This page explains my cell connectivity setup, or how I stay online as a full-timer.
Getting a Signal
I have two data plans, one with Verizon and one with AT&T:
- The Verizon is a gUDP, or grandfathered Unlimited Data Plan, which means I can use data without being cut off or throttled halfway through the month. It was a big investment up front to secure this plan, but worth it amortized over the two-year contract. I use a Jetpack Mifi 8800 hotspot.
- The ATT is a (now retired) Unlimited Choice Plan, which gives me 22GB of unthrottled data and then they can slow down my speed if I’m in a congested area. So far, I haven’t been throttled down yet. It also supports use in Canada and Mexico, and it worked really well for the 2 months I was in Canada in 2018. I use a Netgear Unite hotspot and also my phone is also on this plan, which means I can use it as a hotspot if I forgot to grab one of the real hotspot devices when I’m hanging at Starbucks or the trailer repair shop.
Why two plans? In most of my travels, Verizon has clearly had better coverage, but there are a few places where it completely craps out and in those places AT&T is my lifesaver. Or, if the people next to me are using a lot of Verizon bandwidth, I can switch to AT&T, since fewer full-timers seem to have AT&T.
On Public Wifi? Be Safe: Use a VPN
When you’re using a wifi at a campground or Starbucks or, well, anyplace, the wifi network is usually wide open and bad actors can try to capture your information. When I use those places (and who doesn’t enjoy free wifi!?), I run a VPN on my devices and it keeps my information private. I use Private Internet Access, decent prices for a yearly subscriptions and it’s been dependable and easy to use for the two years I’ve had it.
Boosting the Signal
But, and this is a big BUT, the cell plan is only the beginning of the adventures of staying connected while full-timing. When I started full-timing in my trailer, I was still working full-time and connectivity was a hit-or-miss thing. I really couldn’t afford to live at Starbucks for their free wifi, so I did some investigation. Enter the wonderfully informative Mobile Internet Resource Center! I got most of my information from their handbook and website, and signed up as a member on a yearly basis. If there is a change in any cell plan, this team covers it fast and thoroughly, so I don’t have to. Well worth the annual membership cost!
The WeBoost cell signal booster is amazingly effective. It consists of an outdoor antenna and an indoor antenna, both connected to a base station that runs on 12V power (so it even works when boondocking). If you have a faint signal, it will boost it up 1-2 bars, turning a frustrating lack of connectivity into pretty decent web surfing. (Of course, if you have zero signal, it can’t do magic and so it won’t work.) I have the base station stuck to the wall next to the upper kitchen cabinet, so it’s close to a 12V plug and out of the way (picture above).
The two antennas need to be 8 feet apart to avoid interference, so I have the indoor one right by the door (with the cable strung on top of the kitchen cabinet, making it pretty invisible. The hotspot or cell phone needs to be as close as possible to this antenna; best results are when they are touching, I’ve found.
The outdoor antenna is mounted on a collapsing flag pole I got at Ace Hardware, and then that is bolted to the bumper with two big U-bolts and metal plates (they come with the metal plates). I can collapse this down so that it fits neatly inside the back storage of the Alto, and I just pull it in and out of the back window when I want to set it up or stow it away.
I’ve supplemented my arsenal with a Netgear MIMO antenna that plugs into either of my hotspots, uses zero electricity (so awesome when boondocking) and provides better speeds than the WeBoost in many situations. Under $30, it is a no-brainer if you have a hotspot with two antenna ports (most hotspots do). Note: This is of no use for cell phones because of the antenna connections.
As of October 2017, this setup is working very well and I can’t think of ways I would improve it. What works for me might not work for you, especially if you’re not a full-timer and can go home after camping to a hard-wired high-speed internet connection!