Fast! Free! Unlimited!
But all too often they must come to face a disappointing reality - on most public networks, you may at best get just one out of three.
Even throwing expensive range extending technology at the problem can only go so far to improve the Wi-Fi connectivity situation. Better gear can help - but it can't work miracles.
The truth is that Wi-Fi just isn't well suited to long range coverage.
It takes a substantial investment to deploy even modestly fast Wi-Fi over an extended area. And it takes ongoing expertise to keep any network reliably up and performing well under load.
To better manage expectations and the insatiable demands for connectivity - many public Wi-Fi networks have turned to charging for access, or placing limits on usage to better manage the demand. But even paid for "premium" Wi-Fi all too often still comes up lacking.
Relative to cellular, public Wi-Fi often ends up being:
- Slower - Real world public Wi-Fi is often just 1mbps to 10mbps, compared to increasingly common peak speeds of over 50+ mbps on cellular.
- Harder to Use - Many public Wi-Fi networks have "captive portals" that force you to agree to terms, pay, or login with a password. Jumping through these hoops can often be a challenge - particularly if you want to go get multiple devices online at once.
- Less Secure - On cellular, only your carrier (and law enforcement) can monitor what you are up to online. On public Wi-Fi networks, any machine connected to the same public network can attempt to snoop on you.
- Less Reliable - Wi-Fi signals are broadcast on unlicensed spectrum that is subject to interference and overloading. In many places there may be dozens of Wi-Fi networks attempting to share the same limited broadcast channels! Cellular networks on the other hand operate on dedicated licensed channels, and are not subject to this sort of free-for-all interference.
It all adds up to Wi-Fi often being more trouble than its worth.
But if you understand the limitations and realities, having gear to take advantage of public Wi-Fi can actually prove to be a valuable part of any nomad's connectivity arsenal.
Particularly in places where cellular may be lacking - having the capability onboard to tap into distant public Wi-Fi sources can prove to be extremely worthwhile.
Included in this Guide:
- Video Overview: Realities of Public Wi-Fi (member only)
- Realities of Public Wi-Fi
- Finding Wi-Fi Networks
- The Wi-Fi Worthiness Test
- Wi-Fi Challenges (member only)
- Wi-Fi Range Extending Gear
- Product Guide: Wi-Fi Extending & Repeating
- Breaking Through Captive Portals (member only)
- Geek Talk: Wi-Fi Standards & Ranges (member only)
- Security on Public Wi-Fi Networks (member only)
- Example Wi-Fi Range & Performance Analysis (member only)
- Download Speeds Ranked @ 690’
- Download Speeds Ranked @ 1160’
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Realities of Public Wi-Fi
It used to be common that the fastest, cheapest, and easiest way to get online was to use public Wi-Fi networks - but with the huge improvements in cellular over the years Wi-Fi is not nearly as often the best choice.
But even with cellular becoming dominant many libraries, coffee shops, RV parks, marinas, breweries (yay!), motels, municipal parks, and even fast food restaurants now offer free Wi-Fi. There are also numerous paid Wi-Fi networks to be found too.
But though Wi-Fi has the potential to be blazingly fast over short distances, only a few public Wi-Fi networks actually deliver on this promise.
How can you know where you might have the best odds of having great Wi-Fi?
A public Wi-Fi hotspot is highly dependent upon its upstream source of internet (whether it is cable, DSL, satellite, etc.) and on how many other people are sharing that connection.
In some cases, an overloaded upstream connection may feel little better than old dial-up modems. And in some remote places, the upstream connection may actually still BE a dial-up modem!
In many situations, even though you may be able to get online via Wi-Fi – it may not even be worth the effort.
To deliver a great Wi-Fi experience, an RV park, marina or other public facility needs to have invested in doing it right.
And they may have made frustrating tradeoffs along the way.
- They need to be paying for enough backhaul capacity to fully meet the demand. Many public networks were designed to handle basic web surfing and email, and they are not paying for nearly enough network capacity to enable multiple people streaming video.
