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 have developed a solid setup to have usable access almost everywhere we care to travel. We’ve been full-time in our RV for almost a year now (mobile for 5 months) and we’ve only gone one week without some kind of internet access!
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, the site serves as the best information and advice resource for anyone interested in mobile internet (full disclosure – Andy is now one of their contributors, teaching assistants, and moderators, 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. We have plans with all four major carriers, which gives us a lot of flexibility and guarantees us the most coverage options wherever we go.
- Our primary carrier, we’ve had AT&T for years as our mobile phone provider. We had 4 phones with AT&T before we moved into an RV and have been satisfied with their service. They even offer a 15% discount for military & veterans on this plan. We just learned about that & went through the steps to get it in place.
Now that we are mobile, we added a mobile data hotspot (A Unite Explore) and changed to the Unlimited Plus plan earlier this year. Mobile hotspots on this plan have unlimited data which makes this one of the best mobile data deals currently available. Since we already have multiple lines on our account, this is only about $24 more each month (including taxes).
- AT&T is our primary data source thanks to the unlimited play we have and AT&T’s good coverage map.
- 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.
- 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.
- Unfortunately, Verizon no longer offers any plan with unlimited hotspot or tethered high-speed data – unlimited data only applies to data used on the device (in our case the iPad). But we do get 15GB of tetherable/hotspot data and that is plenty for us as a backup source.
- In the future we plan to move one of our phone lines over to the Verizon plan. We discovered that having carrier diversity for voice is valuable as well, and moving one line over will not change our costs at all.
- We turned to a T-Mobile hotspot as another backup. We have 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.
- Our Sprint service was through a non-profit unlimited hotspot service called 4GCommunity – however 4GCommunity recently ceased operations and we expect the hotspot to stop working at any time. We paid $265 for a year, including the hotspot. This price was too good to pass up.
- 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).
- We are currently deciding if it is worth finding another Sprint or nonprofit option to maintain Sprint connectivity, but we are leaning toward ditching Sprint. If we find a super deal again, we may do it. 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. Howeer, 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 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 with all our options to see what works best for that area.
We have two sets of antennas that are compatible with our Unite Explore hotspot.
- The first is 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.
- We also have two inexpensive generic cellular antennas – one for each antenna port on our Unite Explore. I’m still testing the performance of these antennas, compared to the MIMO and booster, but so far they’ve shown mixed results. I thought these may be an inexpensive “good enough” permanent roof-mount option but I’m getting the sense that springing for an actual roof-mounted MIMO antenna would be much better, especially considering how much we use our AT&T hotspot.
Our Private Network
Getting internet to our RV is critically important, but we needed some way to simplify connecting to all these data sources – 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 need. 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, we have 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 works together pretty well! Obviously, we can’t often use every device at the same time, but our setup allows us to get what we need done the vast majority of the time (like work and school), and on most nights, plenty for TV, movies, YouTube, or gaming.