How do you get internet while RVing? It’s a question that comes up almost daily on our Cool RV Stuff Facebook group. I figured it’s time to give the complete and thorough rundown on this so I have a quick answer when someone asks. As a full-time RVer and a professional internet coder who works on the road, I’m extremely well versed and current on the subject.
Basically, you have three options of internet on the road:
1) RV park or campground WiFi
2) Cellular data plans and a hotspot (or phone that can be a hotspot)
3) Satellite internet
Here are the basics on the pros and cons of each, and how to go about getting it.
Option 1: RV Park and/or Campground WiFi
Some campgrounds or RV parks will offer WiFi and will make sure you know all about it on their website. But with the exception of a few parks that seem to get what they really need for equipment, most RV parks have very inadequate bandwidth and equipment to serve an entire campground or park.
As a result, on most campground’s WiFi systems, you will get very slow speeds and it may drop out entirely on you frequently. Usually, during popular times of the day for people to be online (evenings), it will almost be unusable, as so many people will be trying to use it at once. (Imagine 100 cars trying to drive down the same 2-lane highway at the same time.)
Add to that, it is considered bad etiquette to try to stream since there are so many others trying to use the same limited service. Some parks will even block you if you are using that much of their bandwidth.
Basically, unless you have a favorite park you go to, and you know they have a great internet setup, this isn’t something to rely on for more than just getting email and very basic web surfing. Even then, it may not be usable or reliable.
- Already included in the cost of staying at a campground.
- Very little to set up, other than getting the campground’s WiFi password.
- You can rarely do much with the speeds you will get, other than very basic stuff (no streaming).
- Signal WiFi can be very weak, so you may have to go to the office or clubhouse to use it.
- You are totally at the mercy of their bandwidth and how many people are using it at any given time, so it may go down completely when you really need it.
- It isn’t available to you while you are traveling, only when you are there.
Option 2: Cellular Data Internet
Probably the best current option for RVers is a cellular data plan. Basically, you use your phone as a hot spot, or you get a separate hot spot, and you receive internet over a cellular network, like Verizon or AT&T.
The biggest challenge is to find a plan that allows you to use the amount of data you want or need, and at an affordable rate. Many “unlimited’ plans are still only full speed for a certain number of GB before they slow down to a crawl. Or they only apply to data on your phone, not on a hotspot. While technically that’s still unlimited, they use the term pretty loosely, because after you use a certain amount, their service will get “throttled” and will become almost unusable except for getting email. Doing things like streaming movies will eat up the GB quickly too, so it can be challenging to find a big enough plan.
“Unlimited” Cellular Plans
There are plans (like Visible Wireless) that are truly unlimited, but limit your speed to 5Mbps. For most uses, that is plenty fast enough, including for basic streaming, but things like gaming or high res streaming may be challenged at that speed, and you may get even slower if your signal strength isn’t great. But they are a great option if you think you will use a lot of data and don’t want to pay a ton of money.
There are 2 challenges for cellular data coverage. One is the range of the service (coverage) you are using, the other is the number of users (cell traffic) their towers can handle at one time. Verizon and AT&T (or resellers that use their towers) tend to be far superior in their coverage and traffic capabilities. Some people have some success with T-Mobile, and they tend to have less traffic on their towers, but its coverage is more limited. Sprint and niche services tend to work in limited areas near cities. But if they do work at the campsite you frequent often, they have the best data plan deals and may work fine for you.
Cellular Data Plans
Okay, now that you have the basics of what cellular data is, I’ll say that tracking the plans cellular companies offer is a nightmare, and would take a full-time job to do. I’m a web programmer, so I follow this stuff closely and have lots of tech training, but even I can’t keep track of it all. Luckily, there are some folks that do exactly that at rvmobileinternet.com. They have a bunch of free info. on their website which is usually enough for people to be able to make a choice. But also have a paid membership with even greater information if you need to know everything — like if you want to use the internet for work.
If you want to know what I use, it would be Visible Wireless. I chose it because can be very affordable (as low as $25 per month if you join a party pay group which they make easy for you to sign up for) and is technically unlimited — although it is capped for speeds of a maximum of 5mbps. They have great coverage because they use Verizon’s tower system.
This is probably pretty obvious, but cellular data is going to be limited to places you can get cell service. Verizon (and Verizon resellers like Visible) and AT&T (and AT&T resellers like Cricket) are generally going to get better coverage than other companies, but it really depends on where you are. For example, Sprint can be very good in cities, and T-Mobile is getting better coverage lately and can perform well in places with crowded cell towers (due to tower congestion) because fewer people use that service in general.
But for the most part, if you have one of the big two (or even better, both), you will be able to get cell service in many areas, especially if you are near a major highway or within 10 miles or so of a town. (Places like National Parks do tend to be cellular dead-zones though.) Also, apps like the Open Signal app can give you an idea of what towers are located where and what coverage you might expect. Cross-checking with camping review sites like campendium.com will let you know if other RVers had success with different cell companies at a location you are considering.
