It’s always fun to watch RVing forums when people talk about having Internet on the go. You get the staunch camp on one side- “you’re camping, you should be outside” and on the other extreme, “I want to watch Netflix”. The thing to remember is that we all “camp” in our own way. And then there’s the middle ground of folks who want to check email, maybe the weather, or catch up on the news. For me, I work from home – whether that home is my stick & bricks house or on the road in my camper and require Internet service.
Generally speaking, campground wifi is terrible and unusable for anything more than checking email (and even that’s debatable). If you want decent Internet, you need to carry it yourself.
Cell Phone as a Personal Hotspot
My initial setup was simply to use my phone as a mobile hotspot. This uses the phone’s data plan and make a little mini-wifi network. For light usage by a very few devices (think 1-2), it works well. The pros to this are:
- Simple to setup
- Many current data plans allow this (or you can upgrade for a monthly fee)
- You likely already have a smartphone
The cons to this are:
- It sucks battery like a frat boy with cheap beer
- The phone turns off the hotspot if you aren’t actively using it (to conserve battery)
- The hotspot is where the phone is (if I left the camper, the wife and kids were without Internet)
- A limited # of devices can use it at once
- Talking and using the hotspot actively at the same time has varying levels of results
- And really, I found it can be finicky if using it a lot
However, for the weekend camper- it’s a generally a perfectly viable solution. The only sticking point is if you work remotely and need to talk on the phone while using the Internet heavily (i.e. I would be on conference calls with coworkers and would be screen sharing my desktop or theirs; I ultimately found that I needed to use my wife’s phone for voice + my phone for data).
Mobile Hotspot Devices
For Verizon they’re known by the brand/model name of JetPacks (kind of like how tissues are often called Kleenex). But, basically what you have is a piece of hardware that is the mobile hotspot. It is a separate device on your cell phone bill (or on it’s wholly separate bill- and I’ll explain that shortly). The Jetpack/hotspot creates a wifi network and your devices connect to that. They often support 10-15 devices at a time. The pros to this are:
- There are no talking + Internet’ing issues like a personal hotspot on your phone has
- It has its own battery and manages it effectively
- Some are fairly advanced with settings that you can control
The cons to this are:
- It is a separate device on your data plan with its own cost
- It’s very easy to forget that you’re on mobile internet and find you burn through data at a high rate
- I’ve heard stories (specifically about Verizon) where people feel the billing isn’t accurate and that they’re over-billed for usage. I don’t know if it’s true and I’ve never noticed it.
- The wifi network it publishes is a little weak- you can see it all over the camper and campsite, but once you get beyond 10-15′ away, your speed degrades.
I really don’t know much about this, but I do know that people buy USB sticks that communicate with cellular providers directly. It gives Internet access to their computer or router. These exist, but I don’t know the details.
Unlimited Data – the Holy Grail
First, let me start off with- if you are serious about Mobile Internet, there is no better resource anywhere than www.rvmobileinternet.com. It is published by a fulltime RVing couple (the Technomads). If you haven’t paid for a year subscription, I strongly urge you to. I don’t get any benefit from you signing up with them (unless you use me as a referral, then I get an extra month on my membership). Their level of knowledge and following the pulse of mobile Internet is uncanny. Seriously, go sign up now, I’ll wait.
I’ll be writing specifically Verizon plans as that is where my experience lies. RVMobileInternet.com has a variety of guides for different providers. Look at carrier maps to see which provider is best for where you want to go. If you REQUIRE Internet for work, it’s good to have a main option, a backup option, and then even a backup to your backup.
There are 2 main ways of getting an unlimited Verizon data plan – either renting a line or getting your own.
Leasing/Renting a Line
The basic gist of this is that you are using someone else’s unlimited data plan. You generally will pay them monthly via PayPal and they send you a SIM card (and maybe sell you a hotspot/Jetpack device). There is usually a small start up fee (from as low as $45 and as high as a full one month charge). The nice part of this setup is that there is no long-term commitment and you’re not risking a lot of money in doing this. These plans generally run from a $120-200/month.
Taking Over a Line (aka Assumption of Liability/AOL)
The other option for having an unlimited data plan is literally buying one from a seller and then you take it over directly with Verizon. This usually has a high one-time fee of $400-1,500. I personally paid $900 and worked with a seller that was recommended by RVMobileInternet.com. He conference called me with Verizon on the line to transfer the line to me. Once that was done, I have an account with Verizon and pay $70/month. For me, it was a $70 per month savings; I’ll make up the initial investment in 13 months. It helps my monthly budget.
If you decide to buy a line (and aren’t a traveling family), please, please, please buy a 1-year subscription to RVMobileInternet.com and read/follow this guide. People have literally tried to do it on their own and have lost their “buy in” money or lost the unlimited data plan during the transition. Your 1-year subscription is cheap in relation. Verizon’s rules change and what worked for me may not work for you. For instance, I was able to transfer the line to a brand new personal account and had been reading a lot of places that you needed a business account in order to buy a line. The Technomads keep the guide on RVMobileInternet.com up to date. Use them; trust them.
Usage and Speed
Generally speaking, mobile Internet really is fast enough for me to work my day job (web developer), for roadschooling the kids, and even streaming TV shows. It’s reliant on a decent cell signal and a vast majority of the time it’s better than the provided campground Internet. I’ve blogged about our in-camper setup and what I do for various boosters and router and all that jazz.