Connectivity on the Road: How We Stay Plugged In When We’re Unplugged

I’ve been meaning to write a post about internet connectivity for a long time.  I had some changes in the works to Trudy’s setup (more on that below) that never came to fruition before selling.  Things are different again now that we’re in the Fox.  Regardless, it’s time to at least give an overview in case anyone is interested.

Note: this is our setup and the information we’ve learned during our journey.  It’s geared towards our requirements and travel needs.  I am not an expert in this area and also am not up to date with current cellular carriers’ offerings or restrictions, so please take the time to do your own research if you’re planning your own setup.

Let me also say that that Cherie and Chris over at RVMobileInternet know vastly more than we do on this topic.  They have tons of great, up-to-date information on their website – including current carrier options and gear reviews.  Their website is the perfect starting point when researching mobile connectivity (this is where we started and we learned a lot from them).  We have no association with them besides being grateful fans.

“The office” in Trudy, connected by cellular alone.  The view out the window was always changing!

 

Campground Wifi

Here’s some bad news.  Many campgrounds offer wifi to their customers.  You can count on it being terrible and effectively unusable the vast majority of the time.  This is probably due to many campers using it to stream videos all day so blame other campers!

We’ve only stayed at two or three places that had usable wifi.  We usually don’t even try to connect to it unless our cellular connections are poor.

Hannah working on her Macbook Pro with a view of Sedona’s red rocks. You have to bring your own wifi when boondocking!

 

Is Cellular the Best Option?

Most full-timers rely solely on cellular connectivity for their internet.  Sure, there are satellite offerings that are constantly evolving and improving, but they’re more complex, more expensive, and the technology has intrinsic limitations that must be worked around.  I’ve heard the speeds can be decent but latency is a constant struggle since the signal has to go so far (I have no legitimate sources on this, so it’s probably wrong).

I looked briefly into satellite and pretty quickly ruled it out for those reasons before we went full-time.  Do you have good experiences with satellite or are my claims above wrong?  Let us know!

We researched all of the big cellular carriers and decided we wanted only the best coverage – so we went with Verizon and AT&T.  There are interesting options with Sprint and other less costly providers, but saving a few bucks isn’t worth dealing with poor connectivity on the road.

 

The Cellular Plan – The Real Struggle

The hardest part of getting a full-time friendly internet setup is getting around the cellular providers’ contracts and restrictions.  Here are some key terms and concepts that need to be understood:

Modern Unlimited Plans vs “Grandfathered” Unlimited Plans

Carriers offered truly unlimited data plans years ago.  Network speeds were much lower then and the app industry wasn’t nearly as mature so there was no need to restrict usage.  That’s not the case anymore.  Most providers haven’t offered truly unlimited plans for some time (I believe Sprint may still offer it, but I wouldn’t rely on Sprint for nationwide coverage).

New “unlimited” cell phone plans actually include their limits right in the contract.  Sure, they don’t cut you off entirely (which is how they can call the plans “unlimited” I assume), but they are happy to throttle and deprioritize your connections when you exceed pretty low monthly limits.

Most providers have discontinued (“upgraded”) their actually unlimited plans, but there are still some “grandfathered” Verizon plans out there with truly unlimited data.  These are existing plans from several years ago that were never modified by the customer (no changes, no new phones, no upgrades).  They can be transferred to a different customer via an Assumption of Liability transfer.  Apparently the buyer and the seller have to talk to Verizon (and maybe even act like they’re friends or something) and Verizon will transfer the line as long as everything checks out.  To do this, you have to purchase the grandfathered plan on eBay, etc (where they go for $1000+).  This was too shady for us but many people do this.  It can actually save you money in the long run since the monthly rates on the old plan are usually very low.  However, keep in mind that Verizon is actively trying to shut these accounts down so excessive usage may get you in trouble.

Grandfathered unlimited Verizon plans on eBay.  Look at those prices!
Hot Spot Restrictions

Nearly all modern cell phones enable you to share your 4G connection with other devices via hot spot functionality (though some providers disable it for lower-cost subscriptions).  That’s an okay option when on the road – it does the job, but it’s a pretty weak signal and quickly drains your phone battery.  Plus nearly all plans have significant restrictions on hot spot functionality.  Check your contract, but most limit each line to 10-15GB/month.  After that any hot spot connection is severely throttled.

Throttling and Deprioritization

Throttling is when the carrier artificially limits the network speed of your device.  This is often a result of exceeding your data limit (or hot spot limit) and is essentially a form of punishment.  The slowdown is often extreme and pretty much makes the device extremely frustrating to use at the very least.

Note that some carriers let you purchase extensions on your data limit (for example, add 5GB to your data limit in the current month for $10-15), but that could get costly if you’re pumping lots of data through.

