Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Broadband internet access on the move - how to stay connected with the right antenna...

High speed internet access on the move is becoming ever more a necessity as people wish to stay connected to family and friends, conduct business as well as needing to access information about local services. In mobile leisure applications, internet  access is increasingly important to the owners of boats, narrowboats and caravans, but due to the transient nature of the application having fixed line access or fixed wireless access is not appropriate, so owners have to turn to wireless services

There are a number of methods of wireless access, but 3G and 4G services are increasingly popular due to ever higher download speeds on offer. With a new generation of routers or personal hotspots, users can use 3G or 4G wireless to access the network and use WIFI capabilities to distribute the internet to devices on the boat or in the caravan. However, when parked or moored up in more remote areas or in weak signal areas, embedded antennas or simple "rubber duck" type antennas as supplied with the router or modem hardware might not be enough to establish a reliable 4G network connection. Therefore it makes sense to use a high quality 3G/4G antenna to connect to the network.

There are a variety of 3G/4G antenna options from mobile to magnetic, from permanent mount small or low profile antennas to high gain antennas for wall or pole mount. Which antenna to choose and how to use them can be daunting for the uninitiated! I'll try to help with a few pointers.....

Firstly, you need to understand your router, modem or dongle device. Many will have one or two antenna connectors, and you will need to establish what type of connector this is. Common connectors include SMA, TS9 and CRC9, but there are many others. If your device has two antenna connectors, it is handy to know if the device has diversity or MIMO (multiple in multiple out) options - in simple terms sometimes using two antenna ports with 2 antennas (or a single MIMO antenna - it should have 2 antenna cables and connectors) will improve the download speed.
Once you have established your antenna connector, it is time to figure out your antenna mounting options.

Mobile antennas - Typically there are two ways to use a mobile antenna - either laptop-mount or window mount. For laptop mount, there is typically a plastic hook supplied with the antenna that can slide over the lid of the laptop and the mobile antenna can be mounted onto the hook.  Alternatively the antenna can be window-mounted with suction cups and then the antenna cable(s) can be routed back to the modem or router. See the WA_700_2700 as a good example of 4G 3G 2G (supports all bands) mobile MIMO antenna for laptop or window mount.

Magnetic antennas - There are usually two options for magnetic mount antennas. Low cost rubber style magnetic antennas like the Pentamag antenna (3G and GSM only) or full-on rugged, robust low profile antennas such as the LTE-HIGAIN-MAG (4G with fall back to 3G and 2G). Typically they have one cable and connector to connect up to the antenna port on the modem or router and are mounted outside the vehicle, boat or portacabin and mounted onto metal surface. So with the magnetic antenna’s gain and new location you are able to pick up a signal and through the cable route this down to the modem or router - for example, in a narrowboat the router is inside without signal and the magnetic antenna is outside picking up a 4G signal. A magnetic antenna is perfect when you do not want a permanent antenna installation (i.e wall-mount or stud-mount  i.e. drilling a hole through the skin of vehicle or boat) and would like to move the antenna around or remove it to avoid damage or vandalism. Bear in mind magnetic antennas are ideally mounted onto a conductive metal surface as they need the metal surface in order to radiate properly.

High gain antennas for Wall or Pole mount - there are number of high gain outdoor antenna options open to 4G users - high gain omni-directional (they radiate in every direction pretty much equally) antennas or high gain directional (work in one direction only similar to traditional house mounted TV antennas). High gain antennas can be wall or pole mounted, some can be both. What they offer is higher performance in terms of receiving the signal and then they pass this signal along a low loss cable to the modem or router. A fine example of a high gain omni antenna for wall or pole mount is the FGO antenna. This offers up to 5 dBi gain for 4G, 3G and 2G frequencies. A directional antenna will offer more gain than an omni, but is a bit more restrictive as you have to point it at the local 4G mast, but you will benefit from an increased gain of perhaps 9 dBi or 10 dBi - an example of this is the LPP7270 pole-mount antenna. In mobile applications, wall-mount antennas are not ideal, but it is possible to fabricate a temporary bracket on which mount a wall-mount antenna if pole-mounting a high gain antenna is not suitable.

Now we have understood the mounting options, there are always other considerations, some of these are:

Long cables = higher signal loss - unless you are using very thick low loss cable then as a rule of thumb, the longer the coaxial cable, the more signal loss (or attenuation) you are likely to get reducing the usable signal strength received at the modem or router and thereby impacting your download speed. In an ideal world, cable lengths should be no longer than really necessary.

Nearby objects - If possible try to mount your antenna away from large objects or obstructions and most importantly from any protruding metal surfaces (the metal surface on magnetic antennas are mounted excepted of course). Obstructions and metal objects close to the radiating element of the antenna can impact the propagation properties of the antenna and adversely affect antenna performance and in turn hinder download speeds.

Elevation - in many cases the higher up the antenna is mounted the better chances of signal reception - so do bear this mind when window-mounting or choosing a metal surface for the magnetic antenna. Needless to say, the better signal you get the better download speed is possible.

Antenna and Cable Quality – remember not all antennas are made equal and this can have an impact on your download speeds. Spurious claims about antenna gain are prevalent in the market so it is advisable to make sure that antenna you are purchasing is from a reputable manufacturer and vendor. Likewise choosing a quality cable such as BWL195 or BWL400 from a quality cable manufacturer should ensure that cable losses are minimised.

For a portfolio of 4G antennas, please visit our websites at EAD, SAS and Connex. A selection of these antennas can be purchased directly from our webshop at the Connex site.