TV & Movie Streaming with Mobile Internet
RVing and boating don't mean giving up Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or any streaming service - you can still stream video while traveling using mobile internet sources like cellular data, satellite, and public Wi-Fi.
While nomads do enjoy getting out and exploring our new locales, hiking in nature, and visiting with friends – when travel is a lifestyle, it’s all about finding balance.
There’s no shame watching some television after the hike - or bailing on yet another museum to stream a good flick.
For a full-time nomad, this is life on the road or water - not an endless vacation.
We aren't spending all of our days playing tourist and evenings roasting marshmallows over a campfire.
There will be bad weather days, blood-sucking bugs, days you’re not feeling well, or days you’re just bored of exploring (yes, it happens) when you'd rather just Netflix and chill at home.
So do it.
Unwinding after a day of work, exploring, or socializing by plopping down in front of the tube (errr.. OLED screen) is part of modern-day life!
With life in constant motion, many of the old ways of staying entertained just don't work like you might be used to.
The cable is cut, satellite TV is hit-or-miss through trees or masts, local over the air channels are unfamiliar, and online streaming can leave you fighting with poor signal and living in fear of data caps.
And let's face it - few things consume data more quickly than streaming video!
Enjoying glorious HD (and even ultra-HD 4K) video requires astronomical amounts of data.
If you have a fast and unlimited landline internet hook-up, then these data demands are no big deal. You might not have ever thought about how much data is required to stream a movie or TV show (it requires a lot!) - which can be a major challenge with mobile connections that usually come with data restrictions, caps, and throttles.
But never fear - you don't have to give up your favorite shows to live a life on the go. If you learn a few tricks and the ways to avoid the worst pitfalls, there are actually still plenty of options to keep you entertained no matter where you roam!
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Video streaming allows watching live TV or specific shows on-demand over the internet anytime you like.
Just click on your computer, smartphone, tablet, Smart TV, or streaming box.
Because video streaming has become very common and affordable - we often forget that the technology behind the scenes that makes this possible is near magical. And the amount of data and resources required to provide and receive it are mind-boggling.
We so often hear from RVers and cruisers that they have just basic mobile internet needs - just e-mail, web surfing and video streaming.
Even though video streaming is commonplace and may appear simple, it is often not simple when it comes to streaming over mobile internet .
Video streaming one of the most bandwidth intensive things you can do online, and is the area where your experience will change along with the quality of your connection and your mobile internet source.
So just what does it take to stream successfully - particularly when relying on mobile internet?
How Fast of a Connection Do You Need?
Simple answer: the faster the better
Particularly if you want to watch in HD.
Here are the current speed recommendations for watching content through Netflix. Other video services have similar needs:
- 0.5 Mbps - Required minimum
- 1.5 Mbps - Recommended minimum
- 3 Mbps - SD resolution, aka "DVD Quality"
- 5 Mbps - HD quality
- 25 Mbps - Ultra HD / 4K quality
If your connection is barely fast enough for the resolution you have selected - you may encounter pauses for buffering, or lengthy delays when you jump to a new location in a show.
If your connection is particularly fast, you may burn through way more data than intended.
Some video streaming services will automatically adapt to deliver as much resolution as your connection will allow. And some services allow you to manually pick a quality setting, giving you some control over resolution and data use.
TIP: Keep in mind that some mobile internet connections restrict speeds for video content to limit resolution and control data usage. You can check to see if your service is throttling video by comparing a speed test using Fast.com (run by Netflix, so it uses a video file to test) with a more general speed test service like SpeedTest.net.
How Much Data Does Streaming Use?
Lots. And if you are watching in HD or Ultra HD - Mega LOTS!
Again using Netflix as an example, here are Netflix's estimates of how much data an hour of video will consume:
- Lowest Resolution - 0.3 GB per hour
- Medium Resolution - 0.7 GB per hour
- Standard Definition (SD) - 1GB per hour
- High (HD) - 3 GB per hour
- Ultra HD - 7 GB per hour
Netflix sets the gold standard for video compression - equivalent resolutions on other services often burn through data even faster!
Streaming over Mobile Internet Data Sources
If you're used to video streaming over a hard-wired internet source like cable or DSL, you likely have a fast data plan that is reliable and comes with unlimited data or a very high data cap. You probably never had to even think about how much data you were using or how fast & reliable your data was.
Mobile internet connections are much different and make video streaming a challenge.
Here are some specific considerations for two of the most popular mobile internet sources: public Wi-Fi and cellular data.
