For many RV?ers, having access to the Internet while we travel is essential. Many people use an air card or MIFI, but this does not work everywhere and at times can be very slow. Also, you carrier may have monthly usage limits and may also severely restrict or prohibit usage while roaming.

Many campgrounds and businesses offer free WIFI. The problem is that oftentimes the signal is too weak or you can?t pick it up at all. The reason for this is twofold. First, the WIFI antenna in your laptop is usually along one side of the screen - hardly a good place for an antenna - and it is also a basic, low-performance antenna. Second, the WIFI adapter in most notebooks is also a low-performance model, typically only capable of less than 50 milliwatts (0.050 watts) transmit power.

To increase your WIFI range, you will need to have a better antenna and also a more powerful WIFI transmitter.

There are numerous commercial alternatives available, most of which are rather expensive ($250 and up). If you go this route, look for one with a transmitter that is capable of at least 700 mw (0.7 watts) and one that also has a user-replaceable antenna. For best results, you will want a directional (Yagi) antenna, but this will require that you mount the unit in such a way that you can rotate the antenna as you search for WIFI Hotspots. (For a little less performance, opt instead for a high-gain omnidirectional antenna.) Also, I recommend that you get one that is capable of 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n protocols (802.11n is the latest and offers the best range and speed). IIf you are willing to spend the money, I also recommend getting one that connects to your computer via ethernet instead of USB. You will increase your bulk a bit since you will also need Power over Ethernet Adapters, but you will be able to connect to a WIFI router and be able to share your WIFI access with multiple computers, plus you won?t be using a power-hungry USB port on your computer. A good choice is the Rogue Wave (http://www.wavewifi.com/rogue-wave.html). If you want to save a bit of money and forgo the ethernet connectivity, a good choice is The Wirie (http://www.thewirie.com/). The main advantage of both of these systems is that they are pre-packaged and weatherproof for marine applications.

However, you don?t need to spend big bucks. You can easily configure your own system. And, you can get just the high-power WIFI card and USB extension cable now and get a better antenna later.

Your first purchase should be a high-power WIFI card as described above. You will also want to make sure that the WIFI card you purchase comes with drivers for your computer?s operating system. Although it will come with a simple antenna, make sure that it has a connector to allow for the use of a better antenna, and buy a high-gain unidirectional or omnidirectional antenna. Next buy a USB extension cable (maximum 15?). All of this can be purchased for under $100. (Note - special USB extension cables up to 75? are available).

Plug the WIFI extension cable into a USB port on your laptop and connect the WIFI card to the other end. Be sure sure to install the software for your new WIFI card and also turn off the internal WIFI on you laptop. Connect the antenna to the WIFI card, place the antenna as high as possible and you are ready to scan for open WIFI hotspots!

For best performance, you may want to place your new gizmo outside on your roof, but then you need to make sure everything is weatherproofed.

What range can I expect?

There are many factors that affect range, but antenna height is probably the biggest. Although you will see ads touting ranges of 7-20 miles, realistically you can expect up to two miles. However, even if you are in a campground with a marginal WIFI signal using your laptop, you will get much higher connection speeds using your new high-power WIFI system.

Sharing your WIFI connection

Some people want to be able to have multiple computers connect to WIFI. If your new long-range WIFI system connects to your computer via USB, the easiest way to share your WIFI access is to enable Internet Connection Sharing on your computer that has the WIFI access. This is possible using XP, Vista, Windows or a Mac. Just do a Google search for instructions. You will also need an ethernet crossover cable, or regular ethernet cables with an ethernet hub.

If your new WIFI system connects via ethernet, then you can just use a standard WIFI router and connect your other computers wirelessly.

Other Considerations

Most open WIFI systems you encounter will either be one run by a business and intended for use by their customers or a residential network. Note that in some jurisdictions, it is illegal to ?borrow? residential WIFI. If you use a business WIFI, at least patronize and thank them.

Also, everything you send on an open network is sent ?in the clear? for anyone to intercept (except SSL-encrypted websites, such as most financial websites). This could include your email login and password. Some email providers allow you to log in securely, but all your email is sent ?in the clear? for anyone to see. I recommend that you use the free hotspotshield.com service to securely encrypt all your WIFI sessions.

For the record, I have no financial interest in, nor do I use, any of the products mentioned in this article.

Sumbitted by - Bob Cook