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The info:MATION broadband solution

Rural broadband, info:MATION's cheap and cheerful solution

A description of how info:MATION connected to the internet in an area of no wired broadband.

The problem

We live in a part of the country that gets not very much in the way of broadband or cellphone coverage. Broadband is non-existent and cellphone coverage is patchy at best. But there are a couple of spots where you can get a reasonably good cellphone signal, Telecom in this case. This was the cue for me to investigate a mobile broadband solution to our internet woes. That and the price and data caps of a satellite solution.

The first thing to investigate were the likely reception spots around the property. This involved the highly scientific task of walking around the property with a 3G cellphone to ascertain the spots that gave the best reception, which I reckoned was at 5 bars out of a maximum of 7. After climbing on the house and other various structures around the place I settled on 2 likely spots, both not ideal but good enough.

The next task was to then run a wireless range check from both spots to the house. Both sites were about 80 - 100 metres away from the house, a distance, when obstructions such as trees and walls are taken into account, is nearing the extremes of the range of the wireless networking protocols. But all was still good, I could get a signal, just, from the 2 sites back to the house.

The initial solution

Since this was a cheap and cheerful solution with no guaranteed success I opted for a basic but small USB powered router called a TP-Link WR703N, about $45 from Ebay. First of all the reception sites were too far away from any structure to get easy access to power which really only meant one option, batteries and solar. Having worked out how much power I needed for the router, approximately 0.5 amp hours (AH), I figured out that I could safely use a 12V, 9AH gel cell battery being charged by a 10 watt solar panel and regulated by a $35 charge regulator from Jaycar Electronics. So far so good.

TP-LINK WRT703N
 TP-Link WR703N

Before connecting up the solution I had to rebuild the little WR703N router. The problem here was that it only came in a Chinese language version, not much good to me. This involved re-flashing the device with a Linux based system called OpenWrt, a fairly easy process for this device. OpenWrt allowed me to configure the device exactly to my specifications and set it up with the correct Telecom T-Stick 3G broadband modem. Once I had done this I performed a little tweaking and scripting on it to effectively manage the power drain from the modem. Being at the 'end of the line' so to speak in terms of cell phone range the T-Stick needed a bit more juice to run so I wrote a little script to monitor wireless network activity and turn off the modem if the wireless hadn't been used for about 10 minutes and to turn it back on when it saw some wireless network activity.

The other issue I faced was that the T-Stick needed an external antenna to boost the range. Unfortunately all of the newer models of T-Sticks sold by Telecom don't have external antennas. To find one I had to trawl Trade Me for a suitable model. I knew which one I wanted but it took me a while to find a cheap one and again Ebay came to the rescue in finding a suitable external antenna for my model of T-Stick for about $7.

I also had to convert the voltage from the battery from 12V down to the 5.5V that was needed by the router. I achieved this by purchasing a small voltage converter for about $6 off Ebay. A bit of wire cutting and soldering later I had the basics. It was fairly straight forward to then wire up the whole system and install it in my custom built plywood "internet box".

How did it go?

Once the whole thing was set up it was then time to test it in situ. Things went fine for a while but you could really only use your laptop in certain places in the house as obstructions, trees and a concrete water tank, severely limited the range of the wireless. 

Then a couple of weeks after installing the system you would drop off the internet only a minute or two after connecting. I tried everything to try to get to the bottom of this one, upgrading OpenWrt, changing the voltage into the little WR703N but nothing seemed to work. It was just plain weird. Some system tweaking was required.

Version 2.0

Obviously something was wrong with the little WR703N. It would work fine if you weren't connected to the internet but as soon as you connected that was it, the thing would reboot or stop and required physically unplugging and plugging back in again - not something you want to do in the middle of the night. I figured out I'd have to buy another router so after a bit of investigation I settled on another TP-Link device, the TL-MR3040 which came with a battery which would give the router a bit of power stability. It was only about $100 from NZ, delivered the next day so I figured that'll do me. After it arrived I didn't have to rebuild it as it came with an English interface so I set up the T-Stick 3G modem and and tested it in town. Everything went swimmingly so I figured it would work fine once back in the sticks. I was wrong.

TP-Link TL-MR3040
TP-Link TL-MR3040 pocket router

It didn't matter where you were in the house you couldn't connect to the device wirelessly. It just wouldn't work, signal strength appeared to be good but it just didn't appear to have the wireless network range of the little WR703N. The solution to this was to use the the now surplus WR703N as a bridging device and by plugging it into mains power near the house I could effectively extend the range of the TL-MR3040 router. A little bit of reconfiguration of the device was needed and having done this everything appeared to be working again. Much better than before too. Range was better so you could use the internet from anywhere in the house as well. Then things started dying.

I would notice that the system would just stop working and everything would be turned off in the 'internet box'. Investigations revealed that the battery was becoming flat and if it became flat at night then the voltage regulator would wouldn't switch on to charge it in the morning because there wasn't enough power to drive even this. The solution was simple enough, more solar panels. I purchased another 20W panel and chained it together with the other 10W one and now I have ample power to keep the system fully charged.

The solution

Was it worth it?

Yes. There are still some teething problems, sometimes the router won't recognise the T-Stick and needs rebooting and the connection to the cellular network can be a bit flaky at times but at least I can now get fairly cheap broadband. I also suspect that there may be some 'thermal' issues also known as hot, sunny days, with the router overheating in it's little box out in the field. A better antenna would be helpful too, perhaps a corner reflector to concentrate the cellular signal.

The system would be better if you were closer to a cell phone site or at least got a decent signal on your property. The better the signal and coverage the easier it would be to set up. The issue with our site was it's distance from the Telecom cell tower (about 13KM) and the obstructions in the way, hills etc. But if you're currently on satellite and can get a decent cellular signal then it's worth a go. You can certainly do it cheaper than what I did here if you don't need batteries and solar panels etc.

Tips and hints