Connectivity is Not Optional
When we first started planning for this next stage in our life, we knew it was going to be a huge lifestyle change. One of the initial problems we wanted to solve was staying connected, as we knew internet access would be required for road schooling, work (possibly -we weren’t sure then if we’d be working or not), entertainment, news and all the modern trappings.
Enough internet for five users was a real concern, especially since we were already cord-cutters and our home internet use, at the time, was about 750 gigabytes a month!
Fortunately, there are many options to make connectivity a reality and we developed a solid setup to have usable access almost everywhere we care to travel. We were full-time in our RV for 18 months before settling in a sticks-and-bricks (we settled – temporarily – because our kids wanted a normal high-school experience). and we only went perhaps two weeks total without some kind of internet access.
Although we’re back in a house now, we maintain a basic but robust internet setup since we continue to use our RV whenever we can.
Andy’s interest and research on mobile internet landed him at the mobile internet mothership, the Mobile Internet Resource Center. Started by two long-time geeky nomads, Cherie Ve Ard, and Chris Dunphy, the site serves as the best information and advice resource for anyone interested in mobile internet (full disclosure – Andy now works for them, so we’re a bit biased!).
Our Setup Choices
A mobile internet setup will usually be more complicated than a typical home internet setup, especially for those who need consistent connectivity. Our current system is detailed below, along with the reasoning behind the choices we made.
Nomads and mobile travelers have a few options for internet access: Cellular data, Satellite data and public WiFi (Here is a more complete explanation of the alternatives).
We use, almost exclusively, Cellular data. When we were full-time, we had plans with all four major carriers, which gave us a lot of flexibility and guaranteed us the most coverage options.
Here is what we had while full-timing – we dropped a couple of options now that we are stationary:
- AT&T is our primary carrier, who we’ve had years as our mobile phone provider. We started with 4 smartphone line with AT&T before going full-time.
Before we went full-time, we added a mobile data hotspot (A Unite Explore) and changed to the now-retired Unlimited Plus plan in 2017. Mobile hotspots on this plan have truly unlimited data which makes this one a fantastic mobile data deals that we were lucky to snag when it was available. Since we already have multiple lines on our account, this is only about $24 more each month (including taxes). We’ve kept this plan to keep the mobile hotspot option, and we used it as a home-internet solution for a couple of months until we got cable (Xfinity) at our house.
- AT&T was our primary data source thanks to the unlimited plan and mobile hotspot option. AT&T also has a good coverage map – not quite as good as Verizon, but close.
- Additionally, the Unlimited Plus plan gives each of our phones 10GB of hotspot/tether data each month. That gives us a lot of flexibility if AT&T is slow since we can kick the kids off the Unite Explore and make them use their own data to watch Scooby Doo or Mythbusters.
- For a long time, we didn’t think we needed Verizon, but once Andy started working again we knew we needed it as a backup to give us connectivity in the more remote places. We were also looking at getting a new iPad anyway, so we bought an iPad with Verizon service.
- When we were full-time, Verizon didn’t offer any plans with unlimited hotspot or tethered high-speed data, but we did get 15GB of tetherable/hotspot data and that was plenty for us as a backup source.
- Now that we’re stationary, we still have the iPad but change the plan to Verizon’s cheapest option that only includes 1GB of data, saving quite a bit of money. If we need more Verizon data for our summer trips, we can always bump the plan back up or look at other options.
- We turned to a T-Mobile hotspot as another backup while we were full-time. We had a legacy 6GB Simple Choice plan with BingeOn video streaming for $36 a month. Unused data “rolls over” and is stashed–up to 20GB–which makes this a great option for periodic use, and we were able to dip into that stash on a few occasions, which made it a valuable addition. The Simple Choice plans are no longer available, but T-Mobile is still a good option for full-time nomads.
- Once we moved into a house, we decided we no longer needed T-Mobile and we dropped this plan. If, in the future, we need T-Mobile service, we will probably move one of our phone lines over to T-Mobile, since they don’t currently (as of spring 2019) offer any decent mobile hotspot plans.
- Our Sprint service was while full-time was through a non-profit unlimited hotspot service called 4GCommunity – however, 4GCommunity ceased operations. We paid $265 for a year, including the hotspot and definitely got our money’s worth. Although 4GCommunity is dead as a dodo, there are other non-profit Sprint options available.
- We used this plan exclusively for internet while we were stationary in our RV in Florida and it performed pretty well (Friday and Saturday nights prime time got a little slow).
- Once 4GCommunity when kaput, we decided we didn’t need a Sprint option in our arsenal anymore. By that time we were mainly in the western US and primarily traveling in wild areas where Sprint coverage was minimal-to-nonexistent. Sprint can have some great speeds in urban areas, particularly areas where the AT&T and Verizon networks are saturated, but elsewhere their coverage is limited to along most interstates, and not where we like to camp.
Public and Campground WiFi
- We use public and campground WiFi only occasionally. Most public WiFi is slow, poorly secured and is not reliable when we need it. However, on one occasion we ended up paying to use a campground’s WiFi because there was no cellular service in that location. We’d planned to be off-grid that week, but needed it to stay connected during a family emergency.
Getting Better Signal
Since we rely so much on over-the-air signals, we have a few different ways to improve the speed and connectivity of our cellular connections:
We use a WeBoost 4-GM cellular signal booster. Currently we have the stubby magnetic mount antenna on the roof of our RV and the interior “chocolate bar” antenna under our TV near our tech cabinet.
- The WeBoost has been essential for us in a few areas with a weak or marginal signal, but boosters are not a cure-all and are only useful in a particular set of narrow circumstances. In marginal signal areas, we test all our options to see what works best for that area.
We use a Netgear MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple Out) antenna that retails for only $27 on Amazon. This is our go-to antenna that we have hooked to our hotspot almost all the time and it often makes a huge difference. With this antenna, we did not need to use the booster at all except in really bad signal areas.
Our Private Network
Getting internet to our RV is critically important, but we needed some way to simplify connecting all our devices to the various data sources we used – especially with five people and many WiFi and internet-enabled devices. Managing everything would be a huge headache without our mobile router.
Mobile routers are very similar to home routers used for create a private home network, but they add in several essential features necessary for a mobile setup. The major difference is that mobile routers can connect to mobile internet sources. Most also offer better data control features to manage internet sources and usage and can be run on 12-volt vehicle power.
Our Mobile Router
- We picked the WifiRanger Core router as the heart of our mobile system since it has the features we needed. With this router we tether our hotspots or use WiFi-as-WAN to make any WiFi source our source for internet.
- We have our Apple TV and Roku connected via ethernet to the router, all other devices connect via our private WiFi signal.
With five people living, working and schooling full-time in an RV, we had a lot of stuff to connect to the internet – here’s our list:
- 4 Laptop Computers
- 4 iPhones
- 1 Chromebook
- 1 Xbox One
- 5 Kindles
- 1 Apple TV
- 1 Roku
- 1 iPad
- 1 Printer
And it all worked together pretty well while we were full-time!
Obviously, depending on the bandwidth available, we couldn’t always use every device at the same time, but our setup allowed us to get what we needed done the vast majority of the time (like work and school), and on most nights, plenty for TV, movies, YouTube, or gaming.
Now that we’re part-time RVers, our basic system still works really well and the core plans we have give us the flexibility to continue to extensively RV during the summers as well as support our day-to-day needs.
As with anything else, it all comes down to your particular needs and your capacity for flexibility and adaptation. That is what the nomadic lifesytle is all about and it’s no different with mobile internet.