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Our RV Cellular Setup – How We Stay Connected on the Road

Cell Data Overview:

The mobile internet resource center is a great place to start for understanding how all of this stuff works, but here's a quick rundown:

Cell service varies depending on location, and population. 

If you're in a small place, with a lot of people…the cell service will be too bogged down to be useful, even if you get a good signal. When we were in Glacier National Park, we had 4 bars on Verizon, but no good signal.

Boosting? Works, but is finicky.

A lot of people talk about cell boosters. I had one, but I struggled to get it to work for me. You have to point your antenna at the nearest tower (which means you have to know where the tower is, which I struggled with. Also, the antenna was uni-directional, and if the cell tower was a mile away, even a slight variation would be off. It's also difficult to test consistently. Lastly, if there are rocks / trees in the way, it still won't work well. And for us, we weren't anywhere for long enough to justify the work to get the booster setup, so I abandoned it in favor of traveling a few miles to get a signal.

Two providers are better than one.

Different geographic locations have different coverage, but lots of time one is better than the other. If I had the budget, I might also have a Sprint plan, but what we use covers us for the most part.

One last thing before I talk about our current setup: “Unlimited” doesn't really mean Unlimited.

Unlimited usually means throttled. There is a window of priority service (meaning as everyone is queuing up for getting data when they access their phone, you get priority until you hit your cap). After you hit your cap, you get lowered in the priority queue.

Our current solution: 2 Service Providers, Verizon and AT&T.

Verizon:

2 iPhones with “unlimited” data plans

  • 22gb / month priority on tethering.
  • Note: Tethering to our phones is not the most ideal solution because it doesn't run through our router setup (mentioned below), so each device that connects to the tethered phone has to be connected separately, which is somewhat frustrating.

Hum – Mobile hotspot

  • Unthrottled, Actually Unlimited
  • The HUM is great because we're always on the road and the hum is always running. As soon as you start the vehicle, the hotspot is established, and maintains solid until you turn the vehicle off.
  • What makes this a great solution is that if you don't have signal, you can always drive to a place where you DO have signal and use the internet.
  • It has the option to turn the hotspot on for an hour, even when the vehicle is not running (useful if you are at a park or something), but I've never been able to get this to work for more than 20 minutes.

1 Verizon Mifi Hotspot

  • 22gb / month
  • After 22gb, you get a maximum speed of 600kbps (it's pretty much useless)

AT&T:

Grandfathered Unlimited data hotspot plan.

  • Actually Unlimited Data, not throttled (I don't think you can get this anymore), but I bought it on ebay. I pay $40/mo.

One Router to rule them

When you have multiple hotspots, and a bunch of devices that you want to connect, you don't want a long list of hotspots with differing passwords if you can help it, so what we do is have 1 central router, then 2 hotspots feeding into a network switch, which we can use to switch the signal to the best connection. To summarize, we have:

  • 3 tablets
  • 2 cell phones
  • 4 laptops
  • 3 smart TVs
  • AND 1 printer

All of them are connected to Wifi.

This setup works really well in keeping all our devices already connected to one router, we only have to change the signal upstream. In order to do this, I had to order specific Cellular data modems and a router, I'll post a photo of this soon.

Pro Tips:

How to check coverage ahead of time.

We always use campendium.com to double-check our service before booking. The great thing about that service is that when someone leaves a review, they also note their cell provider and how many bars they got. This is very helpful.

How to keep from blowing through your hotspot data

Your computer doesn't know that it's limited in how much data it can use, so cloud-based storage apps are going to continue uploading and downloading in the background.

Tripmode (app)

I use a mac, and have a handy app called Tripmode to keep my computer from blowing through my data. What Tripmode does is only allows you to specify which apps you allow internet access for. You can also turn the app off entirely to provide access to all your apps. The only frustrating thing about this app is occasionally you won't understand why your email isn't connecting…then you'll realize it”s not allowed to use the internet.

Select which apps have access to the internet

Control Netflix Data Usage

Another thing I didn't know about until my friend Tim told me was that you can change your settings on your Netflix account to stream in a lower quality (thus using less data). This is really key to not blowing through your data. Here's how:

  1. Go to your account settings in Netflix.

2. Click your Profile to dropdown the other options
(if you have more than one, you'll need to repeat this for every profile)

3. Under your profile, choose “Playback Settings”

4. Change your data usage to “Low”

On your devices, turn off any apps that sync in the background.

If you use iCloud on your apple devices, it will try to upload photos all the time, so you'll want to turn off any syncing that happens when you connect to Wifi.

Your phone doesn't know the difference between a hotspot and a cable modem, so it will try to offload the download/upload work to the hotspot if it can. This will ruin your data usage. You'll wake up and all of a sudden, 8gb will be gone.

Ok, I think that's all for now. I hope this is helpful.

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Joseph Hinson