We opted for mobile wifi in the van with external antennas to give us the best chance of getting online, even when we visited remote locations. It took more effort than we’d thought to find the right solution!
There are lots of reasons you may want to use the internet on the road. Here are a few;
- Social – keeping in touch with friends and family.
- Work / income – if you can earn remotely, it opens us up to travelling for longer and/or living life on the road more easily.
- Maps / directions / planning – yes, Google maps can have a warped sense of humour sometimes….but she’s still useful 😉
- Entertainment – for those odd nights after you’ve watched the sun go down and you want to snuggle up and watch a good movie!
If none of these are overly important to you, you may just want to…
Use your mobile
For basic internet in most areas, you only need a smart mobile device that can handle a data SIM eg an iPhone, Android, Pixel etc which you probably already have. Maybe you need some data allowance for abroad or to pick up a PAYG SIM when abroad, but that’s about it.
So, in theory, you’re probably all set to go at a basic level.
You can then ‘tether’ which is when your iphone creates its own ‘wifi’ hotspot that your can connect your other devices to eg your laptop/ipad etc or any other devices that need wifi to work e.g. wifi camera, wifi van security (obv wouldn’t be online if phone not in van!).
Beware though – the more you connect, the more you can end up using all your mobile data on your phone and not be able to use your phone for anything else! Your phone network might then start charging you on an expensive tarif after a certain amount of data.
“Great! So why would we need any other solution?”
Well…. as great as smart phones are, they only contain small compact antennas, which work fine when you are in populated areas, but when you hit the mountains, lakes and remote countryside, you’ll start to find that internet signal getting lower and lower. You might drop from 4G to 3G to NoG!
If a more reliable internet connection is important to you, or if you plan to spend a lot of time in more remote locations, then you may want to…
Get a portable, mobile wifi device
There can be many names / references for these, including; mobile hotspot, portable hotspot, mobile wireless router, aircard, internet dongle, mifi etc. It is a dedicated device that takes a SIM and can create its own stable wifi hotspot.
Unlike your smartphone, which has many jobs to do e.g. keeping your apps updated, refreshing content etc, a dongle only has one job to do; find a signal and create the strongest wifi it can.
Additionally, there are dongles which have ports that you can connect external antennas to which gives an even better chance of finding a signal in a remote location (or a stronger signal).
What ‘MiFi” we went with
After a lot of research, and a mishap, we liked the look of the Netgear Aircard devices. There were many options, but we specifically wanted one that could accept the external antennas…which is surprisingly hard to find at a reasonable price.
Firstly, our mishap;
We were so focused on the external antenna, battery and display (and the fact that all these were difficult to find on a budget) that we made an error… We found an unlocked Huawei E5787Ph-67a LTE Cat6, a device used by Telstra (Australia) from AliExpress. The specs and features looked great…but at the time we didn’t realise that countries' mobile networks are on different frequencies and devices can have specific operating bands.
Long-story-short; the Huawei did not work in UK/EU due to not supporting our mobile network frequencies and had to be returned. 🤦♀️
Top tip: check your mobile network frequencies and go for the most recently released version you can afford as technology moves fast.
Our device: the Netgear Aircard 810S + TS9
We wanted to spend under £100, and the Netgear Aircards are £200+, so we decided to look for secondhand on ebay/facebook etc.
We finally found a listing on ebay of a company who were selling off their equipment and we managed to purchase a Netgear Aircard 810S for £98.
What we liked about it:
- Has ports to connect external antennas
- Long battery life of up to 11 hours
- Can connect up to 15 devices to its network
- Great touch screen with good info e.g. signal strength, data usage etc.
We then purchase two TS9 antennas from Amazon brand new £13.99.
The antennas come with handy magnetic bases, however we wanted ours permanently installed so we drilled a couple of holes in the roof for the cables and secured the antennas with Sikaflex.
The Aircard sits in the bulkhead and is easily removed if we want to take it somewhere.
Our Netgear Aircard experience:
The first amazing experience was at Glendalough, a glacier mountain valley in Ireland, that had zero mobile signal.
Nobody nearby had any mobile connection, so with very low expectations, we popped the antennas on the roof, powered it on and low and behold; we had 4G!
Top tip – get a couple of SIMs from different networks as you can swap them out to see which network gives you the strongest signal.
Another tip – each network usually displays a ‘network coverage’ map on its website so you can see which network (SIM) might be the best for the location you are visiting.
The only thing that is a bit annoying is the connection/socket is very loose (where you plug the USB cable in) ie. it comes out easily…which means the battery will drain. So be careful where you place it!
Then our mobile wifi broke!
After having a great experience in Ireland and a good few weeks in Spain, the Netgear stopped working 😭.
We took it apart and found moisture inside…
We left it to dry for a few days but still no luck.
As I’ve said, there are very few options with external antennas and we did like this one, so we ordered another. This time it cost us £130 becuse we needed it quickly 😡.
What caused it?
We’d been travelling around south of Spain, mostly in the heat and then decided to visit a ski resort in Sierra Nevada (very beautiful by the way!).
The temperature difference was huge — from around +20C that day (even in Sierra Nevada it felt pretty hot during the day!) to -10C at night, and that night we had the Chinese diesel heater pumping for a few hours (probably +20c inside) whilst we enjoyed some rum and danced around like idiots…breathing a lot.
The next morning the dog’s water bowl, which sits beside the slide door, was frozen solid.
So, we’re assuming the Netgear is not very airtight and the extreme drop in temperature combined with all our awesome dancing and breathing caused a lot of condensation inside the Netgear which we didn’t know about until a day or so later when we tried to turn it on.
Next time, we’ll put it in an air-tight plastic zipper bag! 💡💡💡
…and do the same with other important tech.