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Installing a Mobile Cellular Router in the New Aire

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My New Aire came with a WiFiRanger SkyPro Pack as standard equipment. This is how the core unit was installed in the upper cabinet above the driver. The core unit was sitting unattached to the cabinet. Two ethernet cables can be seen entering the unit: one going to the SilverLeaf TM-555 Telematics Adapter and the other serving as a POE connection to the SkyPro on the roof. Behind the core unit you can see the 12 volt to 24 volt power supply for the WiFiRanger SkyPro Pack. A 24 volt power supply is needed to service the POE connection to the SkyPro on the roof.

In the second image on the right you can find the original installation of the SkyPro on the roof. This installation is wrong in so many ways. First they mounted the SkyPro right next to a large metal structure. 2.4 gHz WIFi is a high frequency radio wave that works line of sight. Anything between WiFi antennas will significantly attenuate the signal. In this installation the SkyPro was essentially blocked from seeing other WiFi antennas in over 100 degrees of sweep on the horizon.

Also the AM/FM and television antennas where mounted right next to the SkyPro creating interference for those devices.

While I am generally familiar with electronic gadgets I found a rather steep learning curve to get the WiFi Ranger SkyPro Pack running reliably. I had a good WiFi internet connection in the hangar where my coach is stored but for some reason during the first few months the WiFiRanger would drop connection for no apparent reason.
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As configured from the factory there were three SSID WiFi signals coming from the WiFiRanger. One from the core unit, another from SkyPro and a third "mystery" SSID coming from some place that did not show up in the control panel. I ultimately stumbled on some covert documentation revealing the 3rd SSID was the "OEM Network" set up by Newmar.

While the WiFiRanger SkyPro Pack seemed to be well designed and thought out there are some limitations with this equipment. The core unit contains both a 2.4 gHz and 5.8 gHz radios but the SkyPro on the roof only has a 2.4 gHz radio. The entire purpose of the WiFiRanger SkyPro Pack as installed is to "borrow" an internet source from someone else. The reality is that today anytime you get a bunch of RV's together (like at an RV park) they are all fighting for bandwidth over 3 full use channels on the 2.4 gHz band. So even if you find a WiFi hotspot with lots of bandwidth, WiFi frequency congestion on the 2.4 gHz band is likely to make it very slow going on the internet irrespective of the speed of the internet source.

Within the first two months of use the WiFiRanger 24 volt power supply died which I replaced with a beefy step up 24 volt power supply from Amazon. This power supply has worked well. In my opinion the original WiFiRanger was under sized.

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I also moved the SkyPro further aft on the coach roof. The SkyPro comes with a 25 foot ethernet cable. In the original installation Newmar elected to use the original ethernet cable and just stuff the excess cable into the hole below the SkyPro on the roof. That shortcut on Newmar's part turned to an advantage in moving the SkyPro unit aft as all I had to do was pull the cable out of the roof then re-attach the SkyPro aft as far as the cable would permit. So now the SkyPro sits back on the bedroom "hump" in the roof. It is now elevated so that the antenna is not blocked by structure and not located near any other antennas.

Better Internet in the Coach

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Clearly borrowing an internet source using a WiFiRanger is not going to be satisfactory for most people in the connected world today. Everyone is carrying a smartphone today and most smartphones with the right data plan can act as a great "hotspot" for cellular data to be used by desktop computers and other clients in the coach requiring internet access. If you are close to a cell tower modern smartphones like the iPhone XS Max can delivery blazing speeds using the new LTE-A modem chip sets. I have seen speeds in excess of 60 mbps up and down with my iPhone XS Max sitting in my coach close to a cell tower. These speeds equal or exceed the speeds of many fixed residential internet connections.

So if you are sitting in a densely populated urban setting with lots of cell towers near by, a modern smartphone using the "hotspot" functionality will drive almost any internet client in the coach without the need for any other fancy equipment until you hit your data cap.

Everything changes for cellular data when you take your RV out in the country. While cellular coverage is now good along most interstate highways, with more widely scattered cell sites data speeds will drop dramatically depending on the distance to a cell site. That same very fast smartphone or MiFi device that ran so well in the city will struggle to keep a signal in the confines of the metal and glass shell of an RV operating in less dense parts of the country.

I hardly ever use my coach in a densely populated area. I got the coach to get out in the country, so 95% of time in the coach I am in marginal or poor cellular coverage meaning my download speeds are far lower than you normally see in the city. So if your use case for a coach is to get out the country with a smartphone or MIFi for data you will be disappointed, particularly in the rural areas of the Western states.

