When folks ask us for advice about ‘internet boosters’, a cheer to encourage a better connection is probably not the kind of booster they are hoping for.
What people dream of is some simple product they can buy to turn a loser of a connection into a winner. To take a connection barely fast enough for a text message, and turn it into something capable of streaming the big game in HD.
If only it were so simple.
Sadly, there is no such thing as a universal internet booster. Bummer.
But there ARE ways to improve almost any connection – often dramatically. You may need to get a little creative, and you will need to know just what it is you are trying to boost.
Because currently, there is no ‘single magic device’ to enhance both cellular and Wi-Fi signals.
The ways in which you go about getting a better signal differ depending on the type of internet source you’re utilizing.
What works to improve a cellular signal to your phone or hotspot generally doesn’t help at all with getting a better Wi-Fi signal from your campground.
To get started, let’s go back to the basics. Grab a boiled hot dog (or a bag of popcorn), and read on to learn more about the wonderful world of mobile internet enhancement.
What is Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi does not necessarily mean ‘internet’.
Wi-Fi is a short-range local wireless networking technology designed to connect nearby devices to each other without wires.
A Wi-FI network might not even be connected to the internet – and a local area network might only be used for sharing files between multiple computers, or sending print jobs to a printer also on the network.
However, it is quite common for a Wi-Fi router to also be connected to an upstream internet connection called an Internet Service Provider, or ISP. The router is then used to share that connection with the devices wirelessly connected to it.
The internet source might be cable, DSL, satellite, cellular or even another Wi-Fi network.
The wireless signal created by the Wi-Fi router is relatively short range and meant to only cover a limited area – typically only a few hundred feet.
All modern laptops, smartphones, tablets, streaming devices, many TVs and most other internet connected devices have Wi-Fi receiving ability.
You’ll encounter a range of Wi-Fi networks in your travels.
- Some are free – offered by campgrounds, marinas, cafes, stores, libraries and hotels as a perk for their customers.
- Some are paid – like Boingo, TengoNet, and Xfinity or even paid premium access to higher speeds or bandwidth caps.
- Some are private – like the Wi-Fi network of a friend or family member whom you visit in your travels.
All of these sources have an internet source behind them that someone is paying for – even if that person is not you.
To further add confusion, the term Wi-Fi hotspot is also used to denote the connection you can create and host yourself, such as a hotspot off of your cellular device (smartphone or Jetpack).
Or – you may be using a router that can connect to another Wi-Fi hotspot, such as the one provided at a campground, to use as your internet source.
If you’re parked more than a couple hundred feet from a campground Wi-Fi access point, you may be getting too weak of a signal to utilize their network.
In these cases, you can purchase Wi-Fi antennas and radios that can extend your reception range. If the campground’s incoming internet source has enough capacity, you may be able to get a more usable connection at your RV using these devices.
But if the campground’s incoming internet source isn’t enough to meet the needs of all campers trying to use the connection, no amount of signal enhancing is going to help you.
You’ll just be extending the overloaded connection to your rig – but it will still be overloaded.
Devices from manufacturers like WiFiRanger, Alfa, Ubiquiti, RadioLabs and Jefatech are common Wi-Fi range extending solutions for RVs.
For more on understanding Wi-Fi signals, enhancing their range and the product options out there, check out our full guide at: www.rvmobileinternet.com/wifi
What is Cellular Data?
Cellular is a longer range wireless technology. It is the same underlying technology used for cellular phone calls and text messaging.
All smartphones, some tablets, some newer cars, a very few laptops, and some routers have cellular data capabilities built in.
Cellular data is rarely free, and access requires you have a data plan with a cellular carrier such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint.
Each cell phone company (aka carrier) builds cell towers in locations it has customers to serve, and each tower transmits a signal of varying power that can be picked up by devices within its coverage zone – called a cell.
Those individual cells may range from the size of a city block (or smaller) to the size of an entire town (or larger!)
All of these cells are coordinated carefully and designed to overlap, creating a network of coverage.
As you move out of one cell, the connection to your device is handed off to the tower serving the next cell, usually fairly seamlessly. The places where there are gaps between the cells where no tower reaches are known as dead zones.
When using cellular data you are accessing the internet via a cell tower that might be within sight, or perhaps might be as far as 20 miles away. That cellular tower usually has a very high-speed connection to the internet itself.
The quality of your connection will be affected by how far from a cell tower you are, obstructions that may exist between you and a tower, and how many other customers are utilizing the same tower you are connected to.
To get a better cellular signal, you can use electronic devices that pick up a signal with a stronger antenna and amplify it – these are called cellular boosters.
Cellular booster manufacturers include weBoost, SureCall, Smoothtalker and HiBoost.
Some cellular devices have direct antenna ports that can use simpler, and sometimes more effective, directly plugged in antennas.
A cellular booster can be a fabulous tool to have in your arsenal – and in remote areas, it can make all the difference in the world. But in some situations, a booster has little to offer, and sometimes a cell booster can actually slow your connection down when turned on!
And of course – a cell booster isn’t going to do anything to help you pull in remote Wi-Fi.
For more on understanding cellular data performance and enhancing your signal, and the options out there: www.rvmobileinternet.com/cellsignal
So the next time someone asks about how to boost their internet connection – get out your pom-poms and lead a cheer. Then giggle because you’re probably the only one who is in on the joke, and go ahead and educate them a bit on the differences between cellular and Wi-Fi connections.
Cherie Ve Ard and Chris Dunphy
Cherie Ve Ard and Chris Dunphy of Technomadia.com have been living and working full-time on the road since 2006, and Internet connectivity has been essential to them every step of the way. To help other RVers with the challenges of staying connected, they co-authored The Mobile Internet Handbook, and in 2014 they launched RVMobileInternet.com to provide unbiased information, reviews, resources and tutorials to help us all stay better connected on the road.