Every RVer and cruiser at some point fantasizes about the possibilities of connecting via Wi-Fi.
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.
Table of Contents
The basics of this guide are free to the public, with the more in-depth content available only to our members:
- Video Overview: Realities of Public WiFi (member exclusive)
- Realities of Public Wi-Fi?
- Finding Wi-Fi Networks
- The Wi-Fi Worthiness Test
- Challenge #1: Range & Radio Power (member exclusive)
- Challenge #2: Wi-Fi Is A Two Way Street (member exclusive)
- Challenge #3: Wi-Fi Congestion Issues (member exclusive)
- Wi-Fi Range Extending Gear (member exclusive)
- Have Realistic Range Expectations!
- Review Center: Wi-Fi Extending & Repeating Gear
- Pro Tips: Breaking Through Captive Portals (member exclusive)
- Geek Talk: Wi-Fi Standards & Ranges (member exclusive)
- Bonus Content: Security on Public Wi-Fi Networks (member exclusive)
- Example Wi-Fi Range & Performance Analysis (member exclusive)
- 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?
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
Although you would think that a campground that advertises “Free Wi-Fi!” as prominently as it does 50A power hook-ups would actually have worthwhile Wi-Fi, we have sadly discovered that this is often not the case. And once you understand all that is involved in providing a fast free Wi-Fi network, you may realize how unrealistic it is to expect that.
Maintaining a public Wi-Fi system that can serve hundreds of bandwidth-hungry travelers, especially if spread out over several acres (such as at an RV park), is very expensive to set up and maintain. Few park or marina managers have the expertise to upkeep such a network, especially without having an IT expert on call.
To do it right requires a substantial investment in routers, repeaters, and equipment – not to mention, needing a pretty hefty internet backbone to tap into.
Generally, if the Wi-Fi is managed decently enough, it is still common for RV park or marina Wi-Fi to be only good enough for checking email and doing some basic surfing – generally all that most campground or marina patrons are assumed to really need.
But if all you are going to do is check email and some light surfing – it is hardly worth trying Wi-Fi when a cellular plan could do it just as well.
On rare occasions, we’ve been at campgrounds with great Wi-Fi – fast and without data caps! It has occasionally been so good we could suspend our cellular account for the month.
But it is much more common for campground Wi-Fi installations to be so iffy that it’s actually pretty frustrating.
All too often, campgrounds suffer seriously overloaded connections – particularly in the evening when a lot of people try to get online at once. 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 network to a grinding halt.
Some campgrounds have outsourced the chore of providing Wi-Fi to a provider, like Tengo Internet, who manages the bandwidth and network for them. Sometimes they even charge extra for it, 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.
You would think that paid and professionally managed Wi-Fi connections would end up being faster and more reliable than open and free, but in our experience this has not proven to be the case. All too often, paid networks have proven to be a waste of effort, not even worth bothering to jump through the hoops to get online.
In the end, we look at campground-provided Wi-Fi to be a bonus if it’s usable – but we’ve learned not to rely on it for anything critical and bandwidth intensive.
If campground-provided Wi-Fi is important to you, read online reviews at places like www.campendium.com, www.rvparkreviews.com, or www.activecaptain.com to help in selecting where you head – a lot of folks comment on the reliability of the Wi-Fi in their park reviews.
And if you find the Wi-Fi not cooperating, try asking the front desk to reboot the router – that’s a simple thing that can sometimes make huge improvement.
Finding & Using Free Public Hotspots
A lot of businesses and public resources provide free Wi-Fi. For example – buy a cup of coffee, and you can spend an afternoon using a cafe’s hotspot for your laptop. Walmarts in that past year have been seen offering more free Wi-Fi hotspots, which goes along nicely with a free place to park overnight while in route (at locations that allow it).
Heck, even many McDonald’s offer free Wi-Fi to go with your super-sized fries. “Would you like bandwidth with that?”
If you have the flexibility and/or desire to take your laptop with you, these can be great supplements to your internet arsenal. Some folks actually rely on this method as their primary internet. And if you can get your RV or boat within range of these hotspots, you might even be able to use them from the comfort of your recliner.
Places known for their free hotspots include libraries, laundromats, McDonald’s, coffee shops, Panera Bread, Lowe’s (yes, the hardware store), Walmart, some rest stops, motels (higher end hotels tend to have paid internet), breweries, restaurants, and so many more.
