Internet in a Box

April 24, 2016

Oh, it’s been far too long since I’ve posted in this blog, forgive me!

Over the years I’ve have this idea floating around in my head to create what I dubbed “Internet in a Box” to take on my annual convention trip with friends. The initial idea, circa early 2010, was a rather unwieldy wooden box that had an 8-port hub, a Soekris net4501 embedded computer, a Netgear WGR614L wireless router/AP, my old Cradlepoint CTR350, and a Samlex SEC-1212 DC power supply to run everything. I would have plugged my venerable Huawei UMG181 3.75G aircard into the CTR350 to give 5GB of data for the stack to use.

While the idea was good, it was a bit ambitious: it was unlikely for me to acquire the lumber to build this out, and I would have likely crushed a thumb or finger under a hammer during the construction stage, so I shelved the idea and went for the plan mentioned in this blog’s first post.

Fast forward 5 years and I’ve gone through three or four different router machines, all being repurposed for other projects eventually, so I was left with a PC Engines apu1c that needed a project. By this point I’d acquired a third T-Mobile line and had put its SIM in an LTE aircard for use with this board or as a backup for my home connection. After a failed attempt at AWA last year, mostly due to a congested LTE network and some minor driver issues with the version of pfSense the board had installed at the time, I managed to wrangle it into working properly over my trip to Orlando in February for work, though only on the last day at the stopover hotel in Tifton, Georgia.

In the weeks since returning from that trip, I’ve gone through several different OSes on the APU and tried several different solutions to make it work well, even getting a Huawei E3276s-505 for coverage on all 3 of T-Mobile’s LTE bands, which I could not get working properly with any distribution. I felt like I was back to square one before coming up with a moment of brilliance. I reloaded pfSense on the machine and ordered the Huawei AF23 “Modem Sharing Dock” to serve as a bridge of sorts for the new aircard. A DMZ entry and static DHCP lease for the APU’s “WAN” port later, and we’re golden for LTE as the “last resort” connection. A huge bonus is the dock is powered by USB, and the APU’s USB ports supply enough power to run it, even under heavy load.

The LTE problem solved, I turned to the most problematic issue: WiFi client mode. As pfSense presently does not have full support for USB 802.11n, I picked up a Raspberry Pi 2, loaded OpenWrt on it, plugged in the Edimax EW-7811Un USB WiFi card I’d originally picked up to use with my original Raspberry Pi before coming to my senses and plugging it into my ProCurve switch, and set that up in similar fashion to the LTE dock, only with the WiFi card as the “WAN” interface. As the Pi is also powered by USB, I was able to once again use the APU’s USB ports for power.

Now we are mostly set for any sort of future trip. My ideal connection priority is as follows: if wired access is available, use that, if not use WiFi if available, if neither are available or feasible, use LTE. Based on my many hotel stays over the years, the most obvious connection is WiFi followed by LTE. Very few hotels that I’ve stayed at in recent years have had wired Ethernet ports in their rooms.

The kit complete, I had to pack it all in a very portable solution. It just so happens my company sells Pelican cases, and one of our stores had the 1400 Protector case in stock. A simple transaction later and the case was on its way to my home. The case’s contents are as follows:

  • PC Engines apu1c
  • AC adapter for the APU
  • USB-to-serial adapter with null modem adapter
  • Two dual-band WiFi antennas
  • Google Chromecast
  • HDMI extension for Chromecast
  • USB cable and AC adapter for Chromecast
  • Huawei AF23
  • Raspberry Pi 2 in official case
  • USB cable to power AF23 and RPi2
  • 7′ Cat-5e cable

All in all, this was likely one of the more fun, though frustrating at times, projects I’ve done for myself over the years. I’m sure it will have improvements as the years go on, but for right now it certainly meets my relatively meager needs for connectivity on the few trips I take each year. The largest benefit I find from this is the ability to use a Chromecast in a hotel room to watch Netflix with. It certainly beats the average drivel on the limited television selection most hotels have.

Until next time!

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