I had this idea on the books for a while but never had a good reason to build it out. Using some Commercial Wireless Networking components along with some typical Residential Networking equipment, a repeater could be built for a LOT less than what you’d spend on a commercial unit. This could work great for any mobile environment where you want to boost your signal to the host network.
Why boost WiFi signals? Cell phones, laptops, tablets, or any other “Smart” device typically have very small wireless antennas with little to no gain. WiFi signals actually reach out much further than you think; most devices have antennas that can’t pull in weaker signals or they don’t have enough transmit power to reach back to the WiFi network.
Most RV parks or WiFi hotspots in general do not have a lot of power. The result is that you’ll have good coverage where the signal originates and generally weak to zero signal where you are actually camping. In my experience the only issues we’ve had with free wifi at the parks is poor signal, the speed once you are connected is good enough to do most things.
Otherwise, if you are boon-docking (woohoo!), you may not have a designated Wifi access point. It’s possible that there’s a business in the area that offers free wifi access. Before you use it though, you need to ensure that you’re abiding by the terms of their use so that you are not setting yourself up for legal issues. (Yup, there’s disclaimer. #1)
My goal was to build a system that’s portable/removable. As my trailer is still very new to us, I currently have a huge aversion to making any holes on the outside of the trailer (come on, I can’t be the only one). I wanted the opportunity to place the external portion of the repeater anywhere along the outside of my trailer. Being that it’s fiberglass, magnets were out. I thought about doing a clamping system to the luggage rack on the roof or to the ladder. I decided that would take too long to setup each time and that there had to be a simpler solution.
Parts List & Some Tech Speak:
Before I get too far into this tho, here’s the parts list:
- Ubiquiti Networks (UBNT) Bullet M2HP
- 8db Gain omni-directional antenna (an example, these are great antennas and hard to find. I picked some up on eBay when the supply dried up)
- Ubiquiti Networks POE Injector
- 30′ Cat5e Shielded/UV Stable Network Cable
- 6′ Cat5e Network Cable
- NETGEAR Nighthawk Smart WiFi Router (R6700)
- 2″ Diameter PVC 2′ in length (Get from Home Depot / Lowes)
- 2″ PVC Slip-On Cap (Get from Home Depot / Lowes)
- 2″ PVC Slip-On to Thread-On Adapter (Get from Home Depot / Lowes)
- 2″ PVC Thread-On Cap (Get from Home Depot / Lowes – this will help keep water out and leave you a way to work on the system if you need to)
- 2″ PVC Slip-On Coupler (Get from Home Depot / Lowes)
- Heavy Duty Suction Cups (used for lifting automotive glass)
- Waterproof cable strain jackets (Get from Home Depot / Lowes)
- PVC Glue (Get from Home Depot / Lowes)
- Hose Clamps (Get from Home Depot / Lowes)
Total Cost for all items was under $150; I had some of the equipment laying around already and I was able to find deals on a few items through eBay and Amazon. If you don’t have any of the items listed and pay full retail, you are looking at about $200-250.
Warning: I’m a computer nerd. The following makes sense to me and I’m going to do my best to give a step-by-step as much as I can. There’s several pictures I’m going to include to show you the settings I’m talking about. I already had the Netgear R6700 router, however just about ANY home wifi router will work, this Netgear router isn’t anything fancy.
Okay, so before we get to the project, I have to give a disclaimer (okay, disclaimer #2). We’re talking about using some very strong wifi equipment to reach distances in excess of 2 miles (2 miles is easy for this setup with the proper host network, 5 miles on “paper”). Do not use tools like this (either build it yourself of commercial off the shelf solutions) to access someone else’s network in violation of the use agreement. Don’t attempt to access wifi that you are not authorized to use; if you don’t know the password, don’t try to crack it. I’m not responsible for what you do with your equipment.
So, earlier I provided a parts list with some links to give you an idea of associated costs. Now with that being said, here’s a few comments I have about the equipment along with a list of a few tools/extras:
- Uiliqui (UBNT) Bullet M2HP. Make sure you get the “HP” (high power) version and the “M2” version. M2 = 2.4ghz M5 = 5ghz. 2.4ghz reaches further than 5ghz does (5ghz supports faster speeds, but we’re worried max about distance, not top speeds). I have used standard Bullet M2’s in the past, the HP is worth seeking out. For those who are not familiar with what POE is, this device gets powered through the network cable that the data flows through. You need a POE Injector to make it work but you only have to run one cable for both power and data.
