Since we have to work on the road most of the time (we run an internet-related business) one of the main things that enables us to use our trailer a lot is the a good internet connection. If we have a good system for getting connected, we can do a lot more traveling – working from all kinds of beautiful and interesting remote locations. It literally turns our RV into a mobile office and lets us almost be on vacation while we work.
What we need is a good, sensible, reliable way to get an internet connection from wherever we park our rig for the night.
We've been through this all before.
We worked on the road a lot from our last trailer, so we're already familiar with the main options. Here's a review:
Option 1: Find WiFi networks in campgrounds, coffee shops, rest stops, truck stops, barns, and whatever else we happen to pass or be near.
This option gets a rating of "completely lame". Most of the places we want to be don't have WiFi available.
Many commercial RV parks (the kind that are like living in a big mall parking lot with a shrubbery planted between you and your neighbor 3 feet away) have WiFi, but their connections tend to be slow, unreliable, and often only available if you luck into a spot near the office. Each one has a magic formula for getting online, with tech support provided by a woman with a beehive hairdo she got in 1957. When you have a technical problem with their network, like maybe for example their router just lost its WAN connection and something needs to be re-started, you contact the technical support woman. The conversation goes like this:
"Hi, I need some help with the WiFi connection."
"You mean your electric? or sewer?"
"No, I mean the internet."
"Oh, that thing. Cletus mostly looks after that. Our son set it up when he was home from college last year. There's a instruction sheet up thar on the counter."
"Yeah, I've got that part. I think your router needs to be re-started. I can connect to your network just fine, but your network isn't connected to the internet."
"Well, you've got to enter the password like it says there on the sheet."
"Yes, I've entered the password. It worked all day yesterday. Today, though – there's a problem with your equipment. It needs to be re-started. Could you maybe give it a quick un-plug and re-plug?"
"Well, I should't mess with that. If you like, I'll ask Cletus about it when he comes home – he'll be back in about six hours…"
Option 2: Data Cards
This option, which seems to be the most popular, is to just use 3G or 4G data cards (the kind provided by cell phone companies) directly in your laptop. These cards cost about $60 per month at present, are very easy to use, and can get data service pretty much anyplace your cell phone will work.
This option gets a rating of "pretty good." There are three limitations worth considering for most people:
1) Some of the places you want to camp don't have good cell service. Inside a metal trailer, it's even worse.
2) The data card plugs directly into one laptop. If you have more devices you want to connect, (multiple laptops, maybe WiFi-enabled media players, or video games) you'll need a way to share the data card. We''ll talk about that below.
3) These data cards have a limit of 5GB per month at present. After that, they either shut off, or you get charged an exorbitant rate for additional data. Any "normal" internet use you do except the two limitations below will be no problem. Most e-mail, surfing the web, sending and receiving photos, etc. will work fine.This limitation will only be important to you if you
a) stream a lot of video, including services like YouTube, Hulu, or (our favorite) Slingbox (which allows you to control and stream from your home cable or satellite box – directly to your RV). Video will get you in trouble in a HURRY with the 5GB data card limit. You can figure that the average 1-hour TV show, streamed at reasonable quality, will use up in the range of a half gigabyte of data. At that rate, 10 TV shows and you're done. With the price most carriers charge for "overage" data, your next TV show could cost you $25 to $50.
b) stream music through an online service such as Pandora. You can still do a reasonable amount of audio streaming if you are just using your data card part time.
No, no, no.
No no, nuh-no no nowsah.
Oh, I know. You've surfed around on the internets (from home, of course) and found pages selling systems that connect through satellite providers like HughesNet – promising that you can have instant, high-speed internet connections from ANYWHERE. You just set up a little dish on a tripod, (or if you're better funded – push a magic button activating a fully-automatic system on your RV roof) and focused beams of microwave energy blast into the sky from your rig, finding their mark on the antenna of a spaceship orbiting high above the earth. Then, harnessing some of the same NASA technology that brings us insanely boring videos of astronauts playing with blobs of water in zero gravity – that picture you took of your little Egbert feeding Starbursts to the ground squirrels at Parking Lot National Monument will zip into space, ricochet down into the fast lane on the information superhighway, and land right on Grandma's desktop – just as soon as you call her up and explain email to her for the 43rd time.
