Working Remotely Using Mobile Internet from an RV or Boat

So, you want to work remotely while traveling ...

For most RVers and cruisers who work remotely while traveling, internet is not a luxury - it is essential.

For many in this category, internet access is more important than water, power, or sewage hook-ups.

Reliable mobile internet access becomes pertinent to making the money needed to keep the nomadic dream alive.


What is the BEST mobile internet solution for working remotely?

The answer: Whatever works best at your current location!


Not the specific 'aha!' answer you were expecting?

The truth is, staying connecting takes a bit of work.

But, it can be handled. In fact, there are plenty of folks who are currently working remotely while traveling North America as nomads.

The options for accessing the internet while traveling full-time are quite different than those available while working 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 or offie.

And the caveat of needing reliable, fast internet access in order to maintain your income and lifestyle puts added pressure on creating a set-up that supports these needs.

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.

Staying online while working and traveling is completely doable if you're willing to plan ahead, be flexible, and build up a solid internet arsenal. Your travel style, your internet needs, and your budget will all be factors in creating a set-up that works to support you.

This guide is meant to give you an overview of the considerations and options for building and refining an internet arsenal that will support your remote work tasks.

In This Public Guide:

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Video: Mobile Internet Tips for Working Remotely

First.. check out our quick Top 10 Tips for mobile internet for working remotely (13m video):


Assessing Your Needs for Working Remotely and Traveling Full-Time

A reality you will face while traveling and working remotely:

What works best for you in one place, may not work best in the next.

Therefore, there is no singular 'best solution' for all mobile internet situations.

If you're staying in one place for a long period of time, you can 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, especially for those who require internet connection. If you want or need to move locations fairly often, you need to be prepared for the reality that what works best will change each time you relocate.

For travelers who don't rely on internet to support their career or income stream, we often suggest starting with the basics and adding on as you need enhancements. However, if internet is essential to your way of life (and supporting that way of life!) then we suggest being as prepared as possible - or at least having contingency plans in place when internet access refuses to be had.

On the road, you will be encountering:

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

With planning (and some flexibility), most limitations of mobile internet can be overcome.

Considerations to Make in Assessing Your Needs

We all have different requirements for our mobile internet - from the tasks we need to accomplish to the adventures we want to have. This why the intersection between affordability, reliability and flexibility can be evasive.

When considering your setup, there are a variety of needs and desires to contemplate:

How do you like to travel?
  • Do you yearn to park out in the 'boonies' where no one will come knocking for days? Or are you a city-slicker, preferring to be near to modern conveniences (and also better access to internet)?
  • Do you like staying put for months? Or do you move along every few days or weeks?
How Critical is a Constant Connection?
  • Do you need to be connected from 9-5?
  • Does your line of work allow for breaks in connectivity?
  • Do you have scheduled meetings to attend?
  • Can you work offline at times and upload work when you are able to get back online?

For more in-depth information on this topic:

Specific Work Requirements

Work requirements can impact the speeds you need to be able to maintain, the amount of data you need to be able to tap into and the reliability needs of your setup. Some employers may be open to a remote work situation, but may place requirements on the quality of your connection.

Wired Internet Requirement

Some remote work situations require a lot of bandwidth, but more importantly, a consistent and reliable connection. It's not uncommon to see a requirement for remote work employees and contractors to have a 'wired' connection. This is particularly common for customer service positions or positions that use a VOIP phone connection.

But what exactly that means, and how flexible the requirement is, is highly variable based on the employer. Some may mean you absolutely must be on a verified cable or DSL connection - and will require you prove it. Others may mean they just don't want you using Wi-Fi networking, and instead want you to be physically plugged into an ethernet cable. And some may mean they just don't want you using public Wi-Fi sources, and to provide your own connection.

There are ways to convert a cellular data connection (a popular way for nomads to be online) to an ethernet connection - but before pursuing that path, make sure you thoroughly understand the requirement your particular employer has.

