We wanted a solution that would let us access wifi hotspots while we travel. For under $200 we got a powerful wifi network that can connect to hotspots far, far away.
This isn’t a mobile internet service using cellular data plans. Our phones can create wifi hotspots any time we need that type of access, and we have a WeBoost 4G mobile amplifier for improving that signal. Instead, it’s a way to use existing free wifi offerings (Starbucks, libraries, etc.) from some distance away.
A powerful solution
We chose to use a Ubiquiti Bullet M2 HP ($72) with a Laird 3G/4G Multiband Phantom antenna ($72), connected to a Ubiquiti airGateway ($19). The antenna is around 3″ high and is bolted through the roof of the van. Inside, hidden in the ceiling, is the Bullet, connected by a right angle adapter ($8) so it can lie flat against the roof. A Cat5e LAN patch cable ($7 if you don’t already have a spare one) runs from the Bullet down to the airGateway in our battery box enclosure.
The airGateway is connected to power via a passive Power Over Internet (POE) adapter ($5), and passes that power on through the Cat5e cable to the Bullet. That’s $183.
The Bullet sucks in an Internet connection from other people’s wireless networks, then the airGateway rebroadcasts this connection on our own wireless network.
The Ubiquiti gear is not your average consumer stuff. It’s used by people configuring networks for businesses and for large wireless installations. The interface isn’t as simple as some consumer gear, but it’s not that complex either. If you’ve ever configured any network equipment and understand the concept of IP addresses, you should be fine.
Here’s what we did (and I’m writing this as much for me as for anyone else reading this post).
I’d suggest you configure everything from the comfort of your house before you install it in the van. Troubleshooting is much easier when you are warm and comfortable and have a regular internet connection to fall back to for research.
Set up the Bullet to be a strong WiFi antenna
- Find a 120v AC to 12v DC “wall wart” power supply with at least 1 Amp of current capacity and with the right plug for the passive POE adapter (center pin positive, normally, but check your POE adapter). If you don’t have one lying around, go to a thrift store. They often have a bin of them dirt cheap. TEST your adapter with a voltmeter to check that it is producing 12v, DC, and that the voltage is flowing the right way (+/-).
- Screw the Laird antenna onto the Ubiquiti Bullet.
- Plug the Bullet into one end of the CAT5e patch cable.
- Plug the other end of the cable into the powered socket on the POE adapter, then plug the POE adapter’s cable into your computer.
- Plug your 12v DC power supply into the POE adapter.
- The POE adapter will squirt 12v power into the CAT5e patch cable on the two twisted pairs that aren’t being used for data transmission. The Bullet uses this power to run. There is no “on” switch on the Bullet. You should see a green light on the Bullet.
- On your computer, configure the Ethernet port to use a manual IP address.
- The process is different for Windows and Mac machines. I’m not going to try and explain it here. Google is your friend.
- If you’ve got this far and suddenly find your computer doesn’t have an Ethernet port, you might need a USB-to-Ethernet adapter. However, because you’re only going to use it for about five minutes, it might be better to borrow a computer with a built-in Ethernet port.
- The Bullet’s default IP address is 192.168.1.20, so you’ll need to configure a manual address on your computer in the same range. 192.168.1.55 will do nicely.
- Once you have the manual address configured, you should be able to open a browser window and type in https://192.168.1.20 to reach the Bullet. If you were successful, you’ll see a nasty warning that the Bullet’s certificate is not trusted and that you should not proceed. Get around this (on Chrome, you have to hit “advanced options” on the screen). Now you’ll see a login page.
- The default login and password for the Bullet are both ubnt. First time you log in you’ll also need to tell it where you’re located and your language.
At this point, you’re in to the Bullet’s configuration screens. Not friendly, but very powerful. Some things need to change in order to use this device in the setup we want.
- Go to the NETWORK tab.
- Change the Network Mode from Bridge to Router.
- In the WAN Network Settings section of this page, check the box to enable NAT
- In the LAN Network Settings section of this page, change the IP address. 192.168.1.n is a very common address range and sometimes if you connect to another network using this range, you might have problems configuring the Bullet. So we’ll change it to 192.168.[something other than 1].20 – for instance 192.168.44.20
- Write down what you just changed it to.
- We’re going to be serving up IP addresses to other devices that connect to this network, so we need to also set the address range for these. In the LAN Network Settings section, change Range Start to 192.168.44.100 and Range End to 192.168.44.254 (or whatever you used instead of 44).
- Hit the Change button at the bottom of the screen, but don’t hit the Apply button that appears at the top of the screen yet.
- Move to the SYSTEM tab.
