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What's the BEST Way to Keep Connected while RVing?

Internet access is almost as essential as water, power and sewer access for RVers - some would even say it's more essential.

It's an amenity that is vital in keeping in touch with loved ones, earning an income, remote learning, entertainment, making new friends, travel routing and managing finances.

The options for keeping online while RVing are quite different than those available while living in a fixed location. It is not going to be anywhere near as easy as just "plugging in" to cable or DSL like you might in a fixed location home.

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.

This guide is meant to give you an overview of the considerations and options, as well as an introduction to all we offer here at RVMobileInternet.com. We strive to offer unbiased mobile internet information specifically for RVers by RVers. We research, test the options, and analyze industry news... so you can focus on what drives you.

In this Guide:


Mobile Internet for RVers Video Overview

This 24-minute video and following article is a quick overview of the options.


The Challenge of Mobile Internet

Question: What is the BEST way to keep connected while RVing?

Answer: Whatever works best at your current location.

If you're staying in one place for a long period of time - the choice is easier. You find what works best in that location and optimize for it. It's not much different than moving into an apartment or house in a new location.

Mobility, however, presents some unique considerations, and that's what we focus on here. If you want or need to be moving locations fairly often, you need to be prepared for the reality that what works best will change each time you relocate.

In one spot Verizon might work best with a booster, in the next it could be the campground's WiFi if you have a long range antenna and in the next it could be T-Mobile with a directional antenna.

Which means you'll have to weigh how many options are practical for you to bring along with you to best meet your needs and travel style.

On the road, you will be encountering:

  • Intermittent and variable connections.
  • Varying speeds – from frustratingly slow to blazingly fast.
  • Bandwidth caps.

Ways Mobile RVers Keep Online:

Cellular and Public WiFi (such as offered by campgrounds) are the primary internet options for those who keep a mobile RVing lifestyle. Satellite internet is an option that has compromises, but provides coverage for those really going off into the boonies. For those staying places seasonally, there might also be options for subscribing to cable or DSL at an RV Park.

Here’s a quick grid that shows the trade-offs of these options:

If you're already getting confused by terms like WiFi, cellular and internet  - let's start off with the very basics:

What is the Difference between WiFi and Cellular?

Assembling Your Arsenal

There is currently no one single technology for keeping online that is appropriate for all the different situations mobile folks might find themselves in. Each RVer usually ends up with a slightly different approach that best fits their travel style, needs, technical comfort level and budget.

Cellular, WiFi or Satellite? Which is right for you?

When Plan A is out of range, Plan B suffers a hardware failure, and a tree is blocking the signal to Plan C – what will you try next?

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.

It might consist of multiple cellular carriers, signal enhancing gear, WiFi equipment and perhaps even satellite. And the costs can add up, as can the complexity.

Many mobile RVers who rely on internet select multiple options to give them redundancy - See our Assessing Your Mobile Internet Needs to better understand the considerations you need to make when deciding the options you need in your setup.


Now, for an overview of the primary mobile internet options:

Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives

Cellular Data

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 4.51.28 PMcellular-optionsCellular data is probably the easiest and most accessible option in most places across the USA. Many RVers depend on cellular data as the core of their mobile internet connectivity.

It's truly mobile, can be extremely fast (sometimes even faster than cable modems!) and is much more secure & reliable than public WiFi hotspots.

Cellular data allows you access to the internet anywhere your devices can get a cellular signal from your carrier(s). More than likely you’re already carrying a cellular-equipped mobile internet device – such as a smartphone or tablet. And those devices may be able to get your computer and other devices online by tethering or using the personal mobile hotspot feature.

You have to choose which carrier(s) you want, which plans make sense, what equipment to purchase, and how much speed and data you actually need.

And you might need extra antennas or boosting gear to optimize utilizing cellular.

Cellular coverage now reaches into some pretty remote places and has gotten amazingly fast. You can even see speeds in excess of 50 mbps (and you can also get speeds slow as molasses)!

Nationwide Carriers

The first choice to make is which carrier, or carriers, you should get service with to best cover your mobile data needs.

