Help me find wifi networks. I'm desperate.
April 26, 2009 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to connect to a wifi network several miles away from my PC?

I recently moved to a street which seems to be an internet dead-zone. The cable company only services people on the main road, and we're just outside of the range for Verizon DSL. The only high-speed option seems to be satellite or Verizon wireless broadband....both too pricy.

There is a library and public wifi networks within 3-4 miles of the house....and possibly some open networks even closer. Is there any way to connect to these? Do I need a direct line of sight to use a directional antennae? Are there any commercial solutions to this problem? Homebrew solutions?

Thanks for the help
posted by pilibeen to Computers & Internet (15 answers total)
3-4 miles? It's possible (no endorsement intended--that's just the first commercial link I found), but, if satellite or Verizon wireless broadband is too expensive, then many of your potential solutions will also be too expensive.
posted by box at 10:04 AM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Can you get ISDN? It's not broadband - but it is 3-4 times faster than dialup, and generally available everywhere.

The 5 mile wifi link smells sort of scammy to me. You can directionally transmit a wifi signal and use it several miles away. However, if the library probably isn't doing that. I don't know that there is anything you can so from 3 miles away to tap into a wifi signal that isn't set up for long distance reception. Even if you could do it, it's probably a violation of the library's TOS.
posted by COD at 10:17 AM on April 26, 2009

It is possible although I don't know what equipment you might need.

I spent many summers in a cabin on the coast. On windless nights I used to pick up wifi from one of the b&bs from the other side of the bay (4-6 miles). I had direct line of sight. The connection however was very spotty and I could not move my laptop once the connection was established.
posted by special-k at 10:18 AM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ok, well I used google maps, and it's actually only 1.9 miles, by road, to the library....which probably translates to something like 1.5 miles as the crow flies. Does this change anything? There are definitely lots of trees on the way.

We looked into ISDN, but it's only 128k through verizon, and it's $44/month plus usage, I believe.
posted by pilibeen at 10:29 AM on April 26, 2009

Probably the easiest thing to do is make a cheap yagi Pringles can antenna, and see if you get anything with that. If you can get any signal at all, then you might look into a serious antenna.

Bear in mind, of course, that you are legally limited in how much power you can put out and that the library's end of things is not designed for long distance use. Most long distance WiFi setups have directional antennas at both ends, which won't be the case here.
posted by jedicus at 10:38 AM on April 26, 2009

LOS of site is important here, if you can get an antenna above the obstacles or be able to bounce the signal off of a flat building, you may have some luck. That link that box posted looks like a decent off the shelf solution. All the specs look like it would work. It uses an omni antenna, so the signal will be bouncing around all over the place. It won't be true wifi, as you'd have to be plugged into the antenna. Good luck and report back here and let us know how it worked.
posted by bigmusic at 10:40 AM on April 26, 2009

Response by poster: Do the yagi Pringles cantennas depend on line-of-sight? Also, would I be straining the library's connection if I was able to connect from 1.5 miles away?

thanks for the help
posted by pilibeen at 10:43 AM on April 26, 2009

Yes, that cantenna is directional. But that's ok, you are just going to be moving it around until you find a signal and then adjust it until the signal is strongest. The cantenna wouldn't put any more strain on the other end, they don't increase power to talk to the other end.
posted by bigmusic at 10:49 AM on April 26, 2009

I would recommend testing this with a cardboard and aluminum foil horn antenna. The horn antenna I built was capable of seeing an access point > 5 miles away.

You'll also need a WiFi device that can take an external antenna. There are USB WiFi dongles with this feature.

Your connection may be flaky, and will probably go down in fog and rain, but it is possible.

You need not just line of sight, but also little to no clutter around that line of sight path (the Fresnel zone).
posted by zippy at 11:20 AM on April 26, 2009

I'd chat with the neighbors seeing who has the same problem and who has DSL or CAble. You might end up running ethernet from the nearest neighbor with DSL or Cable, granting everyone along the way access, or just installing two directional antennas on both ends.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:06 PM on April 26, 2009

Also, I'm not sure the library internet is intended for "home use," so to speak; if everyone did this there'd be a major burden on their connection, so it violates the categorical imperative. For just adding you, it won't be much of a strain on their internet or wifi network, since routers typically broadcast at a set strength and don't deviate. But I really wouldn't compare it to "high speed" options. Your signal will be weak and lossy. You can (illegally) boost your end, but you can't boost theirs.

Also, be wary of running ethernet between houses.
posted by pwnguin at 2:18 PM on April 26, 2009

pwnguin: Running ethernet between houses shouldn't cause any ground loop problems, it's gonna be unshielded twisted pair anyway, which is transformer-isolated.
posted by signalnine at 3:07 PM on April 26, 2009

But if the ground reference is different between the two houses, odd potentials can be created in the wire. Even if it is transformer isolated, I doubt it's weighty enough to handle those sorts of situations. Much better running fiber or a laser/wireless link.

also, what pwnguin says- the library's transmit power would be the limiting factor here, I think. Theoretically, you could take a wrt54g kind of thing and make a repeater out of it. Make one antenna dedicated receive, one dedicated transmit to the library. Make the receive antenna something like a giant parabolic, and the send a can-tenna yagi kind of thing. Then hook that to your laptop via ethernet, or into another access point in your house. If you can get a way to receive their signal as they are broadcasting it, you'd probably be golden. Until the catch you, that is.

You might be better served getting a cellular wireless card. They're not cheap, but EVDO and HSPRS (or whatever it is) are pretty darned fast. And probably cheaper than the other options.
posted by gjc at 4:57 PM on April 26, 2009

Do the yagi Pringles cantennas depend on line-of-sight?

Also, would I be straining the library's connection if I was able to connect from 1.5 miles away?
No. The tx/rx on the "host" system will remain the same. Essentially, it doesn't know how near/far you are, so you wouldn't strain the signal any more than any other wireless user. You would be tapping into their bandwidth though, so I wouldn't get torrent happy.

Before you go overboard on equipment, keep in mind that they probably keep logs of connected users and could block your MAC address if they thought you were leaching.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 7:38 PM on April 26, 2009

I might investigate using phone-as-modem or mobile DUN through your existing cell phone. Whenever I have internet issues at home I connect my phone to my mac mini and use its wifi to rebroadcast the signal. And I use phone-as-modem via bluetooth for internet almost exclusively with my laptop during my commute to and from work.

I know Sprint's plan is just $15 on top of your normal mobile web service for your phone, At&t isn't any extra, and I'm not sure about Verizon, but I do think they offer something similar. It wouldn't be an always-on connection but I'm usually pretty happy with the speeds and might even be cheaper than DSL.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:20 PM on April 26, 2009

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