A lot of friends have asked us how we are able to access the web while we’re traveling around in an RV. When we started, this was a major concern for us. We booked our “break-in” trip at a local park in San Antonio, and learned the hard way that RV Parks do not typically offer great wifi.
Cell Data on our phones
We tried using the cell data from our Google Fi phone plans, but we chewed through the 20GB of data that came with our plans. After you use 20GB of data on Google Fi, they throttle you down to 256kbps. This is incredibly slow compared to typical 4G/5G speeds, but was surprisingly good enough for my development work. (logging into remote servers and working on the command line) Video calls were definitely out though.
Why are cell data plans still so expensive?
Aside from the bandwidth cap, we also had signal problems with T-Mobile anytime we left town. Most of our campsite destinations have been out in the boonies, so I set out to do more research. It turns out there’s really not a single great solution to this problem. AT&T and Verizon appear to provide the best coverage, but in different areas of the country. Verizon seemed to provide stronger coverage in the areas that we wanted to travel so I dug into pricing and plan details and was blown away. Anytime you see the word “unlimited” on modern cell phone plans, just pretend an asterisk is missing. Much the same as our Google Fi data plan, Verizon offers plans up to 30GB of full speed data transfer and then throttles connectivity to 600kbps. The throttled speed is far better than Fi, and the network coverage is also waaay better, but the cost is 2 to 3 times what we’ve been spending.
Reseller plans FTW!
So we know there’s a better option, but there’s a cost problem. I started considering that there are a lot of MVNOs reselling larger cellular networks under a different brand (e.g. MetroPCS or Boost reselling the T-Mobile network, or Pure Talk or Cricket reselling the AT&T network) and found Visible reselling the Verizon network. We would have to buy new, compatible, phones though. What seemed more ideal would be to get some hotspots that we could plug some antennas into to improve tower signal. Visible is definitely still on our radar, but I need to look into them further before switching away from the Google Fi goodness.
Things looked a little shady (too good to be true) on ebay when I found some truly unlimited Verizon data plan offerings from resellers for $60 per line per month. We would have to purchase our own hotspots and then plug in the sim and hope that it all worked. I’m working to be more optimistic and I figured it wasn’t a huge amount of money so I took a gamble and signed up! I bought some Verizon 8800L hotspots used on ebay for much less than retail. The sims arrived quickly and I was able to follow the simple instructions from the reseller to configure the hotspots. Here I am 6 months later with the same setup and we’re pretty happy with it.
These Verizon 8800L hotspots have TS-9 antenna connector prongs. This allows us to connect to MIMO (multiple input/output for higher bandwidth) 4G antennas (like this one from Netgear) to improve our line of sight to close cell towers. Opensignal makes a great smartphone app that points the direction to the nearest cell tower. There’s also https://www.cellmapper.net/map that displays cell towers on a map so you can try pointing at other towers if the closest one doesn’t pan out.
Pros of using this setup:
- This has been significantly cheaper than using Verizon
- We’re able to use this hotspot setup to provide internet to all of our devices
- Sharing internet from phones over wifi drained our cell batteries really quickly. The hotspots seem to last the majority of the day before needing a charge
- It’s not always convenient to carry arround and keep an extra device charged
- Even with all of this setup, we still have internet connectivity problems at certain locations. Depending on what our work schedule looks like, we’ve needed to skip some of the better looking options and relocate to areas with better cell coverage.
Improvements; “one day we’ll….”
We have a Weboost 4G cell signal booster with an omnidirectional OTR antenna, but it honestly only works well when we’re driving over flat terrain. We’ve not had as much luck with it in the mountains. And of course, if you’re out of range for cell tower connectivity, there’s not much you can do except relocate. We’re considering getting a Weboost antenna pole that would attach to the side of the RV when camped out, to improve our signal in very remote places. If we go this route, I believe we’ll end up getting a stronger MIMO antenna (like a Poyning XPOL) to mount. (These would be a significantly larger investment than we’ve made so far though)