Smarthome Extravaganza – Part 4 : “Boosting the mobile internet”
Smart home needs Internet. It needs it really, really hard — as hard as we human need oxygen and water, smart home needs internet. Period. In this article I focus of the problematic internet I’m having and what sometimes makes smart home development quite difficult. Bear with me. I mean, I love living here in the countryside but I really miss the broadband cable internet I had on the block apartment.
Describing the problem
I live in general terms quite far away from the civilization– about 20 kilometers from nearest small city of 10.000 habitants. Eventhought in Finland good internet accessing and speed is provided quite well in general, if you happen to live in the country you only can access online world through the mobile internet.
Most known ISP (Internet Service Provider) in Finland is Sonera, and it tries very hard, like rest of the ISPs, to market their mobile broadband services in the favor of the more classic ways to contact like landlines. In matter of fact, during last 10 years after the mobile revolution, ISPs in Finland have done their everything to ruin accessing internet through the cable by removing most of the costly copper-based landlines around the Finland and causing well internet going into shitwell for us country-people.
For me, the reason for removing fully functional copper landline connections from everything is little fogged up. Most likely ISPs have been trying to lower maintenance costs but really, it has had a terrible effect on the people living outside the major cities. Finnish government tries to keep up its appearance by bragging how good our internet access is and how internet is accessible to everybody but the real fact is that quality of mobile internet service varies a lot around the Finland.
Mobile Internet, or Mobile Broadband as it is marketed here in Finland, is not really a mobile broadband if you ask its users. Full problem-free 4G speed of so-called mobile broadband is only available to those who live very near or inside the major cities of Finland. For rest of us, like me, availability of the Internet is very much dependant of the weather and season, as well as amount of the other mobile users in the network.
I had used to use the ever-working nicely fast 24mbps cable landline we had in our apartment block but our current mobile internet, even if we have a high-quality boosting antenna and good-quality mobile modem, we suffer speed varying from day-to-day basis and regularly lose our internet connection several times a week, or even suffer modem-era (3-5kb/s) speeds here. And it sucks.
Project Day 1
Planning the fix
Now that the winter season is ending and we’re heading for the spring, I’ve been starting to plan how to get our mobile (sucking) internet to work better and with less connection problems we are having. Our main problems with in the internet is coverage. Our house is on the lower terrain elevation than the rest of the area and distance to the nearest mobile internet base station is about 5 kilometers. Not only that, there is no line-of-sight available and areas around are covered with tall trees all over the place.
For the last appx. 6 months we have lived in this house, we have had our booster antenna located on the lower roof of the veranda in our house and it has work so-and-so as described above. Few days ago I started planning of both repositioning our antenna to the higher ground (to the top of the roof, near the chimney) and directing it so it has direct receiving from the transmitting base station. I also thought of using an old satellite dish behind the receiver to boost the signal to the max.
Expedition of the Mast
Today I, with my dear wife as a chauffeur, took my tablet and a cellphone and started tracking the precise location of the base station as it was not yet known to us and in Finland, there is no public records available of such. After driving about an hour, we had successfully pinpointed and triangulated the most-likely base station tower on the nearby-ish hill but were not able to go exact near as roads were in terrible condition of mud, snow and water after yesterday’s few bad weathers.
Because we could not get next to the mast, I was unable to confirm signal strength and confirm base station’s transmission because there are several competing ISPs and military masts around the area. I also could not locate any information of the cell even using excellent Android app called Network Signal Info Pro (paid version) which tells you everything you need to know about your Cell and WiFi connection info. I tried several different open source databases, such as OpenCellID to locate the information about the mast but there were no anything around even if I had all the needed cell-information needed.
In the end, I did a lot of detective work using Finnish open source map services, such as National Land Surver of Finland‘s databases to gather maps around the area and plotting the exact GPS coordinates of the mast. I also recalled house’s previous owner telling that “in that direction is the broadcast mast” so I concluded, being the only plausible mast in vicinity, that the mast we found is the correct one.
Now, directing our internet receiver is not a simple and direct task. Of course, I just could set up receiver as high as possible on top of our house and point it towards “about” direction of the mast, but then again, elevation varies A LOT around here, not to mention the treeline.
Project Day 2
Research & Development
I tried approaching this with the radio-signal tracking and planning ahead – method. I pulled up elevation charts from the NLS’s database (as linked above) and combined the grayscale maps in the Photoshop. After a little brightness / contrast modifying, I overlapped the regular map over the grayscale elevation maps to get both the location of our house and location of the mast on the grayscale map. The combined elevation map can be seen on the right.
After this, I loaded grayscale elevation map into a 3DSMax as a displace map, plotted the mast and our house there and put particle transmitter to the mast object so I would see how the radio signal would actually reach our house. First edition of this 3D renderation can be seen on the left.
