Assessing Your Mobile Internet Needs
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 tools you carry with you.
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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's a reason we can't give generic recommendations for a 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 first before building your shopping list.
How important is internet access to you?
Do you NEED to be online certain hours of the day to work or attend classes? Are you addicted to social media, streaming video or playing online games?
Or will your mobile internet access needs be 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 needs 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 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 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.
For the more casual surfer, you may get by just fine with a small data plan on your phone and soaking up free WiFi when you find it.
Whatever you do, avoid putting together a needlessly expensive and complex system. Overkill is rarely the right answer.
Check out the Use Cases section of 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! And 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 WiFi hotspots.
If you prefer getting more off the beaten path - such as amazing state parks, isolated anchorages, national public lands and off in the boonies - then your needs will be more challenging. Only the top cellular carriers will keep you connected with a solid signal enhancing strategy, and usable WiFi will probably be scarce.
And 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 around 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.
How long in 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. 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 multiple options in your toolset to give you the best odds of finding connectivity at each stop and optimize 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. But most of us these days already have a smartphone or tablet.
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 plans considerations to make:
- What plans do you currently have especially for your cellular smartphones?
- Do you have highly coveted grandfathered in truly unlimited plans that you can re-purpose?
- Or do you have more modern plans that have caps on hotspot use or video streaming that make them less than ideal for a home internet replacement?
The 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.
Pay attention to our news stories, and over time you too 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 market of reseller unlimited plans.
How comfortable are you with technology?
There's no denying it - mobile internet is high tech stuff. It is easy to quickly 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 on 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 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.
But 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).
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The additional content found in the member section of this guide includes:
We share a video archive on this topic, that includes a live mobile internet assessment with one of our members going over the process of considering your needs.
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 what your budget is. 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.
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