Perhaps the question we get asked most frequently: what carrier / plan is the best for keeping online on the road?
Next most asked: can I get by with just campground WiFi?
People want a simple answer - but the truth is anything but.
When evaluating the likelihood of getting a good internet connection in any given place, it depends on so many factors...
- It depends where you are.
- It depends whether you are parked or in motion.
- It depends on who and what is between you and the tower, or WiFi base station.
- It depends on the time of day.
- It depends on what the walls of your rig are made of.
- It depends what your neighbor is cooking for dinner (really - a microwave can kill WiFi dead!).
- It depends where your data device is sitting in your RV.
- It depends on what your data device IS.
- It depends on whether or not you have a booster.
- It depends on whether or not your booster is boosting the right frequencies.
- It depends on who is doing what on the network around you.
- It depends on the route that the bits you are transmitting are bouncing across the country to their destination.
- It depends on what sites you are visiting and what else you are doing online in the background.
- It depends on how you are attempting to measure your speed.
- It even depends on the solar weather forecast and cosmic rays streaming by.
- It probably even depends on how many NSA listening posts are currently tuned in.
- And most importantly, it depends on the whims of the mobile data gods. It is rumored that tithing 10% of your data allotment to watching cute kitten videos appeases them, but I've never been able to prove this.
With so many variables - it is no wonder that mobile data is such an inexact science. Two speed tests moments apart in the exact same location under identical conditions can sometimes vary between amazingly fast and *&#$%*!
But in the name of science, and to show a representative snapshot of the connectivity situation in one particular place - I've spent hours comparing the full range of internet options available to us at Sunset Isle RV Park here in Cedar Key, FL.
Even if you never plan to visit Sunset Isle - this comparison illustrates just how much variability there can be, and some of the conditions that can so drastically impact your online experience - no matter where you are.
I compared campground WiFi, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile.
(We don't have a Sprint device - and Sprint is reportedly pretty dismal here in Cedar Key anyway...)
I tested using a Macbook Pro, an iPhone 5, a Retina iPad Mini (via Millenicom), a classic GSM iPad Mini, and a Pantech Mobile Hotspot. I compared signals and speeds both inside our bus and out on the public dock away from all obstructions. I tested with no booster, our Wilson Sleek 4G-Verizon booster, our Top Signal 55 booster, and our WiFiRanger WiFi antenna and router.
And the end results may surprise you.
Campground WiFi & WiFi Ranger'ing
Speed Range: 500Kbps - 5.36Mbps down, 200Kbps - 710Kbps up.
Sunset Isle has better campground WiFi than the vast majority of parks we have stayed at, but sadly that isn't saying much.
The park only has a single central 802.11g WiFi access point, serving the office, cafe, clubhouse, and 50+ sites scattered along the shoreline. With just a single antenna serving such a large area, it is not unusual to see people from the more remote sites enjoy the public rocking chairs near the clubhouse while catching up on email, unable to get online from their rigs.
The upstream connection from Sunset Isle is an AT&T DSL line - I know this because when the DSL line goes down, an AT&T error page pops up for everyone in the park trying to get online. Sometimes the DSL modem reboots within minutes, but on some days it has remained down for hours.
When the network is up - there is also a high population of bandwidth hungry nomads staying here, all fighting over this scarce resource. There are also a LOT of MiFi devices, routers, and other mobile gadgets around - cluttering up the WiFi airwaves. And just like having a conversation in a crowded noisy bar - the more separate conversations that are underway at once, the harder it is for everyone to get heard.
When I was testing in the early evenings, the campground WiFi was typically marginal. On the dock I was getting just 500Kbps down and 200Kbps up, but the signal was hard to keep locked on to. The Retina iPad Mini had the best luck, but every device I was testing dropped the signal a few times.
Inside the bus (a bit closer to the central office) the campground WiFi signal varies from strong to nothing, depending on what window you happen to be in front of. On our counter and desk, I had trouble connecting at all with either iPad. But my laptop on it's stand up in the window could connect just fine directly. Speeds however connecting with my laptop were no better than on the dock - 450Kbps down, 260Kbps up. A bit later in the evening things got a bit faster, but not much...
Late at night however things quiet down, and the speeds get much better. At midnight, connecting directly to the campground WiFi via my laptop I was able to get a very respectable 4.15Mbps down (10x faster than earlier!), but a still anemic 330Kbps upstream.