There are several apps and websites out there that you can use to track public hotspots down – but we usually find it pretty easy to stumble into these places when we need them.
You might have to ask at the counter for the password, but many places are happy to share their network with their customers.
Some days we find a restaurant with free Wi-Fi to eat a late lunch at, and then spend the afternoon while the tables aren’t in high demand working away. Some places are even happy to seat you near a power outlet!
Some other places limit how long they’ll let you stay on their connection, as they do need their tables for customers just arriving. If asked to move on, be courteous and comply.
These businesses provide these services as a courtesy to their customers – please return the favor by actually being their customer. Order food and beverages, and tip your server well for taking up a seat in their area for an extended amount of time.
And always remember, not all Wi-Fi is created equal and your speeds may vary from location to location. Before buying a meal or coffee, we run a speed test from our devices to make sure the bandwidth offered is usable enough for our needs.
Paid Wi-Fi Networks: Xfinity, Tengo, Boingo, etc...
There are some widely deployed Wi-Fi networks out there available to paid customers.
For example – the nationwide Cable WiFi initiative involves regional cable companies (including Spectrum, Cox, Optimum, and Comcast’s Xfinity), all of which allow customers to roam freely between connected Cable WiFi hotspots across their combined territories.
With over 500,000 Wi-Fi hotspots and growing, if you are in an area served by one of these companies you might be surprised to find that you can get access in some very unexpected places – if you are an authorized user.
Check if your stationary family members and friends are customers of one of the participating cable companies – you might be able to get their permission to use their login to access the network.
Comcast’s Xfinity WiFi is taking things even further – and now has millions of “xfinitywifi” hotspots. Comcast has accomplished this by turning business and home customers’ cable modems into public Wi-Fi hotspots – in one fell swoop offering fast Wi-Fi over entire neighborhoods.
Non-Xfinity customers can get a free trial to check out performance, and you can then buy hourly, daily or weekly passes to take advantage of it.
If you see “xfinitywifi” or “CableWiFi” as an available hotspot, you can try this out as an option. If you are in a Comcast area, the Xfinity iOS and Android apps will help you find areas that are covered.
There’s also services like Boingo, which provides a subscription that grants access at over one million hotspots around the world – including many Tengo location found within campgrounds. For a monthly fee that is actually generally less than subscribing to Tengo, you can get unlimited access at all Boingo locations.
Our favorite way to access Wi-Fi is by borrowing a cup of bandwidth from friends and family as we travel.
We find most folks with fast home connections are more than happy to share their unlimited high-speed bandwidth when we need to do things like OS updates, download shows from iTunes or Amazon Prime, get the latest development tools, or do a massive backup to DropBox.
Rather than sharing a campground network with dozens or hundreds of people, you are instead sharing a fast and unlimited home residential connection with at most a few other individuals.
Your friends may not have long-range gear - but if you have good distance-capable Wi-Fi equipment you can still often get online from much further away than their driveway.
Particularly when visiting friends in a weak cellular area, sharing their Wi-Fi will often be the best way to keep online.
We suggest keeping small meaningful gifts on board to thank your gracious hosts.
TIP: We have a guide on how to temporarily add a more capable Wi-Fi Access Point to your host's network to better enable connecting from their driveway or even further afield:
The Wi-Fi Worthiness Test
Ok – so you found a Wi-Fi hotspot to use. But you can’t get the signal while sitting in your rig.
How then can you get online via Wi-Fi without needing to spend your days sitting at Starbucks and your nights lounging on the RV park’s office porch or Marina's tiki bar?
Wi-Fi was never intended to be used for long-range networking, but it is often possible to push the limits of what Wi-Fi is capable of.
But first – do yourself a favor and test to make sure that it will actually be worth the effort!
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 signal to work with in the first place. If the campground has slow and unreliable Wi-Fi in the front office or rec center near the hotspot, no amount of technology will be able to make things any better than that back at your rig.
Before you invest time and money in getting connected via Wi-Fi, 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.
- Try out some typical web surfing.
- Try streaming some video.
If the experience is a good one, then using long-range Wi-Fi gear in your rig may benefit you.
If not –no amount of gear back at your campsite will make things any better.
Save yourself some frustration, and find another way online.
