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The Imperfect Mobile Communications System

by jim on September 22, 2010

In order to become technomadic (def: Technology Enabled Nomads) we had to come up with a mix of technology that would enable us to continue our businesses while on the road with the Casita. We settled on primarily the use of Verizon cellular for our telephone needs and Verizon aircards for Internet access supplemented by open WiFi access points when necessary.

Satellite Internet connectivity offers tremendous advantages for mobility because Internet access is available from just about anywhere you can see the sky. This option seems to be working well for our friends, Chris and Cherie of Technomadia.com. Sadly, when we looked into using satellite-based Internet access it failed to meet our requirements. The distance the signal travels from earth to satellite and then back to earth again creates enough latency in the Internet traffic that it is not effective for two types of services we would need: (1) VPN access to client data and (2) voice over IP. The latency degrades the quality of VPN and VoIP to effectively negate our ability to use satellite for Internet needs. Bummer.

We looked at the major cellular carriers before settling on Verizon as our carrier of choice. Our research shows that Verizon has the best 3G coverage in the areas that we want to travel. We considered using devices from multiple carriers for some redundancy but Sprint and AT&T simply do not have enough coverage in rural areas of the western United States to make it worthwhile. I also know from personal experience that an AT&T 3G smart phone I carried was often slow or had poor service when outside urban areas or away from major traffic corridors. Julie’s Verizon phone often did. Verizon is far from perfect but easily wins this competition in our minds.

For $60 a month you get 5GB of data with Verizon aircards with a 2-year contract. Not bad. But not great either. We have the requirement for a static IP for our businesses and Verizon helped us out there. This was great. Verizon gets a gold star.

From Millenicom you can get 10G of data for the same $60 and no contract required. Millenicom resells the Verizon service so coverage is the same. It is hard to pass up this deal. If something doesn’t work out we can cancel. (Update: Mid-2011, Millenicom changed the bandwith limitations from 10G to 20G. If Julie didn’t need the static IP address, she’d be using Millenicom for sure.

The Goods
The pic below shows most of the equipment we are using for our mobile communications needs.

Imperfect Destiny Gadgetry

  1. Wilson Wireless Amplifier P/N 801245
  2. Wilson Direct Connect Amplifier P/N 811201
  3. Wilson Omni RV Antenna w/ Spring Base P/N 301133 (aka trucker antenna)
  4. Wilson Magnetic Mount Antenna P/N 301113
  5. Suction cup window mount for mag antenna P/N 901128
    (sometimes I use it on the Casita)
  6. Wilson Low Profile Antenna P/N 301127 (indoor/outdoor antenna)
  7. Wilson Ultra Slim Cellular Antenna P/N 301143 (indoor antenna)
  8. Wilson desktop antenna P/N 301208 (indoor antenna)
  9. Verizon USB760 aircard 5GB limit (with Static IP assigned)
  10. Millenicom USB760 aircard with 10GB limit using the Verizon Network
  11. Cradlepoint MBR1200
  12. Droid X on Verizon Network with unlimited data plan
  13. Verizon Smooth pay as you go phone (Samsung U350)
  14. Verizon LG3 ENV phone also used for texting and voice
  15. Deliberant CPE-2 for long range WiFi connections ( http://bit.ly/dzkeI8 )

 We also use:

21′ Collapsible Mast Max-Gain MK-4 ( http://bit.ly/dik1o5 )

Flag Pole Tire Mount for mast

Flag pole mast tire mount

10′ RG-58 antenna cable extension P/N 951102

20′ P/N WA-240/20FF antenna cable extension ( http://bit.ly/d2quRd )

How do we use all this and what seems most effective? Excellent questions!

Moving Day
We normally have the magnetic mount antenna on the Xterra and use it in conjunction with the wireless amplifier. This allows us to have an amplified signal sent to our phone and Droid when traveling. We like to have the amplifier available in the Xterra because often one of us needs to have reliable access to Internet and voice while on the road. The wireless amplifier helps to minimize dropped calls and provide steady access to Internet. Occasionally we will use the direct connect amp to an aircard when we need the speediest Internet available to a laptop while underway.

We also use the wireless amp in conjunction with the Droid when checking out areas we might stay at for awhile to be reasonably certain that we will have good voice and data for our jobs. The Droid will give us signal strength readings for both CDMA and EVDO in dBm. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DBm) I’ve found the signal strength bar indicators to sometimes be flaky and dependent on the phone’s software revision (ahem, iPhone anyone). We also have a data speed test app on the Droid so we can test the adequacy of Internet speeds when searching for a place to call home.

Home on the Range
When stationary in our Casita and we have strong 3G there is no need to fiddle with antennas and amps. We simply plug a USB aircard into the laptop to work and surf at will. However, the amplifiers, antennas, router, and mast give us some options for turning a marginal signal into a good signal. This really stretches the available options for parking the Casita and calling a place home.

Cradlepoint and amplifiers

The Cradlepoint MBR1200 router (shown above) will accept USB aircards and broadcast the Verizon data signal via WiFi to our computers and Droid. The MBR1200 will also provide a degree of load balancing between up to 3 USB aircards. Our aircards (USB760) have not-so-good internal antennas but they do offer an external antenna port. Often we can simply plug one of the external antennas into the aircard and turn a marginal signal into a good signal. To further boost the signal we will run the trucker antenna (shown below) up the mast and run the signal through the direct connect amplifier. This combo provides the best signal boost possible for data connections.