The location of the broadcast tower (base station) is marked with a green pyramid up the hill on the right corner.. about 4-5 kms (?) from our home and our home market with the little red house marker on the upper left corner. Elevation features are overly exaggerated to see signal routes easier.
After completing this rendering I had instantly two thoughts: A) It is always nice and cool to visualize things and 3D makes all things look much nicer and B) It was a bit of waste of time since this renderation only shows features of the land and it’s elevation but not the treeline at all. And there are LOT of trees around here. A lot.
Right. Back to the drawing board. Rendering and map plotting with help of my beautiful wife was not completely waste of time. Rendering is always fun and I specially enjoy doing these little projects with my nerdy gamer-girrrl next to me and it also game me one perception which helps: Although there are high elevation obstacles in the area, line-of-sight to the base station (mast) is basically only blocked by the low-elevation features and the high trees, so the signal bouncing is not really the issue as much.
This also means that I do not need to worry about directing antenna towards the reflection points as aerial radio transmission is more likely to take place directly than reflecting from the side.
Where, what and how
Now that I had the exact location of the mast, as well as exact location of our house GPS’d, I used Movable Type Scripts to get the exact bearing between the mast and our house. With this information, I can soon easily climb to the quite sloped roof of the two-story building, position the 4G antenna with attached parabolic dish and direct it to the bearing 161°10′55″ (South East-ish) toward mast 4.699km from here. Great calculator!.
I do not have any prior experience of parabolic antennas and have not found any charts what would proof the concept of enhancing cellular signal with the parabolic dish, but generally, the idea works: I have only one direction (the base station) from where the cellular data broadcast comes to our house, and my antenna is multi-directional, so by putting the antenna box on the proper place with-in the parabolic dish and directing dish towards the mast, it should gather any extra radio waves around the receiver and bounce them towards it using the dish.
I do have the engineering degree but the previous paragraph sounded just like some redneck science. Yet still it should work. My dish is not as big as it could be, but any extra signal reflection should help.
Project day 3
Man and his Parabolic antenna
Today I started doing the process of making my “tubes of interwebs” better, i.e. making a better internet receiver antenna combining my current 4G/3G radio signal receiver with my old parabolic antenna we received when purchasing our house. As we do not have nor use satellite TV, at least not yet, and one receives a free dish with the order if we ever get one, it was more or less redundant accessory.
After half-hour of some plastic welding, cable ties and metallic bolts to hold the antenna with in the dish’s focal point, my extra-ordinary special-DIY antenna setup was finished. And looked quite nice, even if I said so myself. Image taken of the semi-finished dish setup can be seen on the right.
Next thing was me to gear up my work overalls, and climb on the roof of our two-story building. While I enjoy building and fixing stuff, and even attaching them around the house and the yard, there is one thing I really dislike, and it is climbing on the roof-heights without proper ropes– which is quite funny since I do not have any problems climbing high on trees or cliffs. Roofs simply feel less secure.
After I had successful dragged the dish and the antenna up to the roof on its position, two things were quite obvious: First, cable was short about one meter. Just one meter. Or perhaps two if you want to give cable some slack. Next thing was that my attachment rigs were too slim for the air vent I was attaching it, so I had to setup temporary attachment using several cable ties and ask my wife to unattach cables from the box so I could attach it to the vent.
So there I was, dish was on the roof but cables were not in the box. Just great.
After several swear words, browsing online stores for cheap SMA extension cables, I went to my workshop and found spare twin cables for the setup and then went to the roof of the veranda and attached the cables. After booting the 4G network modem, I started to see some actual results.
Although the ping reply had not shortened a lot, signal strength had boosted well and when, like now, our general bad rainy spring-weather signal varied between 1-2, our steady signal strength kept on 3 of 5, which means we could achieve 4 in good weather and even perhaps 5 if I just could go and cut down the whole 1-2 square kilometers of trees around here. But lets not go to that yet.
The most interesting fact with this update, was that our Wi-Fi signal strength went up good. Earlier our primary Wi-Fi (we have several APs around our yard) had working distance of 70-80 meters from our house, and now, after the dish-fix had been made, I needed to kept walking well past 100 meters, past 200 meters, 300.. and eventually reached, with the line-of-sight to the dish, Wi-Fi distance of 400 meters which is kind of cool taking on the fact that my box was not any kind of specially designed for long distance outdoor usage.
The project boosted my internet speed almost two times faster from the earlier and Wi-Fi has five times longer working distance than earlier. Latter, unexpected but very cool result.
The total cost of upgrading our internet, and the Wi-Fi distance on the same, was zero euros. The dish was a spare part as well as the all cables were also found from the storage. All I needed was some work effort, imagination and hold tight on the step ladders while climbing up on the windy and rainy day.