This page explains my cell connectivity setup, or how I stay online as a ditigal nomad. This is my setup as of March, 2021.
Getting a Signal
I have three data plans: Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T. Why three? 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. Having three is a bonus, because in late 2020, T-Mobile rolled out a standalone data hotspot plan that is a vagabond’s dream.
I can count on one hand the times I’ve been marooned without any signal at all, so having two main providers keeps me pretty well connected. Also, if people around me are all using Verizon, I can try switching to T-Mobile or AT&T. Let’s face it, though, 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 50 GB per month to stay under the corporate radar. So far, so good. For $70/month, it’s a great deal and I hope it lasts a long time.
- My T-Mobile plan was a no-brainer to get in Dec 2020: 100GB for $50 a month. I’ve only used it in the southeast so far, but I’m pulling in good signal and only had one stop where I couldn’t get much traction. I use an Inseego hotspot, which came with a half-off deal when I signed the two-year hotspot contract. Total cost is $55/month.
- My ATT is phone-only, but I can use the phone as a hotspot in a pinch, up to 30GB a month. And 100GB on the phone itself, so I’ve joined the 21st century and now stream Spotify or Amazon Music when I want something different than my on-phone music library. This plan also supports use in Canada and Mexico, and worked really well both summers I did 3-8 weeks in Canada (2018 and 2019). And it includes free HBO Max! Cost of this plan with discounts and taxes and ATT Next is $90/month.
So let’s add up the numbers: $215/month for 100GB on T-Mobile (hotspot), 100GB on ATT (phone), and unlimited GB on Verizon (hotspot). 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 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.
If you have a hotspot device, you absolutely need to get this 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 conneciton using those T9 connectors.
The other booster I have works with either hotspots or cell phones. It’s not cheap but if the MIMO isn’t doing the job, sometimes the height and power of the WeBoos will be able to boost signal enough I can at least get email.
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). 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.
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.
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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