How we get Internet in our RV 

Friday 2nd October 2020 
by Matt 
 
How we get Internet in our RV

Whether you just want to check emails and social media, stream movies or work from the road, reliable internet connectivity in your RV has never been more important. Here's how we do it!

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In summary, we use the Pepwave MAX BR1 Mk2 cellular router with an unlimited AT&T data plan alongside a Verizon MiFi 8800L and a grandfathered unlimited Verizon data plan. This gives us redundancy in connectivity options and plenty of bandwidth for anything we need in the RV!

In fact, as you can see from the chart below showing our monthly data usage, over the last 12 months we have averaged 375GB per month and even peaked over 500GB in December! Read on to find out how we do it.

RV Internet Data Usage
Our data usage over the last 12 months, averaging well over 300GB per month and peaking at over 500GB in December!

Introduction

For some people, heading out camping in their RV for the weekend is an opportunity to escape technology - a time to disconnect and focus on spending quality time with friends and family in nature.

When we hit the road full-time in July 2018, we needed something different. Our RV was to become not only our full-time home, but also our place of work - we needed fast and reliable internet connectivity in the RV.

One of the questions we're most commonly asked is how we stay connected to the internet while traveling, and in particular, boondocking in remote places.

In fact, we've heard from lots of RVers who say they would love to try more boondocking but have to stay in RV parks because they need reliable internet access. The irony is that we avoid RV parks and prefer to boondock because we need good internet access - we've found cellular signal in remote camping spots to often be far superior to campground WiFi!

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to mobile internet connectivity - but in this blog post we'll share what works for us and why we set things up that way.

At the end of the blog post we'll try to answer some of the most commonly asked questions we hear from current or prospective RVers.

Mobile Internet Resource Center

Not only is the arena of mobile internet incredibly complex, but it's also constantly changing - sometimes on a daily basis. Staying on top of all of that is a full-time job, and that's exactly what our friends Chris & Cherie over at the Mobile Internet Resource Center do!

If you haven't already checked out their website then I highly encourage you to do so. They provide a huge amount of content for free - industry news, guides and reviews - but becoming a member of their MIA (Mobile Internet Aficionados) group could be money well spent if you want to find the best setup for your specific needs.

WiFi vs Cellular

Before we jump in, I want to talk terminology for a second. Maybe it's the pedant in me, but I think it's worth us all being on the same page before talking specifics.

A lot of people ask about how to get WiFi in their RV, when often what they're really asking is how to get internet access in the RV.

There are typically three common ways to get internet access in your RV:

  1. WiFi - if your RV is near an existing WiFi network (e.g. a friend's house, business or RV park), you can connect your devices to that network;
  2. Cellular - creating a hotspot on your phone, using a dedicated WiFi hotspot device (e.g. Verizon MiFi or AT&T Mobley) or a installing cellular router will give you internet access via a nearby cellular tower;
  3. Satellite - offered by companies such as HughesNet, this lets you connect to a constellation of satellites for internet connectivity almost anywhere ... for a (high) price! The upcoming Starlink network offers the potential to revolutionize this approach.

The distinction is critical when we start talking about specific products since, for example, a MIMO cellular antenna or WeBoost cell signal booster will do nothing to improve your connection to the RV park's WiFi network and similarly a WiFi extender will do nothing for you when you're boondocking miles away from WiFi and trying to reach a cell tower for signal.

We have no personal experience with satellite internet so we won't be talking about that in this blog post, but there's lots of information online if you want to go down that route - just prepare to drop the big bucks!

WiFi

When we first hit the road, we imagined we would be frequently traveling to remote places with no cell signal, and we'd use our time in RV parks or sitting in parking lots outside Walmart and Starbucks, etc to get connected.

RV Park WiFi

You might have heard rumors before about campground WiFi being slow and unreliable. That's certainly been the case in our experience!

I'm sure there are RV parks, particularly at the higher end of the price spectrum, that offer good (read: fast and reliable) WiFi, but they're the exception rather than the rule.

In fact, if we see an RV park offering "free WiFi" then we generally assume there'll be no usable WiFi - it'll either be so slow and weak as to offer no capability for more than just basic email / web browsing (if you're lucky), or the campground rules will explicitly prohibit downloading large files or streaming on their WiFi.

