Keep a connection in unconnected places

Glenn Fleishman
22 December, 2011
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Many of us whizz our way to the relatives’ for the holidays, carrying with us a plethora of electronics. Sadly, on arrival, we find that our cousin cancelled cable service because of cost, an unexpected shower downed a DSL drop, or mum and dad’s new house in the country is in a cellular coverage shadow – no 3G nor 2G signal to be found for days!

What can you do? Prepare before you go for the worst-case scenario. There have never been more options for acquiring high-speed Internet access even when a feed isn’t convenient. That counts for your old family home or a hotel.

(Tip: If you’re planning to rely on mobile broadband, visit your carrier’s site and use their coverage map to see if you can receive high-speed data where you’ll be. These maps are estimates, not guarantees, but it’s still a good way to avoid unpleasant surprises – such as entirely empty areas of coverage.)

Use your iPhone as a personal hotspot

The best mobile modem is the one you have with you. If we know our demographics, you probably own an iPhone, which has included a software-based Personal Hotspot since iOS 4. You can plug a laptop in via USB to the Dock connector, or use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi from laptops and mobile devices (including other iOS devices) to connect back to the internet. Many models of smartphones running Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and other platforms also offer USB tethering and a ‘mobile hotspot’ feature for Wi-Fi.

The cost for tethering and a mobile hotspot isn’t cheap, but it’s not precisely ridiculous, either. Most carriers have tethering/mobile hotspot plans for any phone that can manage it. (The iPhone 3GS can only tether via USB and share over Bluetooth. The iPhone 4 and 4S can use those methods plus Wi-Fi. Other phones vary by tethering and wireless sharing methods.)

Bring a mobile router

Use a Wi-Fi modem to set up a wireless hotspot wherever you are.

You can still use mobile broadband without relying on your phone. This is especially useful if you want to provide access to multiple people, such as members of your family, without being tied to any one person’s phone. Cellular routers – the best known of which is the MiFi – relay a cellular data signal over Wi-Fi, creating a portable hotspot.

Shop around for best prices and least contract commitment.

If you would prefer to go the prepaid route, you’ll need to do your research. Virgin Mobile, for example, offers the Prepaid WiFi Modem , which gives you 4GB of data for $89 and 30 days to use it. If that’s a bit too steep for your liking, there are prepaid USB and Micro SIM options to consider, too.

Deal with a distant signal

Your parents opted for broadband, but the modem is at one end of the house, and your childhood room, where you’re crammed into a bed a metre too short for you, is at the other. Alternatively, you’re now sleeping in the garage with wedges of concrete between you and an upstairs Wi-Fi router.

Bring a base station The easiest way to deal with a weak broadband signal is to bring a Wi-Fi base station of your own with you. Since you’ll be away from home, you could extract your own router, but Apple’s AirPort Extreme is rather large, and a Time Capsule likely contains your backups. If you don’t have a spare, consider Apple’s $119 AirPort Express. This easily portable router is a bit of a splurge, but you can sometimes find a refurbished one in the Apple store.

Prepare for a weak broadband signal by bringing your own Airport Express.

The Airport Express has just a single ethernet port, so unless the broadband modem you’ll be using has multiple ethernet ports – and not all do – you’ll also need an ethernet switch. 10/100 Mbps or 10/100/1000 Mbps switches cost less than $25 for a 4- or 5-port unit. While you’re at it, spring for a couple of Ethernet cables, as well.

You have two scenarios. If the broadband modem has a built-in Ethernet switch, you can just plug the Wi-Fi base station into one of those ports.

If it only has a single LAN Ethernet jack, plug an Ethernet cable from that jack into your own Ethernet switch, and then also plug the base station in your Ethernet switch.

If you bring a couple of powerline networking adapters, you can get fast internet connectivity through the house's electrical system.

Opt for the electrical system But what if, as in our speculative case, the modem is at one end of the house and you want to curl up at the other, and the signal won’t reach? Try powerline networking. This technology pushes networking mojo over home electrical wiring. Because the signal is carried on a particular power phase – don’t ask, it gets way too complicated – you can only expect outlets that share the same circuit breaker to carry the signal efficiently. Other outlets might work at a fraction of the maximum speed: megabits instead of 100s of megabits per second. But, that could still be faster than the broadband connection.

You can get older 85 Mbps powerline gear inexpensively (well under $50 each), while the newest 200 Mbps and 500 Mbps models are generally pricier. You need two adapters: One to plug in near the modem, where you may need an Ethernet switch to run between the modem and the Ethernet jack on the powerline wall wart; and the other near your base station elsewhere in the house.

Explore your options outside of home

Your fallback option is the local or franchise café, restaurant, or bookstore. While larger places often offer free Wi-Fi access you might have to patronise smaller shops, which often require a purchase (and why not?) in exchange for less crowding and cozier surroundings. You can use JiWire’s Wi-Fi Finder iOS app to search and map spots, as well as Devicescape’s EasyWifi website and iOS app. Both are free.

I’ve found on recent trips to parts unknown (to me), Yelp was a great guide not just to food but also to whether Wi-Fi was available. Reviews help you determine whether you’ll be welcome to squat with a cup of joe and a muffin for a few hours, or if you’ll get the evil eye.

Many public institutions in towns large and small have Wi-Fi as well, including city halls and public libraries. They may be closed during the holiday season, however.

Relax a little

One of the joys of travel is supposed to be breaking your routines. It’s true that many employers want you to stay connected even when taking time off, but if you can’t make your internet access work, consider taking this as a sign. It may be time to slow down and hit the off button.

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