Tip: If you can time-shift your internet use, an otherwise congested WiFi network may give great performance at non-peak times. For example, a WiFi 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 Range Extending Gear
Generally, there is a rough hierarchy of Wi-Fi range capability – from the shortest range gear to the longest:
- Wi-Fi Gadgets (including phones, tablets, etc)
- Indoor WiFi-as-WAN Routers (WiFiRanger Go, Pepwave Surf SOHO, etc.)
- High-Power USB Wi-Fi Network Adapters (Alfa Tube, etc.)
- Outdoor CPE / Router (WiFiRanger Sky, WiFiRanger Elite, WaveWiFi Rogue Wave, The Wirie AP+, etc.)
- Outdoor CPE with Directional Antenna (Ubiquiti NanoStation, parabolic dish, etc.)
Though nearly every laptop and mobile gadget now comes with Wi-Fi capabilities built in, the integrated systems on most aren’t engineered with antennas and transmitters designed for connecting to a hotspot far away.
Very few laptops or mobile devices make any provision for using an external Wi-Fi antenna either, so other than by balancing your laptop in a window, there is no way to increase your Wi-Fi range without adding another external device to the mix.
Fortunately – there are options to increase your range. It all depends on how much cost and complexity you are willing to add to your connectivity arsenal.
Members have access to our more in-depth analysis of these 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.
Wi-Fi ultimately may not be something that you rely on often, but being able to tap into when you find it can be nice indeed.
Product & Review Guide: Wi-Fi Extending & Repeating Gear
Here are the products we are tracking in the Product & Review Center that can help with long range Wi-Fi. Click on each for more information. Our in-depth reviews and member reviews are part of our member exclusive benefits.
Testing Notes & Updates:
We are currently testing a variety of Wi-Fi gear in the field. Member's can also access our field testing range testing results and product notes:
Ubiquiti Bullet M2
Long range WiFi antenna by AirMax.
PDQ Connect AllPro
Long range WiFi antenna and router by PDQ Connect.
JefaTech WiFi Repeating Kit
Long range WiFi antenna and router by JefaTech.
Alfa Desktop WiFi Extending Router
A basic and affordable option that only provides WiFi extending.
WiFiRanger’s roof mounted long range WiFi antenna and router.
WiFiRanger’s most basic roof-mounted system.
Long range WiFi antenna and router by WaveWiFi.
MobileMark LTM Fleet Management
A line of low profile omni-directional antennas featuring cellular MIMO, WiFi and GPS.
$186 - 352
BearExtender PC Outdoor WiFi Extender
A basic and affordable option that only provides WiFi extending.
Panorama Low Profile MIMO
A line of low profile omni-directional antennas featuring cellular MIMO, WiFi and GPS.
$285 - 315
JefaTech WiFi Repeating XR
Long range WiFi antenna and router by JefaTech.
RedPort Halo Long Range Marine & RV Wi-Fi Extending System
Long range Wi-Fi extending setup, with claims of up to 7 miles.
C.Crane Outdoor WiFi Antenna
C.Crane’s WiFi antenna for receiving WiFi signals from up to 3/4 mile away.
WiFiRanger SkyPro & SkyPro LTE
WiFiRanger’s low-profile roof mounted SkyPro features dual antennas for MIMO-enhanced Wi-Fi speeds.
WiFiRanger’s flagship roof mounted long range Wi-FI system supports Bothe 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks.
WiFi On Steroids WiFi Extender
A basic and affordable WiFi extender.
Ubiquiti NanoStation M2
Long range, pole mounted WiFi antenna by AirMax.
RadioLabs O2 Connect WiFi Antenna
A basic USB directional WiFi antenna option.
A WiFi booster / router kit that runs on 12V.
GreatRVnano WiFi Booster Kit
A basic and affordable option with an external mounted antenna.
RV WiFi Booster Kit
A small, low power, suction cup mounted kit aiming to increase the range from a WiFi source to a rig.
Alfa WiFi Camp Pro / Camp Pro 2 Kit
A basic and affordable option with an external mounted high gain antenna.
Bitstorm Bad Boy Extreme WiFi Extender
A rugged WiFi extending solution.
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
- Pro Tips: Breaking Through Captive Portals
- Geek Talk: Wi-Fi Standards & Ranges
- Bonus Content: Security on Public Wi-Fi Networks
- Example Wi-Fi Range & Performance Analysis
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