I just completed a short trip to Zion National Park. We parked the New Aire next to a nice new AirStream trailer. The new owner was complaining about how bad the Verizon cellular data coverage was in the area near Zion. He claimed his new Verizon MiFi was not getting any signal at all in the AirStream. I had Verizon running in the New Aire on a cellular router with twin MIMO antennas on the roof right next to his trailer and was getting 6 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up in the same place.

Better Internet in the Country

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So if you primarily use your coach in the country or even more demanding in the country in the Western United States and you like your internet fast, the cellular data signal needs to be carefully managed to get the highest data throughput to the internet clients in the coach.

There are two approaches to managing this problem in a mobile setting: put an antenna on the roof and boost the cellular signal by retransmitting into the coach to be received by client devices using their cellular radios or put antenna(s) on the roof and wire them to a cellular modem/router which will intern distribute the internet either via 2.4/5.8 gHz WiFi or ethernet cable to clients in the coach. Either way the cell signal quality is the same on the roof for either method. The goal is to capture that signal on the roof as well as you can then get it to the clients with as little loss in speed as possible.

I am not going to talk about cellular boosters. I have a lot of experience with these devices in RV's since they were introduced over 10 years ago. They have obviously improved over the years but they all share a major problem in areas with weak cellular signals on the roof. Any time you "boost" a cellular signal for redistribution you also boost the noise in that signal. With strong signals that is not an issue but for weaker signals (like you get in the country) it is a problem.

In my opinion the best method to make the most of a weak cellular signal on the roof is to install the best MIMO antenna set you can, use the lowest loss antenna cable you can install (and shortest length) to an LTE-A compatible cellular modem router. That router then should have a built in 5.8 gHz WiFi radio to redistribute the internet to clients inside the coach. There is virtually no loss in throughput by converting the cellar signal into a 5 gHz WiFi signal in the coach.

REMEMBER THIS IS ALL ABOUT GETTING THE BEST INTERNET SPEED IN AREAS DISTANT FROM THE NEAREST CELLULAR TOWER. IF YOU ARE PARKED NEXT DOOR TO A CELL TOWER YOU DON'T NEED ANY OF THIS EQUIPMENT. YOUR CELLULAR RADIOS LOCATED IN YOUR CLIENTS (ie SmartPhones and MiFi's) WILL WORK FINE WITHOUT ANY FANCY EQUIPMENT.


Importance of External Antennas and Line of Sight

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To illustrate the importance of external antennas in RV's I did an experiment around the airport in Thermal, California where my New Aire is stored. I found the nearest Verizon cell site that was located 4,600' northwest of the hangar I use. This Verizon cell site is nicely disguised as a palm tree. I drove up next to cell site in my car took this image then ran a speed test on my iPhone XS MAX.

A few hundred feet away from the antenna I measured 132 Mbps down and 50 Mbps up. This tower was using the Verizon 700 mHz band at the time.

Back at the hangar standing directly behind the 15' foot high steel hangar just 4,600' from the cell tower my speed dropped to 3 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up. The steel hangar was between my iPhone and the cell tower.

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Next I placed the New Aire about 300' further southwest from the cell tower with the steel hangar still line of site to the between cell site and the New Aire. I then ran a speed test on my iPhone XS Max using the iPhone radio sitting in the coach. This gave me 4.27 Mbps down and 13.53 Mbps up.

Next I changed the iPhone over to a 5 gHz WiFi connection to the PepWave cellular router. And ran a speed test again sitting in the same location in the coach. The speed jumped to 31 Mbps down and 40 Mbps up most likely because the PepWave MIMO antennas were sitting on top of the New Aire 13' in the air. Given the height of the cell tower mast 5,000' away and the PepWave antennas outside 13' above the ground the PepWave was no doubt getting a clear line of sight to cell tower over the hangars.

The take away is that all this variability was happening less than a mile from a cell site with very degrees of obstruction


My Installation

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Ok, now that you are convinced you need mobile cellar router, what do you need? Current best technology in these devices as of this writing (November 2018) is a dual SIM, LTE-A, 5 gHz WIFi with both the WiFi and cellular radios having a pair of MIMO antenna inputs. You will also need a pair of WiFi and cellular antennas for the roof.