- They need to professionally deploy expensive gear to broadcast the signal over a broad area. Don't expect a restaurant or store to have spent money beaming their signal out into the parking lot. Even many campgrounds may have only deployed Wi-Fi into the office, rec center, or laundry room.
- They need to pay for ongoing upkeep and support to make sure the network stays up and reliable. Many campgrounds skimp here, and the network performance for everyone can be ruined by one ignorant user trying to pirate some movies via BitTorrent, gobbling up all available capacity in the process.
In many remote areas, even if a campground is willing to make the investment in great Wi-Fi - better connectivity may not even be an option if there is no cable, fiber, or DSL service to be had within dozens of miles. If the campground front office can't afford to get fast internet, there is no way that they will be able to offer fast Wi-Fi to anyone else.
With so much cost and hassle required to deploy good Wi-Fi, it is no surprise that many campgrounds seem to have settled on doing the absolute bare minimum.
But some places have made the investment - and these places can be islands of Wi-Fi nirvana.
If Wi-Fi is important to you - seek out premium RV parks and marinas that have installed the necessary long range Wi-Fi gear and who have contracted for enough backhaul capacity to put it to use.
Don't be afraid to call and ask pointed questions about whether their network is fast enough to stream, and check the latest campground reviews to confirm other's experiences.
And always have a backup cellular plan, just in case the Wi-Fi lets you down!
Finding Wi-Fi Networks
Finding Wi-Fi networks can be a challenge. Here's some guidance on where to look.
Campground & Marina Wi-Fi
Providing Wi-Fi that can serve hundreds of bandwidth-hungry travelers, especially spread out over several acres, is very expensive to set up. Few locations have the IT expertise on staff to properly upkeep such a network either.
Doing it right requires a substantial investment in routers and access points, as well as needing a pretty hefty internet backbone to tap into.
Generally, even if the Wi-Fi is managed professionally, it is common for free networks to be only good enough for checking email and doing some basic surfing. All most travelers are assumed to need.
And even well run Wi-Fi networks are often seriously overloaded.
A connection that might be decent during the day while everyone is off exploring, might feel worse than dial-up during prime time.
It can take just one or two people trying to stream a movie, video chatting with the grandkids, or downloading a huge file to bring the entire Wi-Fi network to a grinding halt.
Some locations have outsourced the chore of providing Wi-Fi to a provider, like Tengo Internet or onSpot, who manage the bandwidth and network. Sometimes they charge extra for service, cap how much data you can use, or limit how many devices you can connect at once.
The theory is that these limits help fairly spread out the available capacity, and setting up a paid network keeps freeloaders who might not even be customers from tapping into the network.
Professionally managed Wi-Fi connections should in theory end up being faster and more reliable than open and free. Unfortunately that’s a theory that doesn’t always manifest into reality.
It’s best to look at campground and marina provided Wi-Fi as a bonus if it’s usable, but not to plan around it for anything critical or bandwidth intensive.
You may find great Wi-Fi – fast and without data caps. But these networks tend to be the exception, not the rule.
The Wi-Fi Worthiness Test
A lot of people invest a small fortune in long-range Wi-Fi hardware, only to report back disappointedly that it hardly made any difference.
In a lot of these cases there just wasn’t any worthwhile service to work with in the first place. If the campground or marina has slow and unreliable Wi-Fi in the front office near the hotspot, no amount of technology will be able to make things any better further away.
Before you invest time and money in installing extra gear, find out if the hotspot you’re trying to connect to is actually worth the effort.
We call this the "Worthiness Test":
- Take your laptop, phone, or tablet up as close to the hotspot as you can manage.
- Run some speed tests (Our guide: Testing & Understanding Your Mobile Internet Speeds)
- Try out some typical web surfing.
- Try streaming some video.
If the experience is a good one, then using long range Wi-Fi extending gear may help.
But if not, save yourself some frustration and find another way online.
If the performance is bad up close, there is nothing further you can do to improve it, except perhaps complain to management.