Trucker antenna mounted atop mast

If we need to boost signal to our phones and Droid we use the wireless amplifier. The wireless amp is a finicky little devil though. It is easily susceptible to signal oscillation between the indoor antenna and the outdoor antenna if there isn’t enough shielding or distance between the two. When the amp oscillates, it shuts itself off. Very, very frustrating! To minimize the oscillation it is best to put the Low Profile Antenna P/N 301127 up the mast as high as possible with a 10′ extension and use the Wilson Ultra Slim Cellular Antenna P/N 301143 to rebroadcast the signal indoors. Even so, oscillating feedback loops are annoyingly common with 15-20′ vertical and 6’+ horizontal separation. This also happens while using it in the vehicle. Ugh. It is possible to to improve indoor signal by using a stronger inside desktop antenna P/N 301208 with a stronger gain antenna up the mast but oscillation becomes a bit of a nightmare; even when using max possible separation in conjunction with pots and pans shielding the internal antenna from the external. If you drink, the previous scenario will have you cussing and running to the bar after each time the amp shuts down. My review of the Wilson wireless amp won’t be entirely favorable. I’m on the verge of ordering the Cyfre wireless amplifier to see if it works any better.

The wireless amplifier is most effective for voice and marginally effective for data. Speed gains by trying to boost data are okay with the wireless amp but are usually much better with the direct connect amp. I’m finding best results and less hassle to boost the USB760 data signal with the direct connect amp and re-broadcast it through the MBR1200 WiFi.

Tip: For best wireless amp voice signal boostage set the phone on top of the inside antenna and use a blue-tooth headset to roam around while talking. This will also help stop the nightmare oscillating feedback loop hassle.

Why the pay as you go phone? Well, I already had it–and it has an external antenna port. In a pinch, if the other phones can’t get a decent signal through the wireless amp, we can connect the pay & go phone via the external antenna port to the direct connect amp with outside trucker antenna antenna up the 21′ mast. Very useful sometimes. BTW, why don’t phone manufactures give us external antenna ports on more devices? This really irritates me since it can be extremely useful and seems like a no-brainer to me. I would LOVE to have an external antenna port on the Droid X. When I rule the world external antenna jacks will be mandatory or off with your head.

Poaching WiFi
So many places (Starbucks, libraries, etc.) are now offering up free WiFi and most of the major cellular carriers also have WiFi hotspots in many cities. Grab it if you got it. Look around–it isn’t too hard to find if you are willing to drive a bit. There are apps for the Droid that will show you available access points, signal strength, SSID, and channel congestion. It is a great tool for finding open hotspots and poaching some signal.

If we are in an area that has access to marginal WiFi, we can also use the Deliberant CPE-2 to capture a distant or weak signal and re-broadcast it through the MBR1200. The Deliberant can be placed on the 21′ Mast outside the Casita to help get above any nearby obstacles (i.e., huge Class A rigs, massive fifth wheels, trees, and rocks).

Managing Data Usage
So far the combined 15GB limit of our aircards is looking to be enough for us. We do most of our work over VPN or RDP to minimize work related traffic. We also don’t stream movies or much YouTube-type video. We try to use the Droid instead of the laptop and aircards whenever possible. The Droid has an unlimited data plan so we use it for blog reading, monitoring email and social networks, tv.com, pandora, podcasts, etc. Hopefully Netflix will get its act together soon and publish an app for Android soon so we can stream movies over the Droid.

Lastly
I was able to complete this entire post because of the items listed above. With it we are able to get our work done, make phone calls, surf a bit, and write blog posts.

Jim working remotely

Without the gadgetry we need to point our Droid towards the south, stand on tippy toes, extend arm towards the gods, and sing a little song. All that to get a tiny whisper of a signal. The aircard wouldn’t even stand a chance. I’ll take my gadgets over that any day.

Questions and Comments?
This post is getting much too long. I may provide more detail on specific pieces in later posts. If anyone actually reads this and wants more detail please leave a comment. I would be happy to provide more info if you have a question.

Any suggestions for communications improvement? If so, please leave a comment. If it is useful for us, I’ll buy dinner and drinks when we meet you on the road.

From → Casita, Technology

7 Comments
  1. Wow what a write up! I’ll definitely have to come back to this. I’m on AT&T w/ the iPhone and have pretty much given up hope getting signal when not near a town. Almost fell for the sprint 3g unlimited plan but may have to try one of the verizon options you mentioned.

    I’m enjoying your writings of your travels! Looks like fun!

    • Zach,

      Thanks for the comment. We are happy that someone read it and might glean some useful info from it.

      Before you give up on Sprint, if you have not been there already check out Technomadia.com for more info.They recently published on post on their communications system and use Sprint.

      Jim

  2. Ken Hosac permalink

    Thanks for the great writeup! As you make your trip, let me know if you have any feature suggestions for the MBR1200 that would make this work better.

    Ken Hosac
    Director of Product Management
    CradlePoint

  3. Hi Jim. we use almost the exact same setup as yours in our rig and it works great. We also found that the latency issues with satellite internet were a show stopper.

  4. Chris Dunphy permalink

    Great post – I love what you have done.

    We’ll probably upgrade to a mast and direct connect amplifier when we return to RV life next year. Oscillation is a pain indeed.

    – Chris

  5. Dave G permalink

    We have one of those huge class ‘A’ that you refer to. About 3 years ago I put the trucker’s antenna up on the roof with the Wilson direct connect amp and a directional antenna in the coach. The truckers is mounted on the rear AC housing and the directional antenna inside just forward of the center of the coach. That is not leaving a lot of separation so I got some aluminum screen and placed it between the exterior antenna and the interior antenna and after grounding it we have not had problems since!

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