How do you stay in touch when living on the road full-time in an RV? What kind of internet access is best? Which phone plans make the most sense for a full-time RVer? These are some of the questions that RVers face, and there is a huge array of solutions for every need and lifestyle.
Note: This post was updated in September, 2016, to reflect new offerings from Verizon
The gurus on this topic are unquestionably Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard of Technomadia. They have written a fantastic book about the internet for RVers and also created an online community dedicated to mobile internet issues (more about those excellent resources here).
Because we have taken an unconventional route with our own communications solution (as we tend to do with our traveling lifestyle in general), I thought a few notes here might be useful.
What, No Phone?! How Can You DO THAT?!
After several decades of being “on call” in our professions, bound to our customers by electronic leashes, we ditched our cell phones when we started traveling full-time in 2007. In large part, this was a money-savings tactic, but in some ways it was a small act of defiance against a world that is increasingly held in electronic bondage.
We have managed just fine without a phone since we started traveling full-time. We’ve been able to meet up with friends at appointed hours, find our way to remote and stunning locations without a GPS-enabled electronic map. We’ve even bought and sold large assets like our sailboat and truck, all without a phone.
If you are looking to shave a few dollars off your full-time RVing budget, or if you are just curious how this is possible, here’s what we do.
Internet Access – Verizon MiFi Jetpack
We have a Verizon MiFi 6620L Jetpack hotspot that is the basis of all our communications. It operates on the Verizon cell phone towers, has a cell phone number itself, provides password protected WiFi inside and near the rig, and can theoretically support 15 devices connected to the internet.
A little back-story on this MiFi jetpack — For three years we had a Verizon MiFi 4620 jetpack, but in October, 2014, its tiny charging receptacle broke and it could no longer get charged. Mark tried to nurse it back to life by soldering its lifeless receptacle to the charger permanently, but the problem was internal and it was dead.
That older jetpack always had problems charging and holding a charge. It could theoretically support up to five devices, but we found our two laptops frequently maxed out its battery, even when it was plugged in and charging, and we sometimes ran the battery down faster than it could charge itself on its charger!
For those that have an older MiFi and haven’t yet upgraded to the MiFi 6620L, this new jetpack has a bigger battery and holds a charge better than the 4620L did.
However, it also has the annoying habit of falling asleep when nothing is happening between you and the internet. For us to resume using the internet after a period of doing nothing, we have to wake it up manually by tapping on its power button. Then the computer has to reconnect to the MiFi.
Some reviews claim that this new jetpack provides a better internet signal than the old one, but in all honesty, it seems about the same. So, the only real difference we can see is in the size of the battery.
Verizon 24GB (XXL) Talk/Text/Data Plan – Usage and Flexibility
As of September, 2016, our MiFi Jetpack is tied to a 24 GB talk/text/data plan with Verizon. When we first got our Jetpack in 2012, we were able to get by with a 3GB data-only plan until I moved this website to WordPress. Then our data usage instantly jumped to 6GB per month.
Over the next three years we gradually increased our plan by 2GB increments until it was 20 GB per month (data only). After a year at that level, we took advantage of the new Verizon plans being offered in the fall of 2016 and got a 24 GB plan talk/text/data plan for less money!
Note: We do not use the talk/text feature of this plan because we don’t have a cell phone. However, we signed up for the 24 GB talk/text/data plan because it is cheaper than our former 20 GB data-only plan and it has several key benefits…
This new 24 GB talk/text/data plan has three huge advantages over our old 20 GB data-only plan:
- Carryover of unused data from one month to the next
- The fee for the Jetpack itself is just $10 instead of $20
- There is no surcharge for using the Jetpack in Canada or Mexico (see below)
How cool is that?
Changing Plans? Cut to the Chase & Call Verizon!
I always dread calling Verizon (I had terrible experiences with them with a fleet of corproate phones in the mid-1990’s), but in recent years, I’ve found that talking to their sales people has always helped us find a better deal than if I just poked around on their website.