Using the WiFiRanger Sky on our roof to tune into the campground WiFi (paired with a WiFiRanger Go router to make an inside private wired and wireless network) improves things somewhat. For my laptop, the download speed creeps up slightly to 5.15Mbps down, but the upload speed more than doubled to 710Kbps. Testing with the iPads revealed a substantial boost as well. Connecting directly to the campground WiFi in most locations inside our bus was impossible, but my late night iPad WiFi speed test via the WiFiRanger gave me 5.36Mbps down and 580Kbps up.
Can you survive on just campground WiFi? Here at Sunset Isle, if you are a night owl with a WiFiRanger you can probably manage... As long as the DSL doesn't crash, that is.
Tip: Midnight surfers get much faster waves.
4G Speed Range: 220Kbps - 6.41Mbps down, 130Kbps - 1.28Mbps up.
LTE Speed Range: 1.02Mbps - 2.19Mbps down, 80Kbps - 1.49Mbps up.
We were thrilled when we pulled into Sunset Isle to discover that AT&T LTE had at last come to Cedar Key!
But in practice, we've actually found that we've kept our AT&T devices forced into 4G mode - primarily because neither of our two current boosters support AT&T LTE frequencies.[quote_box_left]Note: To understand the difference between AT&T's "4G" HSPA+ network and the newer LTE network, see our post explaining 4G technologies.[/quote_box_left]
Out on the dock with no boosting I was seeing a 2 bar signal with AT&T 4G speeds ranging from 910Kbps to 1.63Mbps down, and 140 - 760Kbps up. LTE wasn't all that much faster down - clocking at 1.02MBps to 2.19Mbps, but upstream was noticeably faster: 470Kbps to 1.49Mbps.
Inside the bus without any boosting the AT&T signal took a dive - fluctuating between 1 and 2 bars. The 4G downloads were 220-570Kbps, but the upstream tests plummeted to a max of just 130Kbps, with many tests timing out and failing entirely. LTE also suffered, recording 1.46-1.52Mbps down and 80Kbps to 340 Kbps up. With the upstream connection so marginal, many pages timed out loading, and surfing was frustrating with the connection often dropping.
Neither of our boosters support AT&T LTE frequencies, but both of our boosters work with AT&T 4G, and each of them worked wonders turning this frustrating connection into something solidly useable.
Here are the 4G speeds we saw - with the Top Signal booster the 4G signal jumped to 4 and even 5 bars throughout most of the bus, and I recorded 4G speeds of 1.32Mbps - 6.41Mbps down, and a reliable 1.12 - 1.28Mbps up!
The Wilson Sleek-4G also worked as an AT&T 4G booster, though the device being boosted must be leaning right up against it in our tech cabinet. With this booster on, AT&T 4G showed 3 bars, and I recorded 680Kbps - 1.27Mbps down, and 1.08 - 1.16Mbps up. The speeds weren't as fast as with the more powerful Top Signal, but they were solid and useable.
We hope to add an AT&T LTE booster to our arsenal sometime soon, and hopefully AT&T LTE will become more useful for us in more areas after that. But even falling back to 4G, with the help of a booster AT&T solidly outperformed campground WiFi - particularly during the daytime hours.
Tip: Forcing 4G might actually be a smart bet, unless you have an AT&T LTE booster!
3G Speed Range: 420Kbps - 1.34Mbps down, 100Kbps - 770Kbps up.
LTE Speed Range: 10.2Mbps - 20.6Mbps down, 210Kbps - 5.00Mbps up.
Out on the dock, Verizon's 3-bar LTE signal (via our new Retina iPad Mini) clocked in with a blazing 17.91Mbps down, and 5Mbps up. This is faster than many hardwired home cable modem plans!
For comparison's sake, I turned off LTE to check Verizon's 3G speeds: 560Kbps down, and 490Kbps up. Yuck.
Inside the bus, even without a booster, I was able to get 2-bars of LTE, and 10.2Mbps down - but only 210Kbps upstream. With such poor upstream signal, surfing was not nearly as pleasant as the fast downstream suggests. It was actually a bit hit-and-miss in practice. 3G dropped to 420Kbps down, and 100Kbps up inside the bus.
The Top Signal booster supports Verizon 3G signals, and when LTE was turned off I was able to get the boosted speeds up to 1.34Mbps down, and 770Kbps up with the booster's help.
The Sleek-4G-V booster is designed for Verizon LTE, and here it made a huge difference. With that booster turned on (and the iPad leaning precariously against it) I measured LTE speeds inside the bus of 20.64Mbps down, and 4.17Mbps up. These speeds are awesome!