And do realize that providing a consistent and reliable internet connection while living a mobile lifestyle can be challenging. You may have to make compromises in your travels to meet this need.

Minimum Download/Upload Speeds

Some things over the internet require minimum speeds - whether dictated to you by an employer, or just by the nature of the beast. For instance, facilitating video conferencing means you need to maintain fairly consistent 3-4 mbps down and 1-2 mbps up speeds (as a minimum!) In many places, this will not be a problem if you have multiple options on board to try and signal enhancing gear.

If you have requirements to transfer very large files regularly, higher speeds may be necessary.

Get the Book

But there will just be places where you can't get these speeds due to things out of your control - cellular tower congestion, public Wi-Fi variability, network management, too weak of a signal, etc.

Be prepared that needing high speeds reliably while being mobile can mean making compromises in your travels. Plan your high speed needs for times when you're still in bandwidth abundant locations (not while actively driving), pad-in time to find a Plan B connectivity option, and have a fail over readily available if your current connection drops out.

And definitely do your research in advance of selecting your next location to make sure you'll have the bandwidth you need to get your job done.

Security & Privacy Requirements

If you're working a job that requires you to handle sensitive information, you'll need to make sure to consider the level of security and privacy needed to keep that information safe.

Mobile internet security may seem a bit 'scary', but by utilizing basic safety protocols, and more in depth measures like using a VPN or remote server, most tasks can be performed securely if you make sure to be diligent.

For more, in depth information on this topic:


Redundancy

We've said it before, and we will say it again and again - there is no 'one size fits all' answer to what is the 'best' mobile internet option. However, we do have a best practice suggestion for anyone who relies on mobile internet daily: Redundancy.

Don't jump out of an airplane without a reserve parachute, and don't try to work online from the road without at least two ways to get online.

Redundancy is having multiple options on board for gaining internet access. Redundancy is key in building the most reliable mobile internet solution.

Example of a redundant mobile internet approach:

  • Having two or more cellular carriers on board (we often see folks with 3+).
  • Cellular signal enhancing gear to optimize the performance.
  • A device or router that can access public/private WiFi hotspots.
  • Openness to seek out a cafe or coffee shop for a little free WiFi with your lunch.

Why is redundancy so important?  Think of some of possible ways your connections might fail you:

  • The signal for your main mode of internet connection may be too weak at your current location to utilize.
  • You download a firmware update to your mobile internet device that renders it an expensive paperweight.
  • You literally drive over your antenna. (Oops)
  • A huge RV or boat pulls in next to you and blocks the line of sight to your internet source.
  • The cellular tower you're connected to may be scheduled for maintenance and go offline right during your critical video conference call.
  • Your cellular device could reach it's data limit just moments before you get all your files uploaded.
  • There's a big event in town, meaning the cellular towers at your current location are painfully overloaded.
  • A hotspot devouring Tyrannosaurus Rex appears out of nowhere, and devours your hotspot. (Ok, maybe not, but...)

Why Wi-Fi Likely Won't Be a Primary Mobile Internet Source

Often the cheapest, and easiest way to get online is to use public Wi-Fi networks. But it may not necessarily be the most reliable or the fastest.

Public WiFi is more often than not summed up in one word: disappointing. This is especially true if you have high-bandwidth needs for working remotely.

Many campgrounds and marinas advertise free or paid WiFi. Though WiFi has the potential to be extremely fast, many shared WiFi networks are overloaded, causing slow speeds and variable connections.

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

For many remote workers public places with possibly decent WiFi may not be ideal. Will your client or boss be able to hear you over clinking glasses and patrons cheering their favorite sports team while you are on a video conference? Do you have the ability to focus on your work with your table neighbors catching up on their gossip?

If you're in a location with a library, you might be willing to tote your laptop and set-up for the day. But how long can you go without your full workspace if it includes a large monitor or ergonomic desk?

Security Issues & Public Wi-Fi

Remember that public Wi-Fi spots are just that - public. Who knows what that random stranger sitting next to you is running on their computer?

