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Campervan WIFI – getting online on the move

One of our favourite places to visit is Cornwall. We know of some fantastic campsites to stay on whenever my wife and I are in the county. Two of the best are Treyarnon Bay caravan park and Little Winnick touring park. As good as they are, the one problem we consistently have when staying on these sites – is trying to get online. In our campervan WIFI is something we can only dream about!

campervan wifi

As my business is mostly conducted online, I need to check emails and websites daily. So a reliable connection is a must when on the road. Usually, I use my smartphone as a mobile hotspot, then connect the laptop to the phone to get online. Most of the time this works OK-ish but it has never been very reliable. Nine times out of ten, my wife and I have to leave the campsite to find a WIFI hotspot or nearby coffee shop.

As we have another trip planned soon, I decided I needed to solve the campervan WIFI problem once and for all…


How to get internet in a campervan – the search begins

After a lot of research, I’ve now got a much better understanding of the problem. This has led me to what I believe is the ideal solution for us and our issue. I know that we can’t be the only ones who have a problem getting internet in a campervan, so I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned.

Let me take you through the 4 main options I discovered, and tell you which one I’ve chosen, and why.

 

Option 1: Using a smartphone

The most obvious way of getting online is by using a smartphone. However, if the signal in your area is poor or your mobile provider doesn’t cover the area you’re in, then the connection is likely to be patchy and unreliable at best – especially when inside a campervan. (Being in what is basically a metal box, is not the best place to be to get a good mobile signal; the signals strength is dramatically reduced, as most of the signal will be bouncing off the bodywork of the campervan.)

What can be done to improve the mobile signal?

Not a lot really. (That’s what I’ve found anyway). There are products on the market that promise to boost the signal strength but I couldn’t find one that I thought was worth buying. Most seemed to promise more than they could actually deliver. Even if they did improve the signal, you would still need to go outside of your campervan to get the benefits.

In our opinion, the only real way to improve your signal is to check which provider has the best coverage in the area you intend to stay in. Then buy a PAYG (pay as you go) sim for that provider. (EE say they cover 99% of the UK with 2G and 4G, and 98% with 3G.)

 

Option 2: Using the campsite’s WIFI

Having WIFI on a campsite is commonplace. So why not just use that? Well, you can. We have stayed on a couple of sites that have provided really good free WIFI. We have also stayed on sites that offer WIFI as a paid extra, this is usually Club Wifi. In our experience Club Wifi is expensive and can be slow, especially if the campsite is busy. There can also be certain restrictions on use; for instance, no streaming videos or TV. Also if you’re pitched up some distance from the WIFI antenna, the signal can be hard to get, especially inside the campervan.

WIFI boosters

If you do choose to use the campsite’s WIFI but are finding it difficult to get a good connection, then you might want to use a WIFI booster. A WIFI booster will improve a weak WIFI signal in and around your campervan. The added advantage of a WIFI booster, is that if you’re a BT customer you may also be able to pick up any nearby free BT fon hotspots. (If you’re not an existing BT customer and still want to take advantage of the millions of BT hotspots around the country, then you can buy a fon access pass.)

A popular WIFI booster is the Kuma wifi kit

The Kuma kit includes a high powered long range directional antenna which is mounted on the outside of the vehicle. The antenna can pick up a WIFI signal from up to 1.5km away. The WIFI signal is then passed to a WIFI repeater inside the campervan, which rebroadcasts the signal wirelessly to your devices.

Will a WIFI booster work for you?

There is no guarantee that a WIFI booster will improve your connection, as the reason for a poor signal may lay elsewhere. However, if by simply walking closer to the campsite’s WIFI antenna the signal on your device improves, then this is a clear indication that a weak signal is the problem, and a WIFI booster should definitely help.

 

Option 3: Satellite broadband

Just one word can be used to describe satellite broadband, and that is – expensive! The equipment needed can run into thousands of pounds, and an additional monthly subscription is also required. So this is not really an option I would personally consider (especially now we have 4G mobile broadband as an option). So let’s quickly move on.

