How We Stay Online on the Road

Dec 16, 2013

This is an updated January 2016 version of an article that was originally published in December 2013.

Traveling full-time and living in a small space has enabled us to simplify and streamline our lives in countless ways. Staying connected to fast, reliable internet is unfortunately NOT something we’d place in that “simple” category – though it is getting easier all the time with larger coverage areas and improved technology!

Our first year and a half of full-time RVing posed some interesting connectivity issues at times, so we decided that we might be experienced enough to write about how we stay online on the road.

If actively making money wasn’t a requirement, we probably wouldn’t go out of our way to have internet all that often. We’d be more likely to take our unconventional living to a more rebellious extreme of camping off the grid whenever possible and isolating ourselves from civilization at times. Not an “Into the Wild” level of rebellion, mind you – we’d just spend some extended periods of time living in the wilderness, slow down a bit more, and unplug from phones and email.

While this simpler version of la vie bohème is romanticized in novels and movies, those wanderers, adventurers, vagabonds, and other characters of the sort also typically live in or near poverty as a result (not as fun). We’re still quite far off from retirement and have spent a lot of time, money and energy on education and growing our skills in our careers – and we enjoy what we do for a living – so we won’t be walking away from that anytime soon!

Our goal is to continue working a healthy number of hours a week (30-40 hour workweeks each, typically) while living on a reasonably frugal budget, for as long as we continue to enjoy this nomadic lifestyle – or until we find something we like better.

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Just another day at the office

We do make some sacrifices – namely staying near civilization enough that we can be connected most of the time to continue providing excellent work to our awesome employers, who are wonderfully supportive of our nomadic ways and fund this lifestyle we love so dearly.

Essential ingredients for nomadic online work

Figure out your bandwidth requirements first
An optimal technology setup can vary quite widely from person to person, based on individual bandwidth needs. Someone who finds it essential to stream video often or transfer huge files regularly is going to struggle having cellular data as their sole source of connectivity, unless they’re prepared to drop hundreds of dollars a month on a cellular data plan(s), stay in one place long enough to have a cable internet line installed at a campsite, or are lucky enough to have a grandfathered-in unlimited data phone plan (and that it doesn’t get throttled with such heavy use!). We aren’t extremely heavy data users, usually around 30-40 GB/month, and tend to use our computers for email and web-based work that doesn’t require a ton of file uploads and downloads. The main force in our arsenal of connectivity equipment is two cell phone plans.

Data plans
We opted for the best data coverage we could find at a reasonable cost. We formerly had an AT&T plan with 10 GB/month of shared data and a 20 GB/month hotspot plan through a Verizon reseller called Millenicom. They have since stopped their hotspot service after those accounts were absorbed by Verizon, but another interesting option popped up: taking over someone’s grandfathered-in Verizon unlimited data plan. Verizon has since made it more difficult for these lines to be transferred to other individuals (aka “assumption of liability”) and they can be pricey to purchase now due to demand, but we’ve also heard of people “leasing” unlimited plans from other people, paying them monthly for the use of a SIM card on their account. We won’t make any recommendations for or against doing this, since there’s obviously a lot that can go wrong in that scenario and renting out a phone plan is technically illegal, but it may an option that some would consider in a pinch.

For up-to-the-minute research on cellular data providers and the best plans for nomads, we highly recommend purchasing a membership to the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center to stay “in the know” from the true experts on the subject, our friends Chris and Cherie of Technomadia. We’ve saved hundreds of dollars optimizing our cellular plans by having a membership to their site, learning all the tips and tricks from their expert research and experience – so a subscription to their site is money we consider very well spent!

Cellular signal boosters and maps
coverage_iphoneFor people like us who love pushing the limits of how far into the fringes of civilization we can live and still be connected, there are a variety of cellular signal boosting antennas on the market, with more in development all the time. Most are carrier and band-specific (2G, 3G, 4G, LTE or a combination thereof), so before purchasing, check the areas you’ll be staying most often to see what kind of coverage you may have there and which type of antenna and carrier compatibility makes the most sense for you.

You can’t boost a non-existent signal, so make sure there’s some coverage there to start with! New regulations have been enacted by the FCC, changing the booster market considerably. You can again find the most up to date information about these devices on the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center or in their fantastic and highly-detailed book, The Mobile Internet Handbook.