For those who are dealing with confidential data as part of their daily work (i.e. medical records, accounting), WiFi may not be a great option.

But sometimes, Wi-Fi can be totally worth it. 

Or maybe you'll be driveway surfing. When staying on a friend or relative's property, having access to their WiFi network can be a real treat - if you can reach the network.

Range is a major limitation of WiFi. Most Wi-Fi hotspots fall off to unusably slow connections just a few hundred feet away from the base station. When you do stumble upon a Wi-Fi gem, you'll may want to have the ability to access the network from your RV or boat.

This is where WiFi extending gear comes into play.


Cellular Mobile Internet - Likely a Strong Component of your Setup

Cellular data is probably the easiest and most accessible option in most places across the USA. Most working nomads depend on cellular data as the core of their mobile internet connectivity.

Cellular coverage now reaches into some pretty remote places, and coverage maps amongst the four major carriers continue to expand.

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

Cellular data is most easily accessed through hot-spotting off of a smartphone. However, when working remotely, you'll probably want to look into a dedicated cellular data device and/or router better suited for the task.

For a more information on these options, and a comparison of using dedicated mobile hotspots versus your phone versus a router, see our guide: Ways to Use Cellular Data To Get Online: Jetpack, Smartphone or Router?

When it comes to cellular data, more important than gear is finding the right plan for your needs.

Picking Your Carriers and Plans

The first choice to make is which carrier (or better yet, carriers) you should get service with to best cover your mobile data needs. And again we will mention: redundancy in carriers is key to consistent internet access.

The cellular carriers are not in the business of providing a home or office internet replacement.

This is a sticky point for those needing to work remotely - we want and need a solution that replaces the cable or DSL connection we might have had at home. This type of internet replacement is not something that the four major carriers are chomping at the bit to provide. Most of their plans are suited for those who have a home internet connection, and just need a bit of data while out and about.

The Carriers

The major difference for each of the carriers is how widespread their coverage is nationwide. And for those relying on mobile internet, 4G & LTE coverage are the most important for the fastest speeds.

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, especially with their HSPA+ network. In the year ahead will be gaining a lot of new capacity as they implement their FirstNet network.
  • T-Mobile - The carrier to watch with a rapidly expanding network as they roll out their new 600 Mhz network.
  • Sprint -  Coverage generally only useful when close to bigger cities, however roaming agreements with T-Mobile may improve things even if their merger doesn't go through.
    • In May 2018, T-Mobile & Sprint announced their intentions to merge. There is still a lengthy approval process to go through that won't be complete until at least early 2019 - and then it's a couple years of implementation if approved.

Below is a quick comparison of the four carrier's 4G coverage maps:

Screenshots above taken from the August 2018 HD map update to our app Coverage?
- showing just non-roaming 4G and better coverage for each carrier.

coverage_new_iconAlthough you can go to each carrier’s maps online to scout out ahead, we decided to make it even easier. We wrote an app for that!

Coverage? overlays coverage maps (based on the carrier's maps), so you can create a personalized map  to better plan your travels around the connectivity you need!

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.

For more:
Tips for Travel Planning Around
Connectivity for RVers and Cruisers

The maps are stored on device, so you don’t need to have coverage to find out which direction to head. Get the app now for Android or iOS:
Get it on Google Play

There is no 'one best' carrier. The carriers are different in price, coverage, and plan offerings.

The goal is to pick the best carrier(s) for your travel plans

Coverage is the primary consideration for most who are required to be online for work.

Which brings us to our mobile working mantra:

Redundancy!

Having more than one carrier on board is essential to consistent, usable internet access while working and traveling. Cellular glitches happen - different carriers excel in specific locations, you could lose signal, not have signal, towers can go down, you could get network managed, hit your data cap or your 'too good to be true' data plan could suddenly disappear.

Save yourself the mini (or major) internet withdrawal meltdown - practice redundancy.