- 8dbi omni directional antenna. Don’t push your luck and get a 15dbi antenna. The narrow path of signal will cause more issues than anything. If you need more power, get a Yagi/Directional Antenna. The down side to that is that you will need to aim it at your target system every time you want to use it.
- Cat5e (MINIMUM!) cable. I prefer Cat6 or better.
- Shielded & UV Stable Cat5e (or better) cable for outside the trailer. 25-30 feet is more than enough. Don’t go longer than 50 feet.
- High Temp Hot Glue Gun (or just use silicone or your other favorite adhesive. I prefer hot glue for this stuff)
First and formost, you don’t need to be a full fledged computer geek to pull this one off. The process is easy to use if you follow the directions. If you are an IT novice and don’t feel comfortable jumping into things, there are plenty of commercial solutions that run special software to make the use of their products very very easy. Last I checked tho, those products sold from $300-500+. I was able to build this system for under $100 using some new equipment and some equipment recycled from old projects.
You can buy the Bullet M2HP new for under $100, if you shop around one can be had in the $50 range. The antennas themselves will run anywhere from $20-100. You have to be patient if you want a deal; unfortunately it appears that these antennas are either out of production or are in limited production. They can be hard to find, however a similar antenna should work just as well. Stay in the range of 5-8db gain. Avoid anything higher as the pattern is far from ideal. I don’t go over 8db on any project that I need an omni antenna for. If you need more range, get a Yagi antenna; you’ll need to do some self-study on that – I will not be covering Yagi’s in this article.
Summary of the Project:
Before the build out, the basics of the system are as follows:
The 8dbi antenna screws into the Bullet M2HP. The Shielded ethernet cable plugs into the M2HP and runs inside your RV to the POE injector. The POE Injector will need power, either 12vdc or 110v (outlet). There is a “line in” jack to the POE injector as well that will connect the injector to your Router.
The Bullet M2HP will connect to the source wifi and then relay the signal via network cable to your router.
The benefit to this is two fold. First, you’ll have the extremely strong power and subsequent range of the Bullet M2HP to reach out to your source wifi, extending the distance in which you can use it. Second, all of your electronics inside the trailer will use the “RV’s Wifi” SSID (network name) to access the internet.
What does this mean? Well, when you bounce from park to park, you’ll have to make a single setting change via some software to connect to the park’s wifi (ala the M2HP). All of your other devices (phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, Smart TV, Apple TV, Kindle, Coffee Maker, etc.) that need internet access will connect too your own RV via the router that you have inside your RV. You won’t have to individually program each device to access. Being that we usually travel with 2 phones (1 each), a tablet for our son, and either a kindle or Apple TV (or both?); that’s a lot fewer settings that we’re going to have to change at each park.
Let’s get Building!!!!
Ok, So you have all the parts and you are ready to go.
- Start off with the threaded PVC cap and drill a hole in it big enough for the base of the antenna to slide through, wile being small enough that the rim at the base of the antenna catches on the PVC to keep it from falling through. You can use your favorite weatherproof adhesive here, I choose to use hot glue. Make sure your hole is in the center of the cap and you glue it in straight so that you don’t run into clearance issues later.
- Temporarily attach the M2HP to the antenna
- Thread the Slip-On to Thread-On PVC adapter into the threaded end cap
- Take your current assembly and place it next to your 2″ PVC tube. Mark the tube where the base of the M2HP is. You want to be able to access the base of the M2HP to attach/remove the network cable as you move things around.
- Cut your PVC Tube where you marked it.
- Slide the PVC into the Slip to Thread adapter (the antenna and bullet are attached at this point). Verify that you can reach the bottom of the M2HP. For reference, my M2HP extended about 1/4″ from the base of the PVC. This gave me enough clearance that I didn’t have to worry about issues further on.
- Use the PVC glue to attach the Slip-On to Thread-On adapter to the PVC (you are glueing the slip-on side, not the thread-on side).
- Set that assembly aside.
- Take your Slip-On cap and drill a hole in it big enough for your wire seal/strain jacket. You are NOT going to put a tight seal around the Cat5e cable. The purpose of this item is to keep bugs and stuff from getting into the system. The wire will need to be able to move through this as things get assembled or as you pull it apart for troubleshooting.
- Ensure you ran your cable through the strain jacket before you attach it to the PVC cap.
- Once you have everything setup, put some form of adhesive around the inside of the end cap, on the outside of the threads for strain jacket. You are NOT trying to seal the network cable, you are trying to support the strain jacket in the PVC cap.