You picture yourself in the middle of the Mojave, miles from the nearest mall, mini-mart, or main street, mailing photos to friends, updating your blog, and sharing your WiFi connection with any internet-enabled reptiles or cacti that happen to reside in the area.
It ain't like that
Trust me, I've tried it. A lot.
You may think that you know how to aim a satellite dish because you've got DirecTV or Dish Network in your rig, and you can pretty quickly get a good signal by pointing the dish in the general direction of South, and then wiggling it around while your wife yells out the window "no… low… OK, there's the signal.. wait, go back a bit… THERE! Perfect."
Catching TV in a dish is like trying to catch rain in a dishpan. If you get the top pointed in the general direction of "up", you'll probably catch some rain.
Getting Satellite Internet working is more like trying to hit a high-flying bird with a rock. At night. In a thunderstorm.
For TV to work, you just have to catch some of the signal that the satellite is generously spraying around all over the ground. For internet to work, you have to beam YOUR signal into space and hit a tiny spacecraft hundreds of miles away. Once you hit it, you have to rotate your dish WITHOUT LOSING AIM until the polarity of your antenna matches exactly with the little imaginary keyhole slot on the satellite.
You arrive at the campground, set up the rest of your rig, then spend 15 minutes getting all your gear out and assembled – tripod set up, stakes pounded into the ground, guy wires tightened (the tripod can't wiggle, even a bit, or you'll lose everything.) Next you mount your dish and the LNA (that's low-noise amplifier) on the tripod, connect Input AND output cables, go back and disconnect them because you forgot to wire-in the signal strength meter (sorry, I mean "outdoor pointing interface – OPI), reconnect them, bend one of the little wires in the middle of the coax, fix it, unroll the 50 foot reel of cable from the tripod to your rig, and connect up to the two cables running to your modem.
Now you're ready to go inside your rig and shed your GoreTex. Did I mention it's raining? and dark? It is. You're wet. It's cold. You fire up your laptop computer and run the special program that gives you satellite direction (asimuth), elevation (angle up from the ground), and polarity (cross-pol). That program wants your longitude and latitude, in degrees, minutes, and seconds. You go back out to your tow vehicle and fire up the GPS – munge around until you find your coordinates – then put them into your calculator and convert from degrees, minutes, and seconds to decimal degrees. (You remember how to do that, right?) Then you write these down on a slip of paper with a pen you remembered to bring… for the first time.
Now, armed with that information you go back inside and feed the info to the program. Like magic, It gives you magnetic direction for the azimuth, elevation, and cross-polarization for the satellite from your current location. You write these all down on that same slip of paper (although it's damp now from the run in from the car). Next you re-don your GoreTex, grab a flashlight, and go back outside where the fun can begin.
Once outside you need to aim the dish in the general direction specified by the coordinates on your slip of paper. You first need to loosen the adjusting knobs and screws on the dish so you can aim it. You WILL skin your knuckles on the one that's inside the badly-finished metal bracket at the back. Now, with your slip of paper in one hand, your flashlight in the other, the other hand on the top of the dish, and the other hand on the side of the bracket, you move the dish while watching the compass needle on the… crap, you forgot to attach the aiming device temporarily to the top of the dish. You head back inside the rig to your big gear box. (Satellite junk will occupy a box in your rig about the size of a laundry hamper, and that doesn't include the dish, tripod, and boom-arm with LNA.)
Did I mention it's raining? It is.
You come back out with the aiming device. You set the little cheater ring on the compass to the correct heading (asimuth), the scale on the level platform to the elevation, and the swing platform to the correct angle for the cross-pol. Now, you reach up to the top of the dish (assuming your'e tall enough) and mount the device to the dish with a thumbscrew. Unfortunately, earlier, when you hoisted the dish, you bumped the mounting platform ever-so-slightly, pushing it off-center by just enough so that you'll never, ever, ever find the satellite. You grab a stool, climb up, and re-adjust the mounting platform to where you HOPE the screw was before it got bumped loose. Now you re-mount the aiming device.