And if you have some signal and want to improve it, things like MIMO antennas (an external cell antenna) and web boosters (like WeBoost) can help. But that’s a complicated subject in itself, so I’ll write about that in a separate article. If you have no signal, a booster isn’t going to solve the problem since it can’t boost “nothing,” so in those cases you’ll have to do the old-fashioned thing of finding the nearest Starbucks, McDonald’s, lodge, or campground office and use their public WiFi.
Here’s the link for Visible Wireless, and if you use reference code (3qmTfL) it’d be amazing. It won’t cost you anything extra if you do, but I get credit which will be a nice thank you to us for all the free content we create for you. 🙂 Either way, it may work well for you, so I’m happy to share the tip of what works for me.
- It can be used in most places so long as there is cell service.
- Cell service tends to be available near highways and everywhere that isn’t extremely remote.
- A good plan will allow you to stream and work, as well as web basics within their limitations.
- It also works while you are moving / traveling.
- Requires very little additional equipment (a hotspot) and often can just run off your phone’s hotspot.
- Requires a little more setup than just using park WiFi.
- Cell plans are super confusing to compare and rules are constantly changing.
- Many plans have data caps where you lose service or it is unusably slow after you go over that limit.
- Some “truly” unlimited plans (no speed limits, no throttling, no network managing) can be pretty expensive.
- Cell towers can be overloaded with users in your immediate area, or you may have reached your data cap, and so your service becomes very slow.
Option 3: Satellite Internet
Right now, there are two options for satellite internet: the old satellite services, and Starlink. Starlink for RVers is now here! Starlink doesn’t work everywhere yet and it doesn’t work while in motion, but it does work when you set up from different locations, which is what most of us really want.
There are some limitations, but they are sending up more satellites nearly every month which will allow for more “forgivable” coverage (meaning you won’t lose service as often when your view of the sky isn’t completely unobstructed), and additional areas are to be opened to service. But Starlink has already solved many of the problems of old satellite services, such as really large receiver dishes, slow speeds, high latency, and high cost plans.
UPDATE: Good news. They have made a firmware update to Starlink that allows for “roaming” meaning there are fewer challenges with having to find an open cell when moving to a new location. They have now also included an “RV” plan. This is a significant improvement and makes Starlink a real option for RVers (although a backup system is still wise if you require uninterrupted internet service due to requirements such as unobstructed views of sky and its current power usage). Check out our full article for more specific information.
Currently, the Starlink plan requires around $600 + dollars to get the equipment (and are often on a waiting list), needs absolutely nothing blocking the signal (no trees at all blocking the view of the sky, etc.), isn’t available in all areas, and has a monthly $110+ subscription (or more depending on the service chosen).
Older Satellite Technology
Old satellite services are still also available. Companies like Hughesnet use larger, expensive dishes and have high latency (it doesn’t react to things you click or load very quickly). The subscription can be pretty high too. For these reasons, it isn’t a viable choice for most people, unless they absolutely can’t get any other service and must have internet.
Note: Satellite internet and satellite TV are not the same thing, and there are good options for satellite TV (like Dish network with a Tailgater dish) that work well for RVers and are pretty affordable.
The ins and outs of satellite internet are pretty complex, but if you are interested, here’s an overview of Starlink, another good, very detailed article on the subject. And one on Starlink specifically. But it is sufficient to say, for most people, it’s not a practical option …. just yet. Check back in a year or two.
- Can be used anywhere with a clear view to the sky
- Expensive at the moment, with cheaper options in the future.
- Better services aren’t quite ready for prime time for RV and mobile purposes.
- High latency (doesn’t react quickly to actions) on older systems.
So To Sum It All Up…
Those are the basics. If I were to recommend a way to work or play (stream, surf, etc. ) on the road, cellular is by far the best option at the moment. The next step is to find the best plan, and while you can use a phone as your hotspot, it isn’t a bad idea to get a dedicated hotspot from our cell provider to get slightly better performance. You will need one of the two if you are going to use the internet on a laptop, computer, or smart TV. Be certain that the plan you get is for data that can be used on a hotspot. Often they will say unlimited data and they mean just for the phone, and they have limits on when used as a hotspot.
How much data do you need? I can’t tell you that. But I will say, that if you stream, it’ll be a bunch. If you just surf and get your email, then not nearly as much. Some people can get away with 10GB per month. We full-time, I work online and we stream, and I blow through 100GB a month. But suffices to say, get as much as you can for how much you are willing to pay. And shop around, since the cellular companies are constantly changing their offerings. Again, if I were to put something here, it’d be obsolete by tomorrow, so check company websites, check cellular reseller’s websites for current deals, and visit rvmobileinternet.com.
I’ll be writing an article soon about cellular equipment, like hotspots, antennas, cell boosters, etc. These can help you significantly extend where you are able to use the internet, so be sure to check back soon for that article.