Mobile Internet Overview for RVers & Cruisers
Keeping online is vital for staying in touch with loved ones, earning an income, remote learning, entertainment, making new friends, travel routing and managing finances.
This guide will give you an overview of the options, as well as an introduction to all we offer here at the Mobile Internet Resource Center.
What is the BEST Way to Keep Connected while Traveling?
The options for keeping online while traveling are different than living in a fixed location.
It is not going to always be as easy as plugging into cable like you might be used to at home.
Most mobile options are wireless, which presents new challenges with variable signals and performance.
Can you get online everywhere, reliably, with high speeds, and for cheap? Probably not.
But being online nearly everywhere
and most of the time
for an affordable price is within reach.
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Mobile Internet Video Overview
Prefer video? This 16m video was created in March 2018, and we are anticipating producing a new version in Fall 2020. The overarching concepts are still relevant, just some details have changed (5G, T-Mobile/Sprint merger and satellite developments). Those details are reflected in the text below and site wide.
The Challenge of Mobile Internet
Question: What is the BEST way to keep connected while traveling?
Answer: Whatever works best at your current location.
If you're staying in one place for a long period of time - the challenge is finding what works best there and optimizing for it. We have a guide to Optimizing Mobile Internet Solutions While Stationary to help you if that's your situation.
Moving locations rather frequently however, presents some unique considerations. And that our core focus - mobile internet.
You need to be prepared for the reality that what gets you online today may not work tomorrow when you move to a new location.
Which means you'll have to weigh how many options are practical for your own personal mobile internet needs.
|Cable/DSL||High -> Unlimited||Fixed Location||Reasonable||Fast!||Very|
|Cellular||Lots of Options||Wherever there is signal||Can be reasonable||Highly variable||Variable|
|Public Wi-Fi||Often Unlimited||Short range access points||Free to Cheap||Highly Variable||Highly Variable|
|Satellite||Capped||Whever you can see the southern sky||Pricey||Varies / High Latency||When setup right, works!|
Did you know that the term 'Wi-Fi' doesn't necessarily mean internet access? It's a networking term.
To learn more, here's our quick guide to understanding these basics:
There is currently no one-size-fits all best solution. You're going to have to do some homework to understand your needs, the challenges of mobile internet and options available. And that's what we're here to help you with.
Each traveler usually ends up with a different approach that best fits their travel style, internet needs, technical comfort level and budget. Someone who is working remotely while boondocking is going to have a very different solution than someone who just wants to stream Netflix & check e-mail while visiting RV parks.
And this stuff changes quickly.
Even if we could recommend a best solution today - tomorrow there will probably be a new gizmo or plan that changes that recommedation.
We call this a Mobile Internet Arsenal - the tools you carry with you.
It might consist of multiple cellular carriers, signal enhancing gear, Wi-Fi equipment and perhaps even satellite. And the costs can add up, as can the complexity.
See our Assessing Your Mobile Internet Needs Guide for a list of the questions you should answer first before deciding on your unique setup.
And follow up with our The Importance of Mobile Internet Redundancy guide for more on building a setup with back-up options to help keep you connected.
Primary Mobile Internet Options
This section will overview the primary ways RVers and cruisers keep online. Use the buttons below to skip to the different sections as you like.
Many RVers and cruisers depend on cellular data as the core of their mobile internet solution.
It's truly mobile, can be extremely fast (sometimes even faster than cable modems!) and is much more secure & reliable than public Wi-Fi hotspots.
It works using the same technology that allows you to talk & text and look-up restaraunt reviews on your smartphone.
To utilize this option, you'll need to choose which carriers work best for your travel plans, which plans will provide the data you need and what equipment to purchase.
Picking Your Cellular Carrier(s)
First, you'll need to choose which carrier, or carriers, you'll utilize.
You need to pick carriers & data plans well suited for all the places you plan to go.
For those that rely on cellular data for their mobile connectivity, we generally recommend having at least two carriers with suitable data plans on board. Redudancy is key!
The major difference for each of the carriers is how widespread their coverage is nationwide. And for those relying on cellular based internet as they move around the country, 4G & LTE coverage is still the most important. 5G will become more important as we move into the future. In the US, the current four major nationwide carriers are:
- Verizon - Has the most nationwide 4G coverage, and is usually a top pick for travelers.
- AT&T - Close second to Verizon in many places in thanks to 'climbing every tower' as they deploy their FirstNet Band 14 network.
- T-Mobile - The carrier to watch with a rapidly expanding network as they roll out their 600 Mhz network.
- Sprint - Traditionally only useful when close to bigger cities, however roaming agreements with T-Mobile are rapidly improving things.
- August 2020 Update - The merger with T-Mobile is in progress. Eventually all Sprint customers will become T-mobile customers, and their networks will be merged - but this will be a multi-year process. As of August 2020, new customers are directed to T-Mobile - however legacy Sprint plans are still available. Customers on Sprint plans still are operating off of Sprint's coverage map.
Coverage Map ComparisonBelow is a quick comparison of the four carrier's native 4G/LTE coverage maps, taken from the August 2020 HD Map update from our app, Coverage?:
For more on the Four Carriers for RVers & Cruisers: MobileInternetInfo.com/four-carriers
We wrote an app for that!Coverage? overlays the carrier's coverage maps so you can create a personalized map to better plan your travels around connectivity! While the carrier's maps may be 'optimistic' at times, using the carrier's maps is a great complement to also checking site-specific crowdsourced resources. Android or iOS:
Picking Your Cellular Data Plans
Each carrier offers different data plans - but the options can quickly become overwhelming. The carrier's plans are designed for their more typical customers, someone who has cable or DSL internet at home, and is just needing data on their smartphone.