Public Wi-Fi Streaming
Many people assume that they will be able to stream all they want over campground or marina Wi-Fi networks, or by tapping into neighboring public Wi-Fi networks at a nearby coffee shop, store, or restaurant.
This may occasionally work out...But don't count on it.
While more and more campgrounds and marinas are specifically designing their Wi-Fi networks to provide the capacity for their customers to stream video - this is still somewhat rare.
Most public Wi-Fi hotspots only have enough bandwidth to allow guests access to email and basic web surfing. Just one or two video streams over a shared connection can sometimes bring the network down for everyone.
Many marinas and parks limit how much data their guests can use daily to fairly spread out the bandwidth, and some just simply do not allow video streaming.
Without guidance to the contrary, please be a good neighbor by limiting nonessential high-bandwidth usage to off-hours – such as late at night, or mid-afternoon while everyone is at work or out sightseeing.
As counter-intuitive as it might seem, even when there is campground Wi-Fi, cellular is very often a better option!
Cellular Data Streaming
Consumers - and not just nomads - want to watch videos on their sweet high-resolution smartphone and tablet screens when they're away from home. Cellular carriers are partnering with streaming services (some even own video streaming services) to meet this demand and entice consumers.
All carriers now proudly promote "unlimited" data plans, as the old tiered data plan model no longer makes much sense in a video-rich world.
Consider - a 90-minute high-definition movie on Netflix can easily eat up 4.5GBs of data!
If you’re paying by the GB at $10/GB - that movie would cost you $45 to watch!
This means their data plans are specifically designed around temporary use away from a normal home internet landline connection.
The carriers try to balance increasing capacity to handle ever-increasing demand while managing their available network resources, which are inherently limited. They manage limited network resources via cellular plan restrictions and a network priority system that prioritizes some types of data over other types.
Since video streaming takes a lot of data, the cellular carriers all institute a variety of limitations to ensure video usage doesn't clog up the network. As a result, "unlimited plans" come with restrictions intended to make it unappealing to rely on your cellular data plan for all of your video streaming and internet desires.
Here are some of the most common types of restrictions that come on "unlimited" and other plans:
- Mobile hotspot and tethering use. Using your smartphone or tablet to get other devices online is usually not unlimited or is only unlimited at very slow speeds after a certain amount of data is used.
- Video streaming throttles. Many plans will limit bandwidth for video content so that higher resolutions are not possible.
- Network Management. Most plans will deprioritize data after a certain amount of data is used - essentially penalizing high data use. Some plans are always deprioritized. Deprioritization puts you in the slow lane when the network is congested and is one of the key methods carriers use to manage network capacity.
Additionally, most smartphone and tablet unlimited plans provide unlimited video streaming - but only on the device's screen and usually with restrictions on video resolution, limiting you to SD or HD quality.
This presents a problem for nomads who's primary home internet connection is cellular data.
RVers and cruisers don't want to just watch video on their smartphone - they want to use their SmartTV or streaming device (AppleTV, Chromecast, Roku, etc) to watch their favorite content on the big screen.
To achieve this, you have to either adapt your viewing needs or look for alternative cellular plans.
There are data plans available, usually, via third-party resellers, that can provide for unlimited, unthrottled video streaming on whatever device you like. But these plans very often come with risks.
Check these guides below for leads on the current best options:
For our current top pick data plans:
For more details on the limits of "unlimited" plans:
If you're willing to adapt your viewing preferences, read on for some additional ideas later in this guide on using your carrier's direct plans to scratch your streaming itch.
Streaming To The Big Screen from Smartphones & Tablets
When it comes to movie night - bigger is better.
After all - who wants to watch blockbuster movies and epic shows on a tablet or a phone screen?
You naturally want to use your mobile connection to watch on a larger TV screen, but a lot of the best options for streaming via cellular unlimited data plans are limited to "on device data" - meaning that the unlimited data is only unlimited when watching on the comparatively tiny screen o a phone or tablet.
Doing so will blow through your personal mobile hotspot data limits in a heartbeat!
A great way around this is to use your smartphone or tablet to directly feed a larger TV screen, essentially "mirroring" your device screen to the TV without using mobile hotspot data.
The overall experience may be nowhere near as nice or convenient as directly using an Apple TV, Roku, or the built-in smart TV apps, but at least you can watch all you want without running into mobile hotspot data limits by taking advantage of unlimited on-device data available on many smartphone and tablet plans.
There are several ways to do this depending on the equipment you have, and several important gotchas to be on guard against.
