Updating the Airstream’s wireless Internet

As soon as we got  back from our trip I started ordering things for the coming Airstream maintenance and upgrades.  So beginning on Friday, interesting boxes have been arriving at our doorstop.  Many more are due this coming week.

The first package contained a new cabin air filter for the GL320.  That dust storm really got into everything, and so I decided I’d change the cabin air filters and check the engine air filters.  They were all better than I expected but the cabin air filter was definitely due because it wasn’t changed at the last service.

Today’s package contained my new wireless Internet kit.  As I mentioned, our Cradlepoint CTR500 has been obsoleted by the manufacturer and isn’t reliable with the new 4G networks, and the roof antenna on the Airstream goes back to the 2G days (and isn’t compatible with the frequencies Verizon uses today for 4G LTE, which are in the 700 MHz band).  Plus, I got tired of not being able to get online in fringe areas, especially when everyone else seemed to be getting along fine.  Turns out they are all using “boosters,” and so I finally broke down and got one, along with everything else.

Airstream wireless InternetI spent about 20 minutes on the phone with Vanessa from the 3G Store to work through the technology needs and make sure everything I was going to order would be compatible.  I already had the core of the system, a Verizon wireless data card capable of using the new 4G LTE network (specifically, a Pantech UML-290). The bottom line for everything else was about $360, including:

  • Cradlepoint MBR-95 wireless router.  This is the device that takes the signal from the Pantech UML-290 and makes a private wireless hotspot that all our devices can use.
  • Wilson Sleek 4G-V signal booster cradle (thanks to Jay & Cherie for the tip).  This amplifies the signal from any device you put into the cradle, 3G or 4G. It’s really designed for car use but will work fine for our purposes.  The Pantech will get strapped into the cradle with a rubber band.
  • SureCall omnidirectional fiberglass antenna with ten feet of low-loss cable, and an adapter to connect to the Sleek.  This antenna is a bit of a monster, 9.5 inches tall and about 3.5 inches wide at the base.  It’s much larger than the antenna it is replacing (which was the size of a shot glass) but hopefully offers better performance too. The specs call for a 2-3 dB gain.

All of this stuff will get wired up in the cabinet that we have reserved for electronics and DVDs, near the TV set.  I’ve already got a 12v connector that fits the Cradlepoint, leftover from a previous installation, and a 12 volt socket which will take the cigarette lighter adapter for the Sleek, so we’re all set for power.

The antenna will be mounted to the side of an aluminum leg of one of the solar panels.  Clearance is a challenge:  I bought this 9.5″ antenna because the Wilson RV antenna that most people use is 18 inches tall and won’t clear the entryway of our carport.  This one will just barely make it.  It will be interesting to watch as it comes out of the carport the first time.  If I’ve miscalculated, we might lose a Spanish tile or two in the process.

Before going to all the trouble of running the new antenna wire and putting mounting screws in place, I hooked up the full kit in the house, and dropped the antenna out the window.  After the usual firmware upgrade and some configuration, the first test, using only the Pantech without the Sleek booster, yielded a good signal of -69 dBm, which is not surprising since we are in a city.  Then I put the Pantech card into the Sleek cradle, which boosted the signal and sent it out to the external antenna, and as I watched the signal improve to -43 dBm.  That’s a really good increase, and better than what Wilson promised for the Sleek booster with its standard antenna.

The actual installation will be in the next few days.  I’m looking locally for the appropriate polyurethane caulk (Sikaflex 221, Vulkem/TremPro 635, or similar) to seal up the antenna wire where it passes through the aluminum, and so far am striking out.  I can order an $8 tube of it with $10 shipping from many places, but that’s annoying so I’m trying to find an acceptable substitute in Tucson.  I suppose I can always go over to the local RV store and get something that will work, but in the past the “white box” caulks they tend to sell have been disappointing.  They just don’t last, and I’d rather not have to get up on the roof next year to do this job again.

The real test of this new gear will be this summer when the Airstream is in Vermont.  Reception at our parking spot has always been marginal, to the point that I have to borrow a friend’s office to get work done efficiently.  It would be nice to be able to work from the Airstream as I’m accustomed to doing. And when we are traveling, it looks like the addition of the big antenna and booster will help me get online in more places, and I’m all for that.

 

Comments

  1. says

    Rich, you’re going to love the SureCall omnidirectional antenna. I actually have two mounted permanently outside. One goes to my Verizon card (via an amplifier) and the other goes to the Wi-Fi antenna on my router. I actually had the MBR-95 but replaced it with a Pepwave Surf OTG because of its detachable external Wi-Fi antenna. With this setup over the past year, I rarely have internet issues. I think I even convinced Mali Mish, Riveted, and Weaselmouth to do the same thing.

    Hope to see you in Vermont this summer! I will be passing nearby at some point.

  2. Jay & Cherie says

    Rich I don’t know about the Pantech data card and the router you have chosen. I only have the 4LGE MiFi which is bolth a modem and router for up to 5 devices. We use it at the same time on our devices both at home and on the road. I assume what you have is needed because of magazine production?

  3. Rich Luhr says

    The Pantech card/Cradlepoint combination the result of Verizon Wireless’s policies. I have had a data card with them for years, dating back to days before all-in-one units like the Mifi were available. I recently upgraded the previous card to this new 4G Pantech. After that I realized the previous router wouldn’t work with it under all circumstances, but because I had taken a subsidized upgrade from Verizon, I was stuck with the Pantech until next fall.

    The Cradlepoint router offers a few features that you don’t get with a Mifi, but nothing that I need for work reasons. It can be connected to a DSL or cable modem, for example, but that’s irrelevant in the RV world. It can support 100 users simultaneously, but I never want that many people on my router! I can connect to it via Ethernet, but in reality I don’t do that except when initially configuring the device.

    The big advantages are: 1) it can be used as a wifi repeater and has more range, which is useful if you want to try to utilize campground wifi; 2) it can support VPN connections, which is an important feature for people who do sensitive online work (for example a lawyer, or a programmer); 3) it has other custom configurations (like creating a secondary “guest network”) that matter to a few people. All considered, I would recommend that most people go with a Mifi or similar device to save hassle and expense.