The good, the bad, and the cool!
It’s been a little over a year that we have been living and working while on the road. I thought that it would be good to share our experiences with connectivity as we are both Information Technology workers (techies) that hold regular type jobs that require solid, reliable internet connectivity.
I’ll start by identifying the major components of our connectivity toolkit. These devices have a lot to do with how successful we’ve been, as simply tethering your laptop to a cell phone can only get you so far.
We’ve found that these devices have helped us greatly in staying connected.
- Cellular Booster – We use a cellular repeater to help boost cellular signals which is especially useful in fringe coverage areas. The current booster we use is a weBoost Drive 4G-X. It is connected to an external high gain omni-directional antenna and a internal desktop antenna. The repeater and internal antenna are located inside near the front of the trailer. The external antenna is located as far away as possible, on the roof at the back of the trailer. I’ve found with previous installations that this arrangement, with the largest antenna separation possible, provides the best results. Failure to get adequate separation may cause your repeater to experience feedback and not function properly. There are other brands of cellular boosters available. Do your research and choose something suitable for your needs.
- WiFi Booster – We also deploy a WiFi booster. This is helpful when you are parked some distance from a WiFi Access Point. There are many devices available which can assist in bridging the WiFi gap, and we chose to use a WiFiRanger, the EliteAC FM, to help us. This device helps to bring external WiFi signals into the trailer by placing a powered, external antenna outside of the RV and then making WiFi available inside. This unit is simple to use, though we’ve found that integrating it into our network still leaves us with some holes in functionality.
- Cellular/WiFi Router – Since neither of these previously mentioned devices, the Cellular Booster, or WiFi Booster actually connect to the Cellular network nor do they offer network services such as DHCP, or VPN, we’ve deployed a specialty product from Cradlepoint, the AER3100. This device is now the heart of our system. It allows us place various Cellular carrier SIM cards (with data plans) directly onto our network. It also allows us to use external WiFi signals (WiFi as WAN) when available, and then build a set of rules around their usage to ensure that we have the best connectivity available at any given time.
- Carrier MiFi/’jet packs’ – These portable WiFi hotspots known as ‘MiFi’ or ‘Jet packs’ are a good way to get internet to your laptop without needing to pay for a smartphone (no voice service). Our hotspots have now been relegated to backup devices in the event that either of the previous tools encounter issues. These devices do have their place, but more sophisticated and/or feature rich equipment can make it easier for the technically inclined. We like to use our portable hotspots in conjunction with our phones to scout ahead and look for the best cellular signal before fully deploying our rolling house on location.
Using these tools, we’ve been able to work regular 8-5, Mon-Fri jobs, remotely and successfully. We can use our VOIP phones, have video tele-conferences, exchange email and various other work-related activities almost as if we are on a normal, land-based internet connection.
We’ve been able to purchase data plans across various carriers that offer enough bandwidth usage and with a little shopping around, at reasonable prices, to allow us to have internet in many locations. All without the need for a ‘grandfathered unlimited plan’. But be aware that even though carriers advertise ‘unlimited’ data plans they are not.
The fine print to most Cellular carriers advertised bandwidth plans as being ‘unlimited’, will tell you that they simply aren’t. Most carriers have data caps on tethering that is different than when using data on their phones. Shop around, and read the fine print, and find the best carrier(s) and plan(s) that meets your needs. For us, this loosely translates to mean no streaming video to our PC and/or no downloading massive files while on cellular data.
Carrier coverage maps lie. We use data plans with multiple, different carriers to ensure that we have the best coverage in the places we like to visit. Often times when a carrier says they have coverage for any given area, they are using computer modeled data for their ‘predicted coverage’, when in reality, no signal exists. We’ve found that having multiple cellular providers offers us our best chance to get internet connectivity, specifically in the mountainous Pacific Northwest.
If you’re not into boondocking as much as we are and wish to rely on an RV park’s free WiFi network, you maybe in for a less than desirable experience. While true, many RV parks offer ‘free WiFi’, you may find that the speed is slow due it it being overly congested with people streaming data and/or multiple user sharing a miniscule DSL line. We’ve found that typically the free service can really only be relied on for looking up the main offices phone number and/or checking email.
In the event that that you need to download something big, like an ISO of your favorite flavor of Linux, I suggest a quick visit your local Starbucks or McDonalds. Often times these types of places offer free WiFi if you patron their business. This can be your friend, especially on ‘Patch Tuesday’ (for you Windows folks) as many times there is ample bandwidth to get the heavy lifting done. Its cool that these businesses offer this type of service.
With a bag of connectivity tools and little planning you too can successfully connect to the internet almost anyplace while on the road.