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Update: Our latest post on the best RV internet solution is at this link. But this post is great to look back to our choices and considerations when we first hit the road in 2014.
RV Internet Considerations
Our very first consideration when we started talking about the possibility of traveling, living and working from a motorhome was whether or not technology would make this lifestyle possible for us and if so, how! We had a hundred and one questions like…
- How would we stay connected?
- Did we need to invest in a satellite system?
- Would we be able to get sufficient and consistent cell phone and internet signal in the various locations we planned to travel around the country?
- Which was the best provider to use?
- Would our internet speed be good enough to run Webex, Skype and Facetime?
- Should we use free campground WIFI?
- And the kicker…Was all this going to cost us an arm and a leg?
After all, we’re not retired, we’re still working. So it was essential we could feel confident and have the technology piece dialed in first – before we spent any more time exploring our RV lifestyle options. Luckily for us all, the digital world and cellular technology has come a long way over the years, and continues to advance in leaps and bounds. That, coupled with an increasing number of online career options (virtual employee, contractor, self employment) is opening up a whole host of opportunities for people like you and us to ‘live and work mobile’ in ways we never could before, without having to wait for retirement!
So whether you consider yourself a “Location Independent Professional“, a “Digital Nomad“, a “Global, Mobile Citizen” or simply an RVer or other type of traveler who needs (or wants) to stay connected with the world and/or work, then technology and specifically internet connectivity is going to be a high priority for you too.
Obviously, the fact that we are now living this lifestyle – and have been doing so successfully since June 2014 – means we have found a way to make this work, without breaking the bank! This whole topic can be a minefield, so in this blog post we share the solution that is (so far) working best for us, along with an overview of what we need and use to stay mobile, keep working and stay in touch with family, friends and the world at large!
One thing to keep in mind is that this article is focused on the solution that best suits OUR specific needs, which happen to be quite high. Every single person we’ve met so far has different usage, requirements and circumstances – and if we’ve learned one thing in our travels so far, it’s that when it comes to both RVing and technology, there’s no such thing as a one size fits all! With all that said, we hope that this information will be useful for you in helping to determine the best setup for your needs and get you on the road sooner rather than later!
How to consistently stay connected to the internet and cellular networks via technologies that allow us to travel, work effectively and stay in touch.
This was, by far, Marc’s biggest concern and with justifiable cause. After all, if we couldn’t get solid, reliable, consistent internet and cellular service, he couldn’t work and as his salary is our primary income source, that simply wasn’t an option.
How we use Technology and Data in our RV
First, a bit of background on our situation. Even before we hit the road we were both working from home, so making the transition to working from our RV wasn’t that difficult. Marc built a dedicated office (we converted the bunkhouse) and Julie set up a workspace in the front cabin passenger area. We already had laptops (and a desktop) and cell phones that enabled us to work from anywhere. Finding a solid internet solution was the holy grail for us!
Marc’s Work and Technology Needs
Fortunately for us, Marc works full-time at a regular 40 hour week job for a company that allows him to work remotely. In his role as Operations Manager for a nutritional supplements company, his typical workday involves lots of email, VOIP and cell phone calls, Conference Calls, GoTo Meetings with screen sharing, updating, uploading/syncing files, MS Office 365, file sharing, Skype calls and IM, so it’s imperative that he is fully connected throughout his working day. Marc also needed to fit in with his employer’s schedule and collaborate with the team during the company’s core hours (Monday to Friday, 8.30am – 5.30pm CST). Given Marc’s responsibilities which include running a number of executive meetings, his technology needs and ability to work seamlessly – both online and remotely – are his top priority. Additionally, Marc needs a private, protected WIFI hotspot to maintain the security of his work files, so he can’t risk using free public networks (such as campground WIFI or Starbucks) for that reason.
