We’re constantly changing up our mobile internet arsenal to stay online as we roam this great country of ours. This post was last updated on October 19, 2014, after the Mobile Internet Cellular Shake-Up.
Disclaimer: We have no official affiliation with any of the companies discussed, and have nothing to gain (other than an occasional Amazon affiliate link) by sharing this information and links. We simply enjoy playing with technology and sharing our findings.
Staying online is essential to our technomadic lifestyle.
And for us it isn’t just about keeping a single laptop connected – we have an entire household full of technological geekery and gadgetry that we need to keep connected to the Internet, and to each other. We’ve tried out a lot of equipment and services over our 8+ years on the road, and we personally selected all of the below components on our own after extensive research.
Because we tend to push technology to its limits and beyond, we ended up forging friendships with some companies and have become beta testers for several of the newest offerings. We enjoy helping companies making products better suited for the needs of high bandwidth using technomads.. and we appreciate companies that strive to meet the needs of connected RVers.
This post gives a grand tour of our current mobile connectivity infrastructure that combines wired and wireless networking, and features cellular and WiFi.
Don’t get too attached to it however, this could all change in the blink of an eye!
Flagpole Mast – The newest addition to our arsenal is our FlagPole Buddy ($116 – 12′ / 1″ mount kit – ours provided by FlagPole Buddy) with an Ubiquity NanoStation M2 ($87 – provided by WiFiRanger) for WiFi repeating, and also for raising up high a magnetic mounted cellular antenna. The NanoStation ties in nicely to our WiFiRanger Go router. When we’re setup somewhere for a bit, we can deploy this setup to get more altitude – which helps get a better signal. Click for more information on this setup.
WiFiRanger Sky – Mounted on the roof of our bus is a WiFiRanger Sky ($399.99 – provided by WiFiRanger) that we have been testing courtesy of WiFiRanger. The Sky is a standalone outdoor WiFi router that features a powerful long-range WiFi antenna that can pickup hotspots vastly further away than our laptops alone can, especially considering the Sky’s antenna is mounted high up on the roof and not located inside a big metal tube (aka, our bus). The Sky can work standalone to create its own WiFi hotspot, giving nearby devices access to the remote network. But usually we tether the Sky to the WiFiRanger Go (#6) using power over ethernet (POE) and then let the Go create our local inside-the-bus hotspot. This is critical for us because our bus is metal, and getting signal from outside to the inside is difficult. We use this when we’re somewhere that setting up the flagpole doesn’t make sense, such as just passing through. WiFiRanger also offers the WiFiRanger Mobile ($499.99) – which has many of the same features, is a bit more powerful, and is more suitable for mounting to a batwing antenna.
Cellular Boosters – The FCC implemented new rules in mid-2014, and manufacturers are just now getting their gear approved and into production. A lot of new stuff will be hitting the market in the coming months. If you don’t absolutely need boosting now – we recommend waiting a bit longer before investing in a booster. There will be a lot more options, and reviews, soon.
We’ll be testing several options as they are made available from multiple locations, and will share our findings on the new RV Mobile Internet Resource Center – here’s whats on our list:
- Received early June: Wilson 4G Mobile (~$350, ours provided by PowerfulSignal.com) This is one of the first 5-band, multi device, FCC 2014 approved boosters to hit the market. So far, we’re impressed with it and it’s performing as advertised.
- Received in August 2014: Wilson has also released a new 5-band version of the Sleek 4G (~$150) – it is a solid product, so this could be a great & more affordable option for a single device.
- The Wilson DT (~$350) is another option that some RVers are opting for to get more power, but it comes with some additional complexities as it’s not designed or approved for mobile use.
- For more information on these options: Our comparative guide to Wilson’s 3 flagship boosters (free content) and our in-depth reviews (exclusive premium membership content)
- Received in late June: CellMate’s SureCall TriFlex (~$600, ours on loan from PowerfulSignal.com). Initial finding from our tests is that while this booster works, we can see no real advantage to this option over Wilson’s Mobile 4G.
- Awaiting arrival: MaximumSignal‘s new LTE booster.
- Our pre-FCC 2014 boosters include: Top Signal 55 and Wilson Sleek 4G-V cellular boosters & antennas. These are no longer on the market now that the new regulations are in effect, but there are new FCC approved versions out.
Mobile Hotspots (Verizon and AT&T) – One of our primary sources of cellular data used to be Millenicom. However, as of October 2014, they are no longer an option. We have just assumed liability of a grandfathered in unlimited Verizon account to use with our Millenicom/Verizon Pantech MHS291. And we took advantage of the October 2014 double data promotions and upped our AT&T plan to 40GB and added a Unite Pro hotspot to the arsenal.
iGadgets – The primary WiFi devices in use in our bus are our iPhones and iPads (purchased at market value). We use them quite often – including using the “Personal Hot Spot” feature to make them into MiFi-like internet access points themselves.
