Internet and Network Overview

Internet was one of the most challenging technical implementations I had to solve on the bus. For me, it was more difficult than building the battery and energy systems, or the roof raise. Here is a brief tale of my journey.

While building the bus, I placed a spare wireless router in it that just had a wireless backhaul to the “real” router in the house, because the steel walls of the bus significantly attenuate wireless signals.

Using that WiFi router worked even when away – as long as I was near another accessible WiFi network. There were small technical issues that constantly got into the way – reconfiguring the router for a new SSID all the time was awful. The signal wasn’t very good. Sometimes it just stopped working, or it was incredibly slow.

At some point, we sold the house and had to leave, so I couldn’t use that system anymore.

So, while surfing in the driveway at a friend’s place for a bit, I bought my first exterior WiFi antenna with ethernet at Fry’s electronics (my first mistake). I found out it was an old POS that was at least a decade out of date and only supported ancient WiFi protocols. That went into the trash bin without ever actually working.

So a week or so later at a different location I went back to looking at offerings specifically for RV and Marine, and I found lots of USB WiFi modems on sticks that have VERY long USB cables to a dedicated basic router. I bought an Alfa unit, which worked OK for a while.

Next came a cellular modem – I used a Netgear LB1121, which is a small modem with POE port so I could just run it off a network switch with Power Over Ethernet. This was pretty successful – it plugged into a Netgear AC1200 router/firewall WAN port, and routed the LTE antenna through a waterproof gland onto the roof.

I found the antenna was highly directional and susceptible to movement, but without that antenna reception was basically zero inside the metal bus.

I found quickly that the base software on the AC1200 is kind of limited, and didn’t support multiple WAN interface selection. So, I loaded DD-WRT which helped quite a bit for customization but was complex and static to configure – any time we moved I had to log into it and change routes or deactivate WiFi.

Basically, a rather complicated, manual, pain in the ass. And I needed reliable internet that actually works, FOR work. Also, the rest of the family wanted to maybe stream video, or use the internet too. Also, the first time we didn’t have WiFi, the kids drained the monthly cellular data limit to zero in just a few hours.

Somehow, I managed to limp this system along for a few months. We traveled across the US, and stayed with relatives for the holidays that winter. During that time I got really serious about what to do with internet, and came up with the following rules.

  • No half-assery
  • No constant tuning and adjustment
  • Automatic management
  • Easy traffic control and limits
  • Support “real” networking features for security and management

Turns out that this problem is already solved, but it’s not aimed at the RV industry. What I should have done is look at mobile ATMs, and municipal coaches/busses.

I kept the power over ethernet switch – that was a good move. But I threw everything else out after I got a commercial spec cellular router, antenna, and signal amplifier.

The three resources I found the most useful were (where I purchased my equipment), and

I use data plans from Sprint and ATT, which when combined give me more than enough monthly data allocation for everything we use.

A (mostly) better way

This equipment combination (and there are other synonymous setups) has worked very well for us. It’s reliable, functional, and handles traffic very well.

If there is anything I would change, I had considered using a Cradlepoint router, or some other more custom built router. But I like the support from Pepwave, so it’s fairly hands-off.

Equipment List

  • Ubiquiti Networks Unifi 802.11ac Dual-Radio PRO Access Point
  • NETGEAR 10-Port Gigabit Ethernet Smart Managed Pro PoE Switch
  • Active PoE Splitter 12V
  • Active PoE Splitter 5V
  • MobileMark 5 in 1 LTE/WiFi/GPS Antenna
  • WilsonPro Signal 4G Direct Connect In-Line Booster Amplifier

Hopefully these diagrams are helpful for you – they illustrate the actual core equipment used, and the way they are logically configured. (Click to Embiggen)

10 Replies to “Internet and Network Overview”

  1. Michael Smith says: Reply

    Since my needs are simpler, single user, all wireless, I’ve thought my hotspots from two providers were going to be the answer, but it sucks. What you’ve done, while pricey, sounds so much better. If I understand correctly I can go from the MIMO antenna>LTE booster (plus wifi ant)>pepwave>switch (only to get POE)>Ubiquiti wifi? I’m in a MH with a glass roof, a question I’ve never seen discussed is whether an antenna such as you are using needs a ground plane, only thing now is a small piece of sheet metal for the CB antenna.
    Seeing your well detailed setups using tech to get a better quality of life on a bus footprint has been a help in deciding where to focus on the same things on a very high quality, but 23 year old 32′ motorhome, using existing battery and roof space, and staying with propane appliances can get me 10-14 days off grid, liquids being the physical limitation, and communications limiting decisions.
    Thanks for your postings

  2. Aaron Bockelie says: Reply

    There are several layers of ground plane for us. The first is the curved metal roof, which isn’t an ideal plane and can cause directionality. The second layer is the solar panels which is the same level the antenna is mounted.

    The antenna itself is mounted to a sheet of aluminum bridging the gap between some panels, all of which are pretty flat.

    I know the antenna itself has a ground plane built into it but the installation spec says it should be larger if possible.

  3. This is great detail, thanks! I’ve been looking for something like this.

    Question: since you spend so much of your work on video calls with clients and needing consistent internet access, do you find you have to be selective about where you take the bus during working hours? How do you ensure you’re in a location where you can get a stable wireless connection?

  4. Nice setup for both network and your electrical system. I have been using Peplink Max BR1-mini and now use a BR1-MK2 both in the sticks and bricks and on the road in our class-a. Will be selling and going full time in a year or so. I am looking to upgrade to a Max-Transit-Duo to get dual cell modems over multiple carriers when we do. Got a question though… ham radio connectivity…. what antenna are you using for that Kenwood? I have an IC-7100 that is looking for a home in the rig and want to figure out antennas. Only would use VHF/UHF when actually mobile but HF is in the plan for when parked for a month or so.
    73, K3PSO

    1. Aaron Bockelie says: Reply

      I just have a simple dipole up front. I’ve got it optimized for 144 mhz, ideally.

      It seems to work fine on 440 as well. I forgot which antenna it is, it’s just a magnetic base unit stuck on the roof.

  5. Bert Holtappels says: Reply

    Hi Aaron
    I found you and your bus project from the Tiny Home Tours channel. Iā€™m happy to see the level of detail you share on your website. We are going into a 30ā€™ city transit bus conversion after months in a Nissan NV 2500 van. We got power, water, plumbing, supplies, storage, etc. figured out, but internet was never reliable enough/good/fast enough. We have AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint plans, but in Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island and rural New York, connectivity remained a never ending issue. And that is with specialized, band specific, tuned directional antennas, expensive plans, expensive cellular routers, and a lot of specialized knowledge. Iā€™m going to take some of your ideas for our next build.
    Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge.

  6. Kind of random but that Unimog photo I could swear was taken at a house down the street from me on Ash Way. I saw it backing out a few times while I was at the bus stop on my way to work and really wanted to chat with the driver as Unimogs are so cool.

    1. Aaron Bockelie says: Reply

      Actually that was me backing out of the driveway. šŸ™‚

  7. Machan Shin says: Reply

    You should look into getting Starlink.

    1. Aaron Bockelie says: Reply

      I paid for the beta application, but it’s not available in my region yet. I’m looking forward to the firmware upgrade that removes the requirement to inform moving to a new geo location. I have a top-hat ready for dishy, including active cooling for it. I wish I could help starlink test whatever their mobile application antenna looks like.

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