Julie’s Work, Social and Technology Needs
Julie is self employed as a writer, content creator and lifestyle coach. She is currently writing a book and also produces our website content which includes blog posts, photography, video production and editing. She also does our share trading and investing, takes care of our finances (banking and online bill payments), finds us great deals and does most of the research and bookings for our travels. While some of Julie’s work (writing, photo/video editing) can be done offline, she does need to be online most of the day to conduct research, update the website, run coaching calls with clients around the world via Skype and Facetime and also stay on top of our travel and financial needs. She’s also our home IT person, keeping our software up to date and files backed up. Plus, as a social extrovert, Julie has a high need for staying in touch with friends and family, so she gives Skype and Facetime a good workout! All of this tends to use up quite a bit of data.
Satellite vs Cellular
We initially started looking into satellite systems but soon learned that cellular technology is now far more widely available, extremely reliable and a significantly cheaper alternative. So, no more talk about satellite – it’s irrelevant. Cellular and WIFI data it is!
As soon as we discovered just how easy, affordable, accessible and reliable cellular WIFI is around the country, we knew we could do this. This was the first key piece that was locked into place, giving us the green light to continue researching and planning for our new RV lifestyle!
The Best Cellular Networks
The two big ones are Verizon and AT&T. Yes, we understand there are many other cellular providers which can be cheaper, but it is OUR goal to have the most reliable network with the widest coverage across the nation and we’re willing to pay the price for that, as that is what enables us to keep living and working from the road. So, to keep this article focused on what we know for sure based on our own experience and requirements, we’ll be discussing those providers only. We simply don’t have any experience with other carriers to be able to accurately comment on them.
Although we had been happy AT&T customers for many years, based on our research – exploring the Coverage Maps of major cellular service providers and learning from other RVers and their experiences – Verizon was the clear winner when it came to the widest and strongest coverage across the board. AT&T is still pretty good, but their coverage just doesn’t go as far and wide as Verizon – you can clearly see the difference when you look at their coverage maps. And our personal experienced has confirmed that.
Note: cellular coverage does vary and there are places where AT&T may be the strongest carrier, but overall, in our experience, that’s the exception rather than the rule.
We chose to use the Verizon network exclusively for our WIFI hotspot internet service.
How Much Data Do We Need?
Using cellular WIFI hotspots are more expensive than home internet – so we needed to find a plan that was affordable and also comfortably meet our data needs. At home, our monthly data usage averaged around 34 GB/mo so we decided on a 40GB plan (no contract).
We aren’t big TV watchers and we’ve never had cable but we do have Apple TV which we use to stream YouTube videos, watch a few movies and the occasional TV series. We definitely aren’t daily TV watchers! So we don’t have anything useful to share about cable connectivity on the road at all – we’re online all the way, baby!
While we started out sharing one shared WIFI hotspot, after monitoring our usage over the first few months we realized we were consistently hitting our 40GB limit per month – and that was without streaming any Netflix! Marc’s data usage for work hadn’t changed since we started living in the RV but Julie’s usage had increased quite a bit – the result of taking lots more photos that were being backed up to the Cloud on multiple devices, as we have 3 sharing the one AppleID (this used up a LOT of data), adding posts and photos to the blog and uploading videos to our YouTube channel.
It felt stressful to be hitting our data limit each month and it wasn’t fun having to restrict our usage to avoid extra charges. As staying connected is one of our highest priorities, we decided it would work best for us to each have our own dedicated WIFI hotspot. That way Marc wouldn’t have to worry about running out of data or experiencing slower internet speeds at work when Julie was also online downloading software or uploading large files.
Since November 2014, we’ve been using two hotspots and it’s working out great. Marc’s work and conference calls are not affected by Julie doing any data intensive work and with 40GB of data all to himself, there is no virtually zero risk of Marc running out of data as he consistently uses far less than this – he averages around 1GB per day. Plus having a second hotspot gives him extra peace of mind in case one of our hotspot devices fails (it has happened, albeit temporarily) as we can continue working by using the other as a backup, without interruption. That solution might seem excessive to some, but it’s what works for us.
Our Current Technology Setup
This article has been updated as at June 7, 2016.
