How we connect to the internet

Dec 08

We make our living on the internet — posting photos and blogs, writing connected apps, connecting with customers and employers and generally keeping in touch with folks on the net. It is really important that we have the most reliable connection that we can get. Being on the road means that the traditional methods of connecting like cable or DSL are not available to us. Instead we need to have a variety of tools that let us make the most of any situation. A lot of people have been asking how we’ll stay in touch while we’re traveling so this post is all about how we will do exactly that.

The simplest option is to use existing WiFi available at campgrounds where we stop. Usually there is free internet access via WiFi in the park but the connections are often pretty weak so the first tool in our arsenal is the WiFiRanger Sky.  This box sits on the roof of the trailer and picks up WiFi signals from a distance and boosts them so that it is strong enough to use in the trailer. In addition, the Sky creates a private network so that our own devices are isolated from other devices in the park which makes it more secure since other people in the park don’t have direct access to our computers or phones. The WiFiRanger Sky is powered by Power over Ethernet (PoE) which means there is a cable that comes out of the Sky box which needs to connect to the power source inside the trailer. This makes installing it a bit more involved (but possible) since you need to drill holes to get the wire inside but once you have it wired up, it is very easy to use. This ethernet connection also means it is possible to hook it up to a router inside the trailer but more on that below.

The WiFiRanger Sky sits on the roof of the trailer and picks up weak WiFi signals and makes them strong enough to use in the trailer.

The WiFiRanger Sky sits on the roof of the trailer and picks up weak WiFi signals and makes them strong enough to use in the trailer.

When we don’t have access to WiFi, our next best bet is to use cellular data.  For that, we have a Novatel 4620LE MiFi connected to service through Millenicom. Verizon is actually the data provider which means we have the widest 4G LTE network in the US but Millenicom give us 20 gigabytes of data for about $70 per month which is much better than any other provider. Best of all, there is no long term contract so we can turn off the monthly charge if we end up staying someplace that has great WiFi, we can stop paying that monthly fee if we won’t be using it. The 4620LE usually works as a WiFi access point but in our case, we run a USB cable to our router which gives us a better connection.

The 4620LE Jetpack provides internet access through the Verizon network and can be used either as a WiFi access point or connected directly via USB.

The 4620LE Jetpack provides internet access through the Verizon network and can be used either as a WiFi access point or connected directly via USB.

One of the challenges of having an aluminum trailer is that electronic signals have a tough time getting through the metal.  This applies to both WiFi and cellular signals. The WiFiRanger Sky gets around this by sitting on the roof of the trailer but for cellular signals for the 4620LE, we need another device.  The Wilson Sleek 4G-V is a cellular booster that sits inside of our wiring cabinet. It is a cradle that holds the 4620LE and is then connected to an antenna on the roof of the trailer. The antenna gets around the problem of the aluminum shell but the Sleek has another feature that helps when the cellular signal is weak.  The Sleek is a cellular booster which means it amplifies the signal from more distant cell towers and basically gets you a few extra bars of signal which can be the difference between a slow (or no) connection and happy surfing.

The Wilson Sleek 4G-V provides the added boost needed to get a reliable cellular signal for the MiFi device.

The Wilson Sleek 4G-V provides the added boost needed to get a reliable cellular signal for the MiFi device.

 

When we’re out on the road, I don’t want to keep trying to figure out which which is the right connection to be using. Generally we want to use the least expensive network connection at any given time so that means that if there is a good WiFi signal, we should go with that but if we can’t get WiFi, then we want to fall back to the cellular data plan. Rather than configuring it on each device, we use the Pepwave Surf SOHO router to bring everything together. This router lets you configure each of the different network access options with a priority for each one. The SOHO is also a WiFi access point so it should be the main WiFi that all of our devices connect to and then it routes the signal appropriately based on what the best option is at the moment. You can configure data limits on a certain interface to try to keep from going over your data limit.

The Pepwave Surf SOHO router is the center of our internet connectivity story. Well, at least it is supposed to be.

The Pepwave Surf SOHO router is the center of our internet connectivity story. Well, at least it is supposed to be.

The one problem at the moment is that I have not yet been able to get the Surf SOHO and WiFiRanger Sky to play nicely together. After talking with the WiFiRanger support folks (who have been great so far) they told me how to configure the Sky to let it’s ethernet cable be connected to another router as a source but since then I have not gotten the SOHO to connect to it reliably. Similarly, when I first got the 4620LE, I couldn’t get it to show up in the SOHO but that ended up being a setting on the Jetpack to let it route through the USB cable rather than just charging through it. The SOHO’s connection to the 4620LE through the Wilson Sleek works great now, though so I am hoping that I can get the Sky to do the same thing.

