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Old 12-30-2011, 08:27 PM
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Default Better wi-fi connections

This article arose from the thread started by Dave / Scottie Dogs at http://www.trailmanorowners.com/foru...ad.php?t=12135. Thanks, Dave.

Like others on this board, I have experienced weak or distant wi-fi signals at various campgrounds, which limited or eliminated my ability to have wireless communications in my camper. After conferring with TMO member Barb&Tim, and doing some research, I chose a solution that works for me. Along the way I learned a lot that might be of use to other TMO members.

Disclaimer: Though I am a communications engineer, I am not a wi-fi expert. My purpose here is to clarify the wi-fi issue, pass on what I have learned, and discuss some of the solutions to the problem. I have used information from Jefatech.com and other sources, and have used Jefatech products as examples. This is not an endorsement of Jefatech – the information and the products are available from many other sources.

Wi-fi uses radio signals to communicate between a transmitter / receiver at a base station, and a matching transmitter / receiver in your computer. By design, the wi-fi signal is not very strong and does not travel very far. Faulty equipment or poor layout at the campground can make communication marginal to start with. Beyond that, the wi-fi antenna in your computer is a poor performer because of its limited size. And the metal walls of a trailer weaken the signal even more. The overall result is that communication using your computer’s wi-fi setup may not be possible. What to do?

The first, best, and cheapest solution is simply to put a better antenna on your end of the communications link. If you can do this, it is likely that nothing else will be needed. However, this works only if your computer has a connector for an external antenna, and most do not. If you are one of the lucky ones, then you have a number of choices. You can build your own antenna, such as the “cantenna” described here http://support.jefatech.com/cantenna/ for nearly zero cost. A simple rubber duck antenna such as any of these http://www.jefatech.com/category/a100 will work well and costs about ten dollars. A larger monopole antenna such as this one http://www.jefatech.com/product/JTOD...i-Antenna.html has a bit more gain, and will work even better. In each case, the important thing is to mount the antenna outside the camper and higher than the roofline. (Note that the rubber duck antenna is not weatherproof, and the cantenna must be aimed properly.) Be sure to use the right kind of cable – cable intended for cable TV will not work – and run it in through one of the flaps.

If your computer does not have provision for an external antenna, then your choices appear to be a “wi-fi booster” or a “wi-fi repeater”. These are not the same thing. The terminology is confusing, but the devices are described in the next few paragraphs.

A wi-fi booster actually disables and replaces your computer’s transmitter, receiver, and antenna. The booster has an antenna of its own, plus its own transmitter and receiver packaged in a small module. The unit is mounted outdoors, above the roofline, and a cable is run into the trailer and plugged into a USB port on your computer. A bit of software tells the computer that it should no longer use its built-in wi-fi equipment, but should instead communicate through the USB port. The advantage of a booster is that it is relatively cheap. The limitation is that it provides “boost” only for one computer. You can’t set it up for multiple computers, and you can’t use other wi-fi devices such as smart phones. The booster is powered by the computer’s USB port, so no external power is needed. You can look over a booster at http://www.jefatech.com/product/RV-K...RVs---USB.html. There are others, many for far less cost, at other sources. It is worth noting that you can use a directional antenna with a booster, for better performance on truly weak links. This is unlikely to be needed in a campground situation, though, and many have found that it is a pain to aim and stabilize a directional antenna.

A wi-fi repeater uses the wi-fi equipment built into your computer. As the name implies, the repeater picks up the wi-fi signal that your computer sends out, and retransmits it at higher power to the base station. At the same time, it picks up the signal sent out by the base station, and retransmits it through the air to your computer. Since your computer is still using its own internal transmitter / receiver / antenna, it is not aware of the change, and so no software or other change is needed.

As before, the heart of a repeater is a better antenna, mounted outside the trailer and up high. The advantage of a repeater over a booster is that since the wi-fi signal is simply re-transmitted at higher power, many devices can use it at the same time. Multiple computers, tablet devices such as the iPad, and wi-fi-enabled phones can all connect through this device. The disadvantage, as you might expect, is that the more complex electronics costs a bit more. The repeater may require an external source of AC power for its wall-wart power supply, which can be a hassle if you are boondocking. On the other hand, you may be able to power it directly from 12 VDC battery power with a homemade adapter, as shown on the Jefatech web site. You can look over a wi-fi repeater at http://www.jefatech.com/product/RV-K...t-for-RVs.html. Again, it is worth noting that you cannot use a directional antenna with a repeater. Because the repeater must be able to "see" both the base station and your computer, its antenna should be omnidirectional.

My experience:
After a big gulp at the price, a long discussion with Barb&Tim about their experience, and a conference with my wife, I bought the Jefatech wi-fi repeater. We travel with only one computer, but wanted to be able to use a wi-fi-enabled smart phone in areas with no cell phone service, so the price difference seemed to make sense. As I write this, I have not been to a campground where a repeater was needed, so to check it out, I ran a home experiment. I powered up my laptop in my office, and asked it to find all the wi-fi links in the area. It reported only one – the wireless link from my own home-network’s router. Then I set up the repeater outside my window, putting the antenna on a 10-foot pole, and asked my computer again to find all wi-fi links. This time it found my own router, and eight additional links. These additional links are my neighbors’ wireless routers, which were too weak to see without the repeater. To me, this suggests that the device will perform well in campground where wi-fi is weak or limited. When I get some actual campground experience with it, I will add it to this article.
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