 

Option 4: Mobile 4G broadband

Finally my search for reliable and affordable campervan WIFI has led me to mobile 3G and 4G broadband. (Well, mostly 4G as this is 10x faster than 3G. Generally, 4G download speeds are between 5Mbps and 12Mbps. Upload speeds between 2Mbps and 5Mbps.) This is better than a lot of campsite WIFI I’ve used! Depending on the mobile provider, 4G now covers 99% of the UK.

Most of us use our smartphone to connect to 3G or 4G all the time. So what’s the big deal, I hear you say! Well as mentioned earlier, getting a reliable 4G signal, especially in a remote location is not always possible. If you’re lucky and you can get 3G or 4G on your phone, you’re still going to struggle to get a reliable signal inside your campervan.

So what is the solution? Well, it’s a small portable box of tricks called a MiFi (my fi) unit.

Motorhome MiFi

A Mifi or portable mobile hotspot is a device that works much like a smartphone. You insert a sim card into the MiFi device and it connects to a nearby 4G network. If there’s no 4G then it will automatically switch to 3G. Now in itself, the MiFi unit is no different from a smartphone in that respect, however, the real benefit comes from connecting an external antenna to the MiFi device.

The antenna will boost the 3G and 4G performance by up to 5 times. This could mean the difference between getting a signal or not. Even if a mobile provider says that there is no coverage in a particular area (they mean when just using a phone) you could still receive a reasonable internet connection using an external antenna connected to a MiFi device.


MiFi – this is the route I’ve decided to go down

My research has led me to believe that 4G broadband now offers a real alternative to conventional broadband. Some people who find it difficult to get reliable broadband through a landline have switched to 4G mobile broadband. Another advantage in using 4G over the campsites WIFI, is that the 4G connection is not going to be shared with other campers – so speeds won’t drop at busy times.

Best MiFi device

“What is the best”…is often subjective. You’ve only got to read through reviews to see that one person says that so and so is the best thing since sliced bread. Whereas, someone else says that the exact same product is rubbish. However, in the world of 4G Mifi units, the name Huawei seems to be one of the most popular brands.

So after researching what is the best MiFi device – I chose to go for the Huawei E5577

Why I chose the Huawei E5577

  • The Huawei E5577 is very compact at just 9.5cm x 5.5cm x 1cm. So could easily fit in my pocket if I wanted to take it out and about with us. (That is another benefit of a MiFi unit. You can have your own mobile WIFI hotspot wherever you go, as long as you can get a signal.)
  • It has a 6-hour battery life. Which will be enough for us, as 99% of the time it will be used in the campervan so can be plugged in if the battery is running low. (You can buy the E5577S, which has a 12-hour battery life but you’ll pay around £25 extra.)
  • Up to 10 devices can be connected to the Huwei at any one time, and it can handle download speeds of up to 150 Mbps. (Not that I’m likely to get that sort of 4G speed.)
  • Finally, the main reason for picking the Huawei E5577 is that it has inputs for an external antenna (not all models do). The Huawei E5577 can be used without an external antenna, however using one will greatly increase signal strength. We want to use it inside the campervan, so an external antenna will be crucial to receiving a good 4G signal.

So next I need to choose a suitable 4G antenna.

4G antennas

To be honest, at first I did find all the talk of directional, omni-directional, gain, MiMo, etc. a bit confusing. But I think I’ve finally got my head around it…

Directional antenna:

A directional antenna only receives the signal from the direction it’s coming from. Whereas an omni-directional antenna receives the signal from every direction (360 degrees). So if you’re using a directional antenna you would need to know which direction the signal is coming from (this smartphone app does exactly that). You then point the antenna in that direction. Directional antennas work best if you have a clear (unobstructed) line of sight of the mast.

It’s a common misconception that the higher the gain the better. High gain antennas are usually directional. Generally, radio waves can’t pass through solid objects, if there are obstacles in the way (between the mast and the antenna) then the signal will bounce off them, scattering the signal. So when the signal reaches the antenna its highly likely that it will be coming from multiple directions. As a high gain directional antenna has a limited angle of coverage (around 30 degrees), the directional antenna is unable to collect any signal outside this area. In fact, high gain antennas can make things worse.