The only downside is that the Sleek-4G only provides an effective boost to a single device, leaning right against it. I can leave the iPad in the tech cabinet acting as a personal hotspot for the bus, but I get much more marginal functionality if I actually take the iPad down to use it.
Fortunately, we now have a Pantech MHS291L hotspot permanently docked into the Wilson Sleek-4G-V, eliminating the need for making the iPad serve double duty. With the Pantech serving as our internet onramp, our connection is often actually too fast - making it way too easy to devour our monthly data pool.
Tip: Don't burn through all your data for the month at once!
4G Speed Range: 20Kbps -11.54Mbps down, 10Kbps - 1.64Mbps up.
We have been thoroughly loving our new Retina iPad Mini, which came with free T-Mobile service through March courtesy of Millenicom.
And though we honestly didn't expect to be impressed by T-Mobile's wireless network, the truth is that we have been. Very much so. We observed as we drove across country from Austin to Cedar Key that T-Mobile does indeed have huge gaps in coverage areas, particularly when you aren't following the interstates. But in the areas where there is coverage, the speeds have tended to be very impressive.
For most of the month of December, we actually were able to experiment with making T-Mobile our primary connection, and it worked well.
Here in Cedar Key I was shocked to see T-Mobile's 4G HSPA+ network soundly trouncing AT&T's LTE out on the dock, giving me 3 bars of signal and 5.88Mbps down and 1.64Mbps up.
Inside the bus it was a different story entirely. T-Mobile's signal doesn't penetrate inside here much at all, and neither of our boosters support T-Mobile's 4G frequency bands. Inside without the booster I'd usually see "No Signal" unless I was right near a window, or if a cellular booster was on the iPad would fall back to the ancient T-Mobile GPRS 2G network.
In the bus on GPRS I'd see just 20-40Kbps down and 10Kbps up. In my testing some light surfing was possible, but it would take literal minutes to load even basic pages. These are slower than "dialup" speeds.
But outside - T-Mobile was rocking.
But it could all change in just the matter of a few steps. When we hosted our last live video chat, we set up the iPad on T-Mobile to stream the talk about our lithium batteries - and the initial connection quality was great. But when we moved the iPad just a few feet closer (nearer the big metal wall of the bus) the signal dropped entirely to nothing, cutting off the stream.
The other big T-Mobile catch... T-Mobile's network here in Cedar Key (and throughout much of the country) is running at 2G GPRS speeds on the frequencies supported by many devices, including the non-Retina iPad Mini. Only the Retina Mini and iPad Air are able to even see T-Mobile's 4G network here. Our tests with the older iPad Mini revealed a connection that was barely usable for sending a text message, and not at all for web surfing.
Tip: Cross your fingers, stay near the windows, and unless you have a compatible device don't even bother.
Conclusions? It still depends...
This is the state of connectivity at Sunset Isle in Cedar Key during the month of January, 2014.
A week or a month or a year from now things will almost certainly be different. And 50 miles down the road things certainly are.
There is no BEST connectivity solution - even here in Cedar Key what is "best" might vary depending on where you are parked and how close you are sitting to a window.
Who won? An argument could be made for any of the contenders. For our own personal use this past month we tried to stick to campground WiFi, but when it was too slow or unreliable (very often) we'd switch to Verizon somedays, AT&T others, and we even spent several days using T-Mobile as our primary connection.
Each and every one of the connectivity options had slow and even down days. There was no single consistently always reliable option.
If connectivity is important to you - the smartest strategy remains to embrace diversity, as much as you find personally and financially practical.
Will a WiFiRanger solve your campground WiFi woes? Is a cellular booster the key to connectivity nirvana? Will you be better off juggling both an AT&T and Verizon devices, or can you get by with just one or the other? Should you get a cheap T-Mobile plan to serve as a backup? Is it worth getting something on Sprint's network? What about a smaller carrier - are any of them worthwhile? How much speed do you need, anyway?
It all depends.
But in the grand scheme of things - the state of mobile connectivity is actually pretty good, and it is getting massively better all the time. It blows my mind that even in a sleepy little town like Cedar Key, I was today able to test 4 different ways of getting faster than 5Mbps internet speeds.
When I first hit the road eight years ago, these sorts of speeds were the stuff of science fiction.
Can you only imagine where we will be in a few more years??? Wow!