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RV Mods : How We Stay Online

As many of you know, I work in IT. And while I work primarily with databases, I used to be a Network Admin in a former life so I still like to dabble in wired and wireless networking. This means I tend to over-engineer things. For instance, in our old sticks-and-bricks house, I had a 24-port gigabit switch, Cat-6 wired in to many rooms in the house, three wired-in wireless access points (no bridging here!), a professional router, full battery backup, etc. I could pick up our wireless network eight to ten houses down the block and signal strength never dipped below 'four bars' anywhere on our lot. So it would make sense that when we took our show on the road, I'd similarly go a bit nuts with our network setup.

It would likely work well enough for us to have one or two "Jet-pack" type Cellular Wireless Access points and connect our devices to those, but there are a few issues with doing that. First, let's say we're in an area with good AT&T service and all our devices (Roku, phones, tablets, laptops) are connected to the AT&T Jetpack. The next week we move and the area has lousy AT&T service, but Verizon is good. Now I have to go to each device and connect to the different wireless access point. Another downside is that in many RV parks, practically every camper has it's own wireless network or two. The bandwidth on the limited channels available for WiFi is limited. This means that in a crowded park, you may not have enough available bandwidth to stream video even from one device to another on your same network (we've encountered this several times). Lastly, due to my working on the road, I needed our network setup to be rock solid, reliable and to have reliable cellular voice as well as reasonable low-latency data. So I set to work building just such a system.

My requirements:

  • Automatic or low-effort switching between multiple cellular carriers, campground WiFi or wired WAN when available

  • A single Wireless network that all devices connect to and never has to be changed.

  • All devices that stream media to TVs and my work laptop must be wired in, not wireless (Cat-6 Gigabit Ethernet)

  • Ability to store our digital media collection on redundant storage (685 movies, 104,612 music tracks, 17,583 photos and growing)

  • Ability to stream said media to all devices on board (three TVs, three tablets, three laptops and two smartphones)

  • Battery backup of network storage and core network devices in case we encounter bad campground power.

  • Our Sonos system is coming with us. Period.

With this in mind, I went and joined to get up to speed with the latest mobile gizmos. If you're mobile and you need internet access for work, a membership is totally worth while. Chris and Cherie of Technomadia, who run the site, do great work testing all the latest boosters, routers, antennas, etc and take a lot of the guesswork out of these important purchases. After reading through their reviews, checking the forums, etc, and combined with devices I already had that I wanted to incorporate, I came up with the following design.

  • WeBoost 4G-X OTR Cellular booster with omni-directional antenna

  • Two Cellular data plans, one leased grandfathered unlimited AT&T and a 'regular' Verizon plan with 35GB data as a backup.

  • PepWave Max BR-1 Pro Mobile Cellular Router w/ Wifi and Wifi Bridging

  • TP-Link 8-port Gigabit Switch

  • Cat-6 Ethernet wiring to bedroom, office and living room

  • Synology DS 1515+ NAS server w/ 3 6TB Western Digital "Red" drives in RAID-5

  • Three Roku3 Streaming Media Players, one for each TV

  • Sonos Bridge, Two Sonos:1 players, one Sonos:5 player and a Sonos:Connect.

  • An older UPS with a new battery. I may upgrade this at some point.

Here's a cruddy little diagram showing how it's all connected

Network "Diagram"

Network "Diagram"

Here's a quick video tour of the installed system:

Video Tour of our RV Wired and Wireless Networks

As for my reasoning behind the decision to purchase some of the items and our experience so far with them, I'll attempt to summarize:

I went with the WeBoost simply due to the reviews I was reading. There's nothing better on the market. I went with the OTR antenna because I didn't want to have to mess with aiming the antenna every-time we set up. While you can get slightly better performance with a directional antenna, the OTR was a good compromise and now getting set up at every site is a very simple affair. I mounted the antenna to our TV antenna mast and we just crank it up when we arrive and crank it down when we leave.

The Cellular data plan choices were fairly simple. At the time, Verizon was beginning to target older grandfathered data plans that were using lots of data and cancelling their plans. This trend has continued with many folks that have leased Verizon plans losing their access. Knowing AT&T has the second-best network out there and that so far they haven't been cancelling plans, but rather raising the price on them, I figured it was a safer long-term bet. We are leasing a line from what I gather is a trucking company We still try to keep our monthly usage under 150GB/month in order to not be as obvious a target for cancellation if they start to act like Verizon. Our smartphones were already Verizon, so we bumped our data plan to 35GB/mo and added a Jetpack to our existing plan to use as a backup in places where AT&T service isn't that great.

