Ultimate Guide To Getting Wifi On The Road | ROAM


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Ultimate Guide to getting Wifi on the Road

As someone who has been working remotely on the road for the past 5 years, I can tell you that hopping off a zoom meeting at 4PM and dropping my kayak into Lake Tahoe at 4:30PM for a sunset cruise truly never gets old. I have the freedom to spend July exploring the lakes in northern California, September in Vermont hiking through the fall foliage and February in New Orleans parading through the city for Mardi Gras. ROAM was started by a team of people who know that work should compliment your life. The pandemic has shown us that while in-person meetings are valuable, most day-to-day tasks in the business world can be done from anywhere with a wifi connection. If you’ve ever considered hitting the road while keeping your day job, you’re on the same page as millions of other ROAMers. We’re here to help you navigate the logistics of working and living out of your RV. And while it may seem like a lot of hoops to jump through when you’re first getting started, we can assure you that it’s beyond worth it.

Wifi and Connectivity

First, it’s important that you assess your needs for your remote job. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to mobile internet access. Do this quick self-assessment to get a better understanding of what will work best for you:

  • Where in the country will you be traveling? Different providers have better coverage in different areas of the country. Check out coverage maps before making a purchase
  • What programs will you be running on your computer? Some software requires a certain bandwidth to run on your network
  • How much can you spend on internet access per month? Make sure you stay within your budget
  • What does your current phone plan look like? Do you have the option to turn your phone into a hotspot? Your provider may have bundling deals for hotspots that will be unique to your current phone plan
  • How long are you traveling for? Don’t pay for months of data that you don’t need

When people approach me about wanting to work from the road, wifi connectivity is their biggest hang up. This is a totally valid concern as most remote jobs require constant reliable internet access to be productive. To simplify it, there are essentially three different options for getting reliable wifi on the road:

  1. Cellular data
  2. Wifi Access Points
  3. Satellite signal

Cellular Data

Data packages are the most commonly used source of mobile internet in the RVing community. Data is easily accessible and can be added on to an existing cell service plan. There are different hardware options and data plans available to RVers who wish to use cell data to stay connected, but first let’s go over some vocab.

What is a hotspot and what does it have to do with cellular data?

A hotspot is any physical location where people can access the internet. When RVers talk about using their personal hotspots, this means they have either turned their phone into a hotspot with an extended data package, or have bought a separate piece of hardware that serves as their hotspot and internet connection (such as a Jetpack or MiFi). These devices use cellular data to take an LTE connection and convert it into a wifi signal. In this article, we’ll always use the term “hotspot” to refer to a personal, portable device that uses cell data to connect to the internet.

Why are most RVers using hotspots?

The benefit of having your own hotspot is that it’s a secure connection that only you can access. Your hotspot travels with you so it’s easy to pull over and connect whenever you need to. Once you leave a metropolitan area, it’s hard to find places like Starbucks and Whole Foods offering free wifi, so hotspots are the only option for some travelers. Hotspots are basically traveling data providers. The downside here is that data costs money, so hotspots are more expensive than using a public wifi connection. Without cell service, there is no LTE connection and therefore no wifi. If you’re doing mostly backcountry boondocking in cell service dead zones, these hotspots may not be an option for you.

Cell data option #1:

Adding a hotspot on your cell phone plan

Pros: no new hardware required means cheaper overhead cost and less equipment to travel with

Cons: drains cell phone battery and data quickly. Most add-on hotspot plans have a cap to data usage

Cell data option #2:

Buying a new hotspot modem

Pros: more options available so you’re paying for exactly what you need. Most have at least a 24 hour battery life

Cons: more expensive

Which hotspot hardware is the best?

All of the big name cell service providers have their own hotspot hardware products on the market and there are dozens of others creating these devices. Before you purchase, be sure to check out the provider’s coverage maps and see if you’ll be traveling through any dead zones. The most popular hotspot device in the RV community is the Verizon Jetpack. It consistently gets the best reviews from digital nomads throughout the country. New hotspots are always popping up on the market, here’s a review from PCMag on The Best Mobile Hotspots for 2020.

Strengthening your signal with a cellular booster kit

Cellular booster kits are devices that use one antenna to catch the weak signal from your phone, an amplifier to boost that weak signal into a strong one, and another antenna to transmit the stronger signal into your RV (or van, tent, office, etc…) The booster only strengthens your cell signal, it does not provide a wifi connection. By converting your phone into a hotspot, you can get a stronger wifi signal with the cell booster. Several of our ROAM team members have KING cell booster kits that we rely on for working from the road. As long as there is some cell signal, these things work great.

Purchasing a Data Plan: How much do I need?

The truth behind “unlimited” data plans is that providers did not design these plans to replace home internet, which is what most traveling workers need. While many data plans on the market use the term “unlimited data” there are some caveats here that can be difficult to spot when choosing a data provider. Oftentimes providers will “throttle” your data usage or video streaming quality on a mobile hotspot. If a plan has a “throttle point” this means they’ll slow your data speed down at a certain point, although the throttle point is different for each provider. The Mobile Internet Resource Center has compiled a helpful spreadsheet highlighting the cost and bandwidth of unlimited data plans from Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint. You can check it out here under “Types of Unlimited Data Plans”.

