Many of us still need to connect to the internet while on the road. Most of us do have internet enabled mobile phones. However, we also have data limits, poor signal areas, or the desire to connect wifi only devices. We did some research and found out about some of the options for getting connected on the road.
First it’s important to understand that WiFi is simply a wireless networking standard that devices use to communicate with each other without cables. If your device has or is WiFi compatible, it means it can interact wirelessly with other WiFi-compatible devices. ‘Connecting to WiFi’ is really connecting to another wifi-enabled device.
For this section we are talking about connecting to public WiFi services, whether it’s from a campsite, cafe, or your BTfon account. While most devices have built-in WiFi capability, the main problem encountered is being able to pick up a signal from within your vehicle. The solution is a Wifi antenna.
It is important to remember that an antenna does not actually BOOST a signal, rather, an antenna concentrates a signal. You can think of antennas similar to your vision. 0 decibels (dB) would be your eyesight in it’s natural state. If you wanted to see further you could use binoculars. These would increase the distance you can see but also restrict your field of view. This could be compared to a 2.2 dB antenna. To see even further you might use a telescope. Your field of view is restricted further, but it’s worth it if you want to see that extra distance. This could be compared to a 7dB antenna.
In reality antennas are more complex, their baseline is called an isotropic antenna. There is no actual physical isotropic antenna, the isotropic antenna is an ideal antenna that radiates its power uniformly in all directions (up, down, forward, backward,to the sides) at the same time. This is our baseline (unaided vision from our example) used as a reference for measuring antenna gain, and is often specified in dBi (decibels over isotropic).
Antenna gain can be compared to the extra distance the antenna can ‘see’ (with binoculars or telescopes in our sight example), with the added complexity of being able to ‘see’ in multiple directions at the same time. We can increase the antenna’s ‘distance vision’ by decreasing its ‘field of view’. This is the main difference between the two types of antenna you can find: directional and omnidirectional.
Omnidirectional antennas ‘see’ in multiple directions, you can still get gain by restricting their ‘view’ to a 360° circle while cutting out above and below.
Directional antennas focus ‘view’ in one direction. This means you will pick up signals from further away, in that one direction, but not signals from behind the antenna very well. So you need to rotate it to find the best signal.
This is, of course, a simplified explanation that doesn’t go into wave patterns and complex stuff we don’t really understand (but is available here if you are interested). The basic concept that we’re trying to get through is that gain can’t just come out of nowhere, you have to sacrifice some part of the isotropic antenna pattern in order to give gain to another part of the antenna pattern.
It is worth noting that antenna manufacturers will always do their best to try to make their antenna sound better than the competitors. This means they might measure their antenna gains in slightly different ways in order to get the biggest number possible. With any good antenna, you should be able to obtain the actual antenna patterns from the supplier.
Connecting devices through a laptop:
Once you have decided on an antenna, you can simply plug it into your laptop and run the installation software or allow your operating system to automatically install drivers if it can do this.
If you want to connect further devices to the WiFi network your laptop is connected to, you just need to make sure your laptop is network capable. Most new laptops are already equipped with internal network adapters so you are ready to go. If your computer doesn’t have built-in wireless capabilities, you can either buy a USB network adapter that plugs into the USB port of your laptop or go for a wireless adapter that plugs into your laptop’s PC Card slot. The next step will depend on what operating system you are running.
If your laptop is running Windows XP, Vista or Mac OS X, you can set up an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network (also called a computer-to-computer network) and your other wireless devices can then connect to the web via this. In Windows, it’s an easy setup process which you can find under ‘network and sharing’ in the ‘control panel’. Select “Set up a connection or network” and choose “Set up a wireless ad-hoc (computer-to-computer) network”. Simply follow the instructions, there are many step by step guides available online if you need more instructions.
If you have Windows 7 or 8,7, you can turn your computer into a personal Wi-Fi hotspot. This is a fairly straightforward operation that involves activating Windows’ hidden virtual Wi-Fi adapter feature. You can install an interface such as the free Virtual Router to access the features built into Windows.
Connecting devices without a laptop:
But what if you don’t want to use a laptop? This is the case for many people, and there is a solution for it too. A portable signal repeater/hotspot creator. This is basically a router that receives a WiFi signal and then creates a private WiFi network or ‘hotspot’, so that multiple devices can connect to it.
Ready made option:
Motorhome WiFi was established in 2012 by Adam and Sophie after spending a year touring in Europe. They supply a ready-made setup in the form of a personal hotspot with either directional antenna priced at £160 or omnidirectional antenna at £200. We’ve also read in many sources that you can call them and they will give impartial advice on your mobile internet solutions without any pressure to buy from them.
We wanted something similar to the iBoost system but without the price tag. We had some difficulty finding the mobile hotspot part of the setup as the names used for these devices seem to vary a lot and the descriptions of what they can do are often not very good. In the end, we found this one from solwise, and then a generic antenna with the right chipset. We decided on a directional antenna as we want to be able to pick up signals from further away and don’t mind the extra work of rotating the antenna. The total cost was £80. So far it works great.
Mobile data network
Finding a good Wifi network to connect to is one thing, but there are times when there simply isn’t one in range. In these situations using a mobile data connection device is the next best thing.
Most people will recognise mobile data internet access from their smart-phones. This connection on your phone can often be shared with other devices by creating a mobile hotspot, on many phones this is as simple as pressing an icon.
A mobile data dongle is a small modem that plugs into the USB port of your laptop. You insert a data enabled sim card into the dongle just as you would your smart-phone, enabling you to use mobile data technologies to access the internet. You can swap the sim card for one local to whichever country you are travelling in, just make sure the dongle isn’t locked to one network. Utilising the built-in router in your laptop you can then share the network as described above.
A USB dongle is fine for use with a laptop that has a USB port, but, if you want internet access for a device with no USB port such as a phone or tablet, you need a mobile router. You can then plug your dongle into the router and connect to the mobile data network with WiFi enabled devices.
MiFi devices combine the dongle and router functions into one device. A MiFi is a 3G/4G portable modem router. Put simply, a MiFi device will access the mobile data network and then create a WiFi hotspot for you to connect to with your devices. Great for on the go as they come in rechargeable battery powered or 12v accessory socket versions. Getting an unlocked MiFi is essential if you want to swap sim cards in different countries.
If you need to boost the signal receiving capabilities of your mobile data device, you may want to consider using an antenna. You will need to ensure your mobile data device has the capability to plug an aerial in.
These come in directional and omnidirectional just like WiFi antennas. There are many different types, from smaller ones that clip directly onto your laptop, to outdoor ones for permanent installation on your camper roof. Be sure to choose one with the right connector for your mobile data device.