Now that almost everything is set up – (we're just about to where the hard part starts, so hang on…) we can aim the dish to the approximate direction of the satellite. Re-assume the magic position – paper in one hand, flashlight in hand 2, bottom of the dish in hand 3, side of the bracket in hand 4, flashlight aimed up at the aiming device – spin the dish until the compass lines up with the direction on the cheater ring. There – perfect. Next, pull back on the top of the dish until the x-axis level is perfectly in the middle. Now, using a fifth hand for stability, slowly rotate the dish until the cross-pol level bubble is centered – WITHOUT disturbing the other level or the compass. This step requires a lot of practice – be patient.
Here is where experience pays off. If you have experience, you notice that your dish is now pointed directly at a clump of trees. You can get a head start on disassembling the whole thing and trying to move it to another location where you can aim it that exact direction – WITHOUT hitting any trees, bushes, nearby hills, power lines, other people's rigs, etc. You'll find just exactly the perfect spot – and it will be 10 feet past the farthest point you can reach with your longest set of cables. You'll settle for a not-so-perfect spot where you can hit the satellite (let's start calling it the "bird" – the more intimate you get with the setup process, the more you need some lingo) except that you're now standing in six inches of water in what might be an alligator swamp You can't tell that right now, of course, because it's dark. And raining.
Now, you repeat the part about aiming the dish and getting all the needles and levels in the correct starting position.
If you didn't have experience, you skipped straight to this step without moving the tripod. You'll spend a couple of hours of frustration on the next few steps, then you'll go back to the "move the tripod" step above and start the whole process over. Are we having fun yet? Buckle up, the excitement is just beginning.
Next, we go inside the rig and connect all the inside cables. Input and output go to the modem, Ethernet to your wifi hub, power to everything, laptop connected to the wifi network (but not yet to the internet). Power must be applied last, and once you do, you have to be very careful to stand only BEHIND your antenna. Otherwise, it's a bit like sticking your head in the microwave while you're popping popcorn – but without the door-safety-latch.
Next you fire up your laptop, establish a connection to the satellite modem, and bring up the "installer" page. This is a very technical set of pages that come up in your web browser – designed for the professional installer who is putting one of these dishes permanently on someone's home. You'll have to navigate through a number of pages with strange technical jargon, clicking the right buttons even though you don't understand the question (with a degree in Electrical Engineering and over 20 years working in the industry I don't understand most of them – your mileage may vary). You know which buttons to click because the manual had about ten pages with all the right options circled in little pictures of the configuration interface. Unfortunately, that was the OLD release of the interface, and now a new version is out that looks completely different from your manual. You eventually manage to get all the right options checked and get to the first antenna pointing page.
Now you go back outside in the COLD and RAIN and DARK. 75% of the time, you'll see that your Oudoor Pointing Interface (OPI) is blinking an error code. You need to go back inside, power down everything, and power back up again, and go through the interface pages on your laptop again. You repeat this in-and-out process until the OPI fires up without the error code. Some WD-40 on the connectors can help – sometimes.
At this point, you'll notice that the signal strength is zero. Learn what this display looks like – you'll be seeing it a lot. OK, not really zero – really "15" which of course means zero.
What you're looking for is a signal strength of 60 or greater. You grab your dish firmly yet gently with both hands (while the flashlight is being pointed at the OPI with the other hand and a second flashlight is being pointed up at the aiming device with the fourth hand.) You begin moving the dish in a rectangular spiral pattern outward from where you pointed it, watching the meter as you go. Left a few degrees… down a couple degrees, back right a few degrees, up three or four degrees, back left a few more degrees… At some point the signal strength will suddenly jump from 15 (zero) to about 30. Don't get happy yet, that's the wrong satellite. There are plenty of "wrong" satellites that will ping your meter up to 30. Only the ONE correct satellite will push the reading up to 60 or more (or if it's raining a lot – 59, where it won't budge a single db higher allowing you to go to the next step)
Let's pretend (just to keep this description brief and happy) that you hit the satellite and get a 60 or more (In reality, you don't. You look for awhile and then the OPI goes back to the error code and you have to go back inside and power off and on and repeat the whole process again.)
Now, we've got a signal strength of 84, so we're there, right? We tighten down all the adjustment screws so this sucker can't move. We don't want to go through THAT process again. Next we go back inside and advance the installer interface to the next section – cross-pol.