Keep in mind that not all streaming apps will support the methods below, or may only support it for specific types of content depending on content licensing and other agreements with content producers. As with other aspects of mobile internet, flexibility is key, and you should ideally have a "plan B" if your favorite show or app won't let you stream from your phone or tablet to a big screen.
Tip: A lot of nomads actually dedicate a tablet or smartphone to be the streaming heart of their entertainment center, permanently wired to their TV.
Hard-Wired HDMI Out Adapters
The simplest way to get your video up on a big screen is to use your smartphone or tablet to drive the screen directly via a hard-wired HDMI video cable.
When doing this, the video content on your smartphone or tablet screen is transmitted through the cable to one of the TV's HDMI input ports. The HDMI out adapter essentially just mirrors the image from your smartphone or tablet to the larger screen. The advantage of this method is that the data used for the video stream is still considered 'on device' and therefore does NOT tap into your hotspot data, which likely has a cap.
You're just mirroring what's shown on your device's screen to another screen.
For those with unlimited on-device data, this can be a great option - just keep in mind that any video resolution limits or throttles that come with your plan are still in force.
Here are the options for different types of mobile devices - read on to be sure you pick something compatible with your device.
With Apple iOS devices it is easy - Apple's Lightning Digital AV Adapter works with all current iPhones and most older iPads and is directly supported by many streaming apps to give you a dedicated video output from your iOS device over HDMI, while also enabling a separate view of the control panel on your phone or tablet.
Apps that are not designed for HDMI output instead run in screen-mirroring mode, displaying exactly what is on your device on the connected screen.
Keep in mind that Apple iOS enables this function by default, but app developers can choose to block it. Some streaming apps have specifically blocked output via the adapter and other screen mirroring methods like Airplay.
Additionally, app developers can block certain content depending on licensing restrictions - so some shows/content may work for screen mirroring, while other content doesn't, even if the app supports the feature.Click to Purchase on Amazon Click to Purchase on TigerDirect
TIP: Do NOT be tempted by discount knock-off adapters - they usually will not work for copy-protected content, which means almost all commercial video streaming services will be incompatible.
Going for the Apple-branded option is well worth the extra cost over a third-party adapter.
NOTE: iPad Pro models released after October 2018 have a USB-C port instead of a lightning port and can use any USB-C to HDMI adapter, including the one from apple:Click to Purchase on Amazon Click to Purchase on Tiger Direct
In the Android world, HDMI output compatibility is hit or miss, and there are multiple incompatible standards.
You will need to do your homework to find out what is compatible with your particular device - if there is even an option at all. Some devices simply do not support any HDMI output capability.
Note: Google Pixel phones, by design, do not support wired USB-C to HDMI screen mirroring.
Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL)
If your Android device has a Micro-USB or USB-C charging port, check the device specs for MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) compatibility.
There are now four generations of MHL, with support for devices going back to 2010 and MHL is becoming the dominant format outside the Apple ecosystem. See this Lifewire article for an excellent primer on MHL capabilities for each generation. Device manufacturers may or may not include MHL support. The MHL standard is backed by Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, and Nokia, so devices from those companies should all include MHL.
You'll need to carefully check the specs of your mobile device and potentially your TV (if it includes native MHL support) to see what generation each supports, and which connectors or adapters you will need. There are a huge number of choices and possible combinations, so you'll need to do your research to find the combination that works best for your device and TV.
Here are just a few options to consider:
- For many older Samsung phones - the official Samsung HDMI adapter is a solid way to go. There are also options that integrate the MHL adapter into a long HDMI cable, perfect for leaving your phone accessible while plugged into the TV.
- Newer devices and adapters with MHL 3.0 support allow for up to 4K output resolution. Options and availability frequently change, but Amazon has a consistent supply of MHL adapters. Just be sure to ensure compatibility with your device.
The latest version of MHL, called "superMHL" allows for 8K video at 120 frames per second over a USB-C cable, has support for charging a phone from a compatible TV, and even integration of video remote controls on the mobile device. MHL is also able to broadcast and control mobile games to the big screen with a compatible TV.
More about what MHL can do is available on the MHL Consumer website.
The latest details and device compatibility can be found on the official MHL website.
SlimPort is an alternative competing standard to MHL for connecting to HDMI, but is falling out of favor and is mainly found on older devices (primarily 2019 and older).
SlimPort can utilize micro-USB or USB-C connectors, so make sure you get the right one. Here's a handy compatibility chart for devices with Slimport.
USB-C to HDMI
Most recent Android devices have moved to USB-C charging connectors and many support widely available USB-C HDMI output adapters for basic screen mirroring. There are a lot of options to choose from, and even a good generic USB-C to HDMI dongle will usually work great with many models of USB-C phones and tablets.
