It’s been nearly 3 years since we cut ties with the stick & brick lifestyle and started living on the road. We’ve learned a lot in those three years, and our setup has evolved quite a bit over that time to ensure we stay connected for work and play. Mobile internet & staying connected on the road is essential for us. Whether it’s posting the blog post you are reading right now or making sure we can do our day jobs, we need to be connected at all times to maintain our mobile lifestyle.
To help folks decide what solution is best for them we’ve put together the following article which goes into the 3 main components we feel are most important for staying connected. We will then go into detail on what options are available for each component depending on what features are important to you, and what your budget is.
Mobile Internet & Staying Connected – Summary of Our Setup
There are 3 key components to our mobile internet setup. They work together to ensure we remain connected in 99% of the locations we visit. The 3 components are listed below along with a detailed summary of what each item is used for.
Unlimited Data Plans – Since we use our setup for work and for streaming media (play) we consume quite a bit of data. We have unlimited data plans with Verizon and AT&T, two of the nations best carriers from a speed and coverage perspective. More on that below and if you are interested in getting your hands on an unlimited data plan yourself, click here to learn more.
Mobile Router – An electronic device similar to a home router, but it uses wireless connections such as campground wifi or cellular connections (or a combination of both) to connect your devices to the internet. We will get into that more below as well.
Cellular Booster – Cell boosters improve the cellular signal on your device by boosting the signal sent from the cell tower inside your mobile home or RV. These are especially helpful in rural areas where signal strength may be a problem.
Each of the 3 major components we’ve listed above play vital roles in our connectivity solution. Lets dive into each item further and discuss the various options out there for each component.
Unlimited Data Plans
Unlimited data is a topic in itself, actually it’s an entire blog in itself as there are just too many things that can be said about cellular data and how it works. Most carriers are currently, as of February 2018, offering so-called “unlimited” data plans but there are some restrictions that vary from carrier to carrier. Typically these plans range from $60-$90 per month and often come with a two year contract and discounted equipment access. With just about all carriers there are data caps, usually around 22GB per month in which if you hit that limit your service and speed “may” be impacted. Once you hit the data limit, it is possible that your connection will be slowed by the carrier. Some carriers “de-prioritized” users that are over their limit. This means that if you are in areas of high network congestion the carrier may slow down your speeds. The specifics vary by cellular carrier and change from month to month, making it hard to keep track.
Now 22GB is quite a lot of data, and if you are not streaming a ton of video or if you do not use the connection every day you should be fine. If 22GB isn’t enough then you’ll need to get your hands on data plan that is not subject to these restrictions (at least for now). There are two options for getting your hands on a truly unlimited data plan from one of the major carriers. The first is doing an “Assumption of Liability” or AOL where you purchased an existing data plan without restrictions from a third party, usually someone on ebay, and then transfer their contract into your name. This option is complicated and the carriers do not seem to want to allow this anymore so be careful and do your homework.
The second option is a rental agreement. Essentially you pay a third party customer not affiliated with the carrier a premium (usually $120-$150 per month) to use their device on a monthly basis. The 3rd party sends you a device that has an unlimited data plan without data caps (grandfathered in from plans no longer available) and you use the device and pay that 3rd party each month. Payments are made through a third party payment processor like Paypal to protect everyone’s privacy and identity. This option also has risks, but in general you are limited to whatever amount you send on a monthly basis and you can cancel at anytime. We have a partner who offers this service and you can sign up here while supplies last. NEVER send funds directly to a 3rd party or give anyone any personal information, use a verifiable service like Paypal.
If you are interested in an Assumption of Liability “AOL” or want to dive deeper into the topic, check out our article we did back in 2015 that covers much of the details on this process.
A “mobile router” or “mobile firewall” as it is also referred to, takes a single internet connection and splits it so it can be used by multiple devices located behind the mobile firewall. If you’ve ever used a Linksys, DLink or similar ‘home router’ it is essentially the same thing, but it uses cellular or wireless connections instead of your home cable model or DSL to connect your devices to the internet. Mobile routers come in all shapes and sizes and this also is a fairly large topic but we’ll try to keep it high level.
Most mobile routers today, have the ability to use either cellular data, public wifi networks or a combination of both as their internet source. They work by rebroadcasting that internet access wirelessly and/or wired to a small area for its owners use. Mobile routers also act as firewalls, limiting the amount of traffic that can access devices from outside of your private network. There are still security issues with using any public wifi, but for the most part that risk is limited only to information you transmit to/from the internet when you correctly use a mobile router/firewall.
MiFi Mobile Hotspot Probably the most commonly used mobile router, sold directly by Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and just about every cellular carrier. These tiny devices have cellular modems that pickup internet signals broadcasted by the cellular carriers and then rebroadcast those signals to a small local wireless network for private use. Many smartphones including the iPhone have mobile hotspot capabilities built right in, but they limit your ability to use your phone while they are in use which is why most serious users opt for a dedicated hotspot device.
Pros: Portable, inexpensive turn key solution that is supported by your mobile carrier. Some models support external antennas allowing you to improve cellular signal in remote locations. They also have a built in battery meaning they will continue to function for a few hours in the event of a power loss. Their single biggest pro in our opinion is that they are portable.