There are two companies CradlePoint and PepWave that make devices that fit these criteria. Through the years I have owned products from both companies. These mobile routers are typically found in buses and emergency vehicles. They are top of the line with great firmware and excellent support. Like everything else you can find cellular routers that are less expensive but in my experience firmware and support is not as good.

For my installation I picked the PepWave MAX BR1 MK2 Router with a Cat 6 LTE Advanced Modem. At $699 this is not a cheap modem but it is the best in the category. For the cellular MIMO antennas I use two SureCall 9.5" antennas. For the WiFi MIMO antennas I used pair of general purpose high frequency antennas, Panorama B4BE. As of this writing there are no mobile outdoor 2.4/5.8 gHz antennas on the market.

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This is the configuration of my storage cabinet immediately above the driver's seat with the newly installed equipment. This entire system is powered by the "WiFi" switch located in the overhead center cabinet. In the New Aire the WiFi circuit is always powered even when the battery switch is off. The result is all of this equipment is powered on all the time to service MyRozie when the coach is in storage. The ethernet switch is required because there is only on LAN port on the PepWave router.

In this configuration I have retained the the WiFiRanger SkyPro system. Originally all I wanted was to keep the SkyPro on the roof but I was not able to configure the SkyPro to operate alone as a WAN source. In my current setup the WiFiRanger Core unit has an ethernet connection from a LAN port on the Core unit to the WAN port on the PepWave. I turned off both the 2.4 gHz and 5.8 gHz radios in the WiFiRanger Core unit as they are redundant. The PepWave has 2.4 gHz and 5.8 gHz WiFi radios connected to the external WiFi MIMO antennas. The external WiFi antennas easily service clients with full power inside the coach and for a significant distance outside around the coach.

Further testing suggests the PepWave with a single WiFi radio can equal the speeds fo the WiFiRanger at least for slower internet connections. If this finding holds true for faster WiFi as WAN internet connections then the WiFiRange becomes redundant and I will remove it from the coach.

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Here is my roof with the four antennas mounted. All antennas are mounted using 3M 2 sided tape. It is best to mount these antennas so that they can break away for tree limbs. For lower cellular frequencies you want the MIMO antennas at least 30" apart for best performance. Running antenna cable through the roof to the overhead cabinet was one of the bigger challenges of this installation.

In the same shot you can see the WiFi weather station. This is a great little station that survived all summer with more than 11,000 miles.

How Does It Work

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As described above the PepWave modem router has three built in WAN sources: LTE-A cellular data, 2.4 gHz WiFi as WAN and 5.8 gHz WiFi as WAN. In addition the PepWave has a ethernet WAN port and an ethernet LAN port. In my installation I ran an ethernet cable from a LAN port on the WiFiRanger core to the WAN port on the PepWave.

With this installation the PepWave now has four WAN sources to choose from: LTE-A, 2.4 gHz WiFi as WAN (internal), 5.8 gHz WiFi as WAN (internal) and 2.4 gHz WiFi as WAN (external) using the SkyPro on the roof as the WAN source.

The PepWave has a single LAN ethernet port that is wired to an ethernet switch to service coach internet clients needing an ethernet connection.

Once configured the entire system is managed via the "Dashboard" on the PepWave (see image to right). In the Dashboard you use "drag and drop" to configure the hierarchy of WAN settings. If you place the WiFi Ranger in the top priority and connect you can then configure the WiFiRanger via it's Dashboard to look for various WiFi as WAN active sites.

In theory much of this could be done using the WiFiRanger control panel with the PepWave LAN port plugged into the WiFiRanger WAN port. However, based on my testing while the WiFiRanger will fail up and down through various WiFi sources, it will only fail down to a external WAN connection but not "fail up" from that external WAN connection when an internal WiFi as WAN source becomes available.

Based on my testing to date the PepWave will "fail up and down" though all four WAN sources available. What this all means is that if you are connected to a WiFi as WAN source that becomes unavailable, the PepWave will fail over to the LTE-A source then "fail up" to the WiFi as WAN source when it becomes available.

So that is the system. I am sure some rookies have their head spinning with all this. It took me a long time to find all the corners of this project.

Someday soon this will all be out of date when SpaceX starts launching satellites for the Starlink System. Between now and then the next better system will hopefully be TMobile implementation of the 600 mHz, Channel 71 band for cellular communication. The more I read about Verizon 5G the more it looks like this will be a very high speed solution for urban areas but will likely not work well in the country.