In the US, the four major nationwide carriers are:

  • Verizon
  • AT&T
  • Sprint
  • T-Mobile

If you were living stationary in one city or neighborhood, you could ask friends for their experiences with their carriers to determine which would serve you best. But as a traveler, you will be moving around – and in different locations, different carriers excel.

You need to pick carriers & plans that are well suited not just to your home turf,
but also for all the places you plan to go.

From our mobile app Coverage? for iOS and Android, these coverage maps show the fastest cellular data type (4G and LTE - 3G, 2G and Roaming has been removed) for each of the four major carriers:

For most RVers, Verizon has the most nationwide coverage.

AT&T follows closely behind.

T-Mobile has become an interesting secondary carrier with a rapidly expanding network - but their coverage is still far behind Verizon for now.

Sprint can really only keep an RVer online who sticks close to bigger cities.

For more information:

Guide to the Four Carriers - Which is Best for RVing?

Tips for Finding Cellular Coverage & Planning Your RV Travels

All of the carriers now offer unlimited data plans, however they are typically intended for 'on device' usage. In other words, there are restrictions on using the data to get laptops, TVs and other devices online via mobile hotspot - and the plans come with network management policies that can slow high data users down when on busy towers.

We're constantly tracking the most affordable options for cellular data, including unlimited and high data cap data plans - here are our current top picks:

  • Verizon - A grandfathered/legacy unlimited data plan is the best option for most US nomads who need lots of bandwidth and nationwide high speed coverage - the plans are not subject to network management or throttling (except HD video). The options for obtaining these plans are a bit complex and always changing. Monthly rates vary from $45-249. For more information: Guide to Verizon Unlimited Data Plans.
    • Note: Verizon's new unlimited data plans only include 15GB of high speed mobile hotspot use per line (including Jetpacks) and are subject to network management. All Verizon plans are now subject to video streaming throttling, with the option to turn it off for $10/mo.
  • AT&T -  When activated on a Unlimited Plus plan, dedicated mobile hotspots are exempt from the 10GB high speed hotspot cap the smartphones are subject to. This is by far the best deal on AT&T right now with costs as low as $20/mo when added to a multi-line plan, or $90/mo standalone.  However it seems AT&T could be making shifts to no longer allow these types of devices on unlimited (more Info: AT&T Mobile Hotspots “No Longer Eligible” for Unlimited Data Plans).
  • T-Mobile - T-Mobile One+ International smartphone plans include sunlimited 4G personal hotspot use for $95/month which is a great option (those over 55 qualify for a $20/month discount!) - however hotspot use is de-priotized a bit over on device use.
    • Alternate: Reseller Millenicom still offers the older style 'Simple Choice' data only plans that include unlimited video streaming for as little as $35/month, as well as unlimited hotspot data plans for $70/month.
  • Sprint - Joining a non-profit (such as Calyx Institute or PCs for People) to obtain an unlimited Sprint plan due to some prior agreement the carrier inherited is the most affordable option out there. Pricing starts at $10/month (yes, $10 - we didn't miss a 0). For more information: Non-Profit Sprint Plans.
    • Alternates: If you prefer a direct carrier relationship, Sprint offers a mobile hotspot plan for an extra $50/mo on their Unlimited plan, or $75 as a stand alone option - neither are subject to hotspot caps. And FMCA members have access to an unlimited Sprint hotspot plan for $49.99/mo.

For more options & information: Understanding Unlimited Cellular Data Plans

Member ExclusiveSelecting Cellular Data Plans – Pricing & Carrier Guide

The Netgear AC791L for VerizonAfter picking your ideal carriers, you next have to choose what equipment you're going to use to access your cellular data to use it for keeping your laptops, computers, TVs, game systems and other devices online.

There are several options that will convert your cellular data to your own personal WiFi hotspot, or even an ethernet hardwired network:

  • Dedicated cellular modems like mobile hotspots (Jetpacks, MiFis) and USB modems.
  • Hot spotting off a smartphone or tablet.
  • Mobile routers for more advanced networking capabilities.

For more information:  MiFi/Jetpack, Smartphone Hotspotting or a Mobile Router?

