Read More About Our Setup
If you’re taking your RV out for a long weekend, it can be nice to unplug completely and get off the grid. When you’re living and working from your RV, losing an Internet connection can be a nightmare.
That’s why we’ve totally teched up to give us the best chance of finding a signal in some of the very remote areas we’ll be exploring.
Before we get to our setup, let’s look at RV Internet at the big picture level.
Types of Internet Connections
There are four different ways you can connect to the Internet:
- Cable Internet connection (like at a full-hookup RV park)
- Public or private WiFi (like at Starbucks or an RV park)
- Cellular data plan
Cable Internet connection
The first option is the old school way of physically plugging your device into a jack to access the Internet. Some RV parks will have these located in their main office or other building while others may give you a cable hookup at your campsite. For the latter, be aware that you may need to call the cable company to activate your Internet connection, so it isn’t suitable for short stays. These connections are slow and inconvenient.
Public or private WiFi
The second option is one we occasionally use, which is to access the Internet via networks provided by coffee shops, restaurants, visitor’s centers, RV parks, etc.
Sometimes these networks are public, meaning anyone within range can connect to it without providing a password. Sometimes they’re private and you need to ask for a password. This is typical at RV parks, where they want to restrict the use of their network to people who are staying there.
One the plus side, these WiFi networks are generally free to use (minus the cost of your coffee, meal, or campsite). And depending on the specific network, sometimes they can be fast.
On the downside, oftentimes these networks are just downright terrible. I’ve honestly never been able to use an RV park WiFi connection because it’s just too slow or my signal drops out intermittently. Usually, you’re sharing these networks with other patrons and your bandwidth is limited. These networks also aren’t secure, meaning you shouldn’t use them to log into things like your bank account without a VPN.
Cellular data plan
Our preferred way of connecting to the Internet is via our cellular data plans. If you have a cell signal where you’re staying, you can use your phone to browse the web as normal. If your data plan allows tethering, you can activate a mobile hotspot to create your own private WiFi network. Then you can connect your laptops, tablets, Amazon Fire TV sticks, or other devices for a typical browsing experience.
Most 4G cellular networks are lightning fast these days, even with signals at less than full strength. Our cell networks completely dominate any public or private WiFi we’ve found, and we get signals in some remote places where we didn’t expect to get online.
But you need to be careful not to rely entirely on your cell network. There have been times where I’ve been driving over mountains in the remote parts of South Dakota while Dawn has been surfing the web with impunity. Then, all of a sudden, the signal disappears for 100 miles.
Overall, cellular networks are your best bet for a consistently good signal when you’re on the move.
Lastly, you can connect to the Internet via a satellite connection. The great thing about satellite is that you can connect anywhere you have a clear view of the southern sky. (Anyone else hearing that HughesNet commercial from 2008?)
That’s right. If you’re overnighting at a highway pull-out in British Columbia and have no cell signal (like us on our Alaska Highway trip) then you’ll still probably be able to use satellite to get an Internet connection.
Unfortunately, these networks are more expensive and slower. HughesNet advertises download speeds up to 25 Mbps, which is six times slower than the typical 150 Mbps download speeds with 4G LTE.
Our mobile Internet setup: A four-pronged approach
As mentioned in the beginning, we teched up our RV to give us the best mobile Internet setup possible.
1. Installed the WiFiRanger EliteAC Pack
Prong 1 of our three-pronged plan is to boost public WiFi signals, like coffee shops or RV campgrounds, so we can surf the web for free when possible. For this, we purchased the WiFiRanger EliteAC Pack.
The WiFi Ranger EliteAC system boosts existing networks so you can connect to them in your RV. You know how coffee shop’s WiFi signal drops off as soon as you walk outside the door? With the WiFiRanger you can be in the parking lot across the street and still connect to it.
Note that the WiFiRanger doesn’t create new networks for you to connect to. It boosts all existing networks so the signal you get is much stronger.
The EliteAC system is very simple to set up. First, you install an external antenna somewhere on top of your RV. We attached it to the satellite extender arm that we can raise about 15 feet off the ground. This gives us a clear line of sight to whatever network we’re trying to pick up.
Then you feed the cable from the external antenna into your RV where it connects to the GoAC WiFi router.
Getting cables from the outside to the inside isn’t always easy; you want to avoid drilling holes in your roof as much as possible.
Our RV has a compartment above the refrigerator, which is the perfect place for all of our Internet stuff. First, we drilled a small hole in the back of this compartment into the refrigerator ventilation space. Then we ran the cable from the external antenna down through the rooftop refrigerator ventilation unit and through the hole we drilled.
Warning: We did have concerns that drilling this hole into a ventilation unit would put us at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. After running the cables and sealing everything up we put a working carbon monoxide monitor in the compartment and haven’t had any issues.
All that’s left is to plug the GoAC router into a power source. The WiFiRanger team provides options for both AC and DC power. We just plugged ours into the AC outlet above.
That’s all it takes to install the WiFiRanger EliteAC Pack! With the system fully installed, it’s time to set it up.
Your kit comes with a customized network name, password, and IP address so you can access the control panel. To set it up, grab your computer, navigate to the “Available Wireless Networks” screen, and connect to the WiFiRanger network. Next, open up your browser and go to your unique IP address. You’ll be welcomed with this screen:
When you press “Scan” the WiFiRanger looks for all networks in range and lists them for you. Simply click “Connect” next to the one you want to connect to. If your chosen network has a login screen or password, you’ll be prompted to complete that step.
