Getting away, but keeping in touch
For those of us that need to keep in touch through email, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, mobile apps, websites etc., having internet access can be a godsend. You may need it on the odd occasion or all the time. You may need a small amount of data or a torrent. Everyone uses the Internet in different ways and there are many solutions and a lot of confusion still remains. I’m sure you’ve seen that when you travel around the UK the mobile data service can be either fantastic or dire. Sometimes the signal can show as either ‘4G’ or sometimes as ‘No Service’ on your mobile phone. Sometimes within a few hundred yards, too. Frustrating isn’t it? Even so, there are solutions available.
Some help and guidance
From our own experience, we’ve put together this guide to explain the basics. We’ll also show you some options and point you at some great solutions. We’ll explain both Wi-Fi and mobile data (3G/4G), as these often get confused. They are very different services but access to either will get you onto the Internet.
There are several types of devices that we’ll cover in this article.
- 4G Mobile Wi-Fi devices (often called Mi-Fi)
- 4G Routers and external antennas
The need for Internet access whilst you’re away in your motorhome may seem a retrograde step to some who just want peace and quiet. But, staying in touch with friends and family is sometimes useful and often necessary. Many are also accustomed to using the internet to research camp sites and places to eat, or their new van. More and more are streaming their entertainment such as TV, films and music. For those who run their own Internet business, it can be necessary to be online at all times. Like having a mobile phone, Internet access is becoming a normal requirement these days.
3G/4G Service Availability
If you didn’t already know, service availability still isn’t perfect. EE, the leading operator, currently provides over 92% of the UK population with 4G. That still leaves areas which won’t get a 4G signal. These are often the more rural areas. While O2 is currently hovering around 70%, Vodafone’s last update put it at 68% and Three’s coverage is at around 63%.
When you can’t get 4G these devices will switch to a 3G signal, but even then there are signal dead zones. Plus, 3G is slow and you could find yourself paying a premium for slow speeds if you find yourself in 3G areas.
Mobile Coverage Checkers
Ofcom provides a universal mobile and broadband checking website. This may well be your first port of call when researching your camp site.
For specific service availability maps use the links below.
The Difference between WiFi and 4G
4G and Wi-Fi are both mobile wireless technologies providing internet access. But, they operate at different frequencies and vary in range and speed. Wi-Fi can work up to roughly 250 metres but 4G coverage could go beyond Kilometres. You don’t usually get charged for using data from a Wi-Fi network. However, the hub or router providing the Wi-Fi signal will connect to the internet via Broadband or 4G. And you’ll pay for that connection in some way.
Wi-Fi is a local, short range, low bandwidth, wireless network allowing a small number of devices to share a connection. Mobile operators such as EE and Vodafone provide 4G across large, high-speed networks from their cell towers. In comparison, 4G allows many thousand of users to access the Internet through these high-speed connections.
Interestingly, BT provides a mixed network of both 4G and Wi-Fi called BT-FON by utilising spare capacity on home-users’ hubs to generate a public Wi-Fi hotspot. Access to the BT-FON network is only available to BT subscribers but can be useful to motorhomers who don’t venture too far from towns and cities.
Occasional, frequent or full-time Internet usage?
The solution you choose for Internet access is dependant on many things. Here are some common questions you may want to consider:
- Where will you be going? There are still many rural areas of the UK that don’t have 4G or even 3G. As of April 2017, you need to check if you can use your data in Europe without a cost penalty.
- How many devices do you need to connect? Having kids, or grandkids, with smartphones and tablets, will add up and can drain your data allowance quickly.
- How much data will you need? 5GB might seem a lot but if you’re streaming TV and films you’ll need about 5GB for a single 90-minute film. Perhaps try a 30GB or 50GB per month SIM instead.
Option 1: I only need occasional access
If you only need occasional access to the internet there are many low-cost Wi-Fi dongles or Mi-Fi type devices available. When you have a strong Wi-Fi signal through a local hotspot, either using BT-FON or a local pub or camp site, these devices can work well. But, please bear in mind that you may find that speed, reliability and range may not be ideal. You will find a selection here: Solwise Wireless USB dongles.
Another alternative is to use your mobile phone, as it may have the ability to generate a Wi-Fi hotspot. Keep an eye on how much data you use or it can get expensive.
Having used these devices for many years it can become frustrating to find they have limited speed and range. If you are in a strong Wi-Fi signal area, your device will work well. If you are travelling and camping in remote locations it may struggle or even fail to connect.
