For many, staying connected while traveling is more important than ever. With the rise of remote work and school, the ability to access reliable internet service can be the difference between taking that trip or staying home.
Whether you’re looking for connectivity to check in with the boss or simply to binge-watch your favorite TV show, there are plenty of ways to “plug in” to the internet while you’re on the road. Here is an overview of how to connect while traveling—if and when you want to.
Questions to Ask Yourself About Your RV Connectivity Setup
Before we dive into internet options while on the road, let’s discuss the most important question: How much internet do you need?
Unless you’re staying seasonally in a campground and have the option to hook up to cable internet, connectivity while traveling is not like your internet service at home. It’s a constant game of give or take. You might be able to get speed but not a lot of data, or internet most everywhere but an expensive and fussy setup.
Knowing what you truly need to manage your work, school, or leisure use will guide your mobile internet investment.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- What are your wants versus your needs? For example, you may need enough bandwidth to participate in Zoom calls for work but you want enough speed to play Xbox.
- How many devices are you running? Like in a home setting, the number of devices hooked up to your internet setup impacts factors like data speeds and usage.
- How much is internet service worth to you? Mobile internet options can get expensive, so understanding your return on investment will help you match your spending to your setup. If you’re relying on mobile internet to make a living, this number may be higher than if you’re looking to casually browse the headlines over breakfast.
All About Signal, Speed, Latency, and Data
It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of technical jargon when talking about mobile internet options. Here are the key terms to know and why they are important.
Most mobile internet setups, including cellular and satellite-based options, rely on a signal. In cellular connectivity, for example, the signal is most often represented on your phone or hotspot as a series of bars ranging from one to four or five. The closer you are to a cell tower, the more bars you have, and the stronger your signal is. Note that a strong signal doesn’t necessarily equate to a speedy connection.
Every time you use the internet, you’re sending around packets of digital data. Many of these packets are downloaded data (for example, streaming movies or receiving emails) and some are uploaded data (for example, posting a photo to Instagram or sending a file). Data is measured in megabytes and gigabytes. Many mobile internet options—even “unlimited” ones—have restrictions on how much data you can use before something happens, like your speed getting downgraded or your service being shut down for the remainder of the month.
Speed is the rate at which you can receive and send packets of data. Speed is measured in megabytes per second (Mbps) and is often the defining factor in whether you have “usable” internet for your needs. A speed test is used to measure this metric (try the free speed tests by Ookla and Google). On your home internet, speeds between 50 Mbps and 300 Mbps are common. On the road, speeds can range from 1 to 100 Mbps and beyond.
Latency (or Ping)
Latency (sometimes called ping) is the amount of time that it takes for packets of data to move from one place to another. This metric, which can also be measured using the speed tests above, is especially important when attempting to do activities like online gaming.
Speed and Latency Requirements
Most popular online applications release information on the minimum speed and latency they need to function properly. Here are a few examples:
- Netflix: Minimum of 3 Mbps for high definition video.
- Xbox: Minimum download speed of 3 Mbps for online gaming.
- Zoom: Minimum 600 Kbps (kilobit per second) upload and download speeds for high-quality, 1-1 video.
Overview of Mobile Internet Options for RV Travel
The four mobile internet options to consider are cellular, satellite, WiFi, and cable/fiber. Let’s take a look at each of these to match your needs and wants to the best option for you.
Connecting to the internet via a cellular connection is likely the most widespread method throughout the RVing community. All major cellular providers in the U.S.—Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile—offer data-rich smartphone plans and mobile hotspots to help you connect while you’re on the move.
Utilizing one or more cellular services can meet the needs of most travelers, from families who are roadschooling to weekend campers who want to keep an eye on their favorite sports team. Setting up a cellular plan is easy and relatively inexpensive. The downside? Cellular only works in places with a cell phone signal and speeds are variable. (If you’re a Roadpass Pro member, you have access to cellular coverage maps on Campendium to help anticipate cell phone coverage in the area you’re camping.)