We have changed our plan six times since we first got our Jetpack in 2012, and we have put it on hold or taken it off hold five or six times, and each time we have done it over the phone and been really surprised at how helpful our salesperson has been!
Saving Data by Using Free WiFi Signals
When we want to save data on our plan, we put off our big download operations, like operating systems upgrades that download as much as 1.5 GB of data at once, for when we have access to a free WiFi signal at a library or coffee shop or elsewhere.
We also use Clipgrab on free WiFi signals to download videos so we can watch them from our laptop hard drives later.
Verizon MiFi Jetpack – International Use
The new Verizon talk/text/data plans now allow you to use the MiFi Jetpack in both Canada and Mexico — if you get a 16GB (XL) plan or larger — without paying a surcharge. Using our MiFi Jetpack came in very handy during our travels to the Canadian Rockies in the summer of 2016.
At that time, our old Verizon data-only plan charged us $2 per day for the privilege/convenience of using our Jetpack in Canada. So, for six weeks of RV travel in Canada, we paid a $90 surcharge on top of our usual Verizon bill. At the time that seemed like a pretty good deal, because the year before, in 2015, when we traveled in Nova Scotia, the MiFi Jetpack wouldn’t work in Canada at all, and we had to rely on free WiFi signals the whole time we were in Canada!!
With our new XXL 24GB plan, there is no surcharge at all for using our Jetpack in either Mexico or Canada. That’s even better! Yay!! (And what a godsend that would have been during our sailing cruise of Mexico!).
Putting a Verizon Data Plan on Hold
One handy aspect of Verizon’s plans is that you can put them on hold. We used this feature a lot when we spent months at a time sailing in Mexico because Verizon didn’t offer Mexico access for Jetpacks back in those days.
Seasonal RV travelers may find this comes in handy, as they may not want to use the MiFi Jetpack when they are at home and not out traveling in their RV.
You can put the plan on hold for up to 90 days, at no charge. If you call in again before 90 days is up, you can put it on hold for another 90 days, and so on, indefinitely.
All the days that you put the plan on hold get tacked onto the end of your contract. So, for us, a two year contract took nearly three years to fulfill. When you decide to resume the contract, a simple phone call is all it takes and you are back online immediately. There is a nominal charge for re-instating the contract.
Phone Access – Skype
We use a Skype account for all of our phone needs. Skype is best known for making it possible to make free video calls between people who have Skype accounts. Similar to Apple’s FaceTime, this is a fun way to communicate. It also requires a pretty strong internet signal. If the call begins to falter due to a sketchy internet connection, turning off the video will often perk it back up again.
That’s not generally how we use Skype, however. Instead, we use it to call people on their cell phones and land lines. For $2.99 a month we have an annual subscription service with Skype to call any cell phone or landline in the US or Canada for unlimited minutes. These are outbound phone calls only.
To receive incoming calls requires another step: For $2.50 a month, Skype assigned a phone number to our account that accepts voicemail and appears on our friends’ phones when we call them. Skype sends us an email when a new voicemail comes in. If we are on our computer and it is connected to the internet, we receive incoming phone calls just like a regular phone (the computer’s speaker rings, and you click a button to pick up the call). Skype has an app for mobile devices too, so you can do all this with a tablet, iPad or iPod too.
If you don’t sign up for that service, Skype calls will come into your friends’ phones with a mystifying number that is unrecognizable. We did this for four years, and it was okay. It was a little awkward not having a call-back number when calling a business, but we let them know that we checked our email frequently, and most companies were happy to get back to us via email instead of a phone call. Our friends eventually knew that if a weird number came in on their phone, it was probably us calling!
Tricks for Making Skype Calls
Skype is pretty good for phone calls, but the connection is not always perfect. We’ve gotten used to tipping our MacBook Pro laptops so the microphone is a little closer to our mouths than when it’s down in our lap. The person on the other end is on speaker phone, which can be nice for calling family and friends, if they don’t mind. However, when making an important call to a company, using earbuds makes it easier to hear the other person and takes them off speaker phone if you are in a somewhat public place.