When we initially set off in June 2014, we were both on a shared plan with AT&T. Marc had an iPhone 4 (out of contract) and Julie had an iPhone 5 which was under contract until end of November 2014. We figured we’d stay with AT&T until we ran into reception issues and then Marc at least could quickly make the change from AT&T to Verizon as he was out of contract.
Here are the changes we’ve made to our phone setup since hitting the road.
1. Marc upgraded to an iPhone 5 with Verizon during our first week on the road, as the AT&T cell signal from our very first campground in Lake Tahoe just wasn’t good enough for him to make calls effectively. Immediately, he experienced better quality cell signal with Verizon and he hasn’t experienced any issues with cell phone signal since. Of course, we do plan our travels around internet connectivity, which helps.
2. Julie upgraded to an iPhone 6 in November 2015 which we added onto Marc’s Verizon More Everything Plan to share Voice, Text and Data. This was end end of our relationship with AT&T. We’d been happy with them for many years, but we simply needed better national coverage and wanted to keep things simple with just one provider.
3. We added a 3rd phone line in November 2015 – and bought a Samsung Galaxy 3 Mini – on a separate Verizon Unlimited Data Plan. What!? Julie has a non-iPhone? What!? You have an unlimited data plan!? How, where, why? Keep reading to learn more and find out why this has now become an important part of our mobile technology arsenal! It’s about more than just a phone.
Without boring you with the detail (as it’s now old news), our original Internet Service provider Millenicom, which offered access to the Verizon network at about half the price, was unexpectedly shut down by Verizon in late October. We had bought the MIFI Jetpack from them outright (around $150) and been paying $179.98 each month for 40GB of data and were very happy with their service. But, with Millenicom’s sudden closure, we had no option but to change providers – pronto! After spending a ton of time on initial research, Julie realized we would save both time and money by joining the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center ($57 annual subscription) – this gives us access to a group that provides well researched articles, recommendations and a forum to connect with other RVers and explore and share alternatives. Of all the options available, we found two plans that would be a good fit for our needs.
1. More Data – Verizon was running a “Double Your Data” Promotion in October 2014, which doubled the amount of data on it’s plans for the same price. This meant we got 40GB of data for the price of 20GB. We promptly upped Marc’s 1GB/mo single user data plan to the 40GB More Everything Plan which costs $150 for voice/text/data, plus $40 per line for our iPhones (both on a 2 year contract).
2.Second MIFI Jetpack – We also added a new MIFI device to the More Everything Plan for Marc’s exclusive work use. This costs an extra $20/mo access fee ($22 with fees and taxes). While the new More Everything Plan itself is not under contract, the new MIFI is. We got the device for free (thanks to Ryan Maharg an RV Verizon specialist who seems to be able to work miracles and achieve things other Verizon reps can’t! You can email him at [email protected]) but we’re committed for 2 years and we’re OK with that. The access fee for each of our iPhones on this plan is $40 and $20/mo for the MIFI Jetpack (plus fees and taxes) bringing our data charges (including phone/text) and line access to a total of about $275/mo including fees and taxes.
3. Unlimited Data Plan – As alluded to above, Julie managed to get her hands on one of the rare and coveted ‘Verizon Unlimited Data Plans (UDP)’ – for free, thanks to the useful guide and advice from the RV Mobile Internet group. That was a membership fee well spent right there! Now before you get too excited, we need to let you know that unfortunately, these UDPs are no longer available as Verizon changed the rules on November 13, 2014 – effectively making it impossible to transfer these UDP plans to another party. It is still possible to get a UDP but through different (and more expensive) paths now, but it’s still likely to be worth the investment for full-time RVers who require significant data to work from the road. You’ll need to join the RV Mobile Internet Group to get access to their special report on how to do this. We were lucky enough to score a UDP plan for free – all we have to do is pay the monthly line fee for the next 2 years, basically fulfilling the remainder of the plan’s contract. In order to activate the line, we had to buy a cheap phone outright (Julie’s AT&T iPhone wasn’t network compatible), so we scored a new Samsung Galaxy 3 Mini for $75 (no contract), thanks again to Ryan Maharg.