Picking Your Cellular Plans

For most nomads who work full time online, high data or even an unlimited data plan is sought after. In addition, second or third data plans (capped or another unlimited data plan) on a additional carriers are recommended.

We're constantly tracking the most affordable options for cellular data, including unlimited and high data cap plans.

A Word about "Unlimited" Data Plans

All of the major carriers now offer 'unlimited" data plans. But all of these plans have big 'gotchas' designed specifically to prevent folks from using their cellular data as a home internet replacement. Which is precisely what many of us nomads desire.

The major gotchas:
  • Network Management
    • When you use more data than the average user (as defined by the carrier - usually 22-32 GB of data in a month), they have the right to slow down your connection if  (and only if) you are on a congested tower.
  • Mobile Hotspot / Tethering Restriction
    • Most carriers put a restriction (high-speed data cap and / or throttled speeds)  when using your smartphone as a hotspot to create a WiFi network.

Cellular Signal Enhancing

If you are depending on cellular, getting the best signal possible is imperative.

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

Boosters and antennas 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.

But, going through the trouble of setting up a cellular signal enhancing solution will benefit you with:

  • Fast speeds
  • More reliable connections
  • Better battery life
  • More places you can stay while getting great signal


Alternate Options

Cellular isn't the only option that RVers and Cruisers rely on in their travels. Here are some other options to consider as part of your arsenal:

  • Co-Working Spaces
  • Cable Internet at Campsites
  • WISPs
  • Satellite Internet & Communicators

Sanity Tips

For those who rely on connectivity to maintain their lifestyle, planning your travel around connectivity is essential.

Travel Planning: Research in Advance

Before heading out to your next location, do a little (or a lot) or research in advance to understand what potential connectivity issues you might have. Checking campground or marina reviews and coverage maps can go a lot way.

Separate Your Work Days and Your Driving Days

If you have a big deliverable, webinar or online task - do not arrive the same day that you need to be online. It can take time to figure out which is your optimal connection in a new location, and travel days can sometimes take more time than you anticipated (traffic, delays, construction, break-downs, etc.).

Don't assume you will be ready to pop open that video chat and conference away upon arrival to a new location.

You may be greeted with an easily accessible, awesome signal. Or, you might need to play around with antennas, boosters and different carriers to find what will be the optimal choice.  And of course, you might arrive to your new campground to discover your neighbors are hosting a huge reunion that is too loud to work next to, or that the front office lost your reservation.

Save yourself a lot of stress and arrive at least a day before a big work day, so you have time to work through all the redundancies you built into your setup if need be.

Leaving Room for Plan B

What's your plan B?

So, you've built a redundant mobile internet arsenal to meet your specific travel style and mobile work needs. You've done your research and planned around reported signal coverage and strength. You've left yourself plenty of time to set-up and test your connectivity after moving to a new location.

You've just dialed in to your daily conference call on a strong, fast connection, when suddenly... nothing.

That's right, your connection has given out in the middle of your work day. Maybe you've lost power and your hotspot has shut off. Maybe the network you are on has crashed. Maybe a giant rig being driven by big-foot has pulled up next door, blocking your signal enhancers.

→ Have your back-up option accessible and ready to pop-in!

→ Always prepare clients and colleagues for your variable connectivity.

Working online while living a nomadic lifestyle is a surmountable challenge for most who are up for the preparation and flexibility building and maintaining a mobile internet arsenal requires. Where there is a will, there is usually a way.

If there is one thing that we can suggest for almost everyone looking to work online while traveling: redundancy! (And yes, we've been pretty redundant with that recommendation)


More Working on the Road Resources:

We've also blessed to have been invited to present on this topic for other organizations.

Here's where you can find archives of our presentations:

If you're working on the road, especially from an RV, we highly recommend both joining the Xscapers (powered by the Escapees RV Club) for tons of resources and tuning into The RV Entrepreneur Podcast for inspiring stories.

Keep Learning - Go to School

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

Our 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.

Continue to the next recommended guide in this series at:

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