- We’re going to change the administrator user name and password so they aren’t the default. This helps make your network more secure.
- Find the System Accounts section of the SYSTEM screen.
- Click on the little magnifying glass next to the Administrator Username field. This will make some more fields appear so you can change the password too.
- Type in a new username and a password. Write these down. If you forget them, you’ll have to do a hard reset to get the system to even respond in the future.
- Hit the Change button near the bottom of this screen, and then the Apply button in the bar that appears at the top of the screen.
- The Bullet will reboot.
Now you’re going to panic, because the Bullet will appear to become unresponsive. Don’t worry. You’ve changed its networking parameters, so now you just have to talk to it where it expects to find you.
- On your computer, go back to your network settings.
- Change your Ethernet port from having a manual IP address (the 188.8.131.52 address you set up earlier) to “Using DHCP” – in other words, the Ethernet port will now expect to receive an IP address from the device it’s plugged in to. Luckily, you just set the Bullet up to give out IP addresses using DHCP, so it’ll provide one for your computer.
- Save these settings.
- Go back to your browser. Type in https://192.168.44.20 (or whatever you used instead of 44).
- You should see the Bullet’s login screen, where you can enter your new administrator username and password. You did write them down, right?
- Enter your username and password.
You should now be back in the Bullet’s configuration screens. You don’t need to do anything else here at this point – you are all set with the Bullet configuration. If for some reason you really, really can’t get your PC to connect to the Bullet, you can push the little Reset button right next to the Ethernet cable port on the Bullet to return it to factory defaults and try again.
Set up your wireless network on the airGateway
Now let’s turn to the other device, the airGateway. This tiny box is shaped specifically to slot into the power supply you can buy for Bullets. We won’t be using that power supply because we want a 12v solution, not a 120v solution, but that doesn’t stop us from using the airGateway. Its job is to create a wireless network you can connect to in the van.
- Unplug the power from the POE adapter.
- Unplug the POE adapter’s Ethernet cable from your computer.
- Unplug the Cat5e patch cable from the POE adapter.
- Plug the airGateway’s male plug (the one without a label) into the powered socket on the POE adapter. Don’t plug anything into the airGateway’s two female sockets.
- Re-attach the power to the POE adapter.
- The airGateway’s status light should turn on, white, and then after a little while turn blue.
At this point, you’ve got the airGateway up and running in its default configuration. It’s broadcasting a wireless network. You can connect to this network, log in to the device’s admin account, and make some changes.
- On your computer, go to the place where you choose which WiFi network to connect to.
- You should see a network called www.ubnt.com in the list. Connect to it.
- Go to your browser.
- Type https://192.168.1.1 into the browser address bar.
- You should see a similar nasty certificate security warning to the one for the Bullet earlier. Get past it in the same way as you did before.
- Enter the default password and username (ubnt/ubnt) – remember, you changed them on the Bullet, but you didn’t change them here. The screen looks the same, but it’s on a different device. The logo above the login fields is slightly different.
- First time logging in, you’ll also have to choose a country and language. Do that and continue through to the admin screens.
- Choose the WIRELESS tab.
- Change the SSID field to a sensible name for your network. This name will be broadcast to the world (but the world won’t be able to connect to it).
- Make sure WPA2 security is enabled, and choose a password. This should be a different password to the admin password you set earlier. It’s the one you’ll give to people who you allow to connect to your network.
- Hit the Change button at the bottom of the screen, but do not click the Apply button at the top of the screen yet. More changes ahead…
- Move to the NETWORK tab.
- In the Network Role section, change the Network Mode to Bridge. It was set to Router before, because the airGateway is used to giving out IP addresses. We have the Bullet doing that for us, so we just need the airGateway to “bridge” the information the Bullet is giving out across the wireless network it creates.
- In the Management Network Settings section, change Management IP address from DHCP to Static.
- Set the IP Address field just beneath this to 192.168.44.10 (replace 44 with whatever you used). Now you have a permanent IP address on your network that you can type in to get to the airGateway’s management screens whenever you need to.
- Hit the Change button on this screen, but not the Apply button at the top. One more change…
- Go to the SYSTEM tab.
- In the System Accounts section of this screen, do the same thing as you did on the Bullet to set a new Administrator Username and password. Click on the little magnifying glass, so you see the password change fields, and make the changes. Probably it’s sensible to use the same username and password as you did for the Bullet’s administrator screens.
- Now, hit the Change button and also hit the Apply button.
The airGateway will reboot and again you won’t be able to control it from your browser window any more. That’s because it’s now broadcasting a different SSID (the one you just gave it). It also isn’t giving out IP addresses any more, because we switched off its DHCP server.