Why is this the case? Put simply, cost!

Installing a WiFi network capable of supporting 10s or even 100s of RVers, all trying to stream Netflix at the same time is a huge investment. Many RV park owners wouldn't even know where to begin, and hence just use regular consumer-grade equipment.

We've had more success with RV parks that offer tiered WiFi plans at an extra daily charge, such as the Escapee's Rainbow's End RV Park in Livingston, TX. The extra few $ per day is often well worth it for a fast and reliable internet connection.

If you plan to spend most of your time in RV parks that offer fast and reliable internet connectivity (I recommend phoning ahead to double check), then you may not need to do anything else - you can simply connect each device in turn to the campground WiFi.

However, if like us you have more than a dozen devices, it can be a real pain to connect every individual device at each new campground. What you need is a device in your RV that will connect to the campground WiFi and re-expose a local WiFi hotspot that all your devices connect to - one that doesn't change name at every new campground so your devices auto-connect.

WiFiRanger EliteAC FM

That's where products like those from WiFiRanger come in. When we first hit the road, we left California and headed straight for Livingston, TX where we stayed for 3 weeks while installing our big electrical upgrade.

The RV park offered good WiFi for a small daily fee, but our camping spot was right on the edge of the WiFi range - our laptops were fine but our phones were struggling. We'd heard good things about WiFiRanger so we decided to bite the bullet and buy one - they're not cheap!

WiFiRanger EliteAC FM
The WiFiRanger EliteAC FM arrived nicely packaged - it even included a couple of surprise treats!

Our initial experience was good. The product arrived promptly and initial setup was fairly straightforward. The WiFiRanger EliteAC FM we had purchased is their top of the line model - it includes a router to install in the RV as well as an external antenna to mount on the roof. It had no problem connecting to the campground WiFi with just the internal antenna and rebroadcasting a new WiFi network inside our RV.

WiFiRanger EliteAC FM Kit
The WiFiRanger EliteAC FM includes the router (right), external antenna (top) and 110V and 12V power supplies (center).

However, once we hit the road properly and started traveling, the WiFiRanger struggled. Despite claims of range of several miles, we found the reality was much less. Sure, it could reach a weaker signal than our phones, but we didn't often find ourselves in its sweet spot of range where it could connect but our other devices could not.

In fact, as we traveled, we found ourselves relying less on WiFi (since we were either boondocking or the campground WiFi was so poor) and more on tethering our cell phones.

We also found the WiFiRanger EliteAC FM to be technically lacking. The underlying hardware is made by a Latvian company called MikroTik - who are renowned in the industry for making pretty good hardware! WiFiRanger then strips it of its native software (RouterOS, which is also considered to be good quality) and installs their own software.

WiFiRanger's proprietary software is a simplified interface, intended to offer RV technophobes a simple and straightforward way to manage their WiFi connectivity. Unfortunately we're just not that demographic, and we found the need to use several features supported by the underlying hardware (and original software) that were unsupported by WiFiRanger's software.

I understand the rationale, but was disappointed given the price-point of the product - I had definitely expected a feature-set more in-line with other devices priced at the same level.

However, the nail in the coffin for us came in October 2018, just a couple of months after we first bought the WiFiRanger - a security researcher found a critical security vulnerability that allowed root access to the device. In other words, someone could go and read all the source code of the device.

I was able to do just that, and after reading through the source code I was not impressed. I won't go into details, but there were too many concerns for me, as a former engineer, to be comfortable continuing to use the device. Worse still, to this date I'm still unable to find any public recognition from WiFiRanger of either the original vulnerability or subsequent fix!

Regardless, that same day I unplugged the WiFiRanger and never plugged it back in. We have sensitive personal and business information on our phones and computers and need our networking equipment to be secure and robust. We ended up donating it to a charity auction where it raised about $400 for a good cause - better than our toilet that only raised $40!

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If your style of camping means you do have reliable access to good WiFi, then there are other devices you may wish to consider instead. Although I have no personal with these, you may wish to look at the Wineguard Connect 2.0 or even a MikroTik router like the MikroTik hAP ac lite that WiFiRanger uses, but for a fraction of the price! Better yet, check out the WiFi extending guide on the Mobile Internet Resource.

