Full-time RV Internet / WiFi
It’s critical for full-time RV travelers to have reliable RV Internet access to keep both your job (if you are still working) and your connection to the rest of the world. This article dives into ways that we have found to maintain reliable and fast internet / wifi while we travel full-time. We’re able to stay connected online for work and connected to family & friends, as well as web & streaming entertainment.
RV Internet connectivity is as important as other household utilities
Long before we ever went full-time, we knew internet connectivity was going to be our biggest challenge to staying out on long trips. It’s well documented online that trying to use the wifi provided by campgrounds is almost always a problem due to slow speeds with too many people sharing the connection. At best, campground wifi should be considered only as a last resort, if your primary and secondary options are not available.
This meant that I needed to do a lot of homework and make sure I did a lot of testing prior to our real road adventures. Because of this, I researched and ordered equipment early and tested while still living in our downtown condo in Seattle to ensure I could fully assess the performance, quality & reliability of the equipment and the providers.
This was a great opportunity since I was running Google Fiber at home and could compare speed tests as well as real-life working activity for days or weeks. I wanted to make sure that if I set up a mobile option in my condo it would work fine day after day for all the real world activities I could expect, including zoom calls all day, email and Slack (or Microsoft Teams) conversations and large scale data transfers.
RV Internet redundancy is critical for full timers
Because of the high importance of internet connectivity in our RV Travel lives, it’s important to focus on reliable internet connection with enough performance for your daily needs. Everything from Zoom calls for work, web searching and browsing, mapping your next road trip, and even streaming your favorite content from Netflix or Youtube takes data. And if one provider is weak or non-existent in your current campground, you need to have another option that works well enough to keep you online without significant disruption.
Having a backup plan for those times that you can’t get good connectivity from your primary provider should be very high on your list. There are places where one cellular provider is strong and others are weak, and in those cases you need to make sure you have options. Even if your backup plan is a campground wifi signal (which is not a great option most of the time), you need to have a way to easily switch over to the best source possible. Ideally, you make that switch super simple, or even automatic.
Your primary internet connection
AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile?
There are many articles on the web that rank the top mobile internet service providers. Like you, I found them a bit confusing when trying to choose my primary provider. In fact, when I started to do my research, it appeared, based on my research, that I needed to start with Verizon since many RV nomads quoted the fact that Verizon had the strongest network and many of them relied on Verizon.
So that’s where I started my research. I needed to get a good top network provider as my primary source and only use others when my primary source was bad or unavailable in the area I was staying at the time. To do this, I needed to first figure out what amount of bandwidth I needed to support my day-to-day use for work and personal consumption.
Determine your expected usage
While researching Verizon options, it became clear that I was going to need to find some unique options, as my needs were above average for usage and performance demands. A large amount of my day is on Zoom video calls for my full-time tech job, while my wife works online for her research, writing and publishing work for this blog, book group, and other projects. Doing some quick back of the envelope estimation (and using the online estimators listed below), I realized we were going to exceed most plan options.
Here are some tools to help estimate your bandwidth needs:
Ever changing plans and pricing
Finding which RV Internet plan to consider was based on my expectation of total monthly usage, which was high considering the fact that I needed to be on zoom calls almost 100% of the work day, along with sending documents, slides and spreadsheets as follow-ups. Other uses of internet bandwidth after work hours include Netflix, Streaming Music and YouTube to all of our devices such as smart speakers, tablets and phones.
While a backup plan could be a limited 10GB or 50GB plan, I estimated our primary would need to be MUCH higher. While I was searching out more options, I discovered a great website “Mobile Internet Resource Center” run by knowledgable and fun fellow nomads, Chris & Cherie.
On this site we were able to learn more about different types of plans, ranging from the traditional to more alternative. Ultimately, we were able to find a combination of options that I thought could support our needs with redundancy across the three main providers. Because your needs and cost expectations are likely very different, you should apply your details to this research and see what options would work best for you.
