Cel-Fi GO: Staying Connected in RVs

Americans love a road trip. It’s estimated that 8 million RVs are in circulation at any given time, with about 3 million out on the road – all contributing to an annual $50 billion positive effect on the economy. With so many RVs on the road, voice and data connectivity are not simply matters of convenience. Although many daily functions are tied to smartphones – such as remotely monitoring the alarm system, or keeping track of calories – RVers also need cellular service for safety and security on the road. However, an RV – particularly one that is mobile or nomadic – can’t easily connect to a fixed source for communications, so the source must be wireless. Here is a look at some of the options RV dealers can offer customers to provide optimum cellular connectivity.

Tools for Staying Connected:

There are four types of cellular connections an RV owner might desire:

  • Mobile (cellular) phone service: This refers to the ability to place and receive voice calls in the coach, which is often the primary need.
  • Data service to the mobile phone: Most cell phones include applications and features that rely on a connection to the Internet. Many navigation-related services, like Google Maps or Waze, update on the fly over the cellular data connection as the vehicle travels along.
  • MiFi: It’s common for personal-use electronics devices to include embedded cellular modems that enable those devices to connect to the Internet wirelessly. A popular option is the portable mobile hotspot, or MiFi, which connects to cellular data and acts like a Wi-Fi hotspot locally, offering a Wi-Fi connection to nearby devices.
  • Connected Things: Increasingly, a new class of devices under the Internet of Things called “connected things” are embedding cellular connectivity to offer entirely new kinds of features and benefits. Devices such as cameras, moisture sensors, tank sensors, security devices, and alarms are all including cellular connectivity to allow for remote monitoring and control.

Mobile or Stationary (or Nomadic)

An important consideration for the RV cellular user is whether the service is to be used on the road, while in motion, or only when stopped. Solution vendors offer products that can work in the mobile context, stationary context, or in some cases, both. FCC regulations drive some of these technologies, so it’s important to be aware of the use the solution has been designed for.

Cellular Service for Coaches

Cellular services can vary quite a bit from one provider to the next. They may overlap in many areas, including the choices offered to customers, but they also have regional strengths and weaknesses. Some providers’ services may work fine in town, but perform poorly in rural areas. Broad coverage remains a massive challenge for service providers, and only increases in difficulty as RVers’ appetite for service expands. For this reason, many RVers will have multiple cellular accounts, or SIM cards, to increase the likelihood that they will find usable service wherever they park.

Antennas: Capturing Cellular Signals Outside of RVs

To capture the cellular signal (sometimes technically referred to as a “donor” signal) to get the best reception and service, one needs to employ the best possible antenna for the desired application. Some antennas are designed for use while the RV is in motion, but may compromise on overall performance. Others may be higher-performance, but need to be aimed at a fixed point, so are not suitable for a non-stationary application. Regarding antennas, there are a few criteria that must be reviewed:

Frequency. Antennas support a variety of frequencies; it’s critical that the selected donor antenna match the cellular frequencies required by the devices used inside the RV (e.g., cell phones, tablets, laptops). All antennas will indicate which frequencies they support.

Antenna Gain. Antenna gain is a key performance measure that indicates how well a given antenna performs. It’s typically a number ranging from 0 decibels (dB) upward. Consumer-grade antennas for mobile (RV) applications are typically in the range of 0 to 7 dB.

Antenna quality and specifications. One important note about antenna quality and specifications: Many antenna manufacturers stretch and warp their published antenna performance metrics, including gain values. An antenna may purport to have “5 dB gain” when in reality that gain is only achieved in a small fraction of scenarios, and the rest of the time it is much worse. It is recommended to check the reviews for any given antenna, and to purchase from a trusted supplier.

Ground plane. Some antennas must be grounded to a surface to function properly (above). Grounding properly reflects the antenna’s waves in a useable pattern. Many antennas include a ground plane as part of their design, while others do not. A ground plane can be made of any conductive material. Grounding for a given antenna will be noted by the manufacturer.