- We have a Mobile Share plan with AT&T that allows our 2 iPhones and mobile hotspot to share a monthly pool of 40GB of data – including any data used for hotspoting our computers. (~$200 month with taxes & fees)
- We have a separate data plan for our iPad Mini, which has a very rare grandfathered in unlimited and unthrottled AT&T LTE data plan ($29.99/month), which allows us to use it for Netflix and our live video casts without worrying about data caps. We hook it up to our TV via an HDMI out cable. (The unlimited plan does not allow hotspot use.)
WiFiRanger Go2 (Router) – The heart of our system is the WiFiRanger G02 ($199.99 – ours provided for testing by the folks at WiFiRanger). The WiFiRanger is a smart router that can connect to a nearby WiFi hotspot automatically (such as campground WiFi, the MiFi, or any of our iPhone or iPad generated hotspots). It can also tether to and control a WiFiRanger Sky or Mobile mounted on the roof, and the Ubiquity NanoStation. To keep local traffic from clogging up the airways, the Go provides 4 wired ethernet ports that allows the router to network all our computers and entertainment devices. We have also tested a Pepwave SoHo (provided by 3GStore.com), and were impressed with it – it has some really nice bandwidth metering features. Jack Mayer wrote a great comparison between the two.
Gigabit Ethernet Switch - Our TRENDnet 8-port gigabit ethernet switch ($30) is located in a cabinet under our desk, and provides a very fast data conduit directly between our computers. The switch is also connected to the WiFiRanger via a long ethernet cable that runs via conduit down through our bays and across to the bedroom cabinet where the WiFiRanger is installed. Using wired Gigabit ethernet is MUCH faster than WiFi, and avoids all sorts of interference issues. If you have lots of data to move between two computers, do yourself a favor and find a way to do it with wires!
15″ Retina MacBook Pro – Chris’ MacBook Pro (purchased at market cost) actually does not have an Ethernet port, but he uses an Apple Thunderbolt display as a monitor, which works as a docking station and provides his MacBook Pro with a true Gigabit Ethernet port while at his desk.
Mac Mini – Cherie has given up having a laptop of her own, and now uses a Mac Mini (purchased at market cost) as her main machine connected to a large external display. It is connected directly to the Ethernet switch, though she often gets online by tethering directly with her iPhone 5 on AT&T (she gets frustrated with all of the beta testing our setup is always under!).
Wine – Surviving via mobile internet can sometimes be frustrating, especially if you are used to the consistency of a plugged in connection like cable or DSL. For dealing with the inevitable frustrations, we suggest keeping a box or two of wine on hand as part of your tech arsenal essentials – it helps take the edge off when the bits just refuse to flow. We love Bota Box Old Vine Zin (Cost – $14-19/box depending on local taxes)
Up until November 2013, we did travel with a tripod satellite setup from HughesNet. However between the prevalence of cellular & WiFi these days and no longer needing to be as connected as we once were due to shifts in our client load – after two years of non-use we ditched the setup.
DEAL ALERTS: We are not affiliates and do not have any financial relationship with any the below companies – but they are fans of our blog and are offering you some savings. We get absolutely nothing aside from good will if you use these codes. (Some products above are linked to Amazon, which are affiliate links – it helps fund the hosting costs of this site.)
- PowerfulSignal specializes in cellular boosting equipment, and offers our readers free ground shipping if you use the promo code ‘Technomadia’ when you place your order.
- WiFiRanger - Save 5% off your order by using coupon code ‘WFRTechno’.
Installation & Cabling
So just how do we route all these cables around the bus?
When we replaced our refrigerator a couple years ago, we took the opportunity to route conduit from the roof of the bus, through the fridge vent and then into our cabinetry to our tech cabinet.
This allows us to more easily switch out cabling as needed, as we’re constantly changing out gear as we test and evolve our system.
The new upcoming edition of The Mobile Internet Handbook has a lot more tips and tricks for installation and mourning of mobile internet gear.
Do I Really Need This Much ??
Our system is fairly comprehensive, and is designed to keep us online most of the time. As we work online, it’s important to us – but we can go out of touch for a couple days at a time.
What will be ideal for you, will likely vary. Some may need far less, and some may need far more.
We like the redundancy of multiple cellular networks and the combined coverage footprint we get with Verizon & AT&T – there are places where one excels over the other. Public WiFi hotspot usage is hit or miss – sometimes we find some that is usable, but a lot of the time it’s not to be depended upon. But when we do find it.. it’s worthwhile having the gear on board to take advantage of it!
All and all, we consider our monthly cost to be $300/month for our connectivity which gets us practically oodles of data plus any WiFi we can utilize. And obviously, there’s a substantial investment upfront in equipment, and there are other options out there than what we use.
Some months, we turn data back to the carrier, and some months we pay slight overages. Some days we keep online consistently, and some days we resort to drinking a lot of wine.
We’ve just completed writing The Mobile Internet Handbook – 2014 US RVers Edition, which is 234+ pages of mobile internet goodness. It goes over all of this stuff in detail to help you decide just what makes best sense for your setup.
We also offer memberships into our new Mobile Internet Aficionados group, designed to help keep you in the know about these topics as they continue to evolve. And we also offer private advising sessions for those who would like a little extra help figuring this stuff out.