In today’s “connected” world, not having Internet access while RV’ing is not an option for many people. Fortunately, today’s RV’ers have a broad array of choices with prices continuing to fall while performance has improved dramatically. In this first of two articles we will consider the various technologies RV’ers can utilize to stay connected while away from home.
To understand an RV’ers internet options, it best to start by categorizing them as follows:
- Local wifi
The cheapest option (and the best for many casual RV’ers) is local wifi provided for free by many campgrounds, public libraries, Starbucks, etc. Virtually all laptop computers and tablets can access wifi with little difficulty. Campground wifi service has improved, in general, over the past few years but from one campground to another it can still vary from excellent (>5Mbps) to marginal (<500kpbs) and often varies dramatically even at the same location at different times of the day. Since all campers at a particular location share the same internet connection, the speed of wifi service will decrease as the number of people on it increases. To prevent abuse caused by some campers “hogging the available bandwidth, many campgrounds utilize “access controls” which limit the speed and total data volume permitted any particular user.
The bottom line is that wifi may be acceptable if you are a weekend RVer who doesn’t need guaranteed high speed access. However, don’t expect to be able to stream video on wifi and you may well get yourself kicked off the system if you try it. However, if you need internet connectivity that is not limited to being at a campground (or other public access point) you are going to want to consider other options.
It’s probably worth noting that another limitation of wifi at many campgrounds is that the campground’s distribution system often does not provide uniform wifi signal strength across all campsites. It’s not uncommon to hear complaints that the signal at particular sites was not strong enough for someone to connect to. There are devices with external antennas and amplifiers that can help to capture such weak signals, but the casual RVer whose access is limited to wifi is probably not likely to want to spend the money to purchase such equipment. But, if you are interested in understanding your options with respect to wifi amplification, they are covered in the section on building your own network.
Although one often reads about the presumed dangers of using unsecured wifi connections at public places, this is a misplaced fear under most circumstances. People using an unsecured wifi system do run a risk that their communication with the local campground or Starbuck access point could be intercepted. This could conceivably occur and if you are using such a wifi system for conducting a clandestine love affair or planning a bank robbery, this might cause you to have second thoughts. However, if you are checking your bank balance or even buying an item on Amazon the financially sensitive parts of your transaction are handled using a sophisticated encryption technology that makes it nearly impossible for anyone less than a government spy agency to do anything with the data. That is what the “https” stands for in the address bar of your bank or any other secure site. So the bottom line is don’t send incriminating emails using unsecured wifi, but don’t worry about your bank account.
The cellular phone system in the US has become so extensive that it now provides a viable option for internet access throughout the vast majority of the country. There are still many square miles in the Mountain West where there is no service, but such no-man’s-lands get smaller each year. Service along the interstates and many other major highways is nearly without gaps in most states. That’s not to say that there aren’t huge differences between the coverage areas of the major carriers. Although many people regard Verizon as having the best overall coverage in the US, there are specific areas where AT&T and even some of the smaller carriers do provide better coverage. Your choice of carrier will depend on where you travel and how consistent you need your coverage to be. I think it’s safe to say that more “serious RVers” use Verizon than any other carrier.
You may hear some RVers talking about companies such as Millenicom which, themselves, are not carriers, but, rather, are resellers of other company’s networks. Often such resellers offer multiple packages, some of which work on one carrier’s network and others of which operate on others. Depending on your needs such packages may offer you greater value than a direct contract with the major carriers.
Once you decide on a cellular carrier you may be wondering “what’s all this 3G and 4G stuff being talked about in TV ads?” Without going into lots of technical detail, the digital cellular system has gone through several iterations since it replaced the analog system in the 1990’s. The most basic digital system is called “1X” and it provides voice and slow-speed (<100kpbs-kilo bits per second) data connectivity. For those old enough to remember what it was like, it’s like going back to a dial-up internet connection, but it’s better than nothing. Fortunately, the remaining areas of 1X service in the US are relatively small and pretty much are only found in rural environments.
The 1X network has pretty much been replaced by the 3G network which typically provides data speeds of 500-1,500 kbps. Such speeds are not well-suited for demanding uses such as streaming video but they do provide adequate performance for casual surfing and may even be fast enough for a decent Skype or FaceTalk video chat. 3G service is now the “default” through most of the country with virtually all carriers.
The latest evolution of the cellular network is called 4G and is being implemented by most carriers. Although the specific implementation and performance attributes vary from carrier to carrier, it is safe to say that 4G performance is typically >4-5 Mbps (megabits per second) which is enough for video streaming and often for high definition streaming. The 4G networks in the US have grown dramatically since they were first introduced in 2011 and Verizon expects 4G-coverage across its entire 3G system by the end of 2013.
So if the cellular system is so good why doesn’t everyone just use it instead of even bothering with wifi? The answer is cost since use of cellular data is priced by data volume by Verizon and AT&T, the two largest carriers. After years of charging for minutes of voice service, the cellular carriers have now switched to charging for data usage of which voice service uses very little. Typical data plans vary from 2-20GB/month (gigabytes per month) depending on how much usage you expect to need. Most people will probably find that 5GB/month is more than adequate for most uses other than video streaming. Streaming video uses on the order of 1GB/hour for standard definition and several times that for high def video. It’s easy to understand why campgrounds don’t want people to stream video on their wifi systems. Unlimited data plans used to be offered by Verizon and ATT but they have been discontinued and are available on a grandfathered basis to certain existing customers. Some of the smaller carriers still provide unlimited service on their more limited networks.