- Hose Clamp, glue or some how affix the remaining PVC pipe (Should be about 14-18″) to the suction cup handle. Take your time and center the two together, you want an equal part of the PVC protruding from the top and bottom of the assembly. Make sure that the suction cup levers are NOT obstructed when you attach it. Otherwise, you’ll have to un-do your adhesive measures and re-do it (give ya 2 guesses why I’m warning you about this). Use 2 hose clamps spaced as far apart as you can to go around the handle for the suction cup system and around the PVC system. This is just extra support.
- PVC Glue the coupler to one end of the long PVC tube you just attached to the suction cup assembly
OK, now most of the assembly is done. The short piece of PVC that you attached to the Slip-On to Thread-On adapter will slide into the coupler. Don’t worry, it doesn’t need to be waterproof. The M2HP is weather resistant in of itself; the whole point of the PVC is to keep excess weather (and sun rays!) off of the unit as additional protection. Further, the PVC provides a way to mount your assembly without clamping the M2HP to something. I’ve run my system for days in 110 degree temps without an issue. These little suckers are resilient.
- With your antenna cap threaded onto the short PVC extension, press the assembly onto the coupler that attaches to the suction cup system. You may need to give a slight twist to get the PVC all the way down.
- Put the end-cap on that has your Cat5e cable (you used the shielded, UV stable cable for this part right?) on to ensure fit. Make sure that you can slide your cable through the slip-on end cap assembly without much effort.
- If everything fits, remove the top part containing the antenna and M2HP. Feed the network cable through the PVC tube and plug it into the base of the M2HP. At this point, you don’t need to re-assemble the PVC tube (but you can if you really want to).
So, that was the easy part.
Ok, I’m kidding.
My trailer has a door that accesses the 30amp power cable for my Nash. I decided that this was the best entry point into my trailer for my project. The entry area serves as a shallow cabinet inside the trailer that is next to the couch. The front of the cabinet has an outlet at the base with standard AC current service. This worked great for me; if you have a different type of trailer you are going to need to assess where to run the cable into your trailer. You will need to select a point where you can get the network cable to your WiFi access point (the Netgear in my case) and where you can access 2 AC outlets. Take your time to figure this one out; I spent several days coming up with my solution. I did have to make a small hole in the above mentioned cabinet to run the network cable through. I was able to do it behind the couch in a spot that isn’t seen unless you are looking for it. I then used a “desktop wire grommet” to cover the hole.
So, next up is the fun geeky stuff.
You need to take the WiFi access point/router and plug it into power – you are not going to connect any networking equipment to it at this point.
- Without connecting your WiFi access point/router (Netgear, in my case) to any networking equipment (the bullet, or internet source), plug it into power.
- Use a computer (ideally) or a tablet/phone to connect to the WiFi name that the router is broadcasting; this should be in the instructions that came with the system if you are unfamiliar with it.
- Log into the admin page for the router. Generally, the page’s address is 192.168.1.1. The Username and Password should either be in the manual or on the bottom of the router.
- CHANGE THE DEFAULT ADMIN PASSWORD
- Change the wireless name if you desire, set any passwords you desire as well. I HIGHLY recommend having a password on the network name you are broadcasting.
- Take the shorter Cat5e cable that you have and plug it into the POE Injector to “LAN.” Plug the other end of the cable into the “Internet” port on your router. Generally the “Internet” port is yellow so that it stands out.
- Plug the cable you ran from outside the trailer to inside the trailer into the POE port of the POE Injector
- Plug the POE Injector into an AC outlet.
- Wait 10-15 minutes for everything to “boot up” for the first time.
- In your web browser (you MUST be connected to the wifi network for your trailer still) open 192.168.1.20
- The first time you visit this page, you will need to set your language to your preference.
- Default Username and Password are both “UBNT”
- Note: If you couldn’t open the 192.168.1.20 you are going to need to find the list of devices connected to your router. This is generally under “administration” or “advanced” menus on the router. You are NOT going to change anything, you are just looking for the IP address that the M2HP connected to – it probably will not be called “M2HP” in the list, but it’s the only connected device other than your laptop, so trial and error should get you there.
- If you cannot find the M2HP listed on your router, check the lights on the bullet. If they are lit up, it’s functioning and you’ll need to go through the menus again. If there are no lights, check to see that the POE Injector has a lit status light (mine is blue). If the Injector has it’s light on, try swapping the network cables plugged into it – chances are they are reversed.