There are several ways to estimate how much data you’ll need on the road. Before you take your work remote, it will be helpful to keep track of your hourly usage of web browsing, video chatting, video streaming, social media usage, number of emails sent and received, time spent gaming and hours of music being streamed. This will make your data calculator estimates more accurate. Remember to take into consideration any personal data usage you’ll want outside of work responsibilities. Use a few different data calculators and take the average total of each for a more robust data usage estimate:

Wifi Access Points

I’ve worked for months at a time only using free wifi access points. Starbucks, Panera and McDonald’s have all served as my office at some point on the road. Now more than ever, there are campsites, breweries, dog parks and grocery stores offering free wifi. Public libraries were always my favorite workstations because usually the wifi connection was strong and they had quiet areas with large empty tables. Check out this article for a list of national chains that offer free wifi.

Why would I pay for a hotspot when I’ll always be traveling near places that offer free wifi?

The downside of a public wifi access point is that it takes a ton of overhead to install and maintain a wifi network that can run smoothly with multiple users at once. As I’m sure you’ve discovered, not all wifi signals are the same. There’s nothing more inconvenient than pulling up to a coffee shop ready to work, ordering your drink, sitting down and realizing the wifi signal is too weak to get anything done. There is also the issue of cybersecurity. It’s terrifying how easy it is for hackers to steal your private information when you’re on a public network. Even if the network is password protected, you’re still sharing that network with strangers who can easily access your data. Check out this article that walks you through which settings you need to adjust to keep yourself safe on public wifi networks.

Campgrounds with wifi:

Over the years, ROAMers have learned that campsites who offer “FREE WIFI” usually don’t deliver on that promise. Larger campgrounds can cover several acres of land, and most don’t have the infrastructure to provide high speed internet to all of their RV pads. We’ve felt this frustration over and over again while working from the road. When we built ROAM, we knew that our campgrounds needed to provide our guests with the most reliable wifi signal out there. As a ROAM team member, I know I can show up at our campgrounds and have no issues getting my work day started.

Long range wifi extenders:

These products claim to improve your connection to any wifi signal (public or private). Wireless signals decrease over distance traveled, so wifi extenders will re-transmit the connection closer to your device. This is a great solution if the only problem is that you are too far away from your public router. However, if your connection is slow because the signal itself is weak due to low bandwidth, a wifi extender won’t fix your problem. Wifi extenders are great for people who have an office set up in their rig and like to work from their RV instead of sitting inside a coffee shop or book store. A wifi extender will allow you to work from the parking lot instead of having to sit inside and listen to the screeches coming from the “play place” while using McDonald’s wifi.

Satellite Internet

I’ve always been fascinated by those who stay connected via satellite connection. It’s uncommon and very expensive, but with the number of remote workers increasing every year, there have been some exciting new advancements in the satellite data field. Thank you Space-X!

But first.. What exactly is a satellite connection and how does it work?

A satellite is an object that is in orbit above the earth. There are thousands of artificial satellites that orbit the earth and are monitored by NASA. Satellites have made long distance phone calls and long range TV signals possible. The signal is sent upward to the satellite then immediately sent back down to a different location on earth.

Satellite TV vs Satellite Internet:

Satellite internet requires more advanced technology than satellite TV does. This is because the satellite TV dish only receives a signal, it’s not communicating back and forth with the satellite connection. Satellite internet requires two-way communication between the satellite and the dish, which can cause network latency. While satellite TV and satellite internet may seem similar, they actually require a very different type of connection to work properly.

Satellite connection can be a frustrating option for remote workers…

Many digital nomads dream of getting satellite internet access from remote, isolated locations where cell service does not reach. Imagine being able to plug in and get your work done from the top of a mountain in the middle of the San Juan National Forest in Colorado. I personally can’t think of a better work space. Some remote workers are using this technology, but were still a few years away from making this a realistic and affordable option for the majority of folks working from the road.

Here’s why:

  • No matter how nice your equipment is, you still need a direct signal to the satellite in orbit. This means that a tree or tall building in your way will interfere with your connectivity. If there’s not a satellite near your workstation, you will have difficulty connecting
  • The equipment required to make mobile satellite internet possible is very expensive (were talkin’ $6,000+)
  • The cost of satellite internet access can be anywhere from $80 – $500 per month
  • The satellite equipment needs proper set up and take down each time you need to use it. (think attaching it to the top of your RV every time you need to connect and taking it back down when you’re in motion)

But satellite internet is still an option for RVers…

Yes! As long as you understand the challenges, you can buy satellite internet equipment to install in your RV. The two biggest names in satellite internet for consumers are RVDataSat and HughesNet.

There’s an exciting future in the world of satellite internet

The demand for satellite internet is bringing about another “space war”. A few key players are competing to be the first to provide internet that is truly available all over the globe. Companies like SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, OneWeb, and Iridium Next/Certus are looking to put a satellite train into orbit. Which would mean a string of tens of thousands of satellites constantly in low orbit around the earth. Increasing the amount of satellites in constant orbit would allow a low-latency internet connection from anywhere on the globe. ROAM is closely watching the race to a global satellite internet unfold, and you can read our updates here.

As more and more people look for mobile internet solutions, there will be new products and data plans hitting the market. We’ll keep this post up to date on any new developments in the mobile internet realm. If you’re looking to dig deeper into these wifi solutions, Mobile Internet Resource Center has an extensive list of guides, reviews and sample setups.

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