Assessing Your Mobile Internet Needs
There is currently no single technology for keeping online that is appropriate for all the different situations mobile folks might find themselves in.
Each RVer or cruiser usually ends up with a slightly different approach that best fits their travel style, needs, technical comfort level, and budget.
This guide will help you understand the considerations to keep in mind when deciding what equipment and plans you need to best meet your needs.
The key to successfully staying online while being mobile is having multiple options to try at each stop.
We call this a Mobile Internet Arsenal - the collection of tools you carry with you.
It might consist of multiple cellular carriers, signal enhancing gear, Wi-Fi equipment, and perhaps even satellite. The costs can add up, as can the complexity.
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In this short video, we go over the questions to ask yourself in considering your unique mobile internet needs:
Considerations of Your Needs
We're so often asked to provide a shopping list of gear and plans that one should go out and purchase for their RVing or boating adventure. There is a reason we can't give generic recommendations for the best mobile internet setup.
It's just not that simple.
Everyone's needs are so different, and there are so many options! And those options are changing all of the time.
Instead, we focus on providing resources to educate you on the challenges of mobile internet, understanding your unique needs and the options that are there to choose from.
Your ideal arsenal is going to be very personalized and dependent upon several factors. This guide goes over the considerations you need to understand before building your shopping list.
How important is internet access to you?
Do you NEED to be online at certain hours of the day to work or attend classes? Are you addicted to social media, streaming videos, or playing online games?
Or are your mobile internet access needs more flexible?
If you won't get the shakes (or lose your job) if you can't get online today (or heck, even this week), then you might not need many options onboard.
If your needs are more in the 'absolutely essential' category, then you'll want to plan your setup to include redundancy and signal enhancing solutions to make sure you have multiple options to try at each location to ensure better odds of getting online.
What do you want to do online?
The mobile internet setup of someone who participates in high bandwidth video streaming, two-way video conferencing, or managing large files remotely will look very different than someone who just needs to check e-mail, plan the route ahead, and manage their finances.
And of course, the data needs of an entire connected household with multiple computers, tablets, streaming devices, security cameras, and gaming machines to keep connected is vastly different than that of a solo nomad just doing some casual surfing on a single tablet.
If your data needs will be high, then you'll want to seek out unlimited or high-cap data options, signal enhancing gear, and perhaps even dedicated data gear and routers.
If you need to facilitate two-way video sessions - you'll need to pay particular attention to signal enhancing, redundancy, and planning your travels around connectivity to make sure you can achieve the download AND upload speeds you'll need.
When considering higher data applications, like video conferencing, you also need to consider internet speeds, and related concepts of latency (the "ping" time between sending a signal and getting a reply) and jitter (the variability of ping time). We have a guide dedicated to understanding internet speeds and how to test them: Speed Testing.
For the more casual surfer, you may get by just fine with a small data plan on your phone and soaking up free Wi-Fi when you find it.
Whatever you do, avoid putting together a needlessly expensive and complex system. Overkill is rarely the right answer.
Check out our curated resource collections on the Mobile Internet Resource Center for more detailed examinations of specific online activities such as work, homeschooling, international travel, and TV & Entertainment.
What is your style of travel?
Oh, the places you can go - that's the whole point of a mobile lifestyle! There are so many places to go, and each will impact your ability to get online.
Where are you staying?
If you're planning to focus on RV parks or marinas in populated areas, you'll probably see good connectivity most of the time. You'll be able to utilize cellular data plans from any of the carriers (quite possibly with strong consistent signal without needing antennas or boosters) and likely even have access to public Wi-Fi hotspots.
If you prefer getting more off the beaten path - such as amazing state parks, isolated anchorages, national public lands, or spots off in the boonies - then your needs will be more challenging. Only some (and sometimes even none!) of the cellular carriers will keep you connected, and you'll need a solid signal-enhancing strategy. Usable Wi-Fi will probably be scarce.
If you're really going off the beaten path into isolated areas and want to keep connected, you may even need to consider satellite.
How long are you traveling?
Are you setting off for extended long-term travels - such as full timing? Then your needs and considerations can be focused on the long term. Spending time & money upfront to invest in your setup may not be as much of a concern.
Or are you setting off for shorter excursions, such as part-timing, seasonal travels, or more vacation-length trips? Then you have to seriously weigh how much effort you want to put into your options versus the benefits.
In particular, high bandwidth needs for sporadic bits of travel can be some of the most difficult to approach, particularly with cellular.
How long at each stop?
Another consideration is how often you plan to move locations. If the time you stay in one place is measured in months or years, then you can optimize your setup for what works best at those locations. For longer stays, setting up gear - like directional antennas on a pole - isn't as big of a deal, or even potentially sourcing local internet solutions like cable, DSL, WISPs, or residential (non-mobile) satellite.
But if you'll be changing locations frequently, you'll want to consider keeping multiple options in your toolset to give you the best odds of finding connectivity at each stop and optimizing for easy-to-deploy (or better yet, 'always-on') gear.
What plans and devices do you have now?
Take into consideration what your current mobile internet setup is. We still encounter folks who only have flip phones (or *gasp* landlines) and are truly starting from scratch. However, most of us do already have a smartphone or tablet at this point.
Is your equipment due for replacement anyway, or do you want to maximize your current investment in equipment? Are you locked into a contract or equipment installment plan that would be costly to break?