 

Omni-directional antenna:

An omni-directional antenna has the advantage of receiving a signal from all directions (360 degrees). So it will pick up the signal bouncing off your campervan’s bodywork as well as other nearby obstacles. This will maximize the signal strength. Whatever antenna is used, the simple fact that the antenna is outside of the campervan will be enough to improve the signal.

 

Cross polarised antennas:

To improve signal strength and thus maximise data rates, a cross polarised antenna is recommended.  A cross polarised antenna basically has two antenna elements, one angled at 45 degrees to the left, and the other, 45 degrees to the right. This is why a cross polarised antenna has two cables coming out of it. (If only one cable from a cross polarised antenna is connected to the MiFi unit, the data rates will half.)

 

So what 4G antenna to chose?

Poynting 4G-XPOL-A0001 Cross Polarised 4G Omni LTE Antenna

I have decided to go for the Poynting 4G-XPOL-A0001. It is a mid-priced 4G/3G/2G LTE cross polarised omni-directional antenna. The 4G-XPOL-A0001 is not cheap at around £80 and there are much cheaper 4G antennas available. However, I don’t see the point in cutting corners at this stage, especially as the antenna is probably the most important part of the 4G broadband setup. As the saying goes, buy cheap, buy twice!

What I like about 4G-XPOL-A0001 antenna

Positive reviews aside, I like the fact the Poynting 4G-XPOL-A0001 has different mounting options. It can be screw mounted, pole mounted, or (using the four suction pads) mounted to a window or the bodywork of the campervan.

  1. I don’t want to permanently mount the antenna to the campervan for 2 reasons. I would also like to use it in our caravan.
  2. If I were to permanently fix the antenna to the campervan, then in order to receive the best signal the antenna/campervan would have to be oriented in the direction of the mast. This would not always be practical or possible. At least if the antenna is attached using suction pads, I will be able to stick it to the side of the campervan that faces the direction of the signal.

More details

The 4G-XPOL-A0001 is a low gain antenna so is designed for areas where there is an existing mobile signal – which according to EE is 99% of the country. (If you need a high gain omni-directional antenna and are prepared to splash out a few more quid, then the Poynting 4G-XPOL-A0002 would make an ideal choice.)

In order to connect the 4G-XPOL-A0001 to the Huawei E5577 I’ll also need two SMA Female Jack to TS9 cable adaptors. (The Poynting 4G-XPOL-A0001 comes with two 5m of low loss cables, but the connectors on the end of the cables won’t just connect to the inputs on the Huawei E5577 without the two cable adaptors.)

So now all I need to complete the set-up, is a sim…

PAYG data sim

After checking which mobile provider offers the best 4G coverage in the areas we will be visiting. I’ve decided to buy a 6Gb PAYG EE data sim. This particular sim last for 30 days and more data can be added online if needed. If 4G is not available then 3G will be offered automatically.

(Beware when choosing a data sim. I found that some data sims that advertised 6Gb valid for 90 days. Actually meant that you get just 2Gb of data per month, for three months.)

Tip: If you’re using a laptop in your campervan to connect to the internet, turn off automatic updates. Or you could waste most of your data allowance on updating your operating system!


HOW TO GET INTERNET IN A CAMPERVAN

– MY CHOICE FOR CAMPERVAN WIFI –


Just to recap…

This is my chosen 4G campervan WIFI (MiFi) set up:

 

1x  Huawei E5577 portable MIFI device unlocked to any network

1x Poynting  XPOL-A0001 Cross Polarised 4G Omni LTE Antenna

2x SMA Female Jack to TS9 cable adaptors

1x  6Gb PAYG EE data sim


Conclusion

I hope that you have found this article useful, and have learnt something from my research on how to get the internet in your campervan.

I will be reviewing my 4G mobile broadband setup when I get a chance to use it later in the year. So if you would like to know how it performed, come back to this article to find out.

See you on the road!


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