Use the Verizon card connected to the LTE amplifier. Connect the external antenna to the LTE amplifier.
- Verizon 3G: Use the Verizon card connected to the 3G amplifier. Connect the external antenna to the 3G amplifier
- AT&T LTE: Use the AT&T card connected straight to the external antenna (since I don't have an AT&T LTE amplifier.
- AT&T 3G: Use the AT&T card connected to the 3G amplifier. Connect the external antenna to the 3G amplifier.
- Sprint (hah, pretty much never): Use the Sprint card and the 3G cell phone booster (old WiFi in Motion).
- Phone calls: Use the 3G cell phone booster to extend range.
Advantages: With this setup, we get really good speed, range, and reliability in a bunch of different places, we have the ability to get maximum advantage from campground WiFi when it's available, and we can spread our data usage across several plans.
Disadvantages: We have a spaghetti mess of cables, amplifiers and boosters in our cabinet, and I'm constantly having to juggle cables between antennas, amplifiers, and data cards to adapt to our situation. It gets pretty complicated.
This can be simplified if you only go with one data card, and/or if you skip the booster amplifier. It can be simplified further by forgoing the outside antennas and just using the PepWave with the data cards. In that scenario, you're almost ahead to simply use a MiFi or similar 3g/4g portable pocket router. The only thing those don't do as well is the WiFi- as WAN for campground WiFi.