There’s a great app available for iOS (and someday Android) called Coverage? that we use frequently. It offers maps of the various carriers’ service areas overlaid on one another with the option to filter by type of service (3G, 4G, etc). The carrier maps are downloaded to your phone, so you don’t need coverage to see where you can find some. Brilliant! Another option we use frequently is to check campground reviews before we arrive – other visitors will often leave comments about their phone reception in that area.

Now, all of that is supposing we don’t have wi-fi available to us, which we sometimes do..

By doing a little research ahead of time, we can make a point to stay at a campground with decent connectivity if we need it for a project or are getting low on cellular data for the month. Some campgrounds that have cable tv lines already run to campsites can offer a lease on a modem through the local cable company. Cable internet service can then be activated to your site with no long-term contract. If you’re going to be somewhere for a month or longer, or even just a couple weeks and have high data usage needs, this is often a very cost-effective option. We tend to move around too much so we haven’t had a chance to try this yet.

We’ve personally had better luck with wi-fi at smaller privately-owned campgrounds than the larger commercial campgrounds (their network is highly prone to overloading if the campground is at all busy, and even in the best of circumstances is barely usable if anyone is streaming video). Some of the campgrounds we’ve visited have had remarkably fast wi-fi, especially at slower times of the year and during the week or late at night. It’s truly hit or miss though, based on a myriad of factors: many campgrounds’ networks have conjured up some not-so-fond memories of dial-up modems – just minus the unpleasant dialing noises.

We don’t mind working in public either if we don’t have video or voice calls that day, so we’ll often give ourselves a nice change of scenery by moving our office to a coffee shop, restaurant, brewery/winery/bar (where we’ll often be seen nursing a single beer or glass of wine for an hour or longer to preserve productivity!), or other spot with free wi-fi. Many laundromats now have wi-fi, which is a fantastic way to multi-task a dreaded chore. Places that people don’t typically go to work (read: anywhere but coffee shops!) usually have faster internet and are great places to download big updates to your computer and devices, the newest episode of The Walking Dead, or upload hundreds of photos to Facebook. Just remember to be careful on public networks and have extra encryption in place before logging into anything containing sensitive information, like a bank account, or making purchases online.

Wi-Fi boosting antennas
A wi-fi boosting antenna can be a great asset. When mounted flat on your roof or on a telescoping pole, the antenna is able to extend above your RV, clearing many of the objects that may stand in the way of a direct signal. It then brings that wi-fi signal into your RV by way of an ethernet cable plugged into a wireless router. Once inside your RV, the router creates your very own home network that you can password protect to add an extra layer of security to public wi-fi.

They aren’t without their issues though: during a week-long stay at a smaller campground when we had our Airstream trailer, a larger Class-A motorhome became a “force field” between us and the campground’s wireless router, rendering even our tall Wi-Fi Ranger Mobile* boosting antenna useless. These things happen, and usually at the most inopportune times, so it’s best to have another means of connecting as a backup – and then sometimes a backup to your backup!

We so rarely stay at parks with usable wi-fi that we opted not to install another wi-fi antenna on our new RV, but depending on your travel style it might be a worthwhile investment. There are ways to build your own and save some money, as well.

Be sure to check local regulations before installing any kind of wi-fi or cellular antenna, whether you’re mobile or stationary. FCC rules are continually evolving, and with continual changes to data networks, antennas can cause interference that may bring someone knocking on your door with a cease and desist letter! They can and will track individuals down to prevent illegal antenna use.

Overwhelmed? Not technologically inclined?rvmihandbook

The best place to start, especially if you’re new to all of this, is The Mobile Internet Handbook. To learn more and see the most up-to-date information about cellular internet options and connectivity equipment, we’d recommend you also turn to the new RV Mobile Internet Resource Center, a community of high-tech nomads who can help answer questions and narrow down the best cellular plans and devices for your needs.

