Mobile Routers & Local Area Networking
If you want to have more than one device taking advantage of an upstream internet connection, or you want to connect your local devices together to share files or functionality, you need a router.
Typical residential routers often connect to a cable or DSL modem for the WAN uplink, and create a local Wi-Fi and wired Ethernet network LAN for all the local devices in a home to connect to and share this upstream connection.
But wired connections like cable, DSL, or fiber are very rarely found on the road or water.
Instead - upstream connections for nomads like cellular and public Wi-Fi are variable and can frequently change. So nomads are trying to juggle multiple internet sources coming into their network.
It takes a special kind of router to be able to interface with and share and manage these connections.
Typical home and office routers are out of their element in a mobile environment.
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Here's a quick introduction to mobile routers, what they are, why you might consider one, and what styles they come in:
All routers, whether they are traditional home broadband routers or specialized mobile routers, need to perform a few fundamental tasks:
Connect Local Devices Into a LAN
A router must have the ability to allow local devices to connect to it and create a Local Area Network (LAN). A router acts as a hub in a local network and allows your devices that are connected to it to talk to each other as well as access the internet (ie. the "WAN - Wide Area Network").
Virtually all routers support local connections via Ethernet or Wi-Fi - usually both. Ethernet and Wi-Fi are the most common LAN technologies, especially for mobile users.
Connect the LAN to the Internet
This is the main function of a router. Fundamentally a router is designed to manage and be a bridge between two networks - your LAN on one side and the Wide Area Network (WAN) - usually the internet - on the other.
Managing a seamless connection between your devices on a LAN and the wider internet (or WAN) requires a router to utilize a variety of methods to ensure this happens securely, especially to protect the devices on your LAN from being directly accessed by the internet. Most routers, for example, have a "firewall" to protect the local network from outside threats. This is in addition to ensuring data goes where it needs to go.
How is a Mobile Router Different than a Home/Office Router?
The core features that set nomad friendly mobile routers apart from traditional home routers is support for at least some of the following features:
- Multiple WAN Sources: Many residential routers are focused on managing just a single internet source - usually a cable, DSL, or fiber modem coming in over Ethernet. A mobile router does this as well, but takes it further by managing multiple internet sources, including those more typically used in a mobile environment:
- Cellular Support: Utilizing cellular internet sources is a core feature of many mobile routers. They might accomplish this by providing a USB port & firmware that can utilize a mobile hotspot device, smartphone/tablet, or USB modem. Or a mobile router might have an integrated cellular modem inside of it, with the ability to insert SIM cards directly.
- WiFi-as-WAN: A router with this feature can use another Wi-Fi network such as a campground or marina Wi-Fi access point as its internet connection.
- External Antennas & Radios: Getting an antenna out a window or up on your roof can drastically increase your ability to bring in a solid connection. An external Wi-Fi antenna & radio can reach access points further away (such as across the RV park or marina), and cellular antenna ports can provide a stronger cellular signal.
- Flexible Power Inputs: Many nomads want to be able to optimize for 12V or 24v DC power to run gear off their battery systems when off-grid. A hallmark of mobile routers is the ability to run off 12V DC directly, though they can also run off 110V AC wall current with an adapter.
Do keep in mind that not every mobile router will support all of these features, but without explicit support for some sort of cellular connection or WiFi-as-WAN, a router may not be of much use on the road.
Do you NEED a Dedicated Mobile Router?
The most basic function of a router is taking an upstream network connection, usually the internet, and sharing it with multiple downstream devices over either Wi-Fi or Ethernet. A mobile router can also take multiple upstream internet connections (sometimes at the same time!) and bring them into a single network.
If you never intend to utilize more than one internet source or share an internet source with more than one device, you might not need a router. A simple mobile hotspot device or hotspotting off a phone or tablet, for example, is a basic solution that doesn't require a more advanced router.
All modern mobile cellular hotspot devices (Jetpacks, MiFis, etc.) and most smartphones have some limited router functions built into them and can support several connected devices at once.
If, on the other hand, you have an entire collection of devices that you’d like to get online, potentially using multiple upstream connections, as well as enabling your devices to talk to each other - you almost certainly would benefit from having a dedicated router sitting at the heart of your network.
In some homes, everything from the lightbulbs to the bathroom scale is Wi-Fi enabled, and a router is an absolute necessity!
Before you dig too deep into the more advanced mobile routers described in this guide, you should first decide if you really need one.
We have a guide to help you decide by comparing the advantages and disadvantages of connecting via a smartphone, a mobile hotspot, or a router:
If your needs are simple - you may decide that a dedicated router is overkill.
Advantages of a Mobile Router
Here are some of the reasons to use an advanced mobile router:
- Mobile Internet Sources: A mobile router allows you to connect to multiple types of WAN connections - sometimes even at the same time. The ability to connect to cellular and public Wi-Fi as WAN sources, in addition to Ethernet input sources (such as a cable or satellite modem, hotspot, or Wi-Fi CPE) adds a lot of flexibility and utility.
- Single SSID (Wi-Fi Network Name): You do not need to change the Wi-Fi connection settings on all your laptops/tablets/streaming devices each time you are using a different internet source. A router allows you to provide a single SSID that your devices can connect to regardless of what internet source your router is using. You can often even configure a router to failover from a primary to a secondary WAN connection automatically. Advanced routers can also bond two connections into a single connection for a more reliable connection.