Tip: If you can time-shift your internet use, an otherwise congested Wi-Fi network may give great performance at non-peak times. For example, a Wi-Fi network may be completely congested during prime time as everyone tries to stream Netflix, but it could be fast and usable later that night or earlier in the day.
Wi-Fi Extending Gear
The range in which you can reach and utilize a Wi-Fi signal is highly dependent upon the capability of the antenna and radio in your device.
Though nearly every laptop and mobile gadget made now comes with Wi-Fi capabilities built in, most aren’t engineered for distance.
And few devices make any provision for using an external Wi-Fi antenna, so other than balancing your laptop in a window, there is no way to increase your Wi-Fi range without adding another device to the mix.
Generally, there is a rough hierarchy of Wi-Fi range capability, from the shortest range gear to the longest:
- Phones, Tables & Laptops - Most small gadgets (including phones, tablets, etc) have very minimal Wi-Fi range. Laptops typically can connect via Wi-Fi further away than phones.
- Wi-Fi Range Extenders - These types of devices connect to a remote Wi-Fi network and then rebroadcast it, acting like a relay.
- Indoor Wi-Fi-as-WAN Routers - These special routers connect to a more remote network, and use that as the upstream data source for your local private network. Many Wi-Fi-as-WAN routers have relatively high-power Wi-Fi radios.
- High-Power USB Wi-Fi Network Adapters - These are external Wi-Fi radios that you can plug into a laptop via USB, sometimes greatly enhancing Wi-Fi range. These often come with a long cable to allow placement in a window, or even outdoors.
- Outdoor Antennas - A Wi-Fi antenna mounted outside can get line of sight benefits, and increase your range.
- Outdoor CPE - Pairing an antenna with the radio outside gets the best range performance with line of sight, reducing signal loss and increasing transmit power.
We’ll explain some of the more advanced options below.
Have Realistic Range Expectations!
A lot of Wi-Fi gear is marketed with absolutely unrealistic range claims - and many buy into the dream of scoring a free connection to public hotspots miles away only to end up massively disappointed.
Yes - it may be technically possible for some of the best Wi-Fi gear to connect to a hotspot two miles (or more) away. But...
Just how often will these perfect circumstances line up in the real world:
- Absolutely clear line of site directly from your gear to the access point - with no trees, buildings, or other RVs or taller boats in between.
- High-end long-range Wi-Fi gear on BOTH ends of the connection.
- Minimal nearby congestion, with no other networks between you and your target.
And just because you CAN connect occasionally over extreme distances, if the actual speeds you end up seeing are measured in kilobits-per-second was it actually even worth the effort, other than for bragging rights?
The key to being satisfied with long-range Wi-Fi is to set realistic expectations around what you consider long-range to be.
We suggest focusing on only attempting connections less than a mile away, and even with the best gear ranges of half of a mile are often more realistic. And only ever expect speeds that rival cellular when connected over 1000' feet or less - assuming that the Wi-Fi network has enough backhaul capacity.
But if you are just 1000 feet away from an open Wi-Fi hotspot with a fast, free, and unlimited connection - having the right gear on board can bring that speed right into your RV or boat.
Product Guide: Wi-Fi Extending & Repeating Gear
Here are some of the popular products appropriate for RVers and boaters that can help with long range Wi-Fi. Click on each for more information.
- For all of the Wi-Fi extending products we track, please visit our Long Range Wi-Fi Extending Gear Center.
There's More to This Guide!
Our premium members, who funded the creation of this guide, also have access to a bunch more in-depth content on this topic, including:
- Video Overview
- Challenge #1: Range & Radio Power
- Challenge #2: Wi-Fi Is A Two Way Street
- Challenge #3: Wi-Fi Congestion Issues
- Wi-Fi Range Extending Gear
- Breaking Through Captive Portals
- Geek Talk: Wi-Fi Standards & Ranges
- Security on Public Wi-Fi Networks
- Example Wi-Fi Range & Performance Analysis
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