When it comes to getting online, very often nothing beats a little altitude.
We’ve long loved the WiFiRanger Sky on the roof of our bus – it has worked wonders in many campgrounds allowing us to surf away happily via WiFi at distances substantially further than we could ever reach without it.
But if a big Prevost or boxy toy-hauler pulls into a site between us and the campground hotspot, we’ve more than once had our great signal completely obstructed and obliterated to nothing.
If only we could hoist an antenna another 6 or so feet into the air, getting the WiFi receiver up and over all the other rigs and obstructions nearby…
While researching the new edition of The Mobile Internet Handbook, I set out to find an easy and elegant way to be able to accomplish this.
The solution I’ve grown very impressed with.
The FlagPole Buddy
I reached out to Christine & Dave at FlagPole Buddy, and they sent us a 12′ Pole & Mount Kit to experiment with.
The FlagPole Buddy mount design is simple and elegant – just attach the mounts to any flat surface or clamp to an RV’s rear ladder, and then when you want to hoist a flag (or antenna, or both!) you can very easily angle in the pole from ground level into the top bracket, and then raise the pole to vertical and drop it securely into the base.
Lowering the flagpole is just as easy – it literally only takes seconds. No tools are required – making it easy to quickly get the flagpole down if there is an approaching storm, or to store in a bay for transport.
FlagPole Buddy offers three flagpole sizes – a 12′ aluminum pole with a 1″ diameter base that collapses down to 6′ tall, a 16′ fiberglass pole with a 1.5″ diameter base that collapses down to 4′ tall, and a 22′ fiberglass pole with a 2″ diameter base that also collapses down to 4′.
Dave recommended we try the 12′ aluminum pole for our antenna experiments since it was more rigid, and indeed it has been working great.
The downside of the 12′ we have discovered is that it does not have a locking pin to hold the pole fully extended, so it can gradually slide back down a bit if you don’t twist it extra tight to secure it. And the 1″ base mount does not have an insert for a locking screw to keep the pole from rotating – not needed for a flag, but important if you want to aim a directional antenna and rely on more than friction to keep it that way.
The two larger poles have both of these features however.
All of the poles can be deployed to less than fully extended height – so we are considering eventually adding the 22′ pole to our arsenal as well. On calm days the extra altitude might be nice for the WiFi gear, and on breezy days it will be a great place for flags during the day and solar beacons at night.
The FlagPole Buddy kit comes with a traditional ball for the top of the pole, but they also offer a mounting bracket for attaching a flat metal plate to the top. We used this to create a mount point and ground plane for our magnetic-base cellular antennas.
The FlagPole Buddy gets us the altitude we need, but what should we put up there to bring in the signal?
Ubiquiti NanoStation 2 / WFRBoost
CPE stands for “Customer Premises Equipment”, and is the term used for commercial grade WiFi access points used by wireless service providers. Very often – the equipment providing WiFi in a campground is actually Ubiquiti CPE gear.
The one we’ve been testing is an old spare NanoStation 2 that WiFiRanger sent us to try out.
The Ubiquiti NanoStation M2 (the newer model of the NanoStation 2 – with 802.11n support and not just 802.11b/g) is a small affordable (less than $100) CPE with a built in directional antenna, designed for pole mounting.
In this case – flagpole mounting.
When plugged into a WiFiRanger, the NanoStation shows up as just another signal source in the main WiFiRanger control panel. Only – now you can see networks vastly further away than the Sky ever could.
The downside is the setup time — the NanoStation’s directional antenna does wonders pulling in a distant signal, but you need to raise the mast and spend time slowly rotating and checking signal strength until you find an optimal setup.
Where we are camped this week, I managed to connect to an open WiFi network over a quarter mile away by carefully aiming the NanoStation!
I don’t consider the NanoStation a replacement for our Sky, but rather the perfect compliment to it.
The Sky is better / faster for “medium range” passive situations, as it doesn’t require setting up a mast or aiming an antenna to use. So it is perfect for hopping online while passing through retail parking lots or shorter stays at campgrounds.
But when we are stopped someplace and need to pull in WiFi from as far away as possible, I am blown away by what the NanoStation so far seems capable of.
Cellular Up Top Too?
Cell towers are likely to be both much further away and higher than nearby WiFi hotspots, meaning that an extra few feet of altitude is less likely to make such a dramatic difference.
But to keep our options open for when struggling in fringe signal areas, I also set up a metal plate that can be mounted on the top of the flagpole as well, giving an extra-high mounting option for the magnetic-based antennas that we use with our cellular boosters.
To actually take advantage of this will require some antenna extension cable, and it will take some experimentation to determine whether the loss from the longer cable is made up for by the gain from the extra altitude.
So far since setting up the FlagPole Buddy we haven’t been any place “fringe enough” for it to make a difference with cellular, but I am looking forward to further experimentation.
Gave proof through the night that the signal was still there…
Overall, the combination of the FlagPole Buddy and the NanoStation 2 CPE have made a wonderful upgrade to our bus, and we look forward to getting some custom flags and solar beacons to bling out our pole even further.
And though we have only had a chance to use it at two locations so far, I am literally blown away at the extreme range that the NanoStation seems capable of.
I can’t wait to keep testing it out in a range of additional locations.
Happy Independence Day – may freedom shine brightly upon you!
Summer 2015 Update: After our massive bus renovations (including a new paint job), we opted not to re-install the the Flagpole Buddy mounting system. Not for any functional reason, completely for looks. We still love the ease and functionality of the Flagpole Buddy system, and had actually upgraded to the 2.0 system to allow us to lock in the positioning of the pole. We now use a flagpole holder that goes into our rear hitch. We’ve also optimized for omni-directional antennas on our roof that stay permanently attached and rarely find we need directional antennas.