Navigate to the “WiFi” tab on the WiFiRanger control panel and you’ll see a section for “Private Network.” This is where you set up the name and password for your network. For example, we named our network Nomadlyweds (shocking).
Now we can connect our phones, laptops, Amazon Fire TV stick, and anything else to our password-protected Nomadlyweds network. Let’s say we were connected to the Starbucks WiFi network but now we want to use our Verizon mobile hotspot. Instead of individually connecting every device, all we have to do is change the connection on the WiFiRanger control panel.
The GoAC wireless router also has Ethernet ports so you can connect any non-wireless devices. Plus, it has a USB port so you can connect your phone directly to the router in order to broadcast the mobile hotspot that way.
2. Installed the weBoost 4G cellular network booster
The WiFiRanger EliteAC Pack allows us to boost and broadcast any available WiFi networks, but what if we’re out in the boonies, the nearest Starbucks is 50 miles away, and our cell signal is weak?
Then we use the weBoost.
weBoost is a 4G cellular network booster that searches for available cellular networks, boosts them, and then broadcasts the boosted networks inside the RV for your phone to automatically pick up.
Honestly, this thing is freaking amazing.
On Day 1 of our Alaska Highway adventure, Dawn and I found ourselves 200 miles away from Dawson Creek, BC–well into spotty cell signal territory. We pulled off at a rest stop to park for the night only to discover we had no signal.
I plugged in the weBoost to see if we could get anything, and lo and behold we did.
That’s a real set of screenshots showing us going from no bars and -113 dBm of signal to 3 bars and -99 dBm of signal.
What’s dBm? It stands for decibels per milliwatt, but you can just think of it as signal strength where closer to zero is better. That means -99 dBm is better than -113 dBm. For perspective: “A signal of -60 dBm is nearly perfect, and -112 dBm is call-dropping bad. If you’re above about -87 dBm, Android will report a full 4 bars of signal.”
And that jump from -113 dBm to -99 dBm is bigger than it seems because dBm works on a logarithmic scale. I’ll let weBoost explain it:
Being a logarithmic unit of measure, each 3-dB increase is actually doubling the power. So, a cell signal that measures -76 dBm is twice as powerful as a cell signal that comes in at -79 dBm.Rich Edwards, weBoost
That means our weBoost setup gave us a signal about 25 times stronger, turning no signal into something usable enough for both of us to get online, check emails, write posts on Nomadlyweds, and message clients.
Installing weBoost is almost identical to installing WiFiRanger. It starts with an external antenna, which needs to be mounted somewhere on the roof. The mounting kit is designed for rounded posts, like the top of your ladder, so that’s where we installed ours.
We then ran the cable from the external antenna through both the rooftop refrigerator vent and the same hole we drilled for the WiFiRanger. That cable connects to a booster box, which can be mounted on the wall.
The booster box is powered through an AC outlet and connected to an internal antenna, which is what broadcasts the boosted cellular signal.
The weBoost system works best when your device is within a few feet of this internal antenna. That can be inconvenient if you’re walking around your RV while browsing the web, but it works just fine for our purposes.
When we’re trying to amplify our cell signal for a stronger mobile hotspot, we just leave the phones near the internal antenna. Sometimes we just leave the whole setup in the compartment above our refrigerator. Sometimes we bring the internal antenna down and position it on our dining room table.
There are no control panels to sign into and no complicated setup processes. Once you have everything connected and powered on, the weBoost 4G system automatically boosts every cell network within range, regardless of the carrier.
3. Upgraded our Verizon plan to Above Unlimited and added 2 MiFi hotspots
We’re banking on cell networks being our primary way of connecting to the Internet, so we needed to make sure we had enough data.
With the Above Unlimited plan we get the following:
- 75 GB of data on Bryan’s phone with 20 GB tethering limit
- 75 GB of data on Dawn’s phone with 20 GB tethering limit
- 15 GB of data for tethering on MiFi mobile hotspot #1
- 15 GB of data for tethering on MiFi mobile hotspot #2
In total that’s 70 GB of data for tethering to our mobile devices, and the whole plan costs me $290 per month (about $55 of which is our device payment contract for our respective phones).
Do we really need 70 GB of data for tethering? Probably not. But I’d rather have too much than not enough, especially when Verizon charges $15 per GB over your plan’s allotment.
Also, we prefer to use our phone’s hotspots only after the 30 GB of MiFi data is used up. Using your phone as a mobile hotspot really takes a toll on its battery, and I’d like to keep these phones in good working order.
4. Added a Google Fi phone to diversify our cellular networks
Google Fi is awesome. Instead of building their own cell network, Fi partners with Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular. Their service intelligently switches between the three depending on which signal is strongest, and the service makes calls and sends texts over WiFi when possible.
Best of all, you only pay for what you use. Device payment plans aside, Fi costs just $20 per month for unlimited calls and texts and just $10 per GB of data you use, capped at a maximum of $60 for data. However, your data isn’t throttled until you exceed 15 GB in a billing cycle.
That means for $80 per month you get unlimited calls and texts plus up to 15 GB of 4G data. And if you use less, you pay less.
We have so much data with our Verizon plan, so who double down with Google Fi? Two reasons. First, we don’t want to throw all our eggs in any one network’s basket, even best-in-the-biz Verizon. Second, we’ll be spending time in Canada where Google Fi has no international fees or higher rates. When we’re in the States, we’ll primarily use Verizon. But in Canada, we’ll use Fi.