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Internet Access on the Road: A Guide For RV’ers Part II

Have internet connection will travel: creating a mobile network

In Part I we explored the options for obtaining internet access while traveling by RV, boat or car.  But once you’ve decided what technology to use to connect to the internet, the next question that needs to be answered is how to make that internet connection available to all the web-enabled devices you may have in your RV.

Although some people may respond by saying “all I have is a single computer”, more and more RVers are realizing they and their families carry with them a whole host of devices which require web access.  For example, consider a family vacationing in their RV with two teenagers.  Both Mom and Dad have smartphones.  Mom brings her iPad and Dad brings his laptop from work.  .  Even though they are on vacation they carry a printer in the RV because it’s helpful for printing admission tickets they purchase online while they are traveling. The kids each have smartphones and they brought their Xbox along for entertainment in the evenings so they can connect with Xbox Live.  The RV has a satellite TV dish with a DVR that connects to the web for purchase of on-demand movies. They also have a Roku so they can watch Netscape and listen to music on Pandora.

Although they may seem at first like the Jetsons, what this family carries with them is a pretty standard array of equipment for today’s modern households.  These days technology-savvy RVers without children often have most of the same hardware onboard.  With such a broad spectrum of wired and wireless hardware devices, the challenge is to provide them the online access they need with the minimum of effort since very few families are going to want to bring along an IT expert on their vacation.

The no-network approach

The simplest approach is to let each device fend for itself.  This is the “zero cost” option and may be appealing if you travel only occasionally on vacations of limited duration.

If you’re using a campground wifi it’s not too difficult to get your laptop to connect to the network, most of the time!  Of course, if you’re at a campground that provides login “coupons” for internet access on a daily or weekly basis you may find them a bit displeased with providing coupons for more than two devices.  Once activated, the coupons are device-specific so the one used for Mom’s iPad can’t be used by the kids to connect their smartphones to the wifi.  The printer is a problem unless someone in the family knows how to make it work without a router.  And you may not be able to connect those few things, like satellite TV receivers, that don’t have built-in wifi.  Well, who needed the on-demand movies, anyway.

Once you leave the campground you probably will rely on your MiFi or one of the smartphones to act as a wifi hotspot.  Both of these devices create a specialized network in your RV with the device serving the role of a router.  If you have a wifi-enabled printer it can be connected to such a network and you will be able to print, but you may have difficulty sharing files or using a media server.  Such an approach is not so bad other than for the time it takes to change the network settings for all the devices.  And, don’t forget, the MiFi can only handle five things connected to it at one time so there may have to be some compromises regarding what gets connected and for how long.  Of course, the problem of the wired devices doesn’t get solved by either the MiFi or the hotspot.

If you are one of those folks still connecting to the cellular network with a USB-modem, you’ll really have issues since it can provide connectivity to only one computer at a time.  iPads, game consoles, Roku’s are all out of luck.  Dad will get his work done, but that’s probably about the only access anyone is going to have.

You can easily see why a “no network” approach has become unacceptable to more and more RVers and other travelers.  Once you recognize that your RV is carrying the same equipment as you would have with you at home, it isn’t surprising that the correct solution to the internet access issue is the same one you would use at home—set up a network.

RV networks

In most respects setting up a network in an RV is the pretty much the same as setting up one at home.   The principal piece of equipment needed is a router, a unit that makes it possible to share an internet connection with multiple devices.  The key difference between a home network and one set up in an RV is that at home you usually have selected a particular method of connecting to the internet, for example, through your cable TV provider, and once you make that decision you aren’t likely to change your mind all that often.

Things are different when you are RVing.   One day you may be at a campground with excellent, free wifi, but the next you may spend at a state park with no public wifi so you will need to use your MiFi or smartphone hotspot for access.  What you need is a router which is capable of connecting to whatever internet access is available.   Such routers are a bit different from the ones you can buy at your local box store, but they are available from several sources.

Most of the RV routers sold are made by either https://www.wifiranger.com/ or http://www.cradlepoint.com/ Although Cradlepoint had been the market leader in this field for a number of years, during the past two years WiFiRanger has introduced a broad product line offering features not found in the current Cradlepoint product lineup.

The basic WiFiRanger system is built around a router being marketed as the “Go” which is a paperback-book sized device that serves as the hub of an RV network.  The Go doesn’t look much different from the routers you can buy virtually everywhere, but it has a number of unique features the key one being that it is capable of receiving a wifi signal and re-transmitting it within an RV (or even a house).  If you think about that for a moment you will realize that your normal home router doesn’t have that function because it’s unlikely your house will be near the free wifi at the local McDonalds or Starbucks!  LOL

It’s this ability to connect to a local wifi source that is essential for an RV router since it is the interface between the devices in your RV and a campground’s wifi.  In technical jargon this capability is called WiFi as WAN (wide area network), the linking of your local area network (LAN) to the wider world through a wifi link.   The Go can scan for wifi sources in your vicinity and you can select the one you want to connect to based on its data rate and signal strength.  The Go uses the latest 802.11n wifi standard so you can connect at maximum speed to any access point you encounter.   Its wifi transmission is encrypted in accordance with the WPA2 standard so your communications will be secure.

The Go also has a USB port, so you can insert a USM modem if you have one, and four Ethernet ports for connecting things like DSL or cable modems or devices that do not have built-in wifi like older game consoles or satellite TV receivers.  Essentially, the Go can connect you to any internet source available and you can switch between them with a single keystroke.  Once you leave a particular campground the Go will automatically connect to your MiFi or phone’s hotspot if those are turned on.

Because the Go was designed from the bottom up to be an RV router, a key aspect of its design philosophy is the management of multiple internet connections.  It is easy to imagine that you might be at a campground that has a wifi system that is acceptable but which has periodic outages or significant slowdowns.  You can setup your Go so that it preferentially connects to the local wifi but will automatically switch to your USB modem if the wifi slows down below a preselected data rate.  When wifi service again becomes available, the Go will switch its connection back to it.  This ensures that you are always connected to the best internet connection available while reducing the data usage on your cellular account.

In the next software update of the Go, this automatic switching capability will be extended to situations in which you have multiple wifi sources available such as MiFi’s and phone hotspots. What’s truly unique about how the Go performs its automatic switching is that it actually creates a “standby” connection to the backup internet source so that changing from one source to another is almost instantaneous and usually occurs without the user even noticing.

For the RVer who wants to ensure that he can connect to any wifi encountered, WiFiRanger offers an accessory to the Go which is marketed as the Mobile.  The Mobile is itself a router that is designed to be roof-mounted.  The Mobile has a higher power output than the Go and comes with a 3dB external antenna.  The Mobile can be connected to the Go via Ethernet cable in which case the cable provides power as well as serving as the data link; it can also be connected to the Go via wifi in which case it would be powered separately.  The combination of a Go and a Mobile creates the most versatile and powerful RV network system currently on the market.

For those who are interested in implementing a network in their RV, we are pleased to be able to offer our users a $10 discount on any purchase made on the WiFiRanger website https://www.wifiranger.com/.  Just enter WFR Ambassador ID, WFRAmb303, during checkout.

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