One of the biggest growth areas in recent years for anyone touring has been mobile internet access. There are a couple of ways of accessing the internet… you can either go the ‘dongle’ route and connect via the mobile phone network or you can go the WiFi route and rely on a growing trend for places to install WiFi hotspots that you can connect to. Almost all Laptops now come with inbuilt WiFi access, but there are limitations. The WiFi unit is often compromised by being built down to a cost and the fact the antenna has to be integrated in to the body of the device.
I use Mac’s exclusively and from one of the Mac forums I was put on to a product called ‘Bear Extender n3‘. It was originally designed by students at Berkley California to enable them to connect reliably and over a further distance with the University’s WiFi network called “AirBears” The unit its self is only tiny and connects to your laptop via a standard USB lead. I have tried it with a 5 metre long USB lead and it works fine. This allows me to position it inside the caravan for the best signal. Out and about, the unit is small enough to clip to the screen of your laptop and power consumption is low so it will not drain your battery.
One key point though is the antenna is removable and can be replaced with a higher gain version. The antenna that comes with it is has a 2db gain but as Bear Extender uses an industry standard RP-SMA antenna port it allows you the flexibility to upgrade to a larger antenna in the future. They do offer a 5db gain areal and there are 18db gain aerials available. As the RP-SMA connector is standard, you can buy extension leads and remote aerials… I bought a remote magnetic mount aerial on a 2 metre lead from Maplin as I wanted to be able to mount the aerial external to the caravan for the best possible signal reception.
Using it is fairly straightforward. On both a Mac or PC, you install the software that comes on a handy USB memory stick, so if you have a net book or an iPad that doesn’t have a CD-ROM drive, it’s not a problem. (It is always worth checking on the website that you have the latest version of the software). On a Mac, the software installs without any problems, all you need to do then is turn off AirPort and plug Bear Extender into any USB port.
I have used the Bear Extender now on a number of trips and I have always been able to get a signal. Usually I have been able to connect to a BT FON point or a BT Openzone connection rather than use any of the site WiFi connections. When using the CC or C & CC networks, I’ve always got a good connection.
As I mentioned earlier, for use in the caravan, I wanted to be able to locate the antenna outside the van to improve the quality and strength of the signal. I originally purchased a hi-gain magnetic mount antenna from Maplin, and I’ve built a mount that allows me to fasten it to the rail on our Fiamma Caravanstor awning so that it is just above the roofline of the caravan. At marginal locations this makes a huge improvement. It’s not perfect and I’m looking to develop something that will allow me to clip it to an awning rail. (update… I have now made a mount to allow me to fit it to the awning rail).
Although the Bear Extender is an American product, it is available here in the UK from Moving WiFi and is available for Mac and PC’s. I bought my Bear Extender from them and they were really efficient and offered an excellent service. They also have a few other interesting gadgets for mobile connectivity.
Is it worth the money? – For me, YES.
UPDATE: For when the Bear Extender can’t find a free WiFi hotspot in range, I have bought a Huawei E586 Wireless Modem…. you can read my review here