- Stronger Broadcasted Wi-Fi Signal: Routers typically have more powerful Wi-Fi radios than smartphones, mobile hotspots, and tablets. So they can provide a stronger Wi-Fi LAN signal if you have a larger area you want to be able to cover.
- Ethernet/Hard Wired Network: If you have wired Ethernet devices (such as game systems, network-attached storage drives, or printers), a router can often share your upstream connection with a local wired Ethernet network. For those with Ethernet-only devices or requirements, a router is often essential.
- Using Wi-Fi as an internet source: Many places you travel may offer an internet connection over their own Wi-Fi network - a router that supports Wi-Fi as WAN allows you to use that connection as part of your network. Some mobile routers geared towards RVers and cruisers have specific features to better utilize public Wi-Fi networks provided by marinas and campgrounds - such as navigating captive login portals.
- Advanced Features: Many routers support advanced network management features - such as usage tracking and limits, ability to host a server on your private network, load balancing, auto-failover, and bonding.
Downsides of a Mobile Router
On the other hand, here are some considerations that might not make a mobile router as attractive:
- More Complicated: While a properly setup router can streamline your connectivity and local area networking, getting there can be a complicated process. Many routers are designed for IT professionals and do not have consumer-friendly interfaces. If you're not comfortable with technology, you may want to stick to a more consumer-focused setup or source from a vendor specializing in consumer support... or commit yourself to increase your technical knowledge.
- Pricey: Some mobile routers can get quite pricey - so they become a major investment in your mobile internet setup. You want to make sure you fully understand the features so that you get the router you need, but also to ensure it's future-proofed so the investment lasts longer.
- Embedded Cellular Modems Get Outdated: Routers with integrated cellular modems are handy - but the downside is that the cellular modem often cannot be upgraded. And cellular modems will likely become obsolete before the rest of the router since cellular technology is advancing at a much more rapid pace than router technology. Additionally, pro-grade cellular modems inside routers tend to be updated infrequently and are often a generation or two behind what's available in a flagship-level consumer mobile hotspot device or smartphone.
- Limited Data Plan Options: Cellular embedded mobile routers are best paired with a high-capacity or unlimited cellular data plan, which can be difficult or expensive to find. Additionally, some data plans offered by carriers and resellers may allow for usage on a smartphone, tablet, or mobile hotspot device, but not in a cellular-embedded router. You will need to carefully research your data plans to ensure they will work with a router and provide sufficient data for your needs.
There are a lot of mobile router options on the market ranging from small basic travel routers up to professional grade equipment offering very high end features at a very high end price. See our product overview grid at the bottom of this guide for the ones we're tracking.
The Simplest Mobile Router: A Mobile Hotspot Device
These devices have a built-in cellular modem that receives and creates a data connection and then creates a local Wi-Fi network supporting around 5-15 devices connected at a time. Some even offer USB or Ethernet tethering support.
Note: A smartphone creating a "Personal Hotspot" is doing roughly the same thing, but uses software on the phone to act as a limited router by sharing its cellular WAN connection with other nearby devices.
For more information on mobile hotspot devices and what they can do, check out our guide:
For many RVers and cruisers, one or two mobile hotspot devices might be all that is needed to keep all of their tech connected.
If you need more capability or flexibility than a simple mobile hotspot can provide, then more advanced router options are out there.
The remaining portion of this guide covers those options.
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LAN Networking & Features
This section is a more advanced look at the various networking features found on mobile routers to include Wi-Fi and Ethernet.
Cellular Router WAN Options
Being able to share a cellular-powered internet connection is one of the most critical features many nomads seek out in a router. This section goes over features to look for including tethering vs. embedded modems, signal enhancing, SIM card sizes, and band locking. We also discuss the coming era of 5G cellular.
Router Wi-Fi-as-WAN Options
This section discusses the various ways to utilize Wi-Fi-as-WAN with a mobile router.
Other Mobile Router Features
This section overviews some additional features that might be found on mobile routers.
Some routers are designed for specific niches. We look at a few of these here in relation to their usefulness in a mobile internet arsenal.
DIY Mobile Routers
An increasingly popular option among the tech-savvy is to create a mobile router using modular components.
Mobile Routers Product Guide
The grid below features popular Mobile Routers we are tracking on the market that might be of interest to RVers and cruisers.
- To view all of the mobile routers we are tracking, visit our Mobile Router Gear Center.
We have extensively tested many of these routers, and we offer free basic overviews, as well as in-depth analysis & reviews available to our premium members. Our members are also invited to share reviews and commentary of their own.
Summary: Mobile Routers Necessary for Connecting Multiple Devices
On the road or water, cable modems and DSL lines are rarely found - which is why mobile routers may become an important part of your mobile internet arsenal.
Routers serve as the central conductor on any network, acting as a gateway between the Local Area Network (LAN - your devices) and the Wide Area Network (WAN - ‘the internet').
If you want to have more than one device taking advantage of an upstream internet connection, want to utilize multiple internet sources or you want to connect your local devices together to share files or functionality, you need a router.
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