last updated 07/11/2015
There are a few options for phone and internet when touring, travelling, camping or living in remote areas. If you need a connection at all times, then satellite is your only option. Setup costs are high (several thousand dollars) and using it is tedious for non fixed applications, requiring meticulous alignment with satellites each time you use it. Satellite phones could be used, but the cost for data is prohibitive. If you can tolerate no reception some of the time, an option is to use an external aerial or antenna mounted to your vehicle that provides extended coverage for your phone or modem. This is the arrangement I have chosen.
A smart phone is the best option for touring and camping in a vehicle or any sort of travelling. You get phone, GPS, movie player, music player, FM radio receiver, email, document viewer and web browser built into the same device. Any decent smart phone has these features. Smart phones can also act as a wireless hot spot, sharing their internet wirelessly with other devices such as laptops, negating the need for a separate modem. They can also share their internet over USB (called USB tethering), which keeps the phone’s battery charged too. The problem with most smart phones is that they do not have external aerial connections. This results in people often choosing less than ideal arrangements. For example taking a second phone that does have an external aerial connection, and switching sim cards between phones depending on whether the external aerial is required. Another solution when travelling to remote areas is to buy a dedicated wireless modem with external aerial connection and its own SIM card and internet plan.
A smart phone with an aerial port would do away with all the extra hardware and phone / internet plans that you’d otherwise need. Samsung Galaxy S series of phones is one such phone. There are four models that I have verified having an aerial port – the original S or S1 (GT-I9000), S2 (GT-I9100), S3 (GT-I9300) and S4 (GT-I9500). They all have an aerial port and patch leads are readily available to suit the port. I have a Samsung Galaxy S2, my wife had the Galaxy S1 but now has the Galaxy S4. The aerial ports are exactly the same on the Samsung Galaxy S1, S2, S3 and S4, requiring the same patch lead which can be interchanged between phones.
The aerial port is hidden behind the rear cover. I drilled a hole in the cover so I would not have to remove the cover every time I need the aerial. We use the aerial so often when touring that I could justify drilling the hole.
So the only device I need for phone, internet, email, portable movie player, music player, portable web browser, FM radio, ebook reader, document reader and wireless hotspot is my phone. I also only need one plan – the phone shares the data that comes with its standard plan. More data can be purchased at a similar rate to the data cost of dedicated wireless modem data. When I want internet on my laptop, I plug the antenna into the phone if required and turn on wireless internet sharing on the phone. The laptop connects to the phone and I have internet on my laptop. On the Galaxy S, to turn on the wireless hotspot, select “Mobile AP” under wireless settings. For the Galaxy S2, select “Portable Wi-Fi hotspot” under wireless settings. On the S4 select “Mobile Hotspot” or “Portable wifi hotspot” under tethering and portable hotspot settings. There are also free widgets that can be downloaded so that you can turn the wireless hotspot on and off easier from a shortcut on the main screen. When in areas with poor reception, we plug in the aerial which provides an extra couple of bars of reception strength.
I have an additional protective case that I put on the phone to protect it when we are out bush. This covers the aerial hole and prevents dirt getting inside. I try to remember to put the cover back on whenever the phone leaves the car.
For this arrangement you will need to buy a 3G /4G aerial to mount to your vehicle. Higher dB antennas provide greater signal gain, but have flatter / thinner reception doughnut meaning they aren’t as good in hilly terrain so consider your application when choosing the right antenna. The higher you can mount it the better; even a couple of meters makes a big difference. We’ve had experiences where there was no reception at ground level and ok reception from inside our roof top tent. Some people do not permanently fix their aerial to their car, instead attaching it to a pole to get greater height. You will also need to buy a patch lead to suit the aerial port on the phone. Patch leads are available from mobile phone accessory specialist stores, which also stock back covers with pre-made holes to suit the aerial ports. The end of the patch lead that connects to the aerial is usually an FME connector to suit the standard connector that aerials are usually terminated with. The other end is a connector specific for the Samsung’s aerial port.
To charge the phones, I have a cigarette lighter USB power supply with two USB ports on it. Using this I can charge both mine and my wife’s phones at the same time. The Samsung phones charge over USB via a standard micro USB port. This means using the same USB charger and cable, I can charge our phones, e-reader, portable speaker and practically any device that isn’t Apple. The charging cable is a standard USB cable, so can be unplugged from the charger and used to plug our devices into our laptop. So we don’t need extra cables when connecting to our laptop. The laptop also charges the devices when connected. Another advantage to this setup is that when the cables wear out and eventually become damaged from constant use, I don’t have do purchase a whole new cigarette lighter USB charger. Just chuck in another standard USB cable.
So with this setup I need only one phone / internet plan, only one phone, only one SIM card, and no other modems or bits of hardware. Keep in mind that using your phone as a wireless hotspot consumes a lot of battery power. I usually keep it charging whilst wireless hotspot is on. Regardless, because the phone gets used so often for many tasks it’s likely you will be cycling the battery a lot and it will probably wear out earlier than the phone does. Don’t worry, the battery on most Samsung phones are easily removed and replaced and are super cheap to buy online, unlike some other brands that try to force you to replace the whole phone! I’d never buy such a phone purely on principle.
There is some discussion around that the ports on the Galaxy phones are not intended to be used and can cause problems. This might be true but it isn’t a show stopper. We are careful when plugging and unplugging. The ports are small and the pins are fine so they could be damaged easily. Yet we have used the ports extensively for several years of camping and fishing, on both the Samsung Galaxy S1, S2 and S4, with absolutely no problems. The patch lead fits well, the port seems robust, there are no signs of mechanical wear, the phone reacts without a glitch when plugging and unplugging the aerial. Of course it is possible to cause damage if the wrong connector is used or if it’s forced in or yanked or the cable is damaged. We have seen reports of the aerial port being damaged causing the phone to lose reception completely whenever the aerial is unplugged. So there is a risk. We must have plugged and unplugged hundreds of times on our travels. Sometimes several times a day, and usually at least a few times a week. Every time we are driving between towns in limited service areas we use it. Every time we rock up to camp with weak or no reception we at least try it. The antenna provides a significant and usable extended range, and the smart phones have been excellent all in one solutions to our touring and camping needs.