Researching Cellular & Wi-Fi - Before You Arrive
For those who rely on mobile internet, it can be very important to have this information before you head out to a new location.
It pays to do some research in advance!
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A Quick Video Going over our top tips:
Here are some handy resources for tracking this sort of information down:
Check the Carriers Maps
Each of the carriers publishes their coverage maps on their websites - some contain more information than others. Keep in mind, just because a carrier claims to have coverage - it doesn't necessarily mean you'll get it, or that it'll be usable signal.
Many things can impact your signal from the gear you travel with, local terrain, weather, tower congestions and more. Carrier maps don't account for those variables usually, and are derived from computer modeling of the towers they have transmission gear installed on.
And carrier maps can sometimes be a bit.. umm.. optimistic.. for marketing purposes too.
But they're still a good place to start - if your carrier claims to have coverage, it means with the right gear you just might be able to get online.
Here's where each carrier keeps their maps:
Although we can go to each carrier’s maps online separately, we decided to make it easier by bringing the four major carriers’ maps to your smartphone or tablet.
Yep, we wrote an app for that!
Coverage? (available for iOS and Android) allows you to overlay regional or city-level resolution versions of the carriers’ maps so you can create a personalized coverage map for the carriers you travel with and the minimum coverage type (LTE, 4G, 3G, 2G, roaming) you seek.
The maps are stored on device after downloading the app, so you don’t need to have coverage to find out which direction to head when you can’t find a signal.
It’s also useful for planning your next stop to look ahead as to if your carriers claim to have you covered.
But do keep in mind, the maps are based on the carrier's - so just because the carrier claims to have coverage, it doesn't mean you'll necessarily be able to get it. In our experience, we've typically found that with modern cellular modems and signal enhancing gear we almost always can.
Learn more about Coverage? - or download it from your app store:
Crowdsourced Coverage Maps
There are resources out there that aggregate crowdsourced signal and speed reports and create a coverage map based on what other cellular customers are actually seeing in certain locations.
Crowdsourced apps and websites use actual real-world user signal reports to build a coverage map.
More advanced crowdsourced tools can then use this information to geolocate cell towers and even determine the sectors for individual towers.
These resources rely on user data, so to aid in collecting that data, they often utilize a smartphone app that measures signal on your device and then reports that back to the database.
If you're interested in fleshing out if where you're planning to be will have signal - and what towers are nearby, crowdsourced tools add depth to your intel.
Here are the major (and free!) crowdsourced tools and apps:
- OpenSignal - http://www.opensignal.com
- Has both an iOS and Android app.
- Speedtest Function
- Estimates direction to connected cell tower
- Shows device data usage
- Option to disable automatic submission of signal data.
- Option to contribute signal data in the background.
- Displays tower locations, but only for the carrier your smartphone/tablet is currently connected to.
- RootMetrics - http://www.rootmetrics.com/us/
- Has both an iOS and Android app called ‘CoverageMap’.
- Their coverage map shows general signal quality in 10km (6.2mile) blocks - not as useful for finding coverage at very specific locations.
- Option to contribute signal data in the background.
- Cellmapper - https://www.cellmapper.net/
- Only has an Android App.
- Shows tower location information, tower signal sectors, supporting bands, MIMO, and several other tower characteristics.
- The App map can show which specific tower your device is connected to, assuming the tower is in the database.
- Option to manually upload collected data.
- Displays low-level cellular network information data along with frequency band calculations (for some providers and device dependent).
- The site can be confusing to use, but they do have a beta test with a simpler interface at https://www.cellmapper.net/testmap/.
Of course, with crowdsourcing, the maps are only as useful as the data they collect from users of their apps. These resources tend to have good data for urban areas where they have a strong user base. But, when you get to smaller cities, the maps can show no coverage at all (even when there is coverage!)
For those venturing off the beaten path, it's wise to also supplement crowdsourced maps with the carrier's maps (or, the Coverage? app).
Cellular Tower Finding Resources
If you know you'll likely need to enhance a cellular signal in the area you plan to be - or if you've arrived and realized 'hey! I need to enhance this signal!' - knowing where the nearest cellular tower is can be very helpful.
Unfortunately, in the US, there is no publicly available official database of where the carriers have their towers and cell sites.
The only sure-fire way to locate the local cell tower is to visually sight the tower, then point your antenna at it and see what happens.
And if you can't visually spot it, slowly rotating your antenna 15, 30, or 45-degrees at a time (depending on how precise you want to be) - and running a full round of speed tests at each direction until you find the optimal point.
While not sure-fire, you can try to shortcut the process by using online databases like CellReception, AntennaSearch, Cellmapper or the ArcGIS map overlay to try and locate your nearest cell towers. These databases are often incomplete or since cellular carriers often lease space on privately owned towers it is often difficult to figure out which carrier is broadcasting from where.
There are some apps that claim to show your nearest cell tower - our favorite is OpenSignal. But again, these apps also rely on crowdsourced data - and especially in remote areas they are not always accurate and are sometimes downright wrong.
Also, the OpenSignal app only shows towers for the carrier in the device you are connected with - so if the app is on a T-Mobile phone, you will only see T-Mobile towers. This is not too helpful if you are trying to optimize the signal for your Verizon Jetpack.
Sometimes it is actually easier to go drive around visually hunting for towers on the horizon and within range.
Campground / Marina Reviews
Since so many RVers and boaters depend on a solid internet connection, you’ll frequently find reports of cellular coverage (and Wi-Fi performance) hidden within campground reviews. Here are some of our favorites:
RV & Camping Sites:
- Campendium – This review site includes specific fields for reporting coverage on each of the major carriers. This site tends to be frequented by bandwidth hungry RVers, and lists commercial, public and free camp spots. Campendium Supporters can access coverage map overlay for the major cell carriers, and also have the option to filter search results by carrier. (You can become a supporter by making a small donation.)
- Recreation.gov - The booking platform for federally owned parks, such as National Forest campgrounds and Corps of Engineers parks. There is an area in their review section that shows camper-provided ratings of cell coverage for each carrier.
- Freecampsites – A database of remote camping and RV boondocking options, and asks reviewers to report their cellular signal for each carrier.
- RVParkReviews – This is one of the longest running review sites, and fellow RVers tend to leave coverage reports in their reviews. The Features & Amenities section for each park also indicates which carriers have coverage.
- RVParky – Another popular review site is RVParky.com where you might find coverage mentions within individual reviews.
- All Stays - Their app and website also has reviews where past campers may have noted the cellular coverage.
Marina & Anchorages:
- ActiveCaptain - Boaters share their experiences on an app and website, and mentions of internet availability are often included within reviews.
- Waterway Guide - Boaters share their experiences on the website, and mentions of internet availability are sometimes included within reviews.
And of course, don't just read reviews - leave your reviews to help other travelers plan!
Conclusion: Research In Advance
If it's important to you to know where along your route you'll have a good signal, advance planning is important. There are plenty of research tools available to help you, including carrier maps, our Coverage? app, crowd sourced apps, as well as online campground and marina reviews.
Cellular Data Guides
Cellular data is a BIG topic, and there's a lot to understand to pick the right combination and gear, plans and signal enhancing options for your needs. Here's some further content we offer on this topic to advance your knowledge:
For More Cellular Data Plans:
For more on selecting cellular data gear:
- MiFi/Jetpack, USB Modem or Smartphone Hotspotting?
- Understanding LTE Modem Specifications And Selecting Cellular Devices
For more on getting the best cellular service:
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