How We Improved Our Internet/Wi-Fi Reception In Caravan Parks And Remote Areas... and how you can too!

A solution for every budget - from $7.00 up to several hundred dollars.

 

We always enjoy complimentary Wi-Fi when available in Caravan Parks, but invariably, the signal can fluctuate between poor and lousy. Free Camping in the Outback presents even greater challenges, where a signal can't be established for love nor money.

I had read on Forums, where caravanners had employed an outside antenna as a means of boosting any available signal, but my knowledge and understanding of such things was rather limited.

So in 2014 I set about trying to educate myself a little and see if a solution could be found. I knew it could be done... it was just a matter of finding a suitable, affordable solution for us.

I started where all good searches start... Google. As always happens, one search led to another, then another. I read numerous articles on the subject and viewed lots of YouTube videos.

I soon learned, It was pretty much a given, that I needed an outdoor antenna of some description. Some suggested a Omni-directional antenna, like the one on the right, while others recommended a Directional antenna. Both had their pros and cons of course. The Omni pulled in signals from all directions, but from lesser distance. The Directional could pull in signals from greater distances, but had to be aimed at the source.

So loaded with my newfound knowledge, I went shopping. I wanted to buy several antennas, so as to give myself the best chance of pulling in a signal from various locations around Australia.
 

The first purchase was a TP-Link 14dBi Outdoor Directional Panel Antenna recommended and used by a guy who does all this Wi-Fi stuff (and more) for a living. In his video, he outlines what they had done, to achieve a strong Wi-Fi signal wherever they travel... in their case, overcoming weak Wi-Fi in van parks.

I took his lead and ordered the same unit from a supplier in Melbourne. The Antenna arrived quickly, along with 6m of Low Loss Antenna Cable, also from TP-Link.

TP-Link TL-ANT2414B 2.4GHz 14dBi Outdoor Directional Panel Antenna

 
The Second Wi-Fi device

The next unit that caught my attention, again through a YouTube video, was the small Desktop Booster from Alfa Networks. If you have some signal in the Park, the Desktop Booster will be perfect for the RVer that wants a powerful Wi-Fi booster, but doesn't want an outside antenna.

Simply place the Desktop Booster in a window facing the access point and attach it to your laptop USB port.
 

The Third Wi-Fi device

We wanted to be able to connect more than just my laptop. We also wanted to connect Bev's laptop, our phones and a Wi-Fi Printer as well.

To achieve this, we had to couple our Desktop Booster to a Extender/Repeater. There are a number of choices on the market to achieve this, but the one I chose, was the  Alfa Networks R36 Extender/Repeater. I bought both units from RFShop in Adelaide.

With this setup, the feed from the Desktop Booster connects to the R36 Extender. The R36 is a nifty little 12v unit and can be programmed as your own secure, password protected Hot Spot.
 

One point of mention though, if you're considering a set-up like this, be aware that it's not Plug and Play. You will need to be a little computer savvy, as the R36 needs to be "programmed" with your info, but there are very clear instructions available, as well as step-by-step videos showing what needs to be done.


 

The Fourth Wi-Fi Device

By this time, I was starting to get the hang of things and as I like to have more than one arrow in the quiver, I added another antenna to the mix, in the form of an Outdoor Omni-directional antenna. The one I chose, is also a Alfa Networks product, the Tube-U(N).

This component comes with a 8m USB cable, that runs to the USB port on the R36. It by-passes the Desktop Booster, as the base of this antenna, into which the antenna screws, is a 1-watt (1000mW) high power amplifier (Booster), a receiving radio that picks up the distant Wi-Fi signal.

It is fully weatherproof and can handle outdoor temperatures down to freezing.

If desired, the Tube-U can also be plugged into the USB port of a compatible Windows computer to extend the range to just that PC, but using it with the R36 allows you to share reception with multiple Wi-Fi enabled devices at once.

The Omni antenna is sold separately and screws into the top of the "Tube".

One thing I wasn't aware of when I was shopping for solutions was, the Tube-U and the R36 Booster/Extender now comes as a kit, called the Alfa Wi-Fi Camp Pro. At time of writing, RFShop in Adelaide sell the Kit complete, for $149.

This kit combines the R36 portable Wi-Fi router, with the Tube-U outdoor USB wireless adapter, and a high performance outdoor antenna AOA-2409.

Camp-Pro offers convenient, extended wireless access whenever you're in a camping site or even on a boat. Remote wireless can easily be connected via the Tube USB wireless adapter and the R36 broadcasts the received signals to your local devices.

UPDATE JANUARY 2019: Alfa have now released their new Wi-Fi Camp Pro2 Repeater Kit containing the new R36A USB router. It's $215 with free shipping anywhere in Australia. Click image for full description.

 

The Fifth Wi-Fi Device

The next piece of hardware added to the Wi-Fi Kit, and the one I now use most frequently, is the Ubiquiti NanoStation (Loco M2). The NanoStation is a powerful Radio/Antenna combination, that can pull in a Wi-Fi signal from as far as 10klm away.

I mention it last here, mainly because the set-up stumps most people. Ubiquiti products are very commercial, so the internal interface is not intuitive. Good for Installers, but not the average layman. You'll need to be computer savvy.