The PepWave router was the one decision I went back and forth on and still second-guess myself. I liked all the features on paper. It's got two SIM slots and an on-board 4g cellular modem with auto-switching, is capable of WiFi bridging, can have both public and private WiFi SSIDs simultaneously with a captive portal, etc, four Gigabit switch ports, 12v power, etc... It ticked off all the boxes of what I was looking for, but it was VERY expensive for a router. A typical nice household WiFi router might run you $100, this this was around $600+. I decided to go for it, though, but it hasn't lived up to expectations. A short list of my issues with the PepWare Max BR-1 Pro:

  • Couldn't get the cellular modem to recognize my SIMs until I did a firmware update

  • SIMs worked great until I took them out to put in the Jetpack to check data usage, put them back in and they have never been detected again. So now I use it exclusively in Wifi bridge mode with our two Jetpacks. The on-board cellular modem is effectively useless.

  • Every time you change the Wifi network you're bridging to, the private Wifi network disappears and reappears causing all devices to lose their connections.

  • Periodically things just go wonky and it needs to be rebooted.

In short, I hate this thing and I spent a small fortune on it, so I kind of feel stuck with it. I'm hoping for a firmware update to fix some of these issues, but I'm not holding my breath.

We went with hard-wired Ethernet for the bandwidth hogging stationary devices. This came out of some issues we had not being able to stream video over Wifi from the NAS in crowded RV parks with a ton of WiFi networks. There simply wasn't enough wireless bandwidth to go around. That and the issue above with the router dropping the private WiFi network every time we switched external networks. I was having issues with my virtual desktop at work crashing every time that switch happened. When I switched my laptop to a wired connection, the problem went away. Weird.

The Synology NAS was an easy choice. I've had a 1511+ for a while and love it. We upgraded to the 1515+ in order to get a more powerful on-board processor capable of transcoding HD video using the Plex Media Server. I used to use my desktop computer to do the trans-coding in our old home, but I didn't want to have two machines running all the time, so I decided to get a new Synology NAS and use my old one for backups.I have that old NAS at a friends' house and I do remote backups to it.

The Rokus were an easy choice as well. They're inexpensive, they run the Plex Media app, Amazon, Netflix, etc, practically every streaming video app you can think of.

Lastly, we LOVE our Sonos system. We invested in it in our old home such that we could stream music all over the house in sync, so if we were outside, inside, downstairs, upstairs, etc, you'd hear the same music. They sound wonderful, too. Deciding to take that system on the road with us was a no-brainer. I have two Play:1 speakers set up as a stereo pair in the bunkroom/office, the Connect set up on the living room stereo and the Play:5 is outside in a storage bay for use outdoors. We may add one to the bedroom at some point, too. Sounds infinitely better than the junk speakers the RV came with, too.

So, how's it all working? Aside from the issues I describe above with our router, the system has worked great. I've been able to work everywhere we've gone and streaming media both from our NAS server and from Internet services like Netflex and Amazon has been pretty rock solid. That said, I'm sure I'll tinker with things and it will evolve over time. I'll come back and update this page as I make modifications.

One other thing. In places where the cell signal is weak and we're relying on the booster to stay connected, voice calls can be a problem unless you happen to be within a few feet of the internal antenna for the booster. I solved this by mounting a phone cradle on the exterior of the closet wall right next to the interior antenna and then use a bluetooth headset so I can walk around while making calls. this has worked great in all but the most Verizon-deprived places.

And where does it all go? I built a shelf in the bunkhouse/office above the RV to hold most of the gear. It keeps it up and off the desk and out of toddler reach.

I hope this has been helpful. Not everyone is going to need a system as complex as this and others may need something even more bombproof. It's working for us, though, and that's what's important. Feel free to drop me a line and ask any questions you may have.

Here are a few photos of the system as installed

The Core of the Network

The Cell Booster

The Cell Booster

The External Cell Booster Antenna

The External Cell Booster Antenna on the TV Antenna Mast

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