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802 Dot What????

Photo of woman enjoying internet on a smartphone device with a beautiful sunset in the background.

For many RVers connecting their computers, phones, smart TVs, tablets and other devices to the Internet is now… well… a necessity during their travels.  The next question we often find ourselves asking is: 

“So which Internet source is best to connect to and why?” 

It really comes down to 3 choices for Internet sources out there:

  1. Public WiFi (most often FREE but sometimes PAID ACCESS is required by the network host such as a campground, coffee shop, retail store, etc).
  2. LTE (i.e. cell towers – always PAID ACCESS via your data plan with your Carrier of choice such as Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile).
  3. Satellite (typically too expensive for most RVers’ but certainly a viable option for some).

So let’s look at the first two options of Internet sources.  Here’s an illustration to help explain:

  • Let’s say you have a smartphone that you want to connect to the Internet to check eMail while staying at an RV campground.
  • You’d like to connect to the campground’s FREE Public WiFi first.  Since you’re not streaming video or anything you don’t need that much data.  Plus FREE is always nice when it works.
  • To connect to the web, your phone uses what’s called 802.11b/g/n/ac.  This string of numbers & letters represent the different ways that the digital signal is formatted, and, which frequency your phone will use to connect to the local public WiFi access point(s) at the campground (i.e. those flat squares, circles, or cylindars mounted to poles around the property).  If you have an older phone it may be operating with the 802.11b standard, whereas a newer phone may be operating with the 802.11n standard with a “faster” data transmission.  So in this example an 802.11n phone will send/receive your eMails faster than the 802.11b standard.
  • Once your smartphone is connected to the public WiFi source it can then turn around and share that Internet with your laptop and TV; hence creating a private WiFi hotspot.
  • Wait!  Why is WiFi used twice in the above description?  
  • It’s because the Internet source that your smartphone is connected to is “public WiFi” provided by the campground.  Once your phone connects it can turn around and create a “private WiFi network” to your other devices in your RV.
  • Public vs. Private.  Nice.  That makes sense. 

Okay, let’s now introduce option 2: LTE (cell towers) as an Internet source in this campground scenario.

Photo of a young woman enjoying internet on her laptop while camping with her Class C RV.
The goal is to enjoy the internet rather than experience frustration
  • A storm blows through and knocks out power to the campground.  Public WiFi is now gone.
  • Your phone has a full battery charge which is good because you’re still needing to check important eMails.
  • More good news.  There’s a cell tower in the area hosted by your cell phone Carrier so you’re able to switch from the campground’s public WiFi over to an LTE Internet source.
  • Even though you’re on a limited data plan with your Carrier, checking eMail doesn’t require much data so you’re good to go.  Plus, your phone can still share the LTE Internet source with your laptop through what again?
  • That’s right, you got it… a private WiFi network.

Keep reading if you’re ready to hear about how wireless radio frequency bands come into play.

Public WiFi communications began in the US by using a 2.4 GHz frequency band to route all the data packets going back and forth from Interent servers to our devices (note: when you’re looking at a web page on your smartphone, laptop, or tablet that page is made up of data packets).  Just like multi-lane highways we all drive or RVs down, the 2.4 GHz frequency band represents a cyber highway that all our devices “drive on”.  Like regular highways with too many vehicles trying to head the same direction, cyberhighways get overly congested with too many devices trying to pass too many data packets back and forth.  All that data-packet traffic causes slow downs and suddenly it takes a painfully long time for your devices to load a web page or download eMail. 

To help relive congestion on the 2.4GHz frequency band the 802.11n standard extended public WiFi into the 5GHz frequency band.  Similar to when real highways get expanded with more lanes to accomodate more cars & trucks, when cyberhighways get expanded with more channels on additional frequency bands all those data packets can flow more freely back and forth.  

So let’s boil it all down to a few recommendations.  If you want/need more data packets to your devices in your RV and you:

  • Travel to places with access to a cable or fiber connection and/or a very fast 4G-LTE connection: consider replacing your 802.11g devices with at least an 802.11n or 802.11ac device.
  • Travel to places with lots of trees or building between you and the public WiFi access points: consider sticking with an 802.11n devices(s) connecting to the 2.4 GHz spectrum because it’ll usually provide better penetration through obstructions than what a 5GHz system can do.

Happy travels!

Written by Jim Owsley – WiFiRanger VP of Marketing & Communication