“…a story of one gamer/podcaster who refused to give up.”
Part 3- Sweet Release
So It’s been a busy September and I haven’t had much time to devote to finishing out this series, however it’s a rainy day and at the moment doesn’t look like too much is coming my way so I should start right? When we left off last we were getting ready to jump into the nitty gritty of equipment and connections. To answer part 1 from my last post, I had to find out if 3g was in my area… there is no easy solution to this step aside from visiting ATT, Verizon, All-tel, USCC websites and looking at their coverage maps. Now one thing to remember when looking at these maps is, the 3g area doesn’t have to technically be on you, just close by.(I’ll talk about why this is when we discuss amplification). Also when looking at these maps we are uninterested in voice coverage but DATA coverage.
I looked and found the 3 major players in my area. Spring, Verizon, and US Cellular. All of which had zero coverage on the map close to me, but with the wonders of amplification I was willing to try and reach. There is no easy way to “test” and see if you will be able to get a signal, you have to go get a card, signup for a plan and see if it works. This usually requires you buy the device (if it’s not free when you signup), paying for activation and 1 month of use. However if your more savvy than me and have everything ready and understand it before you get the card. Most places will give you a complete full refund if you return it less than 3 days after purchase. I did not, and yes I paid for it. (A small price to pay to find redemption if you ask me)
As you can see from the picture the closest match I could find was a US Cellular tower that is 5 miles south of my location. Which isn’t really that far, except it’s an interstate tower where almost all power is diverted towards the direction of the road, and not back up through the mountains and trees to my house. The 3G signal is marked in dark green, the checkered signal is an old 2g signal that USCC rents from a Verizon tower. Not what we are interested in.
One thing I had to do however was determine the frequency at which the 3G signal was coming from. 3G, depending on the carrier ranged from 900mhz to 1900 MHz (Yes there are more and less but that’s the average). This variation is based on technology and what parts of the spectrum the carrier purchased. I already knew from most of my research that USCC and Verizon mostly relied on signals around 900 MHz but it’s not uncommon to find some towers using 1900mhz spectrum. I needed to be sure because the antenna needed to make the connection is only tuned to one of those spectrums.
Using a resource antennasearch.com I was able to locate the specific tower and examine the frequencies used on the 4 antennas mounted on that tower. This allowed me to ensure I purchased the correct frequency parabolic grid antenna.
So the question was how do I tap into that signal…After a lot of research I stumbled onto a resource of great information on the DSLreports.com forums for wireless communications. I developed a good relationship with a few of the members, one in particularly Jim_in_VA. Jim put together a blog with regards to wireless data communications, EVDO Tips and Tricks, in it he had a topic where he had a similar situation in VA and put together an amp/antenna combo to make outstanding connections. This is where my idea was born.
Following the guidelines from Jim and communicating with him regarding my situation we put together a parts list and he sent me on my way. Since I had already done my homework regarding the signal frequency I knew what to be looking for with regards to the antenna. As far as amplification is concerned I went with the Cyfre Peak “Rockies” 7watt amplifier. The biggest, baddest “legal” amp available. Gordon, the owner of maximum signal was absolutely awesome when it came to gathering information about his Cyfre amplifiers. When I made my first order I forgot to indicate which type of connection cable I wanted for my air card (modem). He personally called me and wanted to know more about my project. I probably talked with him for over an hour about my concerns and how he thought I was getting the right equipment to make it happen. I learned a lot about him, including that he used to be a producer for Motley Crue for years and used that money to invest in the amplification business. A super great guy who even gave me a follow up call later to see if everything worked out good for me.
With that I attached a 900 MHz 15 dBi Die-cast Parabolic Grid Antenna (remember, to pick your antenna based on your spectrum, for 1900Mhz spectrum you can get use cheaper highly produced 2.4 MHz antennas with little loss)to the amplifier with 50 ft of LMR400 Cable through an antenna splitter (the splitter is used to separate the 1900mhz and 900mhz spectrum the amplifier is trying to amplify, we only need one part of the spectrum so we safely split the unused section off to avoid extra wear on the amp).Yes the connection could be made using regular coaxial cable, but that isn’t enough shielding. One thing I have learned is that every drop of signal counts and if you are going to invest this much time and money into getting it, why screw it all up because you wanted to save a few dollars on shitty cable. Now I want to talk just a little about parabolic grid antennas and what they are. Think about the antenna on your car stereo. It’s called an Omni Directional antenna, because it can acquire signal from all directions, its signal pattern looks like a big fat globe surrounding the antenna. Now a parabolic grid antenna takes all the power and strength that an Omni antenna would use creating a globe of coverage and converts it into a high density concentrated signal that only goes in 1 direction. It’s the “rail gun” of the antenna world. What this allows it to do is hone in specifically on a location and allows the signal to remain stronger farther. This is ideal for our situation because we need to “reach out and touch someone” that someone being the 3G tower.