You may find that cellular signal strength can vary quite a bit while traveling, which can impact the speed of your data and reliability - but there are things you can do to improve the situation with cellular boosters and antennas.

They can turn a frustratingly slow connection to a very usable and fast surfing experience.

Enhancing cellular signal and data performance is a tricky subject, and sometimes requires trial and error at each location for each type of device & cellular carrier. It helps to understand a bit more about frequency bands, decibels, signal to noise ratio and MIMO to help decide on your signal enhancing strategy.

You should also focus on measuring performance instead of concentrating on how many bars your device is showing. Run speed tests using apps like Speed Test.

For more information:

Mobile Cellular Boosters for RVs Overviews

Understanding & Optimizing Your Cellular Performance

Selecting a Cellular Antenna

Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives

Public & Campground WiFi

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 4.52.11 PM
wifi-optionsOften the cheapest, and easiest way to get online is to use public WiFi networks.

Many libraries, coffee shops, RV parks, stores, breweries (yay!), motels, municipal parks, and even fast food restaurants now offer free WiFi. There are also plenty of paid WiFi networks to be found, such as Boingo and Xfinity.

Though WiFi has the potential to be blazingly fast, some shared networks can be horribly overloaded. A public WiFi hotspot is highly dependent upon their upstream source of internet (cable, DSL, satellite, etc.) and on how many people are sharing that connection.

In some cases, the upstream connection may actually be little better than old dial-up modems. In some remote places, the upstream connection may actually BE a dial-up modem!

 

Campground WiFi Realities

Although you would think that a campground that advertises “Free WiFi!” as prominently as it does 50A power hook-ups would actually have worthwhile WiFi, many RVers have discovered that this is often not the case.

Generally, if the WiFi is managed decently enough, RV park WiFi might be good enough for checking email and doing some basic surfing – generally all that most RV campground patrons are assumed to really need.

Think about what would happen if an RV park ran a garden hose to fill everyone's water tank at once. There's just not enough flow or water pressure and everyone would just get a trickle. Unfortunately, that's what happens with internet - many RV parks only have a small internet pipe coming into their park for everyone to share.

It's rare to find campground WiFi capable of supporting lots of folks video streaming, large file downloads (such as OS updates, back-ups to the cloud), VPN connections and other things that more and more RVers are needing to do from the road. It's not uncommon for parks to place restrictions on high bandwidth activities to maintain a usable network for all.

Tip: Before investing in WiFi extending gear, take your laptop or tablet closer to the access point. Your signal will probably improve, but do some speed tests and some surfing - does your experience improve? If it does, then in that particular location an extender might help you bring that performance back to your RV.

If it doesn't improve, then the WiFi provided at this location likely isn't suitable to begin with... and no amount of gear you install is going to help.

The other major limitation of WiFi is range. Most WiFi hotspots fall off to unusably slow connections just a hundred feet away from the base station - or 'access point'. Many RVers want to utilize WiFi in their RVs - which is where extending gear can assist.

There are a lot of options for WiFi extending equipment ranging in price and features.

There are inexpensive products that can just sit in a window and perhaps increase your range a bit further than your laptop alone can achieve. Some just plug into your laptop, and some can create their own new WiFi hotspot for your RV (a feature called 'WiFi as WAN').

For even further range, there are stronger antennas that mount on your roof, ladder or a pole outside your RV.

There are, of course, other places to pick up WiFi than a campground - such as when driveway surfing with friends & family, in the parking lot of a business that offers it to their customers (please do be a customer if you utilize this option - buy a coffee, beer or sandwich), or if you hold a subscription to a WiFi network like Boingo, Xfinity or one offered by your cellular or cable carrier.

 

For More Information:

Selecting a Mobile Router – Bring Mobile Internet Options Together and Creating a Local RV Network

Getting Better Wi-Fi – Selecting Long Range Wi-Fi Extending Gear (Antennas, Routers, CPEs)

Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives

Satellite Internet

First: Satellite TV and Satellite Internet are DIFFERENT

Satellite TV equipment is designed for one-way delivery of television content. Internet is a two-way street - sending & receiving of data. It takes a different type of dish and satellite in space to provide internet connectivity, and much more precise aiming.

