This page explains my cell connectivity setup, or how I stay online as a ditigal nomad. This is my setup as of June, 2020.
Getting a Signal
I have two data plans, one with Verizon and one with AT&T. Why two plans? In most of my travels, Verizon clearly has had better coverage, but there are a few places where it doesn’t reach. In those places, AT&T is my lifesaver because it does find a signal. I can count on one hand the times I’ve been marooned without any signal at all, so having two providers keeps me pretty well connected. Also, if people around me are all using Verizon, I can try switching to AT&T, since fewer full-timers seem to have AT&T. But let’s face it, sometimes cell towers get clogged with traffic, especially after dark, and everything gets slow as molasses. That’s what I call “digital happy hour” and shut the laptop and go offline for a walk.
My providers and data plans:
- 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. I use a Jetpack Mifi 8800 hotspot. While data is truly unlimited, the plan is out of contract so I try to keep my usage below 30-50GB per month to stay under the corporate radar. So far, so good.
- My ATT plan is the (now retired) Unlimited Choice Plan, with a Netgear Nighthawk hotspot. This plan includes 22GB of unthrottled data and then they can slow down my speed if I’m in a congested area. Three-plus years and I haven’t been throttled down yet. It also supports use in Canada and Mexico, and worked really well both summers I did 3-8 weeks in Canada (2018 and 2019). My phone is also on this plan, which means I can use it as a hotspot when I’m hanging out at the trailer shop on maintenance day.
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.
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.
If you have a hotspot device, you absolutely need to get this Netgear MIMO antenna. Ithat plugs 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 use 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.
Note: This is of no use for cell phones because of the antenna connections.
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, and signed up as a member on a yearly basis. When there are changes afoot with cell providers or new equipment, this team covers it fast and thoroughly, so I don’t have to. Well worth the annual membership cost for me.
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