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:
- Video Overview
- The Challenge of Mobile Internet
- Ways RVers Keep Online
- Assembling Your Arsenal
- Further Reading
- Other Resources We Offer
- Book, Membership, Discussion Group, Private Advising
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:
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:
Now, for an overview of the primary mobile internet options:Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives
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)!
The first choice to make is which carrier, or carriers, you should get service with to best cover your mobile data needs.
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:
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.
And of course, there are active discussions of T-Mobile and Sprint possibly merging, which can change the landscape again - we're watching this closely.
For more information:
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 (including gUDPs).
- AT&T - Their Unlimited Plus smartphone plans with a a mobile hotspot added is our current top pick - however you need to activate this plan by October 28, 2017 before AT&T discontinuities it to be grandfathered in (More Info: AT&T Mobile Hotspots “No Longer Eligible” for Unlimited Data Plans).
- Wireless Home Phone & Internet plans on the Home Base device can also be activated in select rural markets for $60 for 250GB or $100 for 500GB.
- 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. 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, PCs for People and 4GCommunity) 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.
For more options & information: Understanding Unlimited Cellular Data Plans
Member Exclusive: Selecting Cellular Data Plans – Pricing & Carrier Guide
After 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?
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:
Public & Campground WiFi
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.
Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives
For More Information:
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 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.
Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives
For much more information, read 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. 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.
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 the end of 2017!
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.
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.
Ready for more?
This free article is the first lesson in our 'Mobile Internet University' classroom, an included benefit for our premium Mobile Internet Aficionados members. The entire course goes deeper into topics overviewed here - such as selecting cellular data plans, equipment, signal enhancing, Wi-Fi, satellite, routers and more.
Get a free preview of the entire course at:
Is internet essential to your RVing lifestyle?
Become a Mobile Internet Aficionado - Our Premium Membership
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 direct advertising dollars from vendors, manufacturers or carriers.
If you appreciate content like this article - thank a MIA for making it possible.
Better yet, become a member yourself for about a $1/week!
Our premium membership - 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 receive benefits that help them save money, stay up to date, receive guidance and make informed choices.
It's our goal to make staying on top of the industry so that you can focus on what drives you!
Other Resources We Offer:
- Our book: The Mobile Internet Handbook
- Our app: Coverage? overlays the cellular carrier's coverage maps so you can better plan your travels around connectivity.
- Stay in the Know - We track the industry and write news articles analyzes for mobile travelers:
- Browse our Resource Center / Guides for further detailed information (some member only content).
- Browse our Product & Review Center for detailed information on gear & plans we track.
- Prefer Video? We have you covered - visit our Video Center
- Have questions? Join our (free) Internet for RVers Facebook group to interact with other RVers interested in this topic. We also have friendly staff members who check in and help direct you to our content.
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.