I won't lie to you about cross-pol. I know the process has been pretty easy and straightforward to this point, but cross-pol is a BEAR. What you're trying to do is get the dish tilted on its axis – while still maintaining an aim directly at the satellite, until the angle is exactly right for your dish to line up with the keyhole on the bird. Picture a lock and key – you've got the key aimed directly at the keyhole, but now you have to rotate it so it lines up correctly with the slot. While you're doing that, you have to maintain your aim at the keyhole, of course.
Cross-pol requires help from the satellite. You first have to put your system in a "test" mode. The satellite gets a signal from your dish, evaluates it, and sends back the results to tell you how you're doing. Unfortunately, the satellite can only do a few of these at a time, and there are apparently people across the entire country standing out in the rain at midnight pointing satellite dishes while their more sensible partners are inside their rigs with cups of hot cocoa reading their books. As a result – you'll see that you're now number 8 in line and you get to wait until you creep forward in the queue for your turn at cross-pol test.
About an hour later, you haven't moved. That's because your unit silently lost the signal while showing you that you were number 8. You've been waiting an hour for nothing. You re-start the system and get back to the cross-pol step again. After a few repetitions of this, you get the signal that you can go back outside and attempt cross-pol.
Now, you're outside and the OPI is reading the cross-pol numbers. You grip the dish firmly, and just breathe the idea of an infinitesimal – tiny – microscopic – almost imperceptible rotation to the left. The dish jumps about 10 degrees and you lose your signal completely. Go back to the pointing step.
Once you're past that, you nudge the dish back and forth until you suddenly get an acceptable cross-pol reading. You run back inside the RV and advance the interface to the final step. This is where you present your whole setup to the satellite and ask "Am I OK? If so, may I please have some internets?" It's like the final exam for satellite setup class. You have to go through the whole queue thing again, of course, and then you're finally up. If you're lucky, you get the "approved" message, your whole system automatically resets, you see five blue lights, and you're now ready to surf the internet at – about the speed of a 1995 ISDN modem.
Not only is this "broadband" connection slow, but it is limited. You're not allowed to download more than about the equivalent of two good YouTube videos per day before the satellite slaps you in the penalty box and slows your connection to a snail's pace for the next 24 hours. It's like having a bad race car with a fuel tank that only holds enough to drive from your house to the gas station. You can go fast, but it isn't useful for much.
Still, now, you're online in the wilderness, and you just can't put a value on that, can you? You drop into bed exhausted, content with the knowledge that in the morning, when you wakeup, you'll open your laptop to find that the mild wind overnight wiggled your dish and you have to do the whole thing over again.
Some of you may think I'm being unfair to satellite. I probably am. This whole unpleasant scenario only happens if you are lucky enough to land in a campsite where there are no trees, hills, powerlines, or other obstructions blocking your aim to the one spot near the horizon where your satellite is hovering. The rest of the time, you can just leave the whole system in the box.
Option 4: Wifi In Motion
WiFi In Motion is really a modification of Option 2 – Datacards. WiFi In Motion is actually a company that takes a Cradlepoint mobile router, a Wilson cell-phone booster amp, an outside antenna and an indoor antenna and puts them together into a system that uses one or two datacards to create a WiFi network using cell-company cards. Because of the cell booster, your data card can get signal in a lot of places where you don't have cell service – the external antenna and amplifier buy you a LOT of additional range. The WiFi hub will make you a regular wireless network inside your rig – secure, reliable, and fast (it's got 802.11b, g, and n).
What we have is actually 2 datacards from different providers. Have you seen those commercials with the coverage maps? This lets you take advantage of the maps from 2 different companies at once. It also lets you double the 5 gig per month limit, giving you a much more comfortable 10 gigs. Finally, as a bonus, you can hook up both datacards at the same time where you have good service, and the router will use that for load sharing – kinda doubling the speed of your connection.
When you get into a campground, you flip the switch, plug in your datacard, and you have WiFi within about a minute. Your GoreTex can stay in the closet.
Yes, of course there are places where you can't get signal and won't have internet. In our experience, however, there are far fewer places like that than there are places where a satellite system couldn't hit the bird.
I wrote this blog entry from a campground. Using option 4.
(posted by Kevin)