 

Our current lineup of phone and internet devices:

  • 2 iPhone 6’s on AT&T – We had been using an old AT&T unlimited data plan for several years, but after AT&T began throttling those to unusable speeds, we switched to a new shared 10 GB plan with unlimited talk and text, which AT&T recently doubled for no additional fee to a 20 GB plan. We can set up our phones as hotspots for free and connect our other devices and computers to them.
  • Android smartphone on Verizon (with grandfathered-in unlimited data plan) We took over this plan from someone else, after our hotspot provider no longer offered Verizon service. Verizon has since discontinued this option, but we highly recommend buying a membership to our friends’ RV Mobile Internet Resource Center to learn about the best values out there in cell data and see what options exist for buying or renting one of these plans.
  • Jetpack AC791L hotspot by Netgear. We put our Verizon unlimited SIM in this mi-fi device. It has fantastic battery life, you can tether multiple devices to it, and it can be plugged into a router in your RV. You aren’t supposed to use a hotspot with the plan we have, since it’s meant to be used for a cell phone, so it’s important to be very careful not to let them know that it’s being used that way. They are looking for any excuse to terminate these plans, so never call in for support while it’s in that device, or take it into a store in or with the hotspot. We had to buy a prepaid data plan and cancel it just to be able to purchase the jetpack.
  • A weBoost Drive 4GM mobile cellular booster kit. Unlike the cradle-type boosters that can only hold one cellular device at a time, the Drive 4G-M provides simultaneous signal enhancement for all your cellular-powered devices (including phones, tablets and laptops) that are within three feet of the indoor antenna. A second antenna is mounted on the roof of your vehicle or trailer. We were able to avoid drilling holes in our roof and instead ran the antenna cord out the gasket around our slide-out.

Current computers and other devices:

  • 13” Macbook Pro (x2)
  • 11″ Macbook Air
  • iPad mini on T-Mobile’s network (not currently activated on a cellular network)
  • Google Nexus tablet on AT&T for Android app testing purposes
  • Apple TV to stream TV shows/music, watch YouTube videos, and play some games

While this may all sound extremely complicated and expensive just to be able to use the Internet consistently while traveling, to us it’s well worth the hassle and cost to live a location-independent lifestyle and change our office view as often as we’d like!

As technology and our needs change we will keep our readers updated and post again with any changes. Please feel free to comment with any questions! We’ll do our best to answer them (or find someone more knowledgeable than us who can!).

* Disclosure: Millenicom and Wi-Fi Ranger did provide us with some free equipment or services a few years ago to review, but we no longer use it and it in no way has influenced our critique of their products and service. We have had a great experience with all of them, and will report on any problems just as quickly as we praise them!

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12 comments

  1. Comment by Eli

    Eli Reply Mar 29, 2014 at 8:09 am

    This is just what I’m looking for. Nice job!

    • Comment by Kristin

      Kristin Reply Mar 31, 2014 at 3:02 am

      Thanks, Eli! Glad we were able to help.

  2. Comment by Uy Tieu

    Uy Tieu Reply Mar 29, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    This is a great post and thanks for sharing your experience.

    My wife and I have been toying with this idea of traveling and working full-time, but one of our biggest concerns was connectivity to do our jobs. I currently work remote as product designer and need internet access pretty much most of the day to communicate and share work with my team. Millenicom seems like a logical option for times where the wifi is spotty and even for emergencies. Even then, 20GB of data is not enough.

    You’ve mentioned leasing a modem from a local cable provider when you have high usage needs. That sounds like a great solution. Could you get into more details about this and your experiences going this route?

    • Comment by Kristin

      Kristin Reply Mar 31, 2014 at 3:02 am

      Hi Uy,

      Thanks for your comment! We find that we don’t go through data as fast as we thought, other than transferring large files or lots of video conferencing/streaming and Skype calls. We tend to do meetings over the phone instead because minutes are cheaper than data, and if talking to coworkers through chat or email is an option for you, that method doesn’t eat through data as fast as video or audio. Many campgrounds’ wifi is good enough to be usable for working if you don’t need to be doing a lot of high-bandwidth streaming and just need a reasonable connection with your mi-fi ready as a backup.

      The modem option is great if you’re going to be somewhere for a month or longer and have high usage needs, but otherwise it’s probably not worth the hassle and cost. We haven’t personally done it because we haven’t been in one place that long other than once, and we had wifi there. We’ve talked to people who have, and every cable and phone company’s policy and pricing is different, unfortunately. You’d have to just call around to campgrounds and see whether they allow it, what provider they use, and then call that provider for pricing if the campground isn’t able to tell you. Sorry we can’t be of more help there, but there’s a lot of variables! We’ve met a few product designers who work on the road so if you’d like to get in touch with them shoot us an email through our contact form and we can connect you.

