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We need the best internet while traveling. And not just for Instagram, either. Our livelihood depends on it. Between us, we spent over a decade working entirely on the road. We paid our way through the U.S. national forests while taking our van around the world. There’s a lot of bad advice about van/RV internet, most of it coming from people who want your money, so we built this guide to what works.
We talked to dozens of digital nomads along the way. We learned not only from vandwellers and RV owners, but also from entrepreneurs and robotics companies who rely upon such mobile internet connections to — quite literally — prevent disasters (like when an autonomous internet-controlled crane falls over into a ditch). My engineering friends in the robotics industry have very similar needs to travelers (to keep their vehicles connected at all times), and shared some excellent advice.
In the end, we found a way to cheaply combine every possibly type of internet connection (whatever is at our disposal at any time), and get the best of each.
Satellite Broadband for Van and RV Internet
We first investigated satellite broadband internet, but quickly dismissed the idea. Most satellite providers specialize in residential usage, which means they’re not much good on the road. Some providers, like DISH, are beginning to offer mobile satellite internet (and RVDataSat even specializes in mobile satellite broadband). While the coverage may be good, there are many downsides:
- The speed is not great.
- 1-4Mbps downloads are about 5-20% of what you’d expect from even the worst broadband internet provider in a city.
- The high end of this range may technically be capable of “streaming,” but in practice it’ll be painful.
- The cost is high.
- It’ll run you $70-$500 per month for those speeds.
- The satellite itself could cost anywhere from $500 (for a small external dish) to $10,000 (for a large mounted dish).
- It’s not convenient.
- The dish needs to be aligned correctly and free of obstructions.
- An external dish is one more thing to set up at every campsite. A mounted dish is one more thing on the roof.
Tethering and Mifis (Cellular Data)
You’re probably already familiar with limitations of your phone’s cellular data (internet connection), so I won’t spend too much time on the topic. The new 5G standard, as compared to 4G or LTE, is fast enough compare to even the best commercial internet providers. Most cell phone providers will let you easily tether your smartphone, allowing you to share it with other devices.
Alternatively, you can purchase a dedicated Mifi device. One advantage to a Mifi is that it is a dedicated device, so it can handle more simultaneous connections (good for heavy usage, or multiple people using the internet). You could add the Mifi to an existing service, but we chose to purchase a Verizon Jetpack ($39.99/month for unlimited data) to supplement our AT&T phones. Because Verizon covers more ground, we often get reception in more places than our AT&T accounts.
There are two major problems with using cellular data on the road. Thankfully, we were able to find reasonable solutions for both of them:
- Data limits. Even “unlimited” plans will often throttle (reducing the speed of the connection after a certain amount of usage per month). Solution: intelligently combining our connections.
- Coverage. Even the best cellular networks often don’t have great service in national parks and other rural areas. Solution: using cell boosters (also called network repeaters) and using apps to find the areas with the best coverage.
For the sake of completeness: Free Wifi networks are quite easy to find these days. Most coffee shops have them (including, of course, Starbucks). Some less conventional options include:
- Use an app that crowd-sources WiFi networks to connect (even with private networks). My favorite is WiFi Map — we’ve found it has the most listed WiFi networks. More importantly for travelers, the Pro version allows you to download the maps for offline use.
- We pay for a Planet Fitness membership ($20/month for two people, across the entire USA). It’s a #vanlife favorite because you can use the gym, showers, spa, and internet.
- Many cell phone stores (AT&T, Verizon) have free, open networks.
- We also have USB Wifi dongle in the van, as part of our multi-connection solution, which lets us connect to far-away Wifi networks from inside the van itself. This means we can just park in front of a shop
If you’re pleasant enough and willing to ask, many coffee shops and small stores will let you hang out and use the wifi for a bit.
Using Multiple Internet Connections at Once
Instead of locking ourselves to any one of the above solutions, I ended up combining them all together for our van/RV internet connection.
.Our unique solution is similar to a dual-SIM-card modem (like the Teltonika RUT950) in that it can combine multiple internet connections, using them both at once for faster speeds. Except our solution has the following advantages:
- Can combine more than two internet connections.
- Can use your existing phones’ data (instead of dedicated SIM cards).
- Can combine things other than cellular connections, like Wifi or satellite connections.
- Can intelligently limit data to not go over any connection’s cap.
- Costs hundreds of dollars less.
Setting it up requires a bit of technical know-how, but I’ve created a guide for Internet Bonding with a Raspberry Pi Access Point. You can use this guide to set up a network for van/RV internet in about an hour for less than $100.