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.
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.
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
For 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?
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!