      Best of luck in getting on the road!

      • Comment by Uy Tieu

        Uy Tieu Reply Apr 2, 2014 at 8:29 am

        Thanks for the info, Kristin! This is very helpful. I guess we’ll have to just hit the road and see what works for us and use a mix of mobile, mi-fi and wi-fi options like you’ve mentioned. And you’re right, so many variables to consider.

  3. Comment by Janet E. Wehlitz

    Janet E. Wehlitz Reply May 14, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    Less than two years and WE will be on the road! Though we will be doing things a bit differently as I sell on line and my hubby hopes to start his own wi-fi business. He currently works for a company (1/2 time) that installs and monitors wi-fi at hotels/motels, and they have done RV parks. The RV parks are the Hardest to cover with wi-fi and yes, a big 5th wheel or Class A can wreck havoc on reception for someone next to them.

    We will probably boon-dock a fair amount of the fall to spring in the SW areas and head north when summer sets in.

    Love your website and, more importantly, Love your approach to life, being together, and earning a living. My hubby and I have been married 42 yrs and still prefer to run errands and go places together. Oh yes, we will be traveling with our “family”, our almost 5 yr old Siberian female cat named Vanya.

    Keep on Rollin!

    • Comment by Kristin

      Kristin Reply May 15, 2014 at 12:56 am

      That’s great, Janet, congratulations! The RV world needs more people knowledgeable in wi-fi. I hope he can convey what a selling point it is to working RVers like ourselves to have working wi-fi. We’ve had our wi-fi drop off completely countless times when a bigger rig parks next to us and blocks the signal. So aggravating!

      It’s great to hear from someone else who chose this lifestyle to spend more time with their partner. That’s been the best improvement for us, where we previously worked 9 hours a day apart and spent an hour in the car alone on top of it. Being able to spend our lives together instead of mostly apart has been worth all the hardships, sacrifices, and a big drop in income!

      Let us know if you have any questions and we can’t wait to see you on the road someday!

  4. Pingback: How To Live The Full Time RV Life

  5. Comment by Dave

    Dave Reply Mar 9, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    Hi guys, this is super helpful stuff. It seems like getting ahold of a grandfathered unlimited data plan on either AT&T or Verizon is a great option if it’s possible. Especially since I believe the FCC ruled AT&T had to stop throttling. One question, when you drop the Verizon SIM from your Androidin to the iPad mini, you still get unlimited data use? That would be a great use case to have an Apple TV and then stream Netflix to it with AirPlay. Anyway, thanks again!

    • Comment by Kristin

      Kristin Reply Mar 9, 2015 at 7:05 pm

      Hi Dave! Yeah, the unlimited seems like the way to go. We hope that soon the carriers start opening up more unlimited plans without having to resort to trickery and potentially illegal activities to get them. I think T-Mobile has been experimenting with it, and while their coverage isn’t as good as the “big two”, it’s getting better. We’re still holding out for satellite internet in the next few years, allowing us to venture beyond the borders of the US without so much hassle of SIM cards and international plans.

      When we put the SIM from our Android in the iPad we do get unlimited data and can use it like you said to stream, but it’s important to put it back in the phone if you ever call for tech support, go into a store, or make any changes to the plan. They can see what device it’s in if you call attention to it, and may shut you down for using a voice SIM in a hotspot. They basically are looking for any excuse to cancel an unlimited plan and thank goodness the FCC has started stepping in to protect some of us from throttling (the reason we got rid of our AT&T unlimited plan) and contract breaches on the provider’s end. Still, using it in a way it wasn’t intended can constitute a contract violation on the user’s end and result in termination of the plan. Tread lightly, but there are ways to do it! We also try not to stream too much, because we don’t ever want to be one of the “power users” that could get canceled for excessive use. We try to fly under the radar and keep it to a reasonable amount, under 100 GB/month. Ask away any time you have questions, and be sure to check out the Mobile Internet Handbook and the accompanying RV Mobile Internet Resource Center website for up-to-date info. A membership there has saved us from some pretty costly errors and helped us score that unlimited plan! 🙂

  6. Pingback: Staying Connected on the Road

  7. Comment by Kristi

    Kristi Reply Jun 2, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    Ooh thanks for the detailed info! A lot of people living in RVs full-time aren’t working full-time, so it can be hard to find info like this.

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