What is Wi-Fi? (part 2)

January 24, 2008 by Chris Guld · 3 Comments  
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In last week’s post, I told you the good news. Wi-Fi is available lots of places, it’s inexpensive, it’s an easy way to connect to the Internet, and it’s fast. Now for the bad news: It doesn’t always work.

Wi-Fi is 2-way radio, creating a computer network. There are so many things that can go wrong – on both sides. Most RV parks don’t have a budget for a computer technician on-site, so they may not even know how to test their side of the Wi-Fi hotspot, let alone fix it! But, for purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that the hotspot is working properly.

If you are close to the Access Point (the hotspot’s side of the 2-way) the Wi-Fi capabilities built in to your computer will work fine. But, if you’re a distance away, or there are obstructions, you may have problems connecting. The most common cause is that your internal Wi-Fi adapter is not strong enough to make the connection. And, by ‘a distance away’ I’m only talking 100 feet or so. When you see a rating on an adapter for distances of 300 feet or more, realize that is referring to ‘unobstructed line-of-sight.’

Wi-Fi was never intended to operate in a large outdoor environment. The technology was developed to work in a small, indoor location like a home, an office, or a coffee shop. If you take your laptop (with built-in Wi-Fi capability) to a coffee shop hotspot, you should have no problem connecting. But, take that same laptop to an RV park where you are some distance to the antennas, and there are many obstructions in the way, and you’re going to have problems. This is why many RV parks just have Wi-Fi available at the clubhouse, or office. It’s much more reliable there, and so much easier to manage. If you’re willing to take your laptop to the clubhouse, it should work fine.

If you want it to work at your site (and the park claims to deliver it there) your built-in adapter/antenna may not have what it takes to connect thru the metal walls and over the distance required. All laptops are not created equal when it comes to their Wi-Fi capabilities. My husband, Jim’s, laptop has the best built-in Wi-Fi we’ve seen. It is a 3 year old Sony Vaio. When I went to buy a new computer earlier this year, I almost bought a Sony, but decided there were a few other features I liked better about the Toshiba. I assumed that the Wi-Fi capabilities would surely be as good in my new Toshiba than in his 3 year old computer. I was wrong.

Side by Side WiFi test

Ok, so what do I do now? I mean, what do I do after I stomp my feet and scream that life just isn’t fair. Why is *his* computer better than mine!?#*#

USB Wi-Fi adapterOk, calm down and plug in an external USB type of Wi-Fi adapter. It will work now.

So, what is this USB adapter? Is it a ‘booster’ for your internal Wi-Fi? No. It doesn’t boost your equipment, it replaces your equipment. You should turn off your internal wireless adapter when you plug in a USB adapter. If you don’t know how to turn yours off, you may want to watch this video.

Now comes the hard part. What USB adapter should you buy? There are so many. I can’t tell you which is best. We’ve worked with D-Link, ZyXel, Buffalo, Netgear, Microsoft, Senao, Linksys, SMC, Belkin, US Robotics, RadioLabs and probably more I can’t remember. They’ve all worked great in some situations and they’ve all had problems in other situations. We have quite a collection now. The picture below is of Jim’s ’show and tell’ table when we present our Wi-Fi seminars.

Show and Tell of Wi-Fi equipment

You can buy them online, or your local computer store. Some are even available at Walmart, and you can get some good deals on eBay. What you look for is 802.11 (b, g, or n) USB Wireless LAN Adapter. You’ll find them in the networking section. Don’t pay attention to the hype about speed. An adapter that advertises 108 Mbps is no better than one that says 11Mbps when it comes to connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots. Your Internet speed will be limited by what is available at the hotspot. In fact, the 11Mbps adapter may be more reliable in a hotspot.

Here are a couple you should be able to find for around $50:

Package for Belkin WiFi adapter

Engenius EUB-362 ext

The Engenius above is nice because you can remove the little antenna that comes with it, and use something bigger and more powerful.

WaveRV-marineAnd, here’s one that’s weatherproof and meant to be mounted on top of your RV. This one will set you back $169 it’s called a WaveRV.

The number one reason we recommend the USB type of adapter is that they are on a wire. Therefore you can move them around, even hang it out the window to get the best signal. Remember the old rabbit ear antennas for television. Just a slight turn could make all the difference in your reception. Wi-Fi is the same way, even more so, because it is 2-way.

Below is a photo of my little Wi-Fi adapter. Notice that it is taped to the window. This picture was taken in an RV park in Pennsylvania. We pulled into our spot and I set up my adapter on my desk where it usually sits. My connection was weak. It would fluctuate from 11Mbps to 5.5, to 1. It would drop me altogether. It was worthless for browsing the Internet. Jim’s computer was connected, and he was browsing just fine. Of course. I moved the adapter to the position in the photo – only a difference of about 8 inches – and I was connected solid for 4 days!

USB adapter in window

If you pull into an RV site, turn on your computer and get online right away using your built-in adapter. Great! You’re all set. But, if it doesn’t work for you, don’t give up. Get another adapter and move it around.

I’ve written lots of other articles on the topic of Wi-Fi, you’ll find them on our website at on the Articles and Links page. And, we can continue this conversation on the forums.

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3 Responses to “What is Wi-Fi? (part 2)”

  1. wyalusingwillie on January 24th, 2008 1:53 pm

    WOW! That’s a whole bunch of stuff! I really like it better when I take out the little computer, start it up, and Voila! WIFI!

    BTW, I really think my next computer will be Asus EEE. Looks like a great portable. Have you had an opportunity to read about it yet?

  2. Dan B on January 24th, 2008 2:13 pm

    The Asus EEE has had some very different reviews. For me the low resolution screen is the deal breaker. My large hands don’t do well with mini keyboards. Walter Mossberg of the WSJ did not like it much.

    Your experience may differ if you don’t have much need for anything beyond text. Certainly other reviewers liked it.

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