Keeping Connected in Alaska
So, you want to explore Alaska by RV or boat - the trip of a lifetime for nomads. And you want internet access while doing so?
Staying connected in the land of the Midnight Sun, where bears and moose and mountain goats roam - where some people can see Russia from their homes (Ok, maybe not their homes, but you can actually see Russia from Alaska's Little Diomede Island) is doable - with some expectation setting and a lot of preparation.
While you'll have little to no mobile internet access on Little Diomede Island, you can successfully enjoy some of Alaska and her scenic wonders while still staying decently connected.
Depending on your reliance and personal needs for mobile internet - successfully staying connected in Alaska will take some planning, flexibility, and some serious research in advance.
We're here to help.
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Setting Alaskan Mobile Internet Expectations
Alaska is roughly twice the size of Texas with large swaths of land where humans are scarce and Grizzly bears act as mayor, police force, and residents.
Inhabited towns are often hours apart, and some can't even be reached by conventional vehicles.
Cellular companies haven't yet been able to successfully market their services to Grizzlies, so it's not surprising that cellular coverage is typically focused on Alaska's major cities. As most folks' mobile internet arsenal is focused around cellular data, this can create huge dead zones of mobile internet coverage that may be frustrating - or income threatening.
Set your expectations carefully before heading up to the great northern yonder.
Be ready to plan a bit more thoroughly.
- If you need to be connected at certain times, then you will need to plan your route based on available connections.
- Will you be traipsing about Alaska during the final season of Game of Thrones? Yeah, that could be a problem. You may need to plan to be 'in coverage' for several Sunday nights in a row, or catching up when you get back.
- Do you require internet to earn your income? Be prepared to need to be flexible with your work hours. Many working on the road RVers report back fatigue with chasing connectivity to keep up with their work commitments, while still exploring all of the amazing that is spread out across thousands of miles during a short summer season (not to mention the 2000+ mile trip there and back with limited connectivity). How much connectivity are you willing and able to sacrifice to make your Alaska dreams come true - while still financially supporting those dreams?
- When can you be without internet access? When can't you be without it?
Be ready to have a back-up plan.
- So you've invested in the latest ($$) satellite internet gear - and you've stayed within the limited areas of satellite coverage in Alaska. You go to set it up and, oops! A moose stepped on and broke your dish overnight. Best have a back-up plan because it is likely you won't find a satellite tech around - and you're now without the internet to Youtube a fix-it video yourself!
- Sigh. You roll into town just in time to hop on that AT&T tower to soak up some of your data for a conference call. Surprise - there's a cruise ship in port! Everyone else in town also seems to be soaking the juice off that tower - it's overloaded, and your video conference abilities have been negated. Small towns + big cruise ships = cellular saturation.
- You've sought out a campground with reportedly excellent Wi-Fi, and pull in just in time to watch the season premier of your favorite show. Surprise! Your site is just out of range of the Wi-Fi, which only reaches to the first few rows of campers back from the front office. Doh!
Cellular in Alaska
Don't expect to be able to wander across the vast swaths of beauty that is Alaska and receive consistent cellular coverage. Be prepared to find huge areas of the state that are untouched by the arms of the cellular industry and all four carriers.
Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint
AT&T has the longest history offering service in Alaska as far as the big four nationwide carriers go, and it has the greates amount of established coverage.
AT&T is thus the carrier to have if you want the best odds of being connected.
However, even according to the November 2018 data analysis by WhistleOut, AT&T covers just 49,078m2 of Alaska's 587,434 m2 . That is just 8.3% of the state - and is inclusive of both 3G and 4G/LTE coverage.
Verizon entered the Alaskan market after AT&T, and its coverage is pretty much exclusively 4G/LTE. Verizon, however, covers an even more minuscule amount of area - just 11,428 m² (1.92%).
T-Mobile and Sprint? They've currently got no native coverage up in Alaska at all (0%) - which means you'll be roaming, if you can connect at all. However, both carriers have roaming agreements with Alaska's biggest local carrier - GCI, which claims coverage for 97% of Alaska residents - the best of any carrier (See our later section on GCI for more information).
These numbers don't bode well for folks wishing to explore beyond city limits.
The potential good news is, the areas without coverage aren't easily accessible by RV anyway - so unless you're planning some serious 4x4 off roading or backcountry exploring, you likely won't be venturing too far away from population & major roads and thus coverage opportunities. Boats, by contrast, have more freedom of movement and potentially better access to on and off-grid areas.