Keep in mind, technology changes rapidly and to keep connected on the road you'll want to re-evaluate your setup every year or two to stay current.
Think it through carefully before getting locked in.
Some specific cellular data plan considerations to make:
- What plans do you currently have - especially for your cellular smartphones?
- Do you have highly coveted grandfathered truly unlimited plans that you can re-purpose?
- Do you have more modern plans that have caps on hotspot use or video streaming that make them less than ideal as a home internet replacement?
Cellular plan options change frequently, and those starting off fresh today may (or may not) be at a disadvantage due to what is currently available. You may even feel frustrated hearing of other travelers who talk of sweet plans that keep them connected that are no longer available today.
Considerations for Selecting Cellular Data Plans Cellular Data Plan Carrier & Pricing Guide
Pay attention to our news stories, and over time you may be able to assemble your own awesome plans. But in the meantime, you may have to make some compromises in managing your data and needs - or get comfortable shopping in the grey reseller market.
What about Satellite?
Do you already have Starlink?
Starlink has fixed location plans and mobile based plans that cover a wide range of options for the Starlink user. These plans differ in assigned location plans vs roaming options that work anywhere and various network tiers of data. Some have unlimited data while others have limited priority data.
Starlink may seem to be a panacea, but there are potential drawbacks when using it as your mobile internet solution. Particularly depending on how long you plan to stay at a location (travel style), natural and man-made obstacles, power usage/availability, or even just the evolving changes in Starlink's plans and Starlink's Terms of Service.
For more information about how Starlink could work as part of your solution in your mobile internet arsenal you can check out our dedicated guide:
Starlink for RVers and Cruisers
But, maybe you don't need, don't want, or can't get Starlink?
Other mobile satellite solutions may provide you some basic connectivity in the remotest of locations. You may already have a handy satellite solution if you are a back-country hiker or camper, or open water cruiser. That device may be all you need, or want, to stay connected when in traveling in remote locations:
How comfortable are you with technology?
There's no denying it - mobile internet is high-tech stuff. It is easy to get overwhelmed and left feeling like you need a full-time geek living in the bay of your motorhome to keep it all running.
If you're not comfortable with technology then keep it simple and stick to stuff you understand and can manage on your own. You can always add more options later as you increase your comfort level and better understand your mobile internet needs.
For those more technically inclined, the sky is the limit. From assembling your own setups hacked together from parts with no one to call for support, to off-the-shelf equipment with consumer-friendly firmware that comes with a phone number to call when it doesn't work.
Even some of the most technically advanced users are happy to pay for simplicity, reliability, and even hand-holding support just so they can have someone to call when things don’t work right.
What is your budget?
The cost of staying connected can add up quickly, between upfront equipment purchases and monthly fees for plans.
Free and cheap options will have trade-offs, like convenience. Even expensive options come with frustrations. And, even if you bought every gizmo, gadget, and plan out there you may still experience days without connectivity.
Take it slowly. Don't add on every product category you see us talk about here until you truly understand if it's a fit for your setup.
Throwing money at this stuff doesn't necessarily keep you connected.
We're here to help you understand the trade-offs and considerations and hopefully provide you with field-tested information on what works in different situations.
When are you Hitting the Road?
If you’re not hitting the road in the next couple of months, please don’t jump into buying all your equipment right away!
Technology changes so quickly that you are best off leaving the final assembly of your connectivity arsenal until much closer to when you are actually hitting the road. We recommend no sooner than 6-months before heading out, but 1-3 months before is even better.
If you hear of awesome data plans that come up for a limited time - you may need to carefully weigh the cost benefits of snagging them now (and paying for them in the meantime).
As you navigate building out a mobile internet arsenal, our reading guide to approaching Approaching Your Mobile Internet Solution & Sample Setups may prove fruitful:
Approaching Your Mobile Internet Solution & Sample Setups
Member Exclusive Content In This Guide
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How Much Data Do You Need
Getting a handle on your actual expected usage is critical when deciding how much data you need - and which limitations on that data you can accept. In this section, we explain what data is, and present some benchmarks for various tasks.
Tracking Your Data Usage
To determine how much data you use, you need to start tracking it. In this section, we go over some ways to get a reasonable reading on your data consumption now so you can better plan your mobile internet solution.
Assembling & Organizing an Arsenal
Unless your needs are very basic or you’ll be fairly stationary in one spot, you’ll likely want to consider multiple solutions for keeping online to try at each stop you make.
Despite all the advancements, there are still limitations and plenty of frustrations with mobile internet. The most important thing you can do to prepare yourself is to reset your expectations.
Conclusion: Make Sure You Understand Your Needs
When deciding on the optimal mobile internet set up, you should understand what specific needs you have in order to build the right solution. Be sure to take things into consideration like how much data you currently use, how technical you are, what your travel style is, and your budget. Making sure you have a good understanding of your situation will help you in making decisions about how to set up your mobile internet arsenal.
- Approaching Your Mobile Internet Solution & Sample Setups
- Overview of Mobile Internet Options
- Mobile Internet Tips for Working Remotely from an RV or Boat
- Video Broadcasting & Two-Way Conferencing Over Mobile Internet
- Mobile Internet Considerations for Families and Homeschooling
- Video Streaming Over Cellular & Wi-Fi: TV, Movies and Entertainment on the Go
- Online Gaming Over Mobile Internet
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