Though exact costs depend on the cellular provider, the price of a mobile hotspot device typically starts around $75, and monthly service charges with a contract begin at $20—but can cost up to $200 or more, depending on your plan. Some RVers also choose to invest in signal boosters, like a WeBoost (estimated cost between $450 and $650), which can help increase a cell phone signal’s strength and reliability.
With the launch of Starlink satellites into Earth’s low orbit, there is a new kid on the block for internet connectivity. In 2022, Starlink, which offered home-based, satellite internet when it was launched, introduced “roaming” capabilities for those on the move.
This announcement thrilled the RV community, especially those who like to camp far off the grid where cell towers don’t reach. With reported speeds in excess of 100 Mbps, low latency, and no service contracts, Starlink is, for some, a dream come true.
Before you rush to hit purchase, there are a few serious drawbacks to this emerging technology. First, though it’ll be available worldwide by the end of 2022, the service is currently only available between 44 and 53 degrees latitude. Second, Starlink receivers must have a clear and unobstructed view of the sky at all times to work properly—even trees can break the connection. Third, it’s expensive. Starlink is currently $599 for the receiver (plus $50 shipping and tax) with a service cost of $110 per month, plus $25 per month for roaming.
At this time, Starlink is best for travelers who are willing to spend serious money to get connected in off-the-beaten-path locations, like full-time remote workers who love to boondock.
For those who prefer to stay in RV parks, public WiFi may provide all the connectivity you need. Many private RV parks and an increasing number of state and national parks offer WiFi throughout their campgrounds. Sometimes this is offered as a free perk and other times it requires a daily or weekly service fee.
As a bonus, utilizing campground WiFi requires no additional equipment—there are no routers or mobile hotspots to buy and keep powered. It’s not uncommon, however, for campground WiFi to not work as smoothly as your setup at home. Service might be spotty or slow, and you may not be able to find anyone to help you with it once the office closes.
There’s also the issue of digital security when utilizing public WiFi. Use a VPN (virtual private network) whenever connecting to a public WiFi network.
Due to reliability issues, WiFi is best for vacationing individuals and families who want—but don’t need—internet while traveling.
If you’re staying at a campground for an entire season, you may have the opportunity to set up cable or fiber internet. Similar to your internet service at home, cable internet is a permanent installation to a fixed point; in this case, your campsite.
Cable internet is often fast, reliable, and easy to use. Internet companies typically charge a setup fee for the service and the equipment required includes a plugged-in modem and router. Internet contract prices start at around $30 per month, depending on the provider, and can go up to around $200 per month.
Overview of Cellular Carriers
There are four major carriers in the U.S. that offer cellular data plans for travelers. Here’s a brief overview of their current offerings. Please note that these change frequently, so it’s best to contact the cellular carrier directly for the most up-to-date plans.
Verizon often gets praised as the most reliable cellular carrier in the U.S. It has the best nationwide coverage; however, its 5G rollout lags significantly behind T-Mobile.
Verizon offers data contracts that start at $20 per month for 15GB of data and go up to $80 per month for 150GB of data. It also offers prepaid data plans with no contract that start at $40 per month for 5GB of data.
AT&T has the second-best coverage in the U.S. and is also known for its reliable network. Its coverage map varies from Verizon; there are places where Verizon doesn’t reach but AT&T does.
AT&T offers data contracts that tag onto its cell phone plans. Plans start at $35 per month for 3GB of hotspot data. AT&T also offers prepaid data hotspot plans that start at $25 per month for 20GB of data.
T-Mobile is leading the U.S. in 5G coverage. It also has some of the fastest upload and download speeds on its network and some of the best plans for travel to Canada and Mexico. However, it has the least amount of nationwide coverage within the U.S. of the three major carriers.
T-Mobile offers standalone mobile hotspot contracts that begin at $10 per month for 2GB of data.
Whether you’re working, schooling, or simply enjoying a streaming TV show at the end of the day, internet connectivity is a must-have for many travelers. The best internet option for you is the one that meets your needs and fits your budget.
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