I’m not saying that I just bought this stuff plugged it in and it all worked. That’s far from it. There were a lot of mishaps and mistakes along the way which are just too numerous to include. Like how my air card was not programmed correctly and I raided from my car parked in the middle of nowhere because it was the only place I was picking up a signal…. essentially because I didn’t know enough. It was pretty much try on error for awhile. Or how I actually ordered the amps and antenna before deciding on what carrier I was going to use and dragging the antenna round everywhere trying to get a signal (even ordering a 2nd one because Sprint uses the 1900mhz spectrum) If this post was about all the wrong things I did well…. It may take more than 3 parts. For the sake of argument let’s keep pretending I did everything right and go from there. OK?
So let’s look how my setup allows me to create a connection where none existed before. So what I am going to show you are a few screenshots with regards to signal strength. This data is gathered in field test mode, which almost all air cards and cell phones are capable of showing. In short when you see “bars” on your phone they are determined by the raw data we are looking at in these screenshots. For the purposes of this post I am only going to be talking about the HDR RSSI and the Ec/Io. So what do these numbers mean? To put it simple, HDR RSSI is pure signal strength The lower the HDR RSSI the stronger the signal quality (The more bars on your phone). EC/Io is basically the quality of that signal, the higher the EC/Io the more “dirty” your signal is (think random static on your local radio station) EC/Io is a big factor to determine ping times.
If you were trying to recreate this setup you would be using the field test to find the ideal spot for positioning your antenna. Essentially moving the grid a few degrees waiting around 2 minutes for the signal to settle and finding that one spot where your connection is best. I know you would think pointing directly at the tower is the best choice but unless you’re sitting on completely flat ground with no obstructions it usually doesn’t work that way. I found my best signal is actually 15 degrees west of my tower. I assume based on how the signal flows through the terrain.
In this first picture we are going to look at what my air card was able to pickup signal wise, completely by itself.
As you can see there is by all fair means NO signal whatsoever, the HDR RSSI does not go over 125 on field tests, You are essentially in a no signal zone.
This second photo shows the air card plugged into the antenna without the amplifier.
As we can see do to the nature of the parabolic grid we are now able to reach out a tickle the 3G signal, however that signal is still too weak to make a connection too. Anything over 100 is basically the same as no signal and you will still see zero bars on most phones. However if you already have some type of signal prior to installing an antenna it may be all you need. In this situation however there was no original signal.
and the 3rd photo shows the signal strength with the combined amplifier and antenna.
NOW WERE TALKING!!!! The amplifier is providing the power to the grid antenna where it’s no longer tickling the 3G signal, its bending it over and ramming it home, and forcing it to call it daddy!! HDR RSSI doesn’t get much lower than you see here. Even If I took this rig and parked it beside the tower I wouldn’t see an exponential improvement. On your cell phone you would be seeing full bars of signal. Also pay attention to the EX/Io, its near perfect and honestly anything below 4 is really good and practically discernible from perfection.
So what we have is the final end result. We went from a situation where a 3g signal wasn’t even registering to having a connection that feels like standing under the tower itself. Which is no easy feat considering the type of terrain and forest the signal has to travel between.
Ok I have been writing for quite some time and I promised you guys some tips on acquiring some good deals when it comes to mobile broadband. I would love to elaborate more but I am going to attempt to keep this part short *HAND CRAMP* I will direct your attention to a company called Millenicom. They are a data card provider that leases data from big companies such as Verizon and Sprint and they offer you a BETTER deal. They have 3 standard plans to choose from and NONE of them require a contract. WHAT!?! Yes No contract which means no early termination etc. You don’t want to use the service anymore? Just stop paying…
Ok well that’s already a good deal Russell, what else do they have? Well here is the trick, If you get data from Verizon you enter and contract and you get 5 gigs per month… If you order that connection through Millenicom you can get 10 gigs/month with NO contract. What if you have sprint coverage in your area? You can get an even BETTER deal. If you purchase your own air card that works on the sprint network, they will set you up with a 10+gig/month plan. The plan reads as follows:” Consistent use of over double 10 gigabytes of monthly service or any one-time egregious use of data transfer risks closure of the account.” So what they are saying is don’t consistently go over 20 gigs/month and you’ll be fine. Remember your still utilizing the same network that anyone at Verizon or sprint are using, except your getting a MUCH better deal than those poor saps! Where those saps are tied down with 5 gig limits etc, your blazing by with double/quadruple the amount of data available! And when high speed does finally hit your place, there’s no contract to opt out of and no early termination fee. I recommend anyone who thinks they are within the coverage area of Spring or Verizon and thinks Mobile Broadband is for them to check out Millenicom!
That’s it guys, well that’s not ALL of it. But that’s the cliff notes version of how I turned my little neck of the woods into a place where I can still game and still podcast. It’s not ideal, but it’s what I have to work with and I have taken full advantage of it. If you would like more information or would be interested in setting up your own mobile broadband connection feel free to contact me firstname.lastname@example.org
Oh and here is a picture of my deathray, not to be confused with my mobile broadband antenna rig…