Cellular

When WiFi isn't available, we rely on cellular. Specifically, when we started we were just tethering our phones to our laptops to get connected.

Cell phone tethering

Diana has an unlimited data plan with Verizon and I have one with AT&T. Unfortunately, the word "unlimited" means something different to cell companies - it means "unlimited until you hit your limit".

In reality, for us it means that once we have used 15-20GB of data per month, our data speeds are heavily throttled - almost to the point of being unusable.

While 20GB may sound like a lot, it may not be as much as you think - streaming 1 hour of Netflix uses 1GB in Standard Definition (SD) or as much as 3GB in High Definition (HD). In other words, tethering your TV to your phone to watch just one episode of a show on Netflix each day would use all that data.

To use some real world data, over the past year we've averaged more than 12GB per day in total data usage, so a 20GB limit wouldn't even last us 2 days!

We needed a new plan, and fast!

Pepwave MAX BR1 Cellular Router

So in early November I reached out to Erik at LivinLite.net. Erik and Kala hit the road as full-time RVers in 2015 and understand the importance of staying connected.

I had a great conversation with Erik about our needs, and after some thorough research I was convinced by his recommendation. They set us up with a Pepwave MAX BR1 Mk2 cellular router. This device provides all the capability that the WiFiRanger offered, plus much more!

In particular, as well as acting as a WiFi repeater, you can also insert a SIM card into the Pepwave router so it can connect via cellular too.

Pepwave MAX BR1 Wall Mount RV
Our Pepwave MAX BR1 Mk2 cellular router is wall mounted near the TV.

One of the things I love is that it's actually designed for use in fleet vehicles and commercial environments, not RVs. These use cases are far more demanding than RVs so I was confident that it would do everything we needed plus more! In general, we've found that a lot of products designed for RVs are often of lower quality, so where possible we look for marine, residential or enterprise-grade equivalents when quality is a concern.

Better yet, we also signed up for an AT&T data plan with them. This data plan is truly unlimited, unthrottled and uncapped - and trust me, we've pushed it hard! We also like that we can turn it on or off month by month.

While the router and AT&T and data plan aren't cheap (we're paying $120 per month), we love them! The router has an online dashboard where we can not only manage the settings remotely, but also keep track of the RV's location using the router's GPS antenna. Its local WiFi is incredibly powerful - easily reaching almost a quarter-mile across the desert in Quartzsite such that a friend in the area could see our WiFi despite being able to barely even see our rig!

One particularly nice feature is that it can bond together multiple sources of internet connectivity to increase the overall speed. For example, if we're staying in a campground with mediocre WiFi and cellular connectivity is a little weak too, it can connect to both and add them together, so that our overall bandwidth is increased and we have a usable connection!

It also supports some of the more advanced networking options I was looking for such as static DHCP assignment, SNMP and VLANs. We've found it to be generally very stable, although just occasionally it'll struggle and need a reboot - but that's not happened more than a handful of times in the past two years.

The only other limitation we've run into is its maximum routing bandwidth of 100Mbps. While this isn't an issue with connecting to the internet as we've rarely been anywhere with cellular speeds over 100Mbps, it also applies for internal network traffic. The main time I run into this is when I backup my MacBook Pro via TimeMachine to the small server in our RV - it's very slow!

Overall though, we'd highly recommend the Pepwave MAX BR1 Mk2 and AT&T unlimited data plan to anyone who's serious about reliable internet connectivity in their RV. Alternatively, check out these Mobile Internet Bundles at Mobile Must Haves (the new store for LivinLite.net) and let them know we sent you!

Verizon MiFi 8800L

At around the same time we were talking to Erik at LivinLite.net, we had heard about a new Verizon unlimited data plan so stopped into a Verizon store in El Paso, TX.

As I mentioned earlier, the landscape for data plans is always changing, and we knew that it was too good an opportunity to miss, so we picked up a Verizon MiFi 8800L and an unlimited data plan. Sure enough, just a couple of months later, Verizon canceled the plan.

Fortunately, we were grandfathered in, so as long as we keep paying the monthly fee ($70), we can keep our unlimited Verizon data plan.