For RVers and cruisers however, our cellular data is likely to BE our home internet connection while we're traveling. That means data only plans for hotspot devices or routers, or smarpthone plans that enable a lot of mobile hotspot usage are critically important for getting our devices online.
Mobile hotspot is what allows you to use your cellular connection to get laptops, tablets, streaming devices and other gear online by creating a private Wi-Fi or wired network.
And the carriers tend to restrict this sort of use.
We focus a lot on this topic, here's some recommended guides to help you dive deeper:
- Our Current TOP PICK Cellular Data Plans
- Considerations for Selecting Cellular Data Plans
- Unlimited Cellular Data Plans
Picking Your Gear
You might have heard terms like Mifi or Jetpack, which are mobile hotspot devices that take cellular signal and create your own private Wi-Fi network. There's also higher end routers, RV & boat specific gear & connected car equipment that has cellular modems built in.
And then to complicate matters further, you have to consider how you can optimize your cellular signal to get usable speeds. Antennas & boosters can help as you travel to different locations and encounter wide ranging signal conditions.
It can quickly become confusing to select the right gear for your needs - especially as we begin to move from a 4G LTE world to 5G over the coming years.
Here's some further resources we offer to help you decide:
- Ways to Use Cellular Data To Get Online: Jetpack, Smartphone or Router?
- Tips for Finding Cellular Coverage & Planning Your Travels
- Getting the best Cellular Signal & Performance
Public & Campground/Marina Wi-Fi
Many libraries, coffee shops, RV parks, marinas, stores, breweries, motels, municipal parks, and even fast food restaurants offer free Wi-Fi.
There are also plenty of paid Wi-Fi networks to be found, such as Boingo and Xfinity.
Though Wi-Fi has the potential to be crazy fast, shared public networks can be very slow.
A public Wi-Fi hotspot is highly dependent upon how many people are sharing that connection.
More often than not these Wi-Fi sources can disappointedly slow or glitchy.
Campground & Marina Wi-Fi Realities
Although you would think that an RV Park that advertises “Free WiFi” would have worthwhile internet access, this is often not the case.
Generally, if the Wi-Fi is managed decently enough, RV park or marina Wi-Fi might be good enough for checking email and doing some basic surfing.
Think about what would happen if a park ran a garden hose to fill everyone's water tank at once. By the time the water flow reached you, you'd just get a trickle.
Unfortunately, that's what happens with internet - many RV parks and marinas only have a small internet pipe coming into their park. Not enough to meet everyone's desires.
However, things are improving as more marinas & campgrounds upgrade their infrastructre - so you may encounter usable Wi-Fi in your travels. And then you may just be parked too far away to get a strong enough signal. If that's the case, there is Wi-Fi extending gear to help.
The Wi-Fi Worthiness Test
Before investing in Wi-Fi extending gear, take your laptop or tablet closer to the access point (that's the location were the Wi-Fi signal is being broadcast from - usually by the office, laundromat or for a well planned network, antennas mounted throughout the campground or marina).
Your signal will probably improve (5 bars instead of 1), but do some speed tests and surfing - does your experience improve? If it does, then an extender might help you bring that performance back to your RV or boat.
If it doesn't improve, then the Wi-Fi provided at this location likely isn't suitable to begin with... and no amount of gear you install is going to help.
For More Information:
- Getting Better Wi-Fi – Selecting Long Range Wi-Fi Extending Gear
- Mobile Routers – Creating a Local Network
Let's Clear Up Some Satellite Confusion
Satellite TV equipment is designed for one-way communication. You just need to receive a signal to view your TV content.
Internet is a two-way street - sending & receiving of data. It takes different equipment to provide internet connectivity.
Dish TV or DirecTV are television providers, they do not provide internet service themselves.
Second: Home Satellite Options are NOT Mobile
There are satellite internet options that work great for stationary homes. If you move locations, the satellite company has to come out and re-install the gear for you.
Options that you can move around the country on your own are available, but you have to specifically seek them out.
While there are fast mobile satellite services available, today’s satellite options come with tradeoffs to consider.
Current geostationary satellite internet has higher latency (600 ms) and requires requires bulky expensive gear to get connected that requires setup at each stop.
If you plan to focus your travels on being way out in the boonies, the challenges of satellite internet might be worthwhile.
If you are hoping for a simple, fast, go-anywhere
solution - satellite will likely frustrate for now.
There are exciting things coming in the nearterm future however with low earth orbit options that will be able to provide fast service with low latency. We're excitely tracking this emerging technology.
For more information, our guide:
Other Internet Alternatives
With some creativity and compromise, you may find other ways to stay online that include:
- Subscribe directly to Cable or DSL internet from your RV site or slip if available
- Borrowing bandwidth from friends as you driveway surf.
- Co-working spaces in more urban areas - rent a desk for a day or a week and utilize high speed bandwidth galore!
- Amateur Ham Radio for non-commercial communication
Resources to Check Out Next:
Explore the Resource Center
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