Here is a great article I used to help figure out a good plan for our expected usage patterns: https://www.rvmobileinternet.com/guides/top-cellular-data-plans-for-rvers-cruisers-verizon-att-t-mobile-and-sprint/
While options change often, when I made my choice I found my primary provider at Mobile Must Have: https://www.mobilemusthave.com
RV Internet Equipment
Mobile Routers, Hotspots and Phone Tethering
Depending on the provider(s) you choose, there are different options for the equipment you need (or are allowed to use). Some of the options include the hardware you will need and others expect you to already have a device that can accept a sim card that connects you to their service.
Since I was planning for my internet setup to change and grow as options changed or improved (such as when Starlink satellites support full-time RV travel needs!), I also wanted to leverage “unlocked” equipment that would allow me to change providers (not tied to any specific cellular provider) and could handle higher bandwidths with the larger number of connected devices in our Rig.
While using a cell phone as a “hotspot” could work in a pinch for a short time, many places across country could have a weak signal that would make them unusable (because they don’t allow for an external antenna). This meant we needed our primary internet source to have a solid mobile internet router with the ability to connect with an external antenna.
Nighthawk M1 Gigabit LTE Mobile Router
When looking at options I came across the Netgear Nighthawk M1 Router, a slim device that had high ratings both in online stores as well as great reviews by mobile bloggers and YouTubers.
This device is amazing, and I know I’m not the only one to think that, as it has features and performance characteristics you would expect only from much larger/bulkier home or business devices. One of my favorite features is that this device has both the ability to share it’s connection as a wifi connection (for laptops and phones to connect to), and also has the ability to connect to another hub or router using ethernet, allowing for much higher performance when used in conjunction with a higher-end dedicated hub/routing device (more on that later).
Another powerful feature of this router is the ability to easily move it (and an optional antenna) to different parts of the rig to aim it toward the closest cellular tower to achieve the best signal. While moving it to different areas of the RV can become a challenge from time to time (finding the right window to put the antenna in), it has a MUCH better signal capture ability than a simple cellphone hotspot.
Nighthawk M1 Battery Hack
One feature of this router is that it includes a built-in battery to allow for connections when not plugged in. This sounds great for those times when you want to sit in the middle of the woods and have connectivity for your laptop, but for a full-time RV traveler, the real value is to have it within the Rig providing connectivity for all of the devices there.
I bring up the battery only because after doing a lot of research about this device, one of the few issues that people had seemed to be related to running it 24×7 plugged in with the battery installed, which sometimes overheated and killed the device. The solution was to simply remove the battery (easy to pop it out of the bottom) and run it only on direct power. This meant the device never gets hot (a battery issue) and can’t fry the internals. The only downside is that if you lose power in your rig it will reboot when power is restored.
Testing performance at home
The Netgear Nighthawk was easy to setup — a simple case of inserting the sim card I received from my provider — and I was ready to test under real-world situations. I switched my work computer’s internet connection to use the wifi signal provided by the Nighthawk for over two weeks at home with no problems whatsoever. I ran Google Speed test (google ‘speed test’ and use the browser based testing google provides as the top choice) and was surprised at how stable the connection speeds were. While much slower than fiber (500MB to 1000MB), I was seeing respectable (for campground and RV resorts) 15MB to 30 MB speeds over LTE, which was great considering our expected needs.
For the many zoom calls and presentations I had daily, there was no degradation in the quality of the images or sound. The only performance hit I noticed was when I needed to occasionally upload a large file which could take a few minutes, instead of seconds with fiber.
Testing RV Internet performance on the road
Now that we have been on the road part-time for over nine months, and full-time for six weeks, I can say that my primary provider (AT&T) has been phenomenal. While I know they have provided good coverage, I do know that one of the big reasons is because of the Netgear Nighthawk and the optional external antenna (which I think is mandatory!)
Getting internet service can be difficult in some areas, but with the right equipment and provider, it’s a lot less stress! I know that our internet connectivity will be an ongoing story. As such, I’ll work to keep this series up to date as I learn new enhancements, tech and providers.
In the next article I’ll cover my secondary and tertiary choices for providers and how I ultimately pull them together into a cohesive network that provides a redundant solution that we can rely on for our jobs and entertainment.