Boost your Bus/Van/RV wifi for $100

If you’re going to be spending any amount of time in your bus/van/camper you’ve probably wondered how you get a little boost to your wifi. Since I was unwilling to spend $700 for a top-of-the-line wifiranger elite, I decided to see if I could come up with something decent for a lower cost.

Here’s what I was looking for:

  • Ability to support multiple wireless devices without having to log each of them into the wifi source at each new location (so the solution needed to create it's own wifi network within our vehicle)

  • Ability to be powered by 12v DC current

  • Easy set up at each new location

  • total cost under $150

 

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Here’s what I ended up purchasing:

  • Ubiquiti NanoStation locoM2 (about $50)
  • Ubiquiti AirGateway (about $20)
  • Cat6 Ethernet male/female cable to make a 12v power plug (about $7)
  • Ubiquiti suction window mount (about $20) 

These 2 items may be optional for you...you'll need 2 ethernet cables for setup (but only have to keep one for your actual install)... most people have a few laying around they could use. You can mount the NanoStation to a pole using zip ties, so the suction window mount is also optional.

How it works:

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1. Mount the NanoStation in whichever window is facing the wifi you're trying to connect to - there's a nice power meter on the back of it, that lets you fine tune your connection once it's established.

2. The connection from the NanoStation is passed through to the AirGateway using the ethernet cable, and the AirGateway creates your own wifi network in your vehicle. That way, all your devices are always connected to the same wifi network, and when you pull up to a new location, you only have to configure the NanoStation to log into the new wifi - the rest of your devices will always connect to the AirGateway. Easy-peasy! 

3. Both the NanoStation and the AirGateway are powered by POE (power over ethernet) - in this case, the AC adapter that comes with the NanoStation takes your 110v AC power, and outputs the power as 24v DC over an ethernet cable, which you plug into your AirGateway. Another cable goes from the  AirGateway to the NanoStation, both passing the data and powering the NanoStation. So just one power plug to power both devices. I took it a step further, and since both devices can actually run straight off of 12v, I created a custom ethernet cable from a male/female ethernet extension cable that I wired right into my 12v system (with a fuse), and I eliminated the AC power suply. Super-low power usage, and just one cable to hookup. 

 

How to Setup the devices

Full disclaimer - this is a little complicated to setup the first time, but once it's setup, subsequent setups are simple. So don't be too intimidated, I'll walk you through it. First hurdle: you'll need a computer with an ethernet port. If you don't have one (like any of the recent macs) you'll need to borrow a computer that has one for this initial setup, or buy a USB to Ethernet adapter like this one for $10 on Amazon.

 


Let's configure the NanoStation first.

1. Plug the black AC adapter box that came with it into the wall, plug one of your ethernet cables into the POE port and the other end into the NanoStation. Now plug the second cable into the LAN port and the other end into your computer. 

2. Turn off the wifi on your computer, and configure the ethernet port to use 192.168.21 as the IP address, subnet mask 255.255.255.0 - if you need help doing that, follow this video for mac, or this video for windows. If you've got a newer or older operating system than the ones in these videos, just do a google search for "how to set a static IP address" and you should be able to figure it out. 

3. Now using a web browser, navigate to 192.168.1.20 - this is the default address of the NanoStation (it'll change once you have it all configured). Enter "ubnt" as the username and "ubnt" as the password in the login screen that you see.

4. Now change ONLY the items below, leaving everything else at it's default values

On the "Network" tab:

  • Network Mode: Router
  • WAN Network Settings > NAT: [X] Enable
  • LAN Network Settings > DHCP Server> (*) Enabled
  • Press [Change] button
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You're now done with initial configuration. 

Now let's configure the AirGateway (it's pretty easy)

1. Plug your AirGateway into the end of the AC adapter for your NanoStation - make sure it clicks all the way in. Now plug your ethernet cable into the POE port on the end of the AirGateway, and the other end into the NanoStation (you probably didn't unplug it from the NanoStation in the previous step).

2. Give it a minute to power on, then turn on your computer's wifi, and connect to the www.ubnt.com wifi SSID you see (yes, I know they named the wifi network a web address, which makes these instructions look weird, but that's what they did).

3. Login using "ubnt" as the username and "ubnt" as the password. Then choose your country, language, and agree to the terms of use.

4. Change the default AirGateway administrator username and password, set your new SSID to whatever you want - something that's easy to identify as your network, and type in a password for your new wifi network.

5. Click finish and it's ready to go!

 

Now to mount it in the vehicle and get online!

Unplug the AC adapter that came with the NanoStation - you won't need this for the 12v install (but save it in case you ever need to power your system using AC power in the future). You'll need a custom POE (power over ethernet) cable, that you can make yourself if you're handy—instructions below. Connect that new cable to a fused 12v power source, plug it into your AirGateway, and run an ethernet cable from the AirGateway to the NanoStation. I'm securing my AirGateway with zip ties, so that it doesn't work its way lose from the power cable on bumpy roads.

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How to make the custom 12v cable

To make this cable, cut the male end off of the ethernet extension cable I linked to above in the supplies section, leaving the female end that the AirGateway will plug into. Strip back a few inches of the cable's outer jacket, being careful not to nick the wires inside. If you purchase the one I linked here, it's got a thin metal shield that makes this a little easier. Now find the brown twisted pair (white/brown stripe wire, and the brown wire). Strip off a bit of the insulation off of both of these, and twist them together. These will be connected to your negative (-). Do the same for the blue twisted pair (white/blue stripe wire, and the blue wire). These are your positive (+). I used a short piece of 16 gauge wire to connect these into my fuse block, giving the positive it's own fuse. Solder the connections if possible, or at least crimp and use heat shrink. You could also solder it onto a cigarette lighter style plug if you wanted it to be easy to switch between vehicles. Now just plug your AirGateway into the female end of the cable, and you've got power!

Note that since you're running it on 12v, rather than 24v, your cable runs can't be super long due to voltage drop. Keep them as short as possible, but even at 20ft it should be well within the parameters. I managed to keep mine down to 6ft. 

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Wire the cable into your fuse block, or put a cigarette lighter style plug on the end (with an inline fuse), and plug it into your vehicle's 12v power.

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Connecting to a wifi network

Once you have it all installed, and you're on location ready to connect to a wifi network, just point the NanoStation as best you can at the source of the wifi you wish to connect to.

  1. Connect your computer wifi to the new personal wifi network you created when you setup the AirGateway, using the new password you created.
  2. Open a web browser, and navigate to 192.168.1.1 - you can bookmark this page, and whenever you're connected to your personal wifi network, you can use it to access the settings on your NanoStation. 
  3. Login to the interface using your login name and password (they'll be the default "ubnt" and "ubnt" unless you've changed them - don't be confused, this is not the password to access your wifi, it's the password for the admin controls on your NanoStation).
  4. Click on the "Wireless" tab, and next to "SSID" select the wireless network you want your NanoStation to connect to. Don't forget to put the password in the field at the bottom of this page in the "Wireless Security" section.
  5. Click "Change" , give it a few seconds, and the external wifi internet connection is now being re-transmitted inside your vehicle on your own network. Pretty sweet! You can use the power meter on the back of the antenna to fine-tune the direction it's pointing to get the best signal.