That means you can’t test it yet, but in just a second we’ll know whether it worked or not.
Final steps – putting it all together
All the equipment is configured. Now you just have to plug it together and make sure it all plays nicely.
- Unplug the 12v DC power supply from the POE injector. This is just a safety precaution.
- Plug the Cat5e Patch cable that’s connected to the Bullet into the port on the airGateway labeled POE. This port provides power through from the POE injector to the Bullet.
- Leave the POE injector plugged in to the airGateway, with the other end of the injector loose (not used anywhere).
- You should now have a chain of POE injector > airGateway > Cat5e Ethernet patch cable > Bullet > Laird antenna.
- Plug the 12v DC power supply back in to the POE injector.
- Lights should happen on both the airGateway and the Bullet.
- On your computer, open the list of available wireless networks. You should see the one you just named in the list. You may have to wait a while for the airGateway to reboot, and for your computer to refresh the list of networks it can see.
- Connect to your wireless network.
- In your browser, type in https://192.168.44.10 (or whatever you used instead of 44). This should display the airGateway’s administration login screen.
- Enter the administrator login credentials you just set up (administrator password, not WiFi network password) and it should let you in.
- There’s nothing else to do here. We’ve just tested that the changes we made took hold.
- Now, in your browser, type in https://192.168.44.20 (or whatever you used instead of 44). This should display the Bullet’s administration login screen.
- Enter the administrator login credentials you just set up (administrator password, not WiFi network password) and it should let you in.
- Go to the WIRELESS tab.
- In the Basic Wireless Settings section, you’ll see the SSID field. Next to it is a button labeled Select. Click it now.
- A new screen called Site Survey will pop up. This scans for WiFi networks in your area. It lists their SSID, the type of encryption they use, and the signal strength.
- The closer the negative number is to zero, the stronger the connection. Use that information when you are deciding which network to connect to.
- Find the network you want to connect to from the list.
- If you’re testing at home, my guess is you have a home network you can connect to.
- Click the Select button at the bottom of the Site Survey screen. The screen will disappear and take you back to the WIRELESS tab.
- You have now chosen the SSID of the WiFi network you want to connect to. If the network has a password, you’ll have to enter it on this screen before you actually connect. Look in the Wireless Security section of this tab. Enter the password in the field called WPA Preshared Key.
- Note that some hotels and other public WiFi systems don’t have a password associated with the SSID. Instead, you first connect to their WiFi and then type the password (or room number or something) into a screen that appears in your browser. That works most of the time with this setup, but sometimes you may run into an issue.
- Hit Change, and Apply, and you’re on the network.
You can now browse on your computer and any other device connected to the WiFi network you set up, using data from the WiFi connection your Bullet is connected to.
When you install this in your van, you can cut the end off the 120v AC to 12v DC power supply and wire that in to your 12v supply (with a suitable fuse) ready to plug in to the POE injector. Or, you can buy cheap power jacks to wire up yourself.
Final points and “Gotchas”
What antenna to choose
We chose a 3dBi gain antenna because it’s compact and doesn’t stick up above our solar panels, casting a shadow on them. The van is high enough without a massive antenna on the roof. Other people have chosen an 8dBi gain antenna because it can pull in WiFi connections from a greater distance. Still others have chosen to use directional antennae that you point at the source of the WiFi signal – those can have even greater reach, but they are trickier to set up. They also typically mean you have to mount the Bullet externally (using coaxial pigtail cables seriously reduces the benefit of the additional dBi), so you’d need the Titanium version that is more waterproof, and waterproof Cat5e cable.
In the end, we decided that we weren’t going to get into a “mine’s bigger than yours” argument with anybody, and that 3dBi was enough for most of the places we’ll end up. Either there’s WiFi close enough, or there’s no WiFi at all anywhere.
Issue with Apple Airport routers
If you have an Apple Airport router, the Bullet might get into an infinite reboot loop when it tries to connect wirelessly to the router. The only way out of it is to get out of range of the Airport or switch the Airport off. Bullet firmware v5.6 solved this problem, so update (SYSTEM tab of the Bullet’s configuration screens) when you’re all set up.
I used several sources to put this page together.
- BoatingHowTo.com article on Bullet setup (without the airGateway to add a local WiFi network)
- MV Viking Star blog – a very similar write-up from a fellow Washingtonian. The boating crowd seems to have this sorted out.
- David Bott from OutsideOurBubble.com has a video on a similar configuration.
- The Ubiquiti Bullet download page (manual, firmware update)
- The Ubiquiti airGateway download page (manual, firmware update)