Here are some screen captures from our mobile app Coverage? of just the native 3G/4G coverage of AT&T & Verizon in Alaska. These maps are current as of February 2019:
AT&T 3G/4G/LTE Coverage:
Verizon 3G/4G/LTE Coverage:
All four carriers offer better coverage when permitted to utilize domestic roaming agreements, especially T-Mobile and Sprint, which roam on GCI (see the GCI section below).
But remember, most major carrier plans set strict domestic roaming limits and some plans don't permit domestic roaming at all. Check the roaming details of your plan before relying on roaming data!
Here is the native and roaming coverage areas for the four carriers as of February 2019 courtesy of our Coverage? App:
Be sure to research your specific plan if you are thinking you may want to utilize domestic roaming coverage while in Alaska.
Cruise Ship Port City Warning
But even for folks willing to stay near named cities trouble can arise with overloaded towers.
This is especially true If you're planning to visit Alaska's coastal areas, as cellular towers at cruise ports will be overloaded when ships are in port. When the ship is in, the internet is often OUT.
- Selecting Cellular Data Plans (More information on popular plans (including roaming info) across the four major carriers)
- Will I Be Able To Get Online? Tips for Travel Planning Around Connectivity for RVers and Cruisers
The Local Carrier - GCI
But, enough of the 'bad news.' Let's talk about a brighter spot in Alaskan cell phone coverage: GCI.
GCI is a local carrier, with focus on Alaskan coverage.
GCI claims to cover 97% of Alaskans. Remember, as a nomad traveling through Alaska, GCI doesn't claim to cover you. "Most" Alaskans tend to hang out in or near cities - thus GCI's 97% coverage claim.
A quick glance at the GCI coverage maps below shows that not even GCI touches large swaths of the Alaskan landscape. Remember - their claim is 97% of residents, not 97% of the state.
GCI is definitely the 'strong man' in terms of Alaskan cellular coverage currently, but may still not provide coverage for the wild areas you may want to visit.
GCI also provides television and hard-wired internet and phone services to roughly 3/4 of Alaskan residents.
So what's the point of all of this GCI talk? Well, if you rely on mobile internet, procuring a GCI SIM card is an option to look into. And if you have a T-Mobile or Sprint option, GCI is a roaming partner.
We've heard several reports of folks who picked up a prepaid GCI data plan to utilize while in Alaska as their sole data source or to supplement a major carrier plan.
Current (5/2019) GCI prepaid plan pricing is not outrageously expensive - especially for the nomad who relies on the internet. Redundancy is key - maybe especially so in Alaska. Here are the current options:
Additional addon data is available for these plans:
- 1GB - $10 (expires after 30 days)
- 3GB - $20 (expires after 60 days)
- 5GB - $30 (expires after 90 days)
GCI will sell you a phone if you need one or let you use your own if it's compatible.
While GCI's terms-of-service for tiered data plans states that "Mobile hotspot usage (tethering) is intended for personal mobile consumption and is not intended to replace or provide primary broadband connectivity," there is no language in their TOS prohibiting use of the mobile hotspot feature on a phone - or use of a SIM in a mobile hotspot device.
GCI also offers postpaid unlimited plans, called 'Simply Unbeatable' plans, where on-device data is (mostly) unlimited, with network management kicking in at 34GB per line, but this is only for some areas.
There is however a 10GB highspeed hotspot data cap on these plans, with 3G speeds provided after 10GB.
Furthermore, these lines are limited in 'extended markets' (typically the more rural areas), where usage is actually limited to 4GB per line/month - which is just about the opposite of unlimited.
The list of 'extended markets' is nearly double that of their 'Simply Unbeatable' markets. Such is the reality of mobile internet in America's last frontier.
You can research this plan further to see if it might fit your needs here.
Typically, satellite internet is the mobile internet option of choice for those who enjoy being truly 'off the grid.' Yes, the options are limited. Yes, latency can be an issue. Yes, it is pricey. Yes, the gear tends to be large and clunky. But, those trade-offs are worth it to many who want to wander into no man's land for extended time periods.
Well, when it comes to Alaska, unless you plan to invest heavily, there isn't much 'pro' to outweigh satellites' 'cons'.
The satellite coverage maps for the fastest satellite service - HughesNet Gen 5 - are pretty sparse - especially for those used to getting coverage darned near everywhere else in the lower 48.
If you're the proud owner of a HughesNet Gen 5 set-up, you will probably have more success than those who rely on cellular in some areas. But, in others, there is nothing to beam in.
But it also comes with a much heftier price tag for equipment purchase.
But do note that the coverage map is still weaker than the continental US.