There are several different approaches to making an internet connection that are the same regardless of which cellular carrier you use:
- A USB-connected modem
- A hot-spot device (often referred to using the brand name MiFi)
- A phone operating in a hot-spot mode
- A phone tethered to a computer
A USB-connected modem was the primary method of achieving a cellular internet connection for nearly a decade. A small, stick-like device connected to a USB port of your computer (or a compatible router) essentially acts like a phone and makes a direct connection to the cellular network. The primary drawbacks of this approach is that the USB modem connects only one device at a time to the internet. If you have a compatible router, the router can open the connection to multiple computers, printers, etc, but the USB-modem, itself, can only connect one device at a time to the internet. Furthermore, the USB modem is, itself, a device which has to be purchased and periodically updated.
More popular in the past couple of years has been the use of stand-alone devices which are often referred to collectively using the Verizon brand name: MiFi. The MiFi is a self-powered USB modem which does not have to be directly connected to a computer. Instead, it shares its internet connection with multiple computers or other devices by acting as a miniature WiFi network. Within your home or your RV, your computers, printers, and other devices connect to the MiFi which is usually powered with an AC-adapter. Despite the fact that, like the USB modem, the MiFi is also a purchased device, that must be periodically updated, the MiFi has become a popular option with RVers because it can provide access to multiple devices (usually up to five), so different family members can have their laptops, tablets, etc, connected at the same time. Most people purchase their MiFi’s from their cellular carrier.
Over the past year an increasing number of people have begun using their smart phones, both Androids and iPhones, as wireless hotspots. Essentially, the phone “shares” its connection to the cellular network by becoming a wifi access point within your home or RV. Your computers and other devices connect to it just as they would a MiFi or even a campground wifi network. Depending on your carrier and your service plane, using your phone as a hotspot may or may not incur additional cost. One disadvantage of using a phone as your internet access is that if the phone is out of the RV or house then no one else can have internet access. This may or may not be a serious problem for you, but some people get around the problem by having a second phone so the hotspot can always be left “at home” with the person who wants to use the internet connection.
Lastly, a phone can also be physically tethered to a computer or a router in order to create a cellular connection. Although this approach was popular a few years ago, before the ability of many phones to become hot spots, in recent years its popularity has waned. Since a tethered phone is a wired device, it has the many of the same limitations as a USB modem, such as connecting to one only device at a time. Additionally, like a phone’s use as a hotspot, the phone has to be “at home” for anyone in the house to have an internet connection.
It’s worth noting that data security with cellular devices is exceptionally good. The cellular transmissions themselves are encrypted over and above the encryption provided by the website, such as your bank, that you are dealing with. If you use your phone in a hotspot mode as a way of connecting multiple computers, etc, the hotspot’s wifi system is automatically encrypted, also.
Satellite internet access
Access to the internet by satellite, primarily through the carrier known as Hughesnet, has for more than a decade been the “last resort” for people, both RVers and home-owners, who live “in the middle of nowhere” where they can’t get access by other means. Rooftop RV systems, primarily sold through MotoSat, provide access to hundreds/thousands of RVers, but they are expensive (several thousand dollars for hardware plus installation and monthly charges) and the rapid expansion of the cellular networks has significantly reduced the size of the area in which satellite service is the only option Due to the cost of satellite internet service, more and more RVers are deciding they can live with the (shrinking) limitations of the cellular network unless they conduct business in their RVs for which they absolutely, positively must have an internet connection everywhere, unless, of course, they are parked under a tree!
Satellite internet connections also have the disadvantage of exceedingly long delays between the moment you click your mouse and when the computer on the other end of the link realizes you have done so. This delay is caused by the fact that the satellites used for internet access orbit the Earth at 22,300 miles above the equator and even though the signals travel at the speed of light, the huge distances involved create a delay of up to a full second. This is compared to the 50-100 ms delay that is more typical with other internet connections methods. Such delays make satellite internet virtually unusable for interactive applications (e.g., gaming) or even for interactive video such as Skype. Furthermore, because of the limited bandwidth of the satellites themselves, satellite internet usage is priced higher per GB of data than connection via cellular.
Several of the satellite internet providers have taken steps recently to increase their capacity as a way of reducing their costs to customers. Unfortunately, for RV’ers most of these actions have resulted in increased bandwidth within geographically restricted spot beams. What this means to an RV’er is that the satellite coverage is being focused on higher usage areas of the country and may not be available to him out in the “boondocks.” In fact, with some carriers customers are not being permitted access to the system outside the spot beam in which they are registered. This approach essentially defeats the key advantage of satellite systems which is that they can be used anywhere.
For most RV’ers today’s rapidly expanding cellular networks provide more than adequate internet access for all but the most data-intensive tasks. With the rapid conversion to 4G service by most carriers, downlink speeds are often fast enough to sustain high definition video streaming. All it takes is a pocketbook capable of paying the substantial charges that will be incurred. However, data usage fees will, no doubt, be lowered over time, much the same way that voice cellular “minutes” have virtually become a thing of the past.
In the next section we’ll discuss how you can build a simple network in your RV that can take advantage of the best of local wifi and the cellular network.
Joel Weiss is a full-time RV’er who has become a technology resource in the RV community. Prior to going full-time, Joel was an executive for a major aerospace company, a business owner, and a high school science teacher. He prides himself on being an “early adopter” of the latest consumer technologies. The motorhome in which he and his wife tour the US is equipped with a network that supports several computers and peripherals as well as streaming video devices. Joel has recently been designated an official WiFiRanger Ambassador.
Joel is active on a number of RV forums under the user name “docj”. He and his wife are members of FMCA and Escapees RV Club. Although he is an easterner by birth, these days Joel can usually be found west of the Mississippi. He often winters in southern Texas and usually spends much of the summer in the Pacific Northwest.