Our Mobile Internet Network For Full-Time RVing
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It’s crazy to think that when we first hit the road back in 2015, we only had a 4GB cell data plan (2 of which were bonus GBs and we were sharing the plan with a friend). But since we didn’t have work that required us to be online, we chose to save money and did the best we could with that scant amount of data. The cell data landscape also looked a lot different 3 years ago (it was more complicated to get unlimited plans and large data plans were expensive!).
In reality, it meant we spent a lot of time searching for free Wi-Fi at grocery stores, libraries, coffee shops, friend’s houses - really wherever we could possibly find it. It was stressful. Since we mainly stayed farther out in the woods, we wouldn’t go into town but once a week to restock supplies. Town days were busy on their own, but toss in a week’s worth of online to-dos and it meant we were driving all over town to run errands and then stuck inside a library for hours while the dogs were bored out of their minds waiting for us. We all started to dread town days.
Over time we slowly increased our data plan, first to 8 GB of paid data with 4 GB of bonus data (September 2016). A year later, Verizon changed their plans and it was a good deal for us to once again increase our data - to 16 GB paid with 4 GB bonus data. And that was the plan we had until May 2018.
Having 20 GB of data was a big game changer. It was a lot of data, especially since we didn’t stream music, movies, or TV shows. We rarely had to go out searching for Wi-Fi after that plan change. But then it happened…we needed internet for work.
So Jerud started data shopping again.
Without going into all the details of what we were looking for and why certain options weren’t going to work, the gist is that we were looking for a plan in addition to our current 20 GB Verizon plan that was just a straight data connection (a mobile hot spot). Jerud contacted all the main carriers and found out that none of their larger sized data plans were viable. I’m keeping the downsides to these data plans short because they’re ever-changing.
Our current phone plan is with Verizon. The next plan up from ours is Verizon’s “unlimited”. It’s not actually unlimited and it was too expensive.
Their “unlimited” plan was also expensive and their device options for hot spots were lacking.
T-MOBILE & SPRINT
Neither of the two carriers have adequate coverage. Yes, they’re supposed to merge into one, but that’s not happening for another year – if it actually goes through. We needed a bigger data plan now.
Carriers all make data-only plans less attractive than phone data plans, for example: Verizon’s “unlimited” plan is 22 GB (after 22 GB your data gets deprioritized), while for a data-only plan that “unlimited” is only 15 GB – this is true even if you’re tethering to a phone.
Also, in our opinion, the old school method of purchasing a grandfathered-in, truly unlimited plan from someone else is no longer a viable option. Cell companies are starting to crack down on those plans more and more, and on top of that, the plans have to be handled delicately when it comes to making any changes. If a cell company rep does anything wrong, the whole plan could be cancelled. We just don’t have the energy to pay attention to those kind of details.
UNLIMITED TO GO
Jerud came across Unlimited To Go while researching data plan options. Unlimited To Go offers actual unlimited data plans (no throttling, no reprioritization, no data caps) on each of the main cell carriers. After looking through all the offerings, we chose Unlimited To Go’s AT&T plan. Our decision was based on two reasons:
AT&T’s unlimited plan was the cheapest compared to the other companies – by over $100
AT&T has the second best coverage for us, and since our phones are with Verizon (best coverage), going with AT&T meant we’d have more redundancy coverage-wise. It also means that if we go somewhere that doesn’t have Verizon coverage there’s a chance it’ll have AT&T coverage and vice versa (our decision has paid off multiple times since May 2018).
Our Unlimited To Go plan is a data-only plan. This means we pay $100/month for just a SIM card (we pay month-to-month and can turn our plan on/off whenever we want – but it involves getting a new SIM card from Unlimited To Go each time). But the SIM card has to go in something to be useable. We chose to buy a cellular router from Unlimited To Go. If we hadn’t gotten one through them, we would’ve had to pay an additional $20 one-time “BYO device” fee.
Just to be clear: there are other companies that offer what Unlimited To Go offers. But we chose them over the others because they offered an AT&T plan at a better price and they offered the MOFI cellular device.
Why We Chose Cellular Router Over Hot Spot
To keep this section short and simple, the main reason we got a cellular router over a hot spot was because it offered the best reception at the best price. A cellular router offered better signal than a hot spot, without having to purchase any additional accessories - and at a cost $100 more. On top of that, cellular routers are made to be left on; hot spots tend to overheat and fail when used 24/7.
The cellular router we chose to purchase from Unlimited To Go was the MOFI4500 Router. Here are the three main reasons why we chose MOFI:
MOFI was offered by Unlimited To Go which means we wouldn’t have to pay the one-time $20 BYO device surcharge.
MOFI is easy to power off 12V. Even though it doesn’t come with a cigarette lighter charger, it’s easy to find one that will work with it.
MOFI has two antenna ports for MIMO (this is a type of antenna configuration used with LTE technology to help pick up weak signal).
We got MOFI in May and used it until the end of September – when the SIM card slot broke and could no longer hold the card in place. We got the warranty replacement but have decided to sell the new replacement MOFI (let us know if you’re interested in buying it).
