If we’re going to achieve our goal of creating an RV with awesome Smart Home features, we’re going to need to start with figuring out how to stay online. So what are our RV internet solutions and which one is the best?
The truth is that there is no single, perfect solution. Many full-time RV-ers and digital nomads rely on a combination of technologies and the costs and effectiveness of these covers a wide range. But we’ve got to start somewhere, so let’s talk about keeping online with cell phones and cellular jetpacks.
Use what you’ve already got in your pocket!
I don’t think I’m writing to anyone here who doesn’t have a cell phone, so that’s where we’ll start. As long as you’ve got a cellular signal, interacting with the internet is as simple as firing up your phone. But we don’t want to keep that sweet, sweet internet locked inside our phones – we want to make out RV smart, so we need all our other devices to have access, too!
Most phones these days are capable of acting as a hotspot (as long as your service provider allows it), which means you’re basically creating a little WiFi network using your cellular data which all your wireless devices can connect to. Each phone is going to be different, so describing how to create a hotspot on yours is outside the scope of this article – you’re going to have to bust out your “google fu” and figure out that one on your own.
So if it’s this simple, why look for any other solutions? Let’s discuss the pro’s and con’s.
- Availability – You already have the phone and a data plan, so you’ve already spent the money (Are you sure? More on that in a little bit).
- Local Network – In many situations, absolutely no other hardware is required to get all your wireless devices talking. By creating a hotspot on your phone, you’re already created a local network which your devices can use to communicate with each other, even if they’re not sending and receiving data from outside sources.
- Cost – Didn’t I just tell you that you’d already spent all the money required to have Internet throughout your RV? Unfortunately, it’s a little more complex than that. Unless you have a true “unlimited” data plan, your phone bill is going to skyrocket if you go over your limit. And even unlimited plans will often be “throttled” by your service provider if you’re consuming what they’ve decided is too much data.
- Connection – Do you have it? We’ve all been in “dead spots” where our cell signal is super weak – if there’s any service at all. If your cell phone isn’t able to get any data connection, none of your other cool devices will either! And if there is cell service in your area, it might not be with your provider. Same problem.
- Heat – Your phone is going to get pretty hot if you run a hotspot on it for a long time. Heat is generally bad for electronics, especially for extended periods, and the fancy, expensive phone you’ve got in your pocket will have a much shorter lifetime if you do this regularly.
- Battery – Operating your phone as a hotspot will deplete the battery much more quickly than normal. It takes a lot of juice to control all that communication! This means that your phone is going to have to be on charge for much of the time, making it less convenient for you to use it for other things or even leave your RV.
- For the cost factor, an unlimited plan might seem like the best solution, but you have to weigh it against the amount of data you’re realistically using. If you only bust through your data limits a couple months of the year, does that extra cost make it worthwhile to pay more every month for unlimited data? Or is your regular, limited cost low enough that on the rare occasions you go over the limit, you’re still spending less money? Do the math and then make your decision.
- Weak cellular signals can often be greatly improved with Cellular boosters. There are a ton of different options ranging widely in cost and complexity, so I’m actually going to tackle that subject in a separate article.
- Also regarding weak cell signal, well, sometimes there is NO solution. It you’re far enough into the wilderness, no network and no amount of cellular boosting is going to give you service. But a lot of the time we can find workarounds – they just add some cost to the equation. A common solution is to have a secondary service provider. Your T-Mobile phone might work great in your region, but what about when you travel to an area where only Verizon gets a signal? A second phone and contract add cost, but they also add flexibility. But do you need two phones? How does this solve the heat and battery issues discussed above? Read on, my friends!
Mobile Cellular Jetpacks
Jetpacks, MiFi, Hotspots (I will call them jetpacks to reduce confusion) – these are all referring to the same thing. Roughly the size of a wallet, these devices contain a SIM card and are dedicated cellular based jetpacks which create a mini-network just like your phone can. Why would you want something that does LESS than your phone? Turns out there a several really good reasons!
- Cost – Unlike a good cell phone, a good jetpack can be had for $50-$200 and if you look around, you can find them used or refurbished for even less.
- Local Network – Just like a cell phone, a jetpack creates a local network that will allow all your connected devices to talk to each other.
- Bundling Plans – If you decide to use a jetpack with the same provider as your cell plan uses, you may be able to get a better deal by bundling them together into the same overall plan.
- Different Providers – Instead of bundling plans with the same provider, getting a jetpack from a different one – perhaps one known for greater coverage than your current provider – will give you more connectivity options when you’re out on the road. No signal for your hotspot? Maybe your cell phone’s provider offers service here!
- Effectiveness – Can’t I just use my old cell phone for this? Sure. Consider, though, that cell phones are great all-around devices, but because they have so many different jobs they’re not perfect at everything. All the engineering that goes into a jetpack is purpose-built to make it do one thing, so it’s going to do that better than a phone can.
- Hotspot Signal – Because of the dedicated electronics and internal antennas, a jetpack can provide a stronger and further-reaching signal than a phone.
- Runs Cooler – Similarly, the jetpack doesn’t have to work as hard to provide a hotspot, so it’s electronics aren’t stressed to the point of overheating, even with extensive use.
- Battery Life – While you can leave a jetpack plugged in all the time, they have internal batteries which can provide a full day or more worth of power. This is especially useful if you’re boondocking or just need to take your internet with you to the neighbor’s campsite.
- Cost – Didn’t I just say cost was a pro for jetpacks? Yes, but you also need to factor in that you’re adding in the cost of both a new device and additional cellular service.
- Data Limits – Like with your phone, your jetpack’s data usage will be subject to limits depending on what plan you purchase from your provider, so the same math needs to be done when deciding what level of data you want.
- Combined Data – If you bundle your cell and jetpack plans, the data limit in your plan could apply to both of them instead of having their own, separate limits. You need to know this and figure it into you calculations.
- Connection – Also like your cell phone, if your jetpack can’t receive a good cell signal, it’s not going to give you the internet that you and your Smart RV desire.
- Choosing a jetpack from a different service provider can be a little more expensive overall, but not only does it provide potential extra signal coverage as described above, but it also give you two separate data limits. So if you’re running up against your data limit on your jetpack, you can fire up the hotspot on your phone and keep hammering away at the internet!
- As with cell phones, sometimes there is just no amount of work that will give you a signal where none exists. Still, there are often places where you get signal – it’s just WEAK. While I’m going to cover this more thoroughly in another article, some jetpacks have a jack built in for connecting a cheap external antenna which can bump it’s signal up – it’s not as effective as the big, expensive cellular boosters, but it can come in really handy if you just need a little more signal strength.
So What’ll It Be?
As you can see, we’ve hardly scratched the surface in our investigation into RV Internet Solutions and it already seems complicated! Don’t worry – now that you have all the information above, you can figure out your needs, compare them to your budget, and make a decision. It might turn out that your actual needs are so few that your cell phone alone is more than enough to get your through a trip in your home on wheels.
On the other hand, there are many power users and full-timers out there who can take this information and run with it. If you’re one of these folks, you’ll be interested in reading the rest of my RV Internet Solutions series so you can make the best choice for your needs!
Any additional questions about using cell phones and jetpacks for get internet service in your RV? Suggestions? Things you love or hate? Leave me a note in the comments!