Here’s what we get with the Verizon Unlimited Data Plan for just $72.50/month (including fees & taxes): 300 minutes of Voice, no Text (pay-as-you-go) and Unlimited Data.
Why would we want a 3rd phone and an Unlimited Data Plan with so few minutes and no text messaging plan?
A couple of reasons:
1. Julie now has a backup Verizon cell phone (this was handy when she still had the iPhone 5 with AT&T but we never use it now that her iPhone 6 is on Verizon)
2. It has Unlimited Data – this, in itself, is a godsend! First, it means we can use the phone for Skype and Facetime calls, do internet searches, watch and upload YouTube videos, stream Netflix, check/send emails etc. And second, we can simply pop the SIM card from the Samsung Galaxy 3 Mini phone into the old Millenicom Pantech MIFI Jetpack (they use the same size SIM card), thus enabling Julie to alternately switch between using it as a phone and her own MIFI device. She can connect her Macbook laptop, iPad or phone to the MIFI Jetpack and use unlimited data. No more worrying about hitting or exceeding our 40GB/mo limit or extra charges! We can’t even begin to share how awesome this feels for us! While we’ve really loved many aspects of minimizing our overall consumption in our new RV lifestyle, we also came to realize that an abundance of internet data at our fingertips is exciting, liberating and more than ever, necessary!
Enhancing our Data Signal with a Cellular Booster
While we were confident in our decision to go with Verizon as our internet provider (and phone for Marc), we were also aware that there may be times even Verizon may not be able to give us enough bars for a solid signal, especially as some campgrounds are in more remote areas.
On our first big driving day of our new RV life – a Saturday – as we drove across the Interstate 80 from Colorado to Lake Tahoe, California, Marc was already voicing his concern about whether or not we would have a strong enough cell signal for him to work on Monday. The Verizon Coverage Map showed our campground in South Lake Tahoe as being “borderline” for 4G LTE service.
During our research, we had learned that we could enhance our cellular signal using an antenna booster and we had read good reviews on the Wilson Electronics Sleek 4G Cellular Booster by fellow RVers. The Wilson Sleek 4G is an effective and affordable cell phone signal booster that boosts your voice and data signal on any carrier and helps reduce dropped calls and and increase 4G data rates in weak signal areas by amplifying your MIFI or cell phone’s power up to 20 times more than the device alone.
So while Marc was driving at 55mph across the Salt Flats of Utah on the Interstate 80, Julie jumped onto Amazon.com and ordered a Wilson Sleek 4G Booster right away. With our Amazon Prime Membership two day delivery guarantee, the Wilson booster arrived at our South Lake Tahoe Campground on Monday, giving our MIFI an extra bar of service and giving Marc greater peace of mind!
This is the booster we purchased in June 2014 for $150, but as you can see the price has now dropped, probably as they have come out with some newer models. We don’t know anything about those yet, so can’t share our experience on them here. But we can report that two years later, our Wilson Sleek 4G Booster is still working just fine and serving our needs adequately.
Overall, we’ve been really pleased with the additional bars and stronger signal our cellular booster has provided. It’s definitely been worth the investment, but there are still some places where we just can’t get enough signal to stay during a working week, like Thousand Trails’ Rancho Oso resort in Santa Barbara, CA where we were only able to spend a Saturday night before having to leave the next day in search of 4G over slow 3G. But for places like Lake Tahoe, CA and Pacific City in Oregon, our Wilson Booster has made all the difference and enabled us to stay for a couple of weeks and get solid internet/cell coverage when many other campers couldn’t get any signal at all.
