This page explains my cell connectivity setup, or how I stay online as a ditigal nomad. This is my setup as of September, 2022.
Related Link: Six Years of Staying Connected on the Road
I have three plans: Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T. Why? Verizon often has had better coverage, but T-Mobile has been improving over the last few years, so between those two, I mostly can get signal. And when neither one of them is connecting, usually ATT will. Having three providers also gives me options: if people around me are all on Verizon, I can try switching to T-Mobile or AT&T for faster service.
- Verizon: $90/month for 100GB hotspot-only plan plus hotspot monthly payment. If it goes over 100GB, they can choose to throttle it, but I have never gone over that limit in the last 4-5 years. I use a Jetpack Mifi 8800 hotspot that.
- T-Mobile: $50/month for 100 GB hotspot-only plan. So far, it’s been pretty good coverage across the US, although a bit spotty in some desert areas. On the other hand, it sometimes totally pegs at the top of the speedtest measure, and that’s awesome. I use an Inseego hotspot, which came with a half-off deal when I signed the two-year hotspot contract.
- ATT: $90/month for 100GB on-phone data and 40GB mobile hotspot data. I use ATT as my voice plan with an iPhone 13 Pro as my current camera, I mean phone. This plan supports calling/data in Canada and Mexico and it includes free HBO Max.
So let’s add up the numbers: $230/month for 240GB of hotspotting, not including the 100GB of phone data. Not bad, considering these are my lifeline to the world, from Zoom calls to contract work and streaming video and music services.
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 a VPN from Protonmail, the European service I also use for my email now that I’ve mostly extracted myself from Gmail. I like the EU GDPR regulations and emphasis on privacy that Protonmail provides.
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.
If you have a hotspot device, you absolutely need to get a Netgear Mimo antenna. It has two cables that plug into the T9 ports on a hotspot, uses zero electricity (so awesome when boondocking) and provides better signal boosting than the WeBoost in many situations. And it’s under $40. I have used the MIMO way more than the WeBoost over the last few years, and am very happy with it. I pull out the WeBoost maybe 3-4 times a year now, still worth it when I can’t get a signal boost off the MIMO, but it is more work and it uses power.
Note: This antenna is of no use for cell phones because it requires a physical connection using those T9 connectors.
Cell Signal Booster
I used to have a Weboost, but honestly, I used it twice in the last year or so, which isn’t worth it for me to carry around full-time. The WeBoost cell signal booster 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). The outdoor antenna was mounted on a collapsing flag pole I got at Ace Hardware that is bolted to the bumper with two big U-bolts and metal plates (they come with the metal plates). It collapsed down to fit neatly inside the back storage of my Alto; I just pulled it in and out of the back window when I wanted to set it up or stow it away.
What, No WiFi Booster?
Nope. The number of times I’ve had usable WiFi at a state park can be counted on one hand. In National Parks, on no hands. And when boondocking? No hands. Since I rarely stay at KOA or other commercial parks that offer free WiFi, I haven’t yet seen the need to get a WiFi booster. It doesn’t do a thing for cell connectivity, it only helps if the place you are offers WiFi.
Backing Up Your Stuff
In 2021, I guest-blogged about strategies for backing up your digital life:
- Protecting Data as a Digital Nomad – Part 1 (why backups matter)
- Protecting Data as a Digital Nomad – Part 2 (full-coverage backup strategy)
- Protecting Data as a Digital Nomad – Part 3 (dodging disasters)
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!
For good reviews and up-to-date news, check out the Mobile Internet Resource Center! I got most of my information from their handbook and website. Well worth the annual membership cost if you’re just learning how to stay connected on the road.