This incident spurred Jerud to get back on the web to research alternative cell routers. We decided to totally replace MOFI after only 4 months because:
The MOFI had to be rebooted frequently to find new towers and make new connections.
SIM card broke slot broke after only 4 months, which it really shouldn’t have (we don’t ever remove the card).
The angle of the antenna ports on MOFI meant that the two coax cables from the antenna connect from opposite directions. This made it difficult to prevent the cables from kinking. It also made it harder to figure out where to place the router in the rig.
The router’s admin interface was difficult to use.
There isn’t a manual on how to use the software when you log into the router.
It has two SIM slots. While we only have one SIM card, this router is able to use two SIM cards if we ever decide to get an additional one.
The Cradlepoint IBR600B has the “fail over” ability, which the MOFI didn’t. “Fail over” means that if the data on one SIM card is used up or that card’s cell carrier has bad signal, the router will seamlessly use the other SIM card to connect.
This router also allows users to switch between two SIM cards (and other sources of internet such as Wi-Fi and LAN) on the fly without having to make any physical hardware changes.
This model has only one cell modem which helps keep it in our price point. Having more than one modem is overkill for our application.
Cradlepoint cell routers are considered an “enterprise-grade solution”; they’re designed for businesses and are a tougher piece of electronics than the MOFI. Cradlepoint routers are meant to be installed in vehicles and used heavily. We realized after purchasing MOFI that we like to bring it with us in the truck when we’re scouting boondock sites to see whether either Verizon signal (from our cell phones) or AT&T signal (from our cell router) are available, so having a robust device is important due to all that handling. Technically, the MOFI4500 router is also considered “enterprise-grade”, but didn’t seem to be as durable as Cradlepoint.
The orientation of the antenna ports are on the same side of the router, making it a lot more convenient to use with an antenna.
The admin interface is better than MOFI. It provides users more information and more control over how it works.
There is an available 12V vehicle adapter that we purchased separately for $22.49.
The only downside is that it isn’t offered through Unlimited To Go. So, if that’s what we had gotten first, we would’ve had to pay the BYO device surcharge. And the Cradlepoint is ~$100 more expensive than MOFI.
Proxicast 4G/LTE (MIMO) PANEL Antenna
The plan wasn’t to get an antenna right away. We were going to use the cell router for awhile and wait before spending the additional money for one. But when we arrived in Crested Butte, we found a really sweet secluded boondocking site that barely got any cell signal. We were going to be around for a couple of weeks, so we decided to bite the bullet.
We chose the Proxicast 4G/LTE (MIMO) panel antenna for these reasons:
Wanted a MIMO antenna because it’s especially useful for being able to get a weak LTE signal.
Wanted a directional antenna because even though it takes more time to aim, you can pull signals from farther away than an omnidirectional antenna. Since once we’re boondocked, we stay for at least a week, it’s worth spending the time to aim it.
Yagi is another style of directional antenna that we could’ve gotten, but to be able to use it for a MIMO connection meant getting two individual Yagis (because each Yagi is only one antenna). This would’ve made the whole setup bulkier and pricier. But it probably would’ve been more powerful. The Proxicast comes with both antennas built into one box.
We purchased and started using the Proxicast antenna at the end of June and so far we don’t have any complaints about it. It works great and we’ve definitely been able to stay at a handful of sites because it got cell signal that our cell router wasn’t able to.
The antenna is designed to be clamped onto a pole. Most people install antennas to sit permanently on the roof of their rig. We didn’t – mainly because we didn’t know where would be a good spot on the roof to install it and we wanted to use it for awhile first. Our set up is ghetto, but it works fine as long as it’s not freezing cold out.
Jerud salvaged the pole from an old pool cleaning net a while back. The antenna is attached to the pool pole and using hose clamps he attached suction cups to the pole. The antenna sits 15 feet above the Toaster by suctioning the pole to the side of our slide. The slide is the best spot for us to attach the pole/antenna setup because it doesn’t create any shadows on our solar panels. The coax cable is routed out the slide window to the cell router that dangles behind our couch. Like I said, it’s not a clean set up. But it works with minimal amount of effort and we don’t frequently need to set the antenna up. Luckily, we haven’t needed the antenna when it was below freezing outside so far!
The antenna is waterproof, so it can remain outside in all weather conditions. But the suction cups came off the slide once, causing the whole thing to fall on the ground and crack the antenna housing. We weren’t able to buy a replacement part to fix it, so caulking it was the solution to make it waterproof again.
Costs of Products
Unlimited To Go: $99/month
MOFI4500 router: $300
Cradlepoint IBR600B router: $439 for device ($22.39 for vehicle adapter)
5 inch aluminum suction cup: $13.99 x 2
25 ft. coax extension cable: $43.95 x 2
Hose clamps: a couple bucks
Having unlimited data has been a game changer. But having a cell router and antenna has been even a bigger deal! It’s allowed us to boondock in places that we would’ve otherwise not been able to because we couldn’t get any signal with our cell phones. Yes we’ve spent a lot more money that we like on setting up our mobile internet network, but it’s been worth every penny.