When we first got an internet dongle it started off in the window then we moved it under the cratch cover and when things were really bad attached it to a stick and hoisted it as high as we could using cascaded USB cables. Adequate for our internet connection but far from ideal.
So I started to look at external antennas. What I needed was something that could stay on the roof and not require any thought or action on our part, in other words something that just needed us to turn on the computer and go. Also it needed to be removable for low bridges and tunnels.
There are antennas specifically designed to plug directly into the dongle or some come with industrial standard type connectors like the SMA or N-type, the latter antennas are not a problem but you will need an adaptor cable to convert to the specific USB dongle that you have. If your dongle does not have an antenna socket you can get a cradle type adaptor which fits around the dongle, I cannot say how good these are but there will be some loss associated with the connection which will partially negate any gain advantage from the antenna.
A directional antenna will give the best performance but who wants to go hunting base stations, exactly no one. So the antenna must be omni-directional and cover all of the required bands, i.e. both GSM and 3G. Fortunately this is a common requirement although it still pays to check as I have seen antennas for sale that do one but not the other.
I bought an indoor magnetic mount antenna as it met our requirements, well except for not being outdoors, the build standard of the antenna is similar to what I have used as a mobile antenna on a car and thus far has proved satisfactory working outside on the roof of the boat. No doubt a similar outdoor antenna could be found and permanently fixed to the roof of the boat, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to get much improvement and so did not think that it was worth a fixed installation.
There is a further consideration to the antenna location, the canal is not called the cut for nothing and invariably the boat can be located below ground level and no amount of antenna gain will necessarily improve the signal strength, in other words you have to have a signal to add gain to. What is required here is height, you need to get the antenna above ground level which leads me to the second type of antenna worth considering and that is a pole mounted antenna with integral cable, I have one in mind but they are more costly and I thought that I would see how I went with the existing antenna and so far I am not sure if I can justify the additional expense as we have never been in an area without coverage.
Enough of this waffle, how has the antenna worked? Well apart from the convenience of having the setup ready and waiting for us to use I can say that we have seen a noticeable difference in signal strength. We have had two dongles both with orange on two machines and with the antenna we had 3G coverage but with the dongle alone it was GPRS, now I am not saying that this is black and white and will be the case all of the time because that is simply not true. For example I know that in some situations if I was to hoist the dongle up in the air on a long pole attached to a suitably long USB cable that this arrangement could out perform a high gain antenna stuck on the roof of the boat below ground level. On the other hand on an equal playing field the higher gain antenna must win.
I do feel that with the multi-terrain environment and remote location of some of the canals that we use that in an ideal world the two antenna solution is desirable. The magnetic mount on the roof for convenience and the pole mounted one for those remote areas with poor signal coverage, when we know that we just can’t live without internet access.
With the amount of interest shown so far I will attempt to put together a useful guide for both the 3g router and antenna arrangement. Any questions would be much appreciated as this will help with formulating a guide.
Statistics so far:-
1056.56 Miles, 725 Locks, 74 Swing Bridges, 48 Lift Bridges, 7 Tunnel