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A hot topic among people getting ready to hit the road is “How will I get reliable internet on the road??”. I know it is something we were both really concerned about and we had a few things in place when we hit the road but it was surprising how many areas of the west have patchy or no service. Through some trial and error, we’ve acquired a small collection of tech gear that allows us to stay connected just about anywhere. We will share our experience and tips so you can skip the trial and error portion of figuring out the internet on the road!
We’ve broken out internet setup into 2 categories: service providers and boosters! The first will get you the signal you need and the second will help keep it steady!
If you can afford it, one of our biggest tips is to have 2 different providers! This has been SO helpful for us on the road. When one provider does not have coverage usually the other does. It is rare that we won’t have service on either (I’m looking at you Olympic Peninsula). We decided to go with the 2 providers with the best coverage - Verizon and AT&T. For our cell service we’ve been with Verizon for over a decade and it has worked deep in the mountains and deserts of Utah very well. For our hotspot, we have that through AT&T. The service through AT&T has also been pretty good throughout the west. And as stated above, when Verizon doesn’t have service, the AT&T hotspot does!
We each have a smartphone, currently the iPhone 12 and 13, with the DoMore Unlimited 5G UW through Verizon. Our plan gives us each 50GB of 5G UW data. Then, of those 50GB, we can each use 25GB as a mobile hotspot. This allows us to connect our laptops to the internet when we need to get real work done. Once we hit the 25GB limit for the phone hotspot feature speeds gets throttled to 4G or 3G speeds, or about 600Kbps. This is fast enough to get basic tasks completed such as email and light web browsing.
4G LTE HOTSPOT
We have a dedicated 4G LTE Wifi Hotspot through AT&T (thanks to KJ’s employer). The ATT hotspot has a 22GB unlimited data plan and can have up to 15 devices connected to its Wi-Fi signal. Once we hit the 22GB cap, the data is also supposed to be throttled to 3G speeds. Although we’ve had widely different outcomes based on location. If we hit the cap while in a city the throttling basically makes it too slow to accomplish anything online. However, if we hit the cap while in less populated areas it doesn’t seem to get throttled at all. This is most likely because less populated areas have a lighter load on the network.
We have noticed that since all the carriers have shifted to 5G this hot spot isn’t working as well. However, it is a very old hotspot and we are unable to look up the plan details since it is supplied through KJ’s employer.
WIFI & 4G BOOSTERS
USB WIFI ANTENNA
This little dish is a small USB Wifi antenna that we can use with our laptops via USB. We will pull out this antenna when we’re trying to pull free Wifi from a distance (aka the parking lot). Once we plug this in we usually see the signal improve from 1 bar up to 3 or 4 bars. This makes the signal usable for whatever we need to get done. This antenna is directional, so you will need to point it at the source of the Wifi (coffee shop, library, grocery store). Due to social distancing and lack of inside dining this year, thanks to COVID, this has been handy. On several occasions we’ve gotten coffee-to-go, then sat in the parking lot and been able to use the coffee shop Wifi from the comfort of our van. For $30, this thing brings value!
4G HOTSPOT ANTENNA
After being on the road for a few months and having a few stressful workdays with no service, we decided to add this upgrade. It’s been a game-changer for us especially since it’s a pretty cheap upgrade.
The antenna works similarly to WeBoost cell boosters that many other vanlifers use but it’s a fraction of the cost ($50 vs $500). The only major drawback is that it only improves the signal for the AT&T hotspot, to which it’s wired to. In contrast, the WeBoost will boost the signal for all carriers and devices within range. At the end of the day, we think this trade-off is worth the savings.
How does it work? The average hotspot uses a small internal antenna to collect the cell signal. The antenna needs to be small and internal so the device can remain portable, but than means a big compromise on signal strength! We really noticed the signal taking a nose dive when we shut up the van for the night and put in our reflectix lined window covers. The foil lining on the reflectix and sheet metal walls of the van combine to create an enclosed metal box that will totally block a weak cell signal. We were constantly putting our hot spot between the window and the window cover or up in our skylight trying to get a better signal!
We attached the antenna to the roof rack on our van. Up on the roof, the antenna is not affected by the metal walls of the van or reflectix. Since it is on the roof, it also has a better vantage point to receive signals over hills, rocks, and anything else that might get in the way.
We have gone through a few of these antennas over the last 2 years (3 to be exact). On our past models, at some point, the white protective cap will come off and expose the electronics. In a few instances, we noticed when the cap came off and were able to secure it back on. In other instances, it was just gone so the electronics got damaged and we needed to replace them.
The bracket it comes with is a bit flimsy and it is likely designed to be attached to a structure and not a moving vehicle. We made a bracket out of a heavier metal (grabbed a 90* joist bracket from home depot) and that works really well.
All in all though, we keep buying the same one because even though we’ve gone through 3 it is still cheaper than a WeBoost.
Not sure if it really makes a difference? While we were out on BLM Land in Alabama Hills, California (where not many camping spots have signal) we did an internet speed test with and without the antenna connected.
Download: 14 Mbps
Upload: 1.5 Mbps
Download: 6.5 Mbps
Upload: 0.1 Mbps
There is a big improvement when the antenna is connected. We typically see a 2x improvement in the download speed and 5-10x improvement in upload!
With our combo of service providers and low-cost antennas we are able to get reliable internet just about everywhere we go! Hopefully, our setup can help give you the confidence that you can have internet most places in your travels so you don’t need to worry about if you can get work done or binge stream an series on Netflix!
For more info on all things vanlife check out our website and blog Stokeloafvan