Cons: Limited to a single carrier (they will only work with the cellular carrier they were designed to work with), cellular antenna may not pickup cell signal in remote areas as well as units with a dedicated antenna, designed for up to 5-10 devices max, limited wireless power so you may need to remain close to the device to pickup a good signal, no option for wired connection (you can connect a single computer via tethering function however you will be limited to a single device in most cases).
Wifi Ranger One of the first companies to come to market with a product truly designed for RV & Marine use. The team at Wifi Ranger have been working on a perfected solution for wireless & cellular access for quite some time and we must say it has come a long way and is an extremely well designed solution. Most Wifi Ranger solutions come in two pieces, a roof mounted wifi receiver and an interior mounted router/wifi hotspot that rebroadcasts the roof signal inside of your RV. The interior router also has a USB port allowing it to use cellular internet as either it’s primary or secondary connection making for an excellent all around solution. The team at Wifi Ranger have developed custom software for these devices so that they can easily talk to each other acting as a single unified connectivity solution. Receive 5% off site wide at http://wifiranger.com by entering code WFRLIVIN at checkout.
Pros: A single unified solution, nothing more to buy other than a USB modem from your cellular carrier, excellent technical support provided by the manufacture, excellent warranty support ensuring replacement parts are quickly shipped if needed, wireless receiving range is excellent, picking up even the most distant signals, U.S. based company, support for wired/wireless connections, can broadcast your private wifi signal via the roof antenna giving you exceptional range even outside your RV (make sure to be careful with this feature as it may impact other campers and their ability to use campground wifi), 12V and 120V support for a variety of installation options.
Cons: Only supports a single cellular carrier at a time. You could switch to a second carrier, but you would need to remove the USB modem and replace it with another one from the second carrier. Less resilient than the Pepwave, meaning that if it looses connectivity it may manually need to be reconnected more often (probably not noticeable for most users), less customizable advanced router options than the Pepwave such as site-to-site VPN (still a very capable router with plenty of advanced features).
Pepwave Mobile Router(s) We consider this the gold standard in mobile connectivity if you do not plan on using campground or public wifi on a regular basis. The Peplink Pepwave Max BR1 mobile router has an integrated cellular modem that supports Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile. The unit has two sim card slots and a single cellular modem that can switch between either carrier sim automatically. You can configure the device to prefer a specific carrier, switch based on connectivity or data usage. You can configure the Pepwave to notify you via email when data limits have been reached and there is even a mobile app for your cell phone to administer the device from the comfort of the couch.
The Pepwave supports wifi-as-wan, meaning it will also rebroadcast local campground wifi or other public wifi hotspots, however it does not natively support a roof antenna. You can add a roof antenna, but all wifi signal including the signal for broadcasting inside your coach will utilize that signal antenna located on the roof so plan accordingly and check ranges.
The Pepwave is designed for mobile applications, it has a metal housing, 12v DC terminals and has been troublefree for us after 3 years of continuous use.
Pros: Multiple carrier support, long range cellular diversity antennas maximize signal strength, wired WAN support for users who have wired internet access (DSL/CABLE), wired LAN support for desktops or wired printers or other items, high power 2G wireless antenna for maximum range, 12v power ports (no inverter needed).
Cons: Expensive at $500+, not really portable, once you install in your rig its primary use will be in your rig, no roof antenna – this is best if you have cellular data and do not rely on wireless.
Pepewave also makes a portable option that has many of the features of it’s older cousin but for a fraction of the price. The Pepwave Surf on the Go Mobile Router is a feature packed mobile router capable of picking up campground wifi as well as connecting to a USB cellular modem. The device also has a single wired ethernet port allowing you to connect a wired device (or a switch to connect multiple wired devices). The unit comes with suction cups allowing it to be window mounted inside of your RV so that it can pickup campground wifi signals in addition to using USB cellular modems. The wireless antenna in this unit is quite a bit larger than that used by a MiFi improving your wireless range near your coach. This is an excellent option for those looking to improve their connectivity options while also keeping the portability and budget under control.
Cell boosters use an exterior mounted antenna, usually located on the roof of your RV and boost the cellular signal, repeating the boosted signal inside your RV using a smaller interior antenna. Our booster routinely boosts a barely usable cellular signal into a suitable signal that works for both voice and data saving us from having to move probably once a month. This is an optional component in any installation, but we find it’s a mobile-must-have for us. WeBoost has been a leader in cellular boosters for over a decade and they have recently released a number of mobile booster options which are listed below.
Satellite internet is an option, especially for those looking to be connected in extremely remote areas where cell service is still not an option. In recent years satellite providers have improved the speed of satellite internet to now allow for streaming video (low definition), but the speeds are still much slower than 4G cellular and you will still need a clear line of site to the satellite. Now that may sound easy in a movable house, but in campgrounds and parks we have an obstructed satellite view about 10x more often then we find a lack of cellular signal. This has led us to seriously question our Direct TV Television subscription as we often cannot use it, if we had that problem with our internet, it would be a deal breaker.
RV Success School – Marc & Julie from RV Love, fellow full-timers head up the RV Success School. If you are thinking about hitting the road, this is the gold standard in mobile life education.
RV Mobile Internet – Chris & Cherie from Technomadia, fellow full-timers, run a popular blog and member based service that has a tremendous amount of resources on the mobile internet topic.