We can use the SIM card directly in our Pepwave router, or in the MiFi 8800L. If we use the MiFi then the Pepwave can connect to it at the same time as it's connected to AT&T as well, as we get the combined speed of both cellular networks!

It's not often we need to do that, but having two networks to choose from gives us good redundancy. In fact, that was almost 2 years ago and in that time there have only been a handful of camping spots where we've not had a good, usable connection on either Verizon or AT&T.

Ironically, we're in one of those right now as I write this - the RV park WiFi is almost unusable, and we're right on the edge of the cell coverage for both AT&T and Verizon. Download speeds aren't too bad (we can happily both stream at once), but upload speeds are bad - about 0.2Mbps! We've had to drive into the nearby town to upload our last two YouTube videos!

Summary

This is the setup that works for us. Depending on your needs and budget, it may work great for you too!

The landscape is always changing - deals are appearing and disappearing on almost a daily basis, so above all, do your research!

But if there's one takeaway from all of this, it's that staying connected on the road is easier than ever, so don't ever let it stop you from traveling and exploring new places!

FAQs

These are some of the questions we're asked most often, but leave a comment if you have more questions and I'll do my best to answer!

How much do you spend on data plans each month?

Our AT&T plan costs us $120 per month and the Verizon plan costs $70, so a total of $190 per month. However, if we know we'll be in an area with good Verizon signal for a month or more we can turn off our AT&T plan for the duration. It's not cheap, but having fast, reliable and unlimited internet access is essential for us!

How fast is your internet connectivity?

We can still get work done with an internet connection as slow as 3Mbps, but we try and target 10Mbps or higher - it's not often we find ourselves somewhere with speeds slower than that anyway!

The fastest we've ever seen was at Moon Rocks near Reno, NV. We pulled in and we barely had any signal at all - when it did connect, speeds were incredibly low (less than 1Mbps). But we kept driving deeper in and as we rounded one mountain, we suddenly picked up lots of signal. My iPhone was pulling in over 150Mbps, but our router can't handle more than 100Mbps! Unfortunately due to smoke from a California wildfire the next morning, we had to leave after just one night there.

How hard is it to install a cellular router?

Installing the Pepwave MAX BR1 Mk2 is really easy - just plug it in and go! There are no external antennas to worry about, and it can run from either 110V or 12V.

We chose to wall mount ours and power it from a 12V fuse block behind the TV.

Do you need a cell booster or MIMO antenna?

No. We hear lots of people say that a WeBoost or MIMO antenna is an essential accessory for any RVer. We've never found that to be the case, and we don't own either.

I think if you rely on a MiFi device or tethering from a cell phone then those might help more, but our Pepwave router has no problems getting good signal most of the time.

What uses the most data in the RV?

Streaming movies and TV shows uses a lot of data, but we have some other big consumers too. Nearly all the videos on our YouTube channel are uploaded in 4K so these are some BIG files we have to upload! Plus, the way our website is built means we end up transferring quite a lot of data when we want to make updates.

There are also some hidden data users too - updates on computers, phones and even smart TV sticks (e.g. Amazon Fire Stick or Roku Stick) can use several GB each time.

What do you do if you don't have any cell coverage?

As long as we know about it ahead of time, we can still manage OK without internet connectivity. We have to make sure we have a video, blog post and email newsletter scheduled, and obviously have no phone calls / video meetings planned!

A good tip is to download any TV shows, movies or videos from your favorite YouTube channel (with YouTube premium) ahead of time.

In fact, we have an old iPhone 6S that we use for this - it has no SIM card but can connect to WiFi in a Starbucks or similar. We can then plug it in directly to our TV with a Lightning to HDMI adapter and watch our shows without tying up one of our phones.

How do you make sure you'll have cell coverage in your camping spots?

We use Campendium to find many of our camping spots - RV parks and boondocking spots alike. Paid supporters of Campendium have access to cell coverage maps and we've found this feature invaluable for checking ahead of time whether we'll likely have cell signal. Plus, often you can find reviews about camping spots where people talk about what the cell coverage and speeds were like on different networks.

Diana also uses the Opensignal app on Android which shows user-sourced cell coverage maps. Between those two, we can usually be fairly confident about the cell coverage we'll likely find when we arrive.

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