Deprioritization is a lesser form of punishment when you exceed a monthly limit.  This is when your device’s connection to the provider’s cell tower is deprioritized behind other customers’ connections when the tower is congested.  If you’re boondocking somewhere with few people around you, you’ll never be subjected to this.  If you’ve exceeded this limit and you’re in the middle of a city, or in a large group of people who are all connecting to the only tower in the area, you may feel like your connection is slower.

Cellular Membership Plans (like Unlimitedville)

We also briefly looked into joining a third-party membership plan to get unlimited data.  These companies somehow have lots of unlimited plans from most providers that they will “rent” to you (month-to-month only) for a large sum of money each month (currently $200/mo for AT&T and $250/mo for Verizon).  I’ve read that these are old business plans that were repurposed to maximize profits, but who knows where they came from.

The problem with these plans is that they’re in the gray area of legality.  I’ve heard of them getting shut down with only days notice to their customers.  In addition to the high monthly cost, I had trouble relying on this sort of plan since it could vanish abruptly and leave us with nothing.

There are also individuals that will do this on a smaller scale.  Again, these are probably not entirely legal (or at least are in violation of the carriers’ contracts) and can be found online (e.g. eBay).  Some stranger sends you a hot spot with an active SIM card in it (on their account) for you to use and you pay them every month.  I don’t think it can get any shadier than that!  No thanks, we wanted something reliable and legal.

Our Cellular Plans

We have plans with two carriers.  We are on a traditional Verizon unlimited family plan for our phones (shared with Tim’s family to save money) and we have a data-only plan with AT&T.  Since we share it six ways, our total bill for two lines is approximately $75/mo (though this is going up since Hannah just got a new iPhone and financed it).  Our data-only AT&T plan, including taxes and fees, comes in at a whopping $22/mo.  That puts the bill for our cell phones and internet at $97/mo.  Hard to beat that!

Our Verizon lines are limited to 15GB hot spot functionality per month.  I’m sure there are also depriorization and throttling limits to actual phone usage but they’re high enough to not be a concern since we don’t do much streaming or heavy data throughput on our phones.  These are our safety net when we’re in an area where AT&T signal is poor or if deprioritization would become an issue.  So far we’ve only experienced the former as far as we know… and we’ve downloaded 100+GB over AT&T some months.

The ZTE Mobley hot spot

The AT&T plan is the magic behind the curtain for us.  It’s our main connection.  It’s one of their Connected Car unlimited plans that were offered last year.  It came with a ZTE Mobley hot spot device for $99.  We opted for the 2 year contract since it seemed to good to last forever and we’re glad we did since they stopped offering it in late 2017.

We love the Mobley, but I will say that it isn’t the fastest hot spot device out there and it came with one large caveat – it plugs into a car’s OBDII port for power since it’s meant to be an in-car device.  This means you can’t plug it into a wall or cigarette lighter without purchasing or soldering up your own adapter!  I bought an OBDII pigtail cable and a USB 5v-12v step-up voltage converter and soldered it together to make our own USB power supply as described on slickdeals.  This lets us run the Mobley wherever we want since it’s powered by the ubiquitous USB port.

Unfortunately the Connected Car plan with the Mobley hasn’t been offered for months.  As a result, people are selling their contracts on eBay for $1000+ just like the Verizon unlimited plans.  More sketchiness detected.

 

Hardware

There are lots of products you can purchase to aid your connectivity setup.  Things like external antennas (for both cell signal and wifi), cellular boosters, and fancy routers.  We have experience with a few of these but I’ll repeat my claim that RVMobileInternet is probably the best place to go if you’re looking for all-encompassing information.

Our Experience with a WeBoost Cell Booster

We purchased and installed a weBoost Drive 4G-X RV cell booster before we hit the road.  We had the idea that it would help “boost” signal when we were in places with poor service.

The weBoost Drive 4G-X RV

That didn’t work out how we expected.  Web surfing, doing speed tests (using the free app Speedtest by Ookla) and looking at 4G signal (using the free app LTE Discovery) showed us that the booster didn’t really help when signal was weak!

I added an extension cable to the booster system and had planned on mounting an extending flag pole to Trudy’s ladder to get better signal, but we sold Trudy before all of that happened (more like I took too long to finish it).  I figured we’d get better signal if the antenna was higher than the obstacles around it (other RVs, trees, etc).

 

The weBoost external antenna mounted to Trudy’s ladder (note the extra cable for plans that never materialized)

I talked to Wilson, weBoost’s parent company, before adding the extension cable.  I also asked them about the booster’s performance.  The Wilson tech basically said that the signal has to be fairly strong (stronger than -100db I believe he said – which is stronger than we usually had) in order for the booster to perform correctly.  This was a shock to me, and apparently I misunderstood the point of the booster to begin with.  Or maybe their claims are misleading… you decide.

