TechnomadicsVagabonding Europe

A while ago I wrote about how we’ve been using local, prepaid mobile broadband to get online while we travel. We’ve had pretty good success on that front, even finding a provider in Tunisia! Our most satisfying success was in the UK recently, where 3 unveiled a totally unlimited mobile broadband account. All my Christmases came at once, that day.

But our fortunate streak has come to an end as we venture into Europe — a dark-ages-esque void of sub-par mobile providers.

Of course, we have quite particular needs: Our quota requirements are massive, as it’s our primary Internet connection, and we do a lot of stuff with it, including watching TV when we can. Anything below 5 or 6Gb a month just isn’t doable, so when the best Europe can offer is €30 for a few Gb a month, we start looking for other options.


Okay, what idiot mounted this upside-down?

Thanks to a friend, Adam of Europe by Camper, we discovered one of the most useful travel gadgets ever, since the iPhone: A high-gain, directional WiFi antenna!

This magical gizmo contains an antenna and a WiFi unit, and plugs via USB into our laptops. Plug it in, swivel it around to find a signal, and it’ll connect to WiFi networks up to a kilometer away (apparently even distances like 20km if you have line-of-sight and a nice clear day!).

No more sidling suspiciously up to houses with a laptop!

Especially when used in conjunction with an account with a community-based network (like FON, which customers of BT in the UK are automatically part of, giving you nearly unlimited free Internet access), this is a brilliant way to get online. In Europe, where there appears to be less FON spots than we’d anticipated, there are open networks everywhere — so far, we’ve had no trouble finding a connection wherever we’ve stayed. Of course, we try not to use hapless random people’s Internet access when we have an option, but it’s a useful fallback.

We bought ours, the NET-WL-USB-CPE2512bg, for £40 from Faculty-X, the same place Adam got his; this was initially fine, but the Realtek chipset within this device was end-of-life’d pretty much straight after I bought it. Thanks, Realtek. Good news, though: The new version has a different chipset, which is much better supported. Adam’s recently started his own business, Motorhome WiFi, selling these and similar gadgets, with motorhomers specifically in mind – in particular, he sells these with great suction mounts so you can stick ’em to the outside of the van.

I recently bought an ALFA AWUS036NHR, which has a 2 watt radio onboard (versus the 500mW inside the RTL8187L device), improved signal reception, and is based on the newer RTL8188RU chipset, which Realtek actually support (this week, anyway.). I was hoping to go with a different chipset that wasn’t from Realtek, as I’m not at all impressed by their crappy software quality and their awful customer service track record, but it turns out the alternative, Ralink-based devices seem to have a reputation for poor signal reception. This ain’t a buyer’s market, folks, particularly for us Mac users – the choice seems to be between two imperfect options.

Anyway, the AWUS036NHR, which seems to be one of the best long-range WiFi radios currently available, gives markedly improved signal strength. Conveniently, it even fits inside the enclosure of the old NET-WL-USB-CPE2512bg, so I have it hooked up to my original 12dB panel directional antenna (although the long USB cable that came with the CPE2512bg seems to impair the functionality of the AWUS036NHR — it seems to need more power than the RTL8187L chipset, and doesn’t get it with the long cable. I’m now using a shorter cable). Even better, I no longer have to use a Linux VM, or boot in 32-bit mode and continually reboot every time the old driver crashes.

I used to use a tremendous, free Mac utility called KisMAC, which has a brilliant “tune in” mode that plays sounds when it discovers networks, then once one is selected, makes sounds that correspond to the signal strength. It’s just like tuning in a radio. Unfortunately, the newer RTL8188RU chipset doesn’t work in KisMAC, so that option’s no longer on the table. It will make for awkward tune-ins in the future, but I’m happy making the sacrifice.

A side note — something that makes life easier with the antenna assembly, shown in the photo, is a Gorillapod tripod screwed into the unit. This lets me put the antenna anywhere, or hang it from anything. As I write, it’s wrapped around our side mirrors outside, where the signal is best!

Anyway, the best place to nab one of these WiFi gadgets is from Adam at Motorhome WiFi.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Equipment: How we’re staying connected to the Internet in Europe

  1. Martin Rudd says:

    Hi Addie has given me your contact as I have a Macbook Pro and am wondering whether to buy a Faculty X. At present I have a Hawking HWU 9DD which has always worked well, but having seen various reports on the Faculty X am wondering whether I would receive a greater range. What would you suggest and will it work with Mac 10.7.1 Lion. Kind regards Martin

  2. Michael says:

    Hey Martin,

    I definitely couldn’t comment on the range difference, as the NET-WL-USB-CPE2512bg is all I’ve ever played with. It does work on 10.7(.1), but I must warn you, as I ranted on about in the footnote, the driver and control utility are horrendous, and Realtek refuse to do anything about the problem. Fun you’ll have includes:

    • You’ll need to run the kernel in 32-bit mode (hold “3” and “2” when booting)
    • You won’t be able to sleep the machine with the device plugged in
    • When you plug the device in after using it, 3 times out of 5 you’ll need to reboot to make it work again
    • You’ll see kernel panics every now and then (not too bad, though)
    • The control utility is very poor, and frequently connects to random open networks, instead of the one you select. It does this both when you click “Connect”, and at other times, on its own. Security FTW.
    • You’ll need to manually unload the driver (as in sudo kextunload -b com.realtek.driver.RTL8187) in order to use utilities like KisMAC (and reload it again after)

    Others tend to run a Linux/Windows VM with internet sharing running, rather than use the busted Realtek software, but I haven’t gone down that path yet. My brand new MacBook Pro is slow enough already just running Lion =)