Here’s where the fun part begins, you’ll need to change a few settings on the M2HP to get up and running. Realistically, there’s 2 ways to run the M2HP; however with more and more sights using “Captive Portals” (where you click “I agree” before you can use their site on your device), I’m only going to describe the way that works with the portals.
Now I’m going to use some pictures to show what the steps are; M2HP’s are designed for enterprise use. This is where it gets less user-friendly. Pictures help tho, right?????
Ok, so you logged into the M2HP. You should see this screen after login. This first tab is useless to our use of this product…..
So this is the MAIN tab. We will will be verifying information here. You’ll see that I have the following configured:
-“Network Mode” I have ROUTER configured.
-“SSID” I have my HOST ID selected (“Oh Ranger…..”)
-“Security” is set to NONE (host Wifi doesn’t use a password in this instance)
-“Signal Strength” – This is the M2HP’s signal to the HOST. Looks pretty darn good for our distance (I don’t know how it thinks I’m .1 mile from the host. There isn’t a way for it to figure that out).
-Wireless Mode to “Station”
-SSID – Click on “Select” and you will see the list in the second picture, below.
-Click “SCAN” at the bottom of the page
-Select the Radio Button next to the SSID/Network you wish to connect to (The HOST)
-Click “SELECT” and you will be taken back to the WIRELESS Tab.
-** Note: if the site uses any passwords to access wifi, you will need to enter the WiFi Password under “Wireless Security.” Very few places use WEP for passwords, you should only need to select “WPA” or “WPA2” for password type. The staff probably won’t know which you need, so it’ll be trial and error. You will NOT use any of the “Enterprise” options.
-Click “CHANGE” at the bottom of the screen and then “APPLY” when prompted.
Network Tab – Ok, we’ve got some work to do here.
-First thing you need to do is find where it says “Network Mode” and change it to “Router”
-Under “WAN IP address” select “DHCP”
-DHCP Fallback IP “192.168.10.1”
-DHCP Fallback Netmask “255.255.255.0”
-LAN Network Settings – IP Address “192.168.50.1”
-LAN Netmask “255.255.255.0”
-DHCP Server “ENABLED”
-Range Start “192.168.50.2”
-Range End “192.168.50.200”
-Click “CHANGE” at the bottom of the screen and then “APPLY” when prompted.
** NOTE: These settings are CRITICAL to get EXACTLY CORRECT **
-We will not be changing anything here. My settings are here for reference.
-We will not be changing anything here. My settings are here for reference.
-You have the option of changing the Device Name. There is no need to change it for our application.
-Timezone. You can change this if you want. There is no need to change it for our application.
-System Accounts: “Administrator Username” – as part of IT security, I always change my administrator account usernames. No, I won’t tell you what mine is. You can leave it as is, if you desire. Probably not an issue for 99% of users.
-Reset Button: DO NOT UN-CHECK THIS BOX. The little reset button on the M2HP is your lifeline if something goes wrong.
Ok, I don’t think it was that bad. I hope you feel the same way. It’s some complex menus but once you start working through it, the workflow isn’t that bad.
At this point, your M2HP is configured and should be connected to your host wireless network. For testing sake, feel free to connect it to your home wifi (assuming you either built this in your house, or your RV is nearby when you installed everything) and verify operation.
So, for the hardcore IT guy reading this, I realize some of these setting are not ideal; specifically in relation to multiple NATs. This was needed to get through captive portals. I was banging my head against a wall for several hours to get through one at our last camp. In the end, this was the solution.
Once you connect to the host wifi through the above mentioned process, try to go to a website on your connected device (phone, tablet, laptop). If the site (ie: google) loads without issues, you are set. If you get a screen asking you to click “I agree” – as long as you agree to the terms, click through the prompts. Once you do that on ONE device, your entire network will have access. The HOST wifi only sees the M2HP connecting for data; it’s not going to force each device to agree after that.
So, great.. you’ve got it working for the first time! Once you move camp to another location, you’ll have to select the new Host’s network and connect.
All you need to do is connect to your RV’s Network and navigate to 192.168.50.1, click on the WIRELESS Tab and go through the process of selecting the proper SSID again.
From now on, all you’ll have to do is go through the above mentioned 2 windows whenever you want to connect to a new host. It’s not the easiest method out there (the custom $300-500+ options are SUPER user friendly) but it’s cheaper, more powerful and…. you built it!
Remember, we’re using some fairly strong enterprise level equipment. It has a LOT more power than the typical systems you buy from the RV stores.