Selecting a Cellular Modem
Using cellular technology is the most common way to get online for RVers and Cruisers.
There are many types of cellular devices that can be utilized to get online: mobile hotspots (aka Jetpacks or MiFis), smartphones, or cellular embedded routers.
And not all modems are created equally.
Understanding the features and capabilities of the modem chipset inside your device is just as important as selecting the right form factor for your needs.
As each of the cellular carriers continues to advance their networks, your cellular data performance will be directly impacted by how modern your device is and whether the modem inside is capable of fully taking advantage of the cellular network it is connected to.
The performance difference between a modern high-end modem and an older basic modem can be as dramatic as the performance difference between a Tesla Roadster and a Go Cart - and just knowing you have "3G" or "4G" or "5G" is not nearly enough.
Especially since many newly released devices still contain older and slower modems, it really helps to understand what is under the hood so that you can better compare options and know what sort of performance to expect.
For those who consider mobile internet critical to their lifestyle, we generally recommend evaluating your cellular gear (and the modems inside!) at least every year or two to ensure that you are keeping current.
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We then wrap up the video with a real-world head-to-head comparison of three hotspots with different modem chipsets inside (the Verizon 8800L, 7730L, and MHS900L) to show how dramatically performance can vary between devices with different modems on the exact same network.
While this video uses Verizon Jetpacks as an example, the concepts apply to all cellular modems.
Note: This video is from 2019, and does not incorporate 5G specifications. But other than 5G, the video provides a solid foundation in understanding and comparing 4G/LTE modem specifications.
The integrated cellular modem is the core of every cellular device. It's what gets you connected to your carrier's network.
Though it is technically possible to build devices that work across multiple carriers, most mobile hotspots and even some phones are designed and specifically optimized for a primary carrier.
If this is the case - they tend to be offered directly by the carrier for purchase, and are even branded as such.
Just because a device is branded for one carrier, that doesn't mean it won't actually have a modem that is compatible with others. It might!
T-Mobile and AT&T devices tend to have a lot of crossover support for each other's networks, but you'll have to shop for carrier unlocked devices in order to successfully SIM swap. Or if you do have a locked device - you'll need to jump through hoops to get your current carrier to unlock the device before you can connect to their competitors.
Additionally, there are many non-branded and fully unlocked devices on the market that can successfully work on multiple carriers without any hassles.
Higher-end mobile routers, in particular, tend to support multiple carriers by default.
Flagship smartphones tend to have more cross-carrier compatibility as well, but you still need to check the specific specs of the phone as some are released with features tied specifically to a single carrier.
For more on using carrier specific devices on other networks:
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Cellular Generations & Modem Categories
The LTE modem performance category is a quick way to compare modem specs and the max theoretical speeds that are capable under laboratory conditions.
Cellular Frequency Bands
The frequency bands your modem supports is critical to understanding what sort of performance and coverage you might expect from a device. This section also includes our current advice on what frequency bands to optimize for each carrier when selecting a device.
Additional Cellular Features & Standards
What about 5G?
With 5G becoming increasingly widespread, does it make sense to wait for 5G before investing in a 4G/LTE modem? This section is kept updated with the latest 5G modem developments.
Summary: Evaluate Features Every 2 Years
Understanding the features of a cellular device is one of the most important criteria for determining how well it will perform for your needs.
Sometimes an upgrade to a more advanced modem can make all the difference in the world.
As technology advances and changes frequently, we recommend evaluating the capabilities of your cellular modems at least every couple of years to make sure you have the best equipment for your needs.
There is usually no need to rush to be on the bleeding edge of technology, but it definitely pays to avoid falling too far behind!
Selecting Cellular Devices
LTE Modems come in various sorts of cellular devices - smartphones, embedded routers, and consumer level mobile hotspot devices. Each has its pros and cons.
For more on the basics of mobile hotspots, routers, and smartphones:
We have specific guides to selecting these sorts of devices:
Mobile hotspot devices are small, self-contained units that receive a cellular data signal and transform it into an internet connection. They are a cellular modem and router combined. Most can create their own personal Wi-Fi network.
They are typically designed with a specific cellular carrier in mind and require a suitable cellular data plan of their own to operate. You might see them called Jetpacks (Verizon's term for them) or MiFi (Inseego's name for them).
Here's a quick video going over the features of a hotspot, and what makes one better than another:
The guides below have been hand-picked to help further your education about selecting mobile hotspots and best utilizing them in your mobile internet setup.
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