I purchased the Pepwave Surf SOHO before I got the WiFiRanger Sky. WiFiRanger also makes a similar product called the Go2  that routes between multiple sources of internet connectivity. While routing between devices from different companies should would just fine (after all, these are very well defined standards) I do wonder if it would be easier to get it set up when both of these devices are from the same place and were designed to work together. I am continuing to work on getting the Sky and SOHO to play nice together and I’ll update this post with any progress.

9 comments

  1. Kelly Hogan /

    Chris,

    Adding the SOHO to the mix is really not needed. If you simply use the failover capabilities of the Sky to use public WiFi first, then your MiFi’s signal as a “Last Resort” (using tags) then you will always prefer public wifi and always have a private network for all your devices, then fail down to the MiFi wirelessly when needed. If you need additional LAN ports, you can simply add a 5 port switch (not a router) to the end of the POE Sky connector and its private wireless and wired network is exposed on that port. (You would have to disable the WAN Ethernet functionality in the Sky, which makes that port become part of the private network)

    Right now you have 2 failover routers in the mix, and it will be very difficult to get them to operate seamlessly. Hooking the Sky to the WAN port on the SOHO will isolate the control panel behind the SOHOs firewall, and create all sorts of fun.

    I used a Sky as depicted above for a year or so and had no issues. If you want specifics about the set-up, contact WiFiRanger and ask the support person to coordinate with “The Lone Ranger” with your contact info, and I’ll call you with the specifics.

  2. Thanks Kelly. Are you proposing that the Sky then use the MiFi via it’s WiFi interface? I agree that adding more routers just adds latency but I would also like to minimize the number of jumps across WiFi networks which is why I like the SOHO-MiFI connection being a USB one when we need to use that connection and going from SOHO-WiFiRanger Sky over the ethernet avoids that hop too.

    • Kelly Hogan /

      Yes, That was what I was proposing. I do see that you use “tethering” on the SOHO now, and that does improve throughput a bit. However, consider the situation: Your MiFi will get maybe 15Mbs on its best day, and your WFRs wireless network will run about 120Mbps on the N standard. So you are still getting plenty of “excess” local bandwidth to deal with the hop to the MiFi. Best thing to do is try it. Connect to the MiFi wirelessly with your PC, run a speed test, then connect the WFR Sky to the MiFi and connect your PC through the Sky, and test again. You may see some latency, but probably not a bunch, due to the N radio working so fast.

      If you do want an internal router, hit me up for a demo Go2 in the Beta program. You’d experience a lot of benefit from having a router that can seamlessly control the outdoor Sky.

  3. Wow! Chris, thank you! I am THRILLED to have this much information!!!

    I am going to save this in my IMPORTANT INFORMATION folder so that I can find it when I am ready for it.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  4. Okay, Chris, I am ready for more information/help. (please)
    While on the road, I want to have a phone, internet and television. I have a MacBook Pro, I am going to have to buy a television and I am anticipating upgrading to a smartphone.

    So, to make this work, I should buy the WiFiRanger Sky, the Verizon JetPack…I am just not sure. Is it possible that you would write me out a bulleted list of what I need? Or, is that asking too much? I realize you are just getting ready for the big take off.

    Is this work something that I would ask the RV dealer to do?

    I’m so confused!

  5. Hi Kim,

    I think the best place to start would be with a MiFi device (JetPack) that lets you connect to the internet via cellular service. Millenicom currently has the best deal on those for $69.99 per month for 20GB of data. Your smartphone will probably also come with a data plan so that will let you access the internet from your phone (or potentially from your Mac as well, but those data plans tend to be much more expensive).

    The WiFiRanger Sky is working great for us but it does require some pretty tricky installation so it is probably best to have it professionally installed. You might want to wait a little bit to see how the campsite WiFi and the MiFi device work for you. If you get reliable WiFi at campgrounds and you stay under your monthly limit for data, you’re all set. If not, then you might want to start looking at things like the WiFiRanger Sky to get better signal for campground WiFi.

    Good luck!

    • Thanks so much, Chris! I appreciate you taking the time to walk me through this as you start your adventure. I am going to have to get a smartphone. I am canceling the TV tomorrow. Maybe I will cancel everything from my provider and just get a smartphone and the MiFi device. That way, I will be ready to roll!

  6. Jennifer /

    Did you get the SOHO and the Sky to place nice? I’m trying to figure this out right now. Thanks.

    • We replaced the SOHO with a WiFiRanger Go. It probably would have worked with the SOHO because we just ended up using WiFi to connect to the Millenicom MiFi device.

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