The internet bundles you might see advertised by DirecTV and Dish Network are actually partnerships with local cable, DSL companies or fixed-location satellite service from Excede or HughesNet - and meant for stationary use only.  These are not satellite internet options suitable for mobile RVers. .

Second: Most Home Satellite Options are NOT Mobile

There are several satellite internet options that work great for stationary homes. But, options that you can move around the country easily are limited due to spot-beam technology that requires the provider to re-install & re-program equipment if it is moved. In other words - do not expect that a residential satellite internet service will work if you move it to a new location!

satellite-internet-for-rvers-guideBefore cellular internet and prevalent Wi-Fi hotspots became the norm, satellite internet was the ultimate option for getting online at better than dial-up speeds while mobile.

Satellite internet took a bit of a hiatus as cellular connectivity took over, but several new satellite internet solutions are once again becoming viable and we are closely tracking the options.

There are currently two mobile satellite internet options worth looking at. Both are capable of delivering usable internet speeds for those who really want a solution for going off the beaten path, but be sure to research the limitations of each and differences between them.

  • The RVDataSAT is a roof mounted auto-aiming dish with an installation cost of around $6,500, and with "unlimited" data plans priced by speed (ranging from $79.99 - $409.99/month). But even the most expensive plan only promises download speeds up to 4 Mbps.
  • A cheaper and faster alternative is newly launched HughesNet Gen 5, specially provisioned for mobility and configured to work on a portable manually aimed tripod. Total system costs start at around $1,200-1,500, and monthly rates vary based on the amount of data desired. The new Gen 5 network promises speeds of 25 Mbps down, and 3 Mbps up - very impressive. However, you must go through a vendor who can provision this service for mobility, not directly through HughesNet.

For much more information, read our guide:

Mobile Satellite Internet Overview

Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives

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. If you're willing to stay in one place for a while, this can be a great option to get fast and unlimited internet. Seek out RV parks and mobile home parks that cater to seasonal and long term stays. They won't likely advertise this feature, but if they offer cable TV at the site, then sometimes you can just call the cable company and have them come out and hook-up cable internet too with a rented cable modem.
  • 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.

Ready for more?

This article is part of our 'Mobile Internet University' classroom, an included benefit for our premium Mobile Internet Aficionados members.

The course is designed to be self paced, walking you through our content on selecting cellular data plans, equipment, signal enhancing, Wi-Fi, satellite, routers and more.

Check out the course at:


The Mobile Internet Handbook

For much more information about mobile internet for RVers, check out our 243 page book on this subject. It's the textbook that goes along with this resource center.

It goes into more depth on each of these options, and expands to talk about adjusting your expectations, managing your bandwidth, shopping for plans, entertainment on the road, international travel, equipment selection & installation, signal enhancing, routers, bringing these solutions together and much, much more.

Book Update: The 5th Edition is currently being written, and due out by January 2018!

Available in PDF, Kindle, iBooks and Print.


Is internet essential to your mobile lifestyle?

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We stay on top of the technology
so that you can focus on what drives you!

We offer a lot of free resources - like our News Center, discussion group, videos and basic guides. We could do none of this however without the support of those who chose to become members.

We do not accept sponsorships, third party advertising and we do not resell anything. We funded by our community via premium memberships.

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Become a member starting at less than $6/mo. 

Our premium membership - Mobile Internet Aficionados - is designed for those who consider mobile internet essential for their mobile lifestyle.

In thanks for their support our members go deeper with our content - and receive benefits that help them save money, stay up to date, get guidance and make informed choices.

Our goal is to save you time, money and frustration.

Learn More about the MIA


Other Resources We Offer:


Overwhelmed by all the options? Want help figuring out what is right for you?

We do offer limited personalized mobile internet advising sessions where we help you come up with your ideal mobile internet setup based on your unique goals, travel style, internet needs and budget.

We start with an online interview and then a 1 hour private video conference call, followed up with a customized written report with a shopping list for the products and services that we think will best meet your needs.

Learn More about Advising

 

 

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