Why we Rarely Use Free or Campground WIFI
As mentioned above, Marc’s work has to be done on a private, secured network, so he only ever uses his own MIFI Jetpack when accessing the internet. Outside of work, he spends very little time online – only occasionally checking his personal emails, streaming the odd YouTube video here and there and even less frequently, checking Facebook! Julie on the other hand is a high internet user (both for work and personal) and sometimes uses the free WIFI offered by Starbucks and other public places every now and then. Before we had our new internet setup with 2 MIFI Jetpacks and unlimited data, Julie would occasionally go to a Starbucks when it was time to download new software or upload photos and videos, especially when we started nearing our original 40GB data limit. And, if we happened to be at a campground that offered decent free WIFI, she would sometimes use that too. But free is not always free. After all, you’re expected to buy at least a drink at Starbucks (hello $5 coffee) and more than one if you’re hanging out for a long time. Over time, that can really add up and frankly, it’s just not as comfortable as working from our own RV office! From our experience, most campground WIFI – if it’s even working – is painfully slow and not worth the frustration to spend 10 minutes waiting for a single page to download. Plus, you just never know who else is lurking around on those public WIFIs, what they might be up to or how they might be able to hack into your laptop and see your personal data! In fact, on the rare occasion Marc has worked from a Starbucks, he took his own WIFI Jetpack with him to use.
For some, free WIFI may be sufficient for your needs, but even if you need to get online to check your share trading or online banking, you need to be mindful of privacy. If however, you’re using the internet and need a reliable connection to work, invest or run a business, you’ll definitely need to invest in a more secure and robust internet solution that suits your needs.
What Does Our Technology Cost Us Each Month?
In summary, here’s a recap on the total amount of data we have available to us and what we pay for each Verizon plan, rounded up to the nearest dollar (including fees and taxes):
More Everything Plan: with iPhone 5 and iPhone 6 (under 2 year contracts until June 2016/November 2017) plus Verizon MIFI Jetpack (under contract until October 2016) = $274.03
Unlimited Data Plan (UDP) via Samsung Galaxy 3 Mini smart phone and Verizon MIFI Jetpack (no contract, SIM interchanges with phone): $72.54
Total Monthly Cost for Internet WIFI Hotspots (x2) and Cell Phones (x3): $346.57
So we consider our available data to be 40GB + Unlimited. Why? Because we never know if or when Verizon may change the rules on the Unlimited Data Plan, throttle our data or cut us off at a certain level. They have threatened this before (but haven’t followed through) and we didn’t want to risk relying on the UDP as our primary data source for Marc’s work. We are, however comfortable using the Unlimited Data Plan as our backup data source for Julie’s work, Skype, Facetime, streaming Netflix and so on.
Before the changes we made in November 2014, we had been paying around $320/mo for a total of 43GB of data/voice/text. For the extra $27/mo we now have a second MIFI jetpack, a third phone and the Unlimited Data Plan – pretty great value we think! So while all the changes didn’t reduced our expenditure in this area, we now no longer have to worry about exceeding our limit or incurring additional fees.
All up, our technology solution costs us about $80 per week to be fully connected, which we think it pretty reasonable considering how loaded up with data we are.
While this may seem like a lot of money to some, for us it’s a small price to pay to have the freedom to live, travel and work anywhere we choose. Remember, many of the regular monthly expenses associated with our stick and brick home have now disappeared e.g. Mortgage, HOA, home internet and utilities like water and electricity. We were paying $150 a month for our cell phone account and $50 a month for home internet – a total of around $200 per month. So in reality, we’re only paying about $150 a month more.
Technology and staying connected is the vital piece that makes this lifestyle possible.
A Final Acknowledgement
We would not be where we are or have learned so much to assist us on this journey if it wasn’t for so many other RVers that have gone before us and generously shared their technology solutions and experiences with us. While we have learned from many people, blogs and forums, there are two couples that stand out as being trusted guides on our journey – Chris and Cherie (Technomadia) who run the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center and Jason and Nikki of Gone with the Wynns. We recommend you check them both out as they share a lot about their own setup and go into more detail about some of the more advanced technologies that we aren’t as familiar with. And if you’re serious about staying on top of the latest mobile internet devices, solutions, plans and prices, we highly recommend joining the RV Mobile Internet Forum. It’s well worth the investment.
Happy travels! Stay connected. 🙂
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