Having said that, I'm no Brain Surgeon and I certainly had no problem following the detailed, step-by-step instructions in the video below.

So, if you're considering buying a NanoStation, watch this great Instructional Video. You'll soon know whether or not you're up to the task. Even though the video is 4+ years old now, all the info is still current and applicable.

 
 


Putting It All Together

Now that I had the necessary tools, the next task was to source a suitable Antenna Mounting Pole. It needed to be extendable and be long enough to get the Antenna higher than the caravan. The one I settled on, was a telescopic aluminium painter's pole from good old Bunnings. It was around $37, but it's strong and sturdy and extends from 1.8m to 3.8m.

To make attaching the Antenna to the pole an easy task each time, I fabricated a mount for each device... one for the Panel Antenna, one for the Tube-U and one for the Ubiquiti Nano Station.

This was achieved using some 32mm PVC pipe and a few $3.00 paint roller handles. The metal roller attachment end was cut off and the screw-in section wedged into the pipe. I used a heat gun to soften the PVC pipe end to accommodate the square end of the handle.

The Antennas pack away in their nifty little bags that Bev made for them and the pole takes up very little room in the tunnel boot. 

The painter's pole attaches either  to the drawbar by a simple 'L' bracket and antenna mast clamp arrangement, or by a jockey wheel clamp on the rear bumper, depending on the location of the Access Point.
 

More Wi-Fi Options

By now, I had really caught the Wi-Fi Bug and as my knowledge and understanding grew, I wanted to see what else I could add to the arsenal.

Without boring you with the details, here are a few of the extras I added to our 'Wi-Fi Kit'.

► A Yagi Antenna - a high powered Directional Antenna, that can pull in a signal up to 20klms away.
► Several Cantennas - directional antennas I made from cans. (Big surprise, my best performer, I made from a Beetroot can! $7.00)
► Another Omni Directional Antenna similar to the Tube-U Antenna, without the Booster.

              

These devices need to be connected to the Desktop Booster mentioned previously.
 

To re-cap...

Now that I have all the parts to the puzzle assembled and have used them all, how would I rate each one?

►For sheer simplicity, it's hard to go past the Alfa Desktop Booster, providing the Park has a decent Wi-Fi system. Suction cup it to a window on the Access Point side of the van and plug it into your laptop. Bear in mind though, you can only connect one device.

►The Desktop Booster, coupled to the Alfa R36 Extender, takes things to the next level, by allowing you to connect multiple devices to your own private, password protected, secure hotspot.

►Next in simplicity, would have to be the Alfa Camp Pro Kit. The Tube-U/Antenna combo, coupled to the R36 Repeater, makes a great, all-round, powerful Omni Directional setup. Being Omni-directional, it doesn't require pointing and is great in fringe areas. For around $215 the Wi-Fi Camp Pro 2 Kit is a great solution.

►The one I use the least, is the first one I bought... the TP-Link Panel Antenna. Make no mistake though, it's a powerful Antenna. Get it high and pointed at the source (it's Directional, remember) and you'll have fantastic reception. The Panel costs around $99, the low-loss cable around $40 (essential) the Desktop Booster $40 and the R36 to connect other devices $70.00, for a total of around $250.

►For raw power and ease of setting up at camp, the Ubiquiti NanoStation gets my number one vote. This beast will 'see' Access Points miles away. Yes, the initial set-up is more complicated, but not overly difficult.


UPDATE - SEPTEMBER 2018

As part of their NanoStation system, Ubiquiti have stopped producing their AirGateway product and have replaced it with a device they call AirCube ISP. This is the device you connect all your devices to wirelessly.

The new video that walks you through the setup step-by-step, is shown below.

 

The "Under $100" mentioned in this latest video, refers to the
United States in US$. It will cost more than that in Australia.
 

No matter which Wi-Fi boosting solution you choose, all of the components will work. It all depends on a number of factors:


  • How far from the broadcast point you are parked. If you're stuck down the back or bottom of the park, you're going to need a strong unit.

  • How good your line-of-sight is to the Access Point. Wi-Fi is line-of-sight, so the less trees and buildings in your path, the better. That's why you need a tall pole to get as high as possible in some situations.

  • The strength of the signal broadcast by the Park. Not all Caravan Parks have or can afford the best Wi-Fi Broadcast equipment. You may have the best equipment available, but if the signal is too weak, there's nothing more you can do, except ask to be moved to a site closer to the point.

Well, that's how I did it... perhaps you can see something there that you can use to improve Wi-Fi reception in Van Parks and elsewhere.

I have no commercial connection with any of these devices and/or suppliers... just a happy customer.

Recommended Videos and Tutorials

Desktop Booster + R36 Repeater + Tube-U + Yagi Antenna
https://youtu.be/Mx487RuSO04

Desktop Booster Kit + R36 Repeater + Yagi Antenna
https://youtu.be/PjfJZZ8V_v4

Wi-Fi Camp Pro
https://youtu.be/dSnwE7BAKcE

Ubiquiti NanoStation (As above)
https://youtu.be/-i8SmOf5ZTw

Alfa R36 Repeater PDF Tutorial
http://exploreoz.net/Wi-Fi_Camp_Pro_Tutorial.pdf

 

Copyright 2017-2019 David Price - All Rights Reserved