Option 2: I need frequent access, and it needs to be more available
Travelling around the UK will lead you to some beautiful, out of the way, places and scenery. That doesn’t mean you’ll have internet access to upload your photos or send an email, though. The last pub was a few miles away and there are no houses with BT-FON access nearby.
Many camp sites offer free Wi-Fi or a Wi-Fi service for a nominal fee. Often, this is from a mast on a central club house or at the reception building. If your motorhome is a few hundred meters away from the mast you might struggle to connect to the Wi-Fi signal. To ensure you have a much better chance of getting Internet access you’ll need to look at a Solwise Patriot.
The Solwise Patriot is a Wi-Fi antenna that you mount on the outside of your Motorhome with suckers. Alternatively, it can be supplied with either a U-bolt or Jubilee Clip fastenings. Once in place, it will enable you to connect to a distant Wi-Fi signal to give you internet access. You just need to plug it into your laptop’s USB port.
So, you’ve got your laptop connected to the internet but, if you need other devices connected then what do you do?
To add more devices, the best option is to attach the Solwise Patriot Wi-Fi antenna to a USB Wi-Fi Repeater. With the Patriot on the outside of the motorhome, you can attach it to a Solwise USB Wi-Fi Repeater. This device takes the Wi-Fi signal from the Patriot antenna and rebroadcasts it inside the motorhome. Enabling all your smartphones, tablets and laptops to connect to a single Wi-Fi signal. Ideal for those campsites that only allow paid access to one device at a time.
Option 3: I need the Internet full-time
These days, more motorhome owners than ever are using their vehicles for longer periods and going further afield. With modern motorhome designs, you can now comfortably travel for 12 months of the year. Motorhome ownership is on the up and full-time motorhome usage is increasing too. Also, if you are able to run a business using a mobile phone and internet access there is nothing stopping you. imagine waking up to a beautiful lakeside view and then doing a spot of work. For those who do, it can be a completely stress-free lifestyle.
So, if you have to have solid, reliable internet access then there are some good solutions for you.
You’ll, ideally, need a high-performance 4G/LTE wireless router like the Solwise 4G-RUT240. This device has 3 external antennas, two for the 4G signal reception, and one to broadcast the Wi-Fi signal. Having a device that accepts external antenna connections can be useful. It enables you to use an external, high-gain antenna when the cell masts are some way away.
If you’re going this far, it is a good idea to always have an external antenna to hand. Sometimes you will be able to use the small stick antennas supplied, other times you will need something bigger and better. There are many options for external antennas. In the UK, omnidirectional antennas are often seen to have the most benefit over directional ones.
The most popular antennas have two coaxial feeds and feature two separate antennas built into the casing. This configuration is called MIMO. Multiple In, Multiple Out. Having two antennas in one casing enables the router to connect to a weaker signal, extending the range. Choosing a higher gain antenna can always help but as it will be taller, mounting it can be an issue.
If you’re travelling or just holidaying and know where you will be stopping it is possible to pick out parks that offer WiFi. However, the quality, cost and availability of the connection can vary on parks, with many struggling to offer good connection across the whole park due to vegetation and sheer ground space.
To help reduce this problem there are a host of WiFi booster devices available. WiFi boosters help to increase the connectivity you have to free WiFi signals. The device is attached to the outside of your motorhome and they are usually available as omni-directional or directional.
Finally, satellite internet is the most effective way of ensuring you always have a good, reliable connection. However, a fully automatic system is priced at around £3,400 and also has ongoing charges between £15 and £60 per month. This is a costly option and probably only worth while if you are living in your motorhome all year round or a constant internet connection is absolutely vital.
Are you worried about ending up with a hefty internet bill from FaceTime, iMessages and social media, but still want to keep family and friends back home up to date with what you’re doing? There’s no need to worry anymore. From the 15th June 2017 a new regulation called ‘roam like at home’ came into place in 28 European countries. This means you can now use the internet, make phone calls and send text messages within these countries at the same prices as in the UK or included in your plan as standard.
This means many SIM cards purchased for MiFi will still work at the same price, or you can purchase a local one as MiFi devices generally come unlocked to any network.
There are a couple of ‘fair-use’ fall downs to be aware of. If you use your contracted plan outside of your home country more than you do inside, the mobile operator can implement roaming charges. Secondly, if you use data above ‘a reasonably high volume’ when abroad on domestic rates, you may have to pay a data roaming surcharge of about £8.30 per gigabyte.
Travelling outside of Europe can equate in additional charges and it is best to check with your provider on costings and best packages available.
Internet access for your motorhome: Solution list
USB Patriot Kit
4G/LTE Modem kit