Mounting. There are three main types of antenna mounts. Normally, some sort of mounting is included as part of an antenna’s package.

  • Antenna mounts can be “screw in” or permanent, requiring drilling into the coach’s exterior surface. The antenna’s cable is threaded through a hole in the mount, through the surface of the coach, to whatever it is servicing on the interior.
  • Bar mounts are another common antenna mount. These are designed to attach to one of the circular bars on a coach, such as the ladder or the side mirror.
  • Magnetic mounts are a third option, and a great way to mount an external antenna, offering a portable solution that can be stowed when necessary, or easily moved to another location or vehicle.

An important point about magnetic mount antennas: The vehicle’s roof may or may not be made of a ferrous material that will allow a magnetic mount to stick. In this case, a metallic surface should be fabricated and attached to the roof for use with the magnetic mount antenna. A number of excellent adhesives are available that make this task fairly simple, without the need to drill. A cookie sheet is an inventive and common hack for a magnetic mount antenna’s base.

Directionality. Directionality in an antenna refers to what is technically its “beam width,” and indicates whether or not the antenna has a “face.” (i.e., it performs better when pointed at the signal source, a tower).

Antenna type. There are a few different antenna types that are appropriate for an RV. Quality, industrial design, additional features, and price are all elements that manufacturers add to differentiate their products (see related product photos above). Such products include:

  • Whip. The most common mobile antenna is called a “whip” and is typically 12 to 18 inches high, but can be much higher. These are normally rated to provide between 2 and 5 dB gain, but can range from 0 to 10 dB. High-gain whip antennas can be as much as 48 inches in length, so make sure to consider the dimensions.
  • Dome. A dome antenna is an antenna, or a collection of antennas, hidden under a single plastic radome. A radome is material that is transparent to wireless signals, so it doesn’t interfere with them.

Delivering a Signal Inside the Coach

Cellular service and the antennas are used to capture the service at the exterior of the RV. But the point is to bring the coverage to the people and devices inside. How does one that?

One way is to connect each cellular device directly to the external antenna. Of course, this will not work for mobile phones. Some phone boosters actually suggest or even require that the phone be placed literally on top of the booster to benefit from improved service.

A direct connection from antenna to device can be an acceptable option for something like a cellular modem or cellular-enabled router. The issue with this approach is that nothing else in the vehicle’s interior benefits from the improved service. There is a solution, however, that enables all the RV’s occupants (and all the wireless-enabled equipment inside the vehicle) to benefit from improved cellular coverage: The cellular signal booster.

In the cellular signal booster product category, there are a variety of options available. The first thing to determine is whether or not the solution needs to be usable when the vehicle is in motion. It’s also important to be aware that signal boosters for a specific carrier can have up to 1,000 times more signal gain than a booster for multiple carriers (wideband signal boosters).

A quick note about wideband versus provider-specific boosters: Wideband signal boosters have the advantage of boosting all the cellular services detected by the donor antenna. This is useful when the RVer has multiple carrier subscriptions. Provider-specific boosters are more powerful with higher gain, but they only boost one carrier at a time. There are provider-specific products, like Cel-Fi GO, that allow the user to switch the carrier being boosted, on the fly, to bypass this limitation for users with multiple accounts.

Typically, the biggest challenge installing a booster is routing the coax cable from the exterior antenna through to the inside, wherever the booster is located. This will most likely require drilling and filling.

Booster solutions typically use an exterior antenna (donor antenna) and an interior antenna (server, or service antenna). In a working system, both of these antennas are radiating. For best results, it’s important to physically separate these units, and for there to be some sort of material separation, like a metal panel, a wall, or similar.

The good news is that delivering good cellular service into the RV is no longer an expensive or daunting task. Understanding the options is important for RV dealers to help their customers determine the right system is put in place to meet their cellular service needs.

 

A version of this article was originally published in RV PRO Magazine

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