WARNING: Many Android phones have no support at all for wired HDMI output. So be sure to check to determine what is compatible with your particular hardware. Also be sure your selected output option provides for a way to charge your device while streaming, otherwise you might end up with a dead phone battery right at the worst possible cliffhanger moment.
Miracast Screen Mirroring: Cordless HDMI
One alternative to using a wired HDMI adapter for some Android devices (and Windows laptops) is to use a technology called Miracast, which is essentially a "wireless HDMI" signal for screen mirroring, broadcasting exactly what is on your mobile device screen to your TV over an automatically configured peer-to-peer Wi-Fi channel.
If you are using Miracast it acts like a wired HDMI connection which means you ARE using the on-device data with your device's plan and not hotspot or data from another source. This is unlike other "wireless" connection options or services that "hand-off" a stream such as Airplay and Chromecast.
Some smart TVs have Miracast receivers built-in - for those that don't, you can plug in a generic Miracast receiver into an HDMI port on the back of any TV. Here are some options:
- The Amazon Fire TV Stick supports Miracast, as does the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter.
- Amazon is full of other off-brand alternative Miracast dongles, for as little as $15.
- All the latest Roku devices also have Miracast built-in too.
To mirror your screen to a Miracast receiver, a Miracast transmitter needs to be built into your mobile device.
Many recent Android phones and Windows laptops have added this support, though no Apple devices have or are likely to.
Miracast is usually found and enabled in the Android Display Settings. Any nearby powered-on Miracast receivers will then be presented as a connection option.
But Miracast support can still be very hit-or-miss, and even some flagship devices lack Miracast support. Check compatibility carefully to see if Miracast is enabled, though it may be called something else, like "wireless screen mirroring" in the specifications.
Hybrid Wired / Wireless HDMI
If your streaming phone or tablet only supports wired HDMI output (and not Miracast) and you can't bear having a long HDMI cable tripping hazard running from your couch to your TV - one alternative to consider is an HDMI Wireless Transmitter & Receiver.
With this sort of setup, you would still have a wired HDMI cable from your device on the couch to a small transmitter box that you can discreetly hide nearby. The receiver can be plugged in behind your TV without a long cable stretched across the room.
There are many receiver/transmitter options available with a wide range of costs and claimed ranges. Some even support multiple receiver outputs in case you want to stream to both a living room and a bedroom TV simultaneously. Here are a few leads to start your research:
- Wireless HDMI TV Connection Kit
- IOGEAR 4K Wireless HDMI
- J-Tech Digital Receiver / Transmitter - Supports Two Receivers
AirPlay & Chromecast Casting
Simple and easy, right? But be careful - there is a catch!
AirPlay and Chromecast are capable of displaying video from your mobile device to a connected screen, but whenever possible they try to hand off the connection to the Apple TV or Chromecast.
The stream then uses whatever data source the Apple TV or Chromecast is connected to for internet access and not your "on-device" phone or tablet data.
This means that even though you may have started the playback on your mobile device - the data being used will come from whatever connection is configured in the AirPlay or Chromecast, both of which require connecting to a Wi-Fi network.
That could very likely be your capped mobile hotspot data! Unless your AirPlay or Chromecast is set up to use a plan with unlimited hotspot or tethering data, it is best to avoid using them for streaming videos.
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Here's a sneak peak at the member exclusive topics in this guide:
A Video Overview of TV streaming options
Streaming Over Satellite Internet
Information on video streaming options for those with satellite internet connections.
Cellular Data Plan Guide for Video Streaming
For each of the four major carriers, we cover the general carrier policies for video streaming throttles, bundled streaming services, and data usage policies.
Video Streaming Services
We overview the features of major video streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Max, and YouTube for how mobile compatible they are.
Optimizing Video Streaming Data Usage
We share tips for fine-tuning your video streaming services to deliver the best quality for the lowest data usage.
Alternatives to Video Streaming
We touch on alternatives like downloaded content, streaming recorders, traditional cable TV, and satellite TV.
Streaming Video Overseas
US-based streaming services might be blocked when you cross borders. This section shares some tips for getting around it.
Summary: Video Streaming While Mobile
While video streaming is one of the biggest data hogs there is, there are a variety of tricks to making streaming video content over a mobile internet connection work for you.
From dongles for utilizing on-device data to plans that offer media streaming that doesn't count towards your monthly data allotment, with a bit of research you too can be watching hours of media when you just don't feel like trekking out of your RV or boat to explore.
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