Need to work on the road? Planning to attend classes or homeschool your kids? Want to play video games or binge on Netflix, or even just upload photos of your trip to show friends and family back home? To make matters worse, many RV parks use blocking and monitoring software to limit what users can do online. Streaming sites such as Netflix and Hulu are often blocked. In extreme cases, the user agreement you must click when you log on specifically prohibits using the campground Wi-Fi for conducting a business, playing video games or going to school online.
No problem, right? Just connect to the campground’s Wi-Fi and stream on. Or, sign up for an unlimited plan with your cell phone company and surf as much as you want.
Think again. Two realizations that often come as a big surprise to anyone contemplating living full time in their RV are these:
1. Campground Wi-Fi is mostly useless.
2. Except in very rare – and expensive – cases, there is no such thing as a truly unlimited cell phone plan.
Indeed, in this day and age, many of us consider internet access an everyday necessity. But it is, in fact, a luxury – and one you might pay dearly for if you are a full time RV’er.
While an RV park might advertise “free high-speed Wi-Fi” the reality is much different. The Wi-Fi might work fine when your neighbors are out sightseeing or doing other things outside their RV. But come evening, when everyone is home, expect Wi-Fi speeds to slow down dramatically, if not drop off altogether.
So what are the alternatives to campground Wi-Fi, especially for those who need or want large amounts of data?
Related Read: Once upon a time, the major cell phone companies offered unlimited data plans to anyone who wanted them. “Unlimited” plans are still advertised, but they come with a caveat: Speed is throttled once you reach a certain number of gigabytes used. This started happening about six or seven years ago, when cell phone networks became congested with the popularity of smart phones, streaming and other high-data usage devices and habits.
Instead, the major cell phone companies introduced plans that will let you buy as much data as you need, but at a much higher price. Consumer Reports gives a good breakdown of each carrier’s options here, but beware that the major cell phone providers change their offerings frequently. It’s best to do research on each of their websites independently.
Some users, mostly with Verizon and AT&T, were grandfathered in when their unlimited data plans were scrapped and they’ve been happily using as much data as they want ever since. These plans are also available online for lease from third-party sellers, often with an upfront cost of about $1000 and monthly fees ranging from $50 up to several hundred dollars. In the past year or so, however, both Verizon and AT&T have begun to crack down on these plans, as well, either raising prices or cutting off customers they deem to be “excessive users.”
There is hope. Cable is a great solution for those who stay mostly stationary at one RV park. Many campgrounds have cable connections that allow you to set up your own account with the local cable/internet provider, just like you would in a brick-and-mortar house.
Satellite is also an option for those who don’t travel much, although it comes with its own challenges.
On the horizon is a new campground network being rolled out by WiFiRanger, a company that specializes in Wi-Fi equipment for mobile use. The network, called “Passport,” promises to provide high-speed Wi-Fi at campgrounds across the country for anyone who uses certain WiFiRanger equipment. So how do we full-time RV’ers figure out how to get the best bang for our buck when it comes to getting – and staying – online?
The four cell phone providers most commonly used by full-time RV’ers are Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T. Research their websites thoroughly as plans change often and there is lots of fine print. Don’t forget to check their coverage maps, too, for the areas where you will be traveling.
The RV Mobile Internet Resource Center is the definitive online guide for full-time RV’ers. The site offers all kinds of advice, tips, tricks and reviews of equipment, including step-by-step guides for newbies and the low-down on grandfathered Verizon unlimited data plans. There’s enough there to make your head spin, but it’s all presented in basic language that most of us should be able to understand.
The same folks run a members-only, paid site called MIA – Mobile Internet Afficionados.That site has more in-depth “premium” content, including how-to videos and forums for advice or trouble shooting problems encountered while on the road.
Both these sites are great because they are constantly updated to contain the most recent information, and both also have their own FB pages where users ask and answer questions and keep up with the latest developments in data plans, news from the major carriers and equipment reviews.
For equipment, WiFIRanger is the go-to for full-time RV’ers looking for ways to maximize available Wi-Fi networks.
As you search for the perfect solution to staying connected on the road, here are some keywords and terms to look for and learn more about:
- Data usage: The number of gigabytes you use online each month, which is a good baseline for what you’ll need on the road. You can check this through your cell phone data usage, and by tracking how much data you use at home.
- Data management: Managing your data use to optimize performance and minimize data used. Some ways to do this are turning off cell data for your apps when you aren’t using them, turning off auto-play for FB videos, turning off any auto-update features and choosing the lowest resolution for streaming,
- Network management: A practice cellular providers use to eliminate congestion on their towers by temporarily slowing high-data users until the tower congestion is lessened.
- Download and upload speeds: The speed at which you can download or upload files on your Wi-Fi or data connection. This is especially important if you plan to work on the road and need to send or receive large files.
- Throttling: When your cellular data provider slows down your speed, typically when you reach a certain number of gigabytes used per month, even if your plan is advertised as “unlimited.” The throttle point will be stated in the fine print of your contract or data instructions, so be sure to read it carefully. These slower speeds typically prevent users from doing anything but reading very basic websites and email.
- UDP: Unlimited data plan, specifically grandfathered plans from Verizon and AT&T, and those plans that are sold or leased through a third party.
- Wireless hotspot: A device that allows all of your Wi-Fi-enabled devices to connect to the internet via a cell phone network. Hotspots are typically rented or purchased from your cell provider, and usage of them counts against your monthly data. PC Magazine has a good wrap up of some of the more popular models, along with a good explanation of how they work, here.
- Tethering: Connecting your phone, laptop or tablet to your TV via, usually via a USB cable, to watch movies, videos or anything else you want to do on a big screen. Some cellular data plans specifically prohibit tethering.
- Booster: These can be purchased for either Wi-Fi or cellular networks. A Wi-Fi booster can improve your ability to connect to public Wi-Fi, while a cellular booster can help you pick up cellular connections when you are further away from a tower.