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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:

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 3.00.07 PM

Many mobile RVers who rely on internet select multiple options to give them redundancy (see 'Assembling a Mobile Internet Arsenal' below).

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?

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 PMCcellular-optionsellular 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 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 Verizon plan is by far the best option for most RVers who need lots of bandwidth and nationwide high speed coverage. The options for obtaining these plans are a bit complex and always changing (and Verizon is actively trying to shut these plans down - be sure to understand the risks). Monthly rates vary from $45-299. Verizon's new unlimited data plans only include 10GB of high speed mobile hotspot use per line and subject to network management. For more information: view our Guide to Verizon Unlimited Data Plans.
  • AT&T -  For a stand-alone option, you can snag a 'Connected Car' unlimited data plan for $20/month direct from the carrier. And their new Unlimited Plus plans can add on an unlimited mobile hotspot device for $20/month. These lines do not have a 10GB mobile hotspot cap like the other carriers, but are subject to network management.  There are also rental unlimited data plans to be found.
  • T-Mobile - T-Mobile One+ International smartphone plans include unlimited 4G personal hotspot use for $95/month which is a great option. 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 mobile hotspot plans for $70/month.
  • Sprint - There are options for Sprint unlimited mobile hotspot data plans starting at $10/month (yes, $10 - we didn't miss a 0) via some Non-Profit Organizations like Calyx Institute and 4G Community.

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:

Understanding & Optimizing Your Cellular Performance (member exclusive guide & video)

Mobile Cellular Boosters for RVs Overviews

Selecting a Cellular Antenna

Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives

Public & Campground WiFi

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 4.52.11 PMwifi-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

WiFi Extending Guide (coming soon!)

Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives

Satellite Internet

First: Satellite TV and Satellite Internet are DIFFERENT

The internet bundles you might see advertised by DirectTV and Dish Network are actually usually partnerships with local cable or DSL companies (or stationary satellite service from Excede), and meant for stationary use only. Your satellite TV package will not be able to deliver two-way internet connections that are mobile.

Second: Most Home Satellite Options are NOT Mobile

There are many satellite internet options that work great as a stationary option. 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.

satellite-internet-for-rvers-guideBefore cellular internet and prevalent WiFi 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 satellite internet options are once again becoming viable options that we are closely tracking.

There are currently two mobile satellite options available capable of delivering usable internet speeds for those who really want a solution for going off the beaten path.

  • The MobileSat DataSAT is a roof mounted auto-aiming dish with an installation cost of around $6500 and unlimited data plans priced by speed (ranging from $79.99 - 409.99/month).
  • HughesNet Gen3 / Gen4 / Gen 5  is a tripod for $995, and monthly rates vary based on amount of data desired. The new Gen 5 Jupiter network will deliver blazing fast 15 mpbs speeds, but the details of costs for mobile support is still up in the air.

For more Information Info:

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.


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.

Available in PDF, Kindle, iBooks and Print.


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.

There are also considerations for how you bring all of these solutions together, and if you should pursue a mobile router suited for handling internet sources like cellular and campground WiFi - which most home/office routers don't support.

Your ideal arsenal is going to be very personalized and dependent upon several factors including:

Do you HAVE 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 if you can't get online today (or heck, even this week), then you might not need as many options onboard as someone who absolutely must get online.

The mobile internet setup of someone who needs lots of access to video streaming, conferencing and handling large files remotely will look very different than someone who just needs to check e-mail, plan the route ahead and manage their finances.

As will the data needs of an entire connected household with multiple computers, tablets, streaming devices, security cameras and gaming machines to keep connected versus someone just doing casual surfing on a 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. 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.

Oh the places you can go - that's the whole point of a mobile lifestyle!

If you're planning to hop from urban RV park to park, you'll probably be staying in great connectivity areas. You'll be able to utilize cellular data plans from any of the carriers (quite possibly with strong consistent signal) and likely even have access to public WiFi hotspots.

If you prefer getting more off the beaten path - such as amazing state parks, national parks 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 road and want to keep connected, you may even need to consider satellite.

Another consideration is how often you plan to move locations. If you're staying places measured in months or years, then you can optimize your setup for what works best in those situations. But if you'll be hybermobile and changing locations frequently, you'll want to consider multiple options in your tool set and optimize for easy to deploy gear.

Take into consideration what your current mobile internet setup is. We still encounter folks who only have flip phones (or -gasp- land lines) 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? Do you have contracts on your cellular plan & devices that would be costly to break?

Keep in mind, technology changes rapidly and more than likely to keep connected on the road you'll want to re-evaluate your setup every year or two anyway to stay current.

There's no denying it - mobile internet is high tech stuff. And you can quickly get overwhelmed and 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 - keep it simple and to stuff you understand and can manage on your own. You can always add on more options later as you increase your comfort level.

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.

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 - there will still be days you could find yourself 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 what situations.

Is internet essential to your RVing lifestyle?

Become a Mobile Internet Aficionado - Our Premium Membership

We love providing free informative content like this article, our News Center, our discussion group, videos and basic guides.  It's our passion to help our RVing community stay connected.

We could do none of this however without the support of those who chose to become members. It's how we receive most our funding. We do not take sponsorships or advertising dollars from vendors, manufacturers or carriers. We prefer to keep  accountable to our membership, viewers & readers - the very people we're serving.

If you appreciate content like this article - thank a MIA for making it possible.

Better yet, become a member yourself for less than $5/month!

MIA-final_FullColor webOur premium membership group - Mobile Internet Aficionados - is designed for those who consider mobile internet essential for their RVing lifestyle.  Together we navigate this stuff by sharing our wisdom, experiences and knowledge in a community dedicated to this topic.

In thanks for their support our members get extra assistance in our private Q&A forums, alerts of critical breaking news, updated in-depth guides & videos, regularly hosted webinars, field testing results, product reviews, insider tips and exclusive money saving discounts on mobile internet gear.

We help our members keep up to date on this always changing topic and provide resources to make informed decisions on selecting the components to meet their indiviudal connectivity needs.

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 help you assess your needs 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.

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