If you've already got satellite internet gear, taking it up into Alaska may be productive in getting access to mobile internet in some areas.
Keep in mind when you're that far north you will need to aim at a satellite that is located in orbit over the equator, which will have your satellite dish pointed to the southeast very low to the ground - so terrain & ground clutter can become much more of an issue than you might be used to in the lower 48.
Not to mention, you may actually need a larger dish to optimize your signal. To be sure your gear is compatible - check with a company that specializes in serving satellite customers in Alaska.
If you don't currently have satellite equipment for mobile internet, keep in mind that acquiring it just for your Alaska trip may not be overly attractive. The equipment can be expensive ($1500 - $7000) and service will usually require an 18-24 month contract.
Future Tech Alert: Conventional geostationary satellite service is challenging for Alaska because of how far away and low to the horizon the satellites are but, due to orbital mechanics, future low-earth-orbit satellite swarms will actually be able to offer service in Alaska long before the lower 48 is covered. Satellite internet startup OneWeb, in particular, has said that it hopes to begin rolling out true satellite broadband service across Alaska, at least in demonstration mode, by end of 2019.
If you are able to schedule your internet needs around finding Wi-Fi hotspots, you should be decently successful in finding them in most populated areas of Alaska.
Using public Wi-Fi hotspots (free or for a fee) can also be a great way to accentuate a capped data plan on a local SIM (GCI), or to reduce risk of hitting domestic roaming limits on your big four carrier plan.
For some, using public Wi-Fi can simply replace the need to fight the limited coverage maps of cellular and satellite options.
There are various websites and apps available to help you find W-iFi hotspots, such as OpenWiFiSpots or WorkFrom. Of course, you might need to pre-plan (and note several options) before your travels if you plan on Wi-Fi being your only connectivity option.
The Milepost 2019 also provides detailed information on Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Alaska and comes in book form.
Some campgrounds in Alaska will offer Wi-Fi as either part of your site fee, or for an additional fee. So long as you remember the limitations often correlated with campground Wi-Fi, some folks may be able to use this form of internet access while bopping through Alaska.
But... Remember - You ARE in Alaska!
Whether you find free Wi-Fi at a library, offered at a bar, or included with your campsite - don't assume that it will be as fast as you've gotten used to in the lower 48.
Though some towns do have relatively fast internet, some other towns are only connected to broader civilization via an old microwave link or even just via satellite - and the entire town may be sharing that one connection!
Fiber-optic lines have not stretched out to every corner of the frontier just yet, so keep your expectations adjusted accordingly.
Other Related Guides:
Getting to Alaska
Driving Through Canada
For US-based nomads traveling through Canada to get to Alaska, head on over to our guide to Keeping Connected in Canada for in-depth info and options to mobile internet in Canada.
While many of the US carrier's current cellular data plans include free roaming in Canada, keep in mind that the roads to Alaska are very long and go through hundreds of miles of beautiful nothingness at a time.
Where there are no towns, there's typically no cellular signal - even on Canadian towers.
Don't anticipate much cellular connectivity at all once you leave populated areas.
Keep in mind to get to Canada you have to pass through all of British Columbia and then through Yukon Territory. Even Canadian based carriers struggle to provide coverage in these areas:
If you're going to need to access the internet, you might be wise to acquire a copy of The Milepost 2019, which provides a location by location guide (updated yearly) to where there are stops along the way through Canada with possible Wi-Fi hotspots to utilize.
And you may want to consider a satellite text communicator (like the Garmin inReach) or satellite phone if you must be reachable or want emergency communication.
For more information:
By Cruise Ship, Boat or Blue Canoe (aka 'Alaska Ferry')
Cruising up the Inner Passage will give you more opportunities for cellular access while passing small cities. These cities are usually part of Alaska, and thus US-based cellular companies (not Canadian).
Check coverage maps to see what carriers offer service and remember that service can often reach a dozen or so miles out to sea. BUT, remember that the cell towers at ports of call on cruise ship days are often overloaded - meaning your experience could be massively slow, or non-existent.
If you're on a cruise ship, be mindful of roaming onto 'Cellular at Sea' when out of reach of your carrier's tower - this can result in pricey roaming charges.
Satellite internet service may be offered on board as well, but these tend to be expensive, so be wary of what you're purchasing.
If you want to explore Alaska by RV or boat - and you want (or need) internet access, be sure to set realistic expectations, and be prepared to do some planning. Depending on your reliance upon and personal needs for mobile internet, successfully staying connected in (and to/from) Alaska will also take some flexibility and some serious research in advance. But it is possible!
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