My understanding now is that the booster’s purpose is to take a good signal from outside the RV, make it stronger, and rebroadcast it inside the RV.  We pretty much had the same signal strength inside and outside the RV (maybe this isn’t the case with other RVs, like an aluminum Airstream), so that part didn’t matter.  And since it needed a decent signal to begin with, it basically gave us very little benefit for $500+!

When we sold Trudy, we included the weBoost in the sale and are not planning on buying another booster.

A Roadworthy Router: the Pepwave Surf SOHO MK3

We have lots of devices that connect to wifi – laptops, phones, Kindles, Chromecasts, smartwatches, etc.  One silly limitation of the Mobley hot spot is that it only allows five devices to connect to its wifi network.  This meant that we’d have to disconnect devices before connecting others.

In addition, the wifi network put out by the Mobley wasn’t the strongest, so range wasn’t great (hey, it was designed to work inside of a car).

To address these issues and give us some other features, we invested in a Pepwave Surf SOHO MK3 router and a 12v adapter so we could power it with our house batteries when we didn’t have hookups.

The Pepwave Surf SOHO MK3

In addition to features found in normal consumer routers (like dual wifi bands, high throughput, and a nice web UI with remote administration), the Pepwave offers additional features that are very beneficial to RVers.  Such as:

  • USB WAN – a cellular hot spot device (like the Mobley) can be plugged into the router via USB and used as a network source.
  • WWAN – existing wifi networks (e.g. from a campground or your phone’s hot spot) can be used as a network source.
  • Source prioritization – multiple network sources (wifi, USB, Ethernet, etc.) can be prioritized.  For example, if you put your cell phone’s hot spot wifi as 1st priority and the USB hot spot as 2nd priority, it will always connect to your cell phone’s network if it’s available.  If it’s not available, it’ll use the USB connection.  This means your whole network will switch to your cell phone’s hot spot soon after you turn it on and back over to secondary connections when you turn the hot spot off.
  • Automatic fail-over – the router tests each connection routinely (via configurable means and time periods) and will automatically use lower-prioritized connections if higher-prioritized connections aren’t functioning properly.

We keep the Mobley and the Pepwave plugged into our 12v system.  That way they work while boondocking and also aren’t affected by any electrical outages when we have hookups.  This can prevent dropping conference calls if you’re working and the campground’s electricity goes in and out (been there, done that).

We’ve had moderate success with the Pepwave’s prioritization/fail-over features.  If we’re changing sources frequently, I might have to log into the Pepwave’s web interface and enable/disable connections to get it to work how I want it to.  Perhaps changing some of the detailed settings would make connections fail over more quickly, but I haven’t played with that much since it’s not a big deal.

 

Plan to be Disconnected

There are many places that are worth visiting that have little to no cell service.  Many of the large national parks are examples (we had absolutely no service at Joshua Tree).

There are no cell towers anywhere near Joshua Tree National Park.  Hooray!

There’s no way around this so if you want to visit these places you have to be prepared.  Trip planning is key here – perhaps the areas with no service can be day trip destinations instead of week-long stays if connectivity is required.

Many campground review sites (RVParkReviews, Campendium, etc.) include details about cellular connectivity.  If this is important to you, be sure to research it while planning your travels.

You can also look at the cellular providers’ coverage maps or use apps like Coverage? to see if you should expect cell service.  the national park service’s website may also include information and cell coverage for some national parks (it stated there’s no cell coverage in Joshua Tree in bold).

 

Wrapping Up

As you can see, there are many decisions (and purchases) to be made when planning your connectivity on the road.  It can be as simple or as complex as you want.

Let us know in the comments if you have experience with other technology or connectivity plans that you rely on while traveling!

2 Comments

  1. You’ve done an excellent job explaining a confusing subject. I’m about to embark on a solo 6 month trip and will use a data plan, either Verizon or ATT. I wonder what percentage of the time did you use Verizon data because the ATT coverage was poor? Seems like I could use a Verizon jetpack as my coach wifi source without the need for a separate router?

    Thanks again for a well written article.

    1. Hi Ted!

      Thanks for the kind words!

      I’d say we had to use our Verizon phone’s hot spots over AT&T maybe 10% of the time maximum. There were also locations in WV and AZ where AT&T worked and Verizon didn’t.

      Yes, you certainly can get away without a separate router. We went several months like that. The router simply aids in network changes, handles multiple devices better, and boosts signal. I’d suggest keeping your setup as simple as you can.

      Thanks for reading, Ted! Enjoy your solo journey!

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