In general, our internet download speed is faster and better than our upload speed, and this affects Skype. Oftentimes, we can hear the person on the other end of the phone much better than they can hear us. One way to improve things is to make sure only one device is on the internet via the MiFi jetpack. So, if Mark wants to make a call, I have to do something local on my laptop and stop using the internet, and vice versa.
It’s also important that no other internet applications are running on the computer that is making the call. That means turning off the email application, shutting down all browsers and quitting out of anything else that might unexpectedly access the internet and disrupt the phone call.
Wilson Booster – Getting More from our Internet Signal – Kinda
We use a Wilson Sleek 4G Cell Phone Booster which we have permanently mounted in a cabinet alongside a cigarette lighter outlet.
This connects to a Wilson 800/1900 Magnet Mount Antenna. This combo works okay, however, these signal boosters do much more for 4G signals than they do for 3G signals, and we have 3G signals quite a bit of the time. One note: according to Wilson, the number of bars on the MiFi unit doesn’t necessarily increase even though the signal is improved by the booster. A fun way to see how fast your internet signal is and to keep track of the speeds in different places is to use SpeedTest.Net.
The folks at Wilson told us it was very important to have the antenna sitting on a piece of metal for grounding purposes, so we bought their suction cup mounted Accessory Kit for Grounding. Unfortunately, we haven’t found a good place to mount the antenna with this suction cup plate because the wires are so short. Someday Mark might replace our outside (and rarely used) radio antenna with the Wilson antenna, but we haven’t done that yet.
Wilson also told us that simply placing the antenna on a 5″ x 5″ sheet of ferrous metal would do the trick, and we searched around for something and discovered our cast iron skillet fit the bill.
We did tests with the antenna to see how much having a grounding plate seemed to matter. We placed the antenna near the ceiling above our slide-out without a metallic plate under it, then set it on our big frying pan on our kitchen counter, and lastly set it on the roof of our truck.
We found having the antenna higher in the air near the ceiling above our slide-out was much more important than placing it on metal.
Internet Portability – Driving Tactics and Electronic Maps
Siri — ahhhh. Although we don’t have an iAnything, I am in love with the little Apple genie, Siri, who lives inside iPhones and iPads. However, after lots of soul searching about whether Siri’s companionship would make me happier in our travels, so far I’ve decided that it wouldn’t.
Instead, I get to be Mark’s Siri as he drives, and that’s not a bad gig. He does all the driving in our family (I did almost all the helmsman duty on our boat, so it’s pretty fair). To help out with the RV navigation, I bring the MiFi jetpack and laptop with me into the truck’s passenger’s seat, and I use Google Maps to figure out where we’re going. I don’t get the nifty icon that shows me where we are, so sometimes I have some frantic moments trying to deduce our exact location, but once I’ve got it, I call out the instructions for how to get from here to there.
Our 2016 Ram 3500 truck has a factory installed dash-mounted GPS, but it user friendliness pales by comparison.
So, the overall functionality of a smartphone or tablet is there for us on the road, it’s just a whole lot more clunky.
Using a SmartPhone or Tablet as a Hotspot and More
When our Mifi Jetpack died, I thought the only solution was to get another one. Not so. I have since learned that we could have taken the SIM card out of our old jetpack and put it into a glistening new iPad. We wouldn’t have had to sign up for another 2 years with Verizon when we replaced our dead MiFi jetpack either (which we did when we upgraded to the new MiFi jetpack), since our contract was tied to the SIM card. We could have simply continued on our old plan until it ran out four months later and then reassessed our situation.
For us — for now — we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing since it works just fine. In all likelihood, however, our simplistic and minimalistic methods are not getting you fired up with excitement.
As I mentioned above, the Mobile Internet Handbook (available on Kindle and in Paperback) by Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard is the most thorough resource available and is an absolute necessity for anyone that wants to get technical on the road. Prior to starting their full-time RV adventures, Chris was a mobile technology expert, working as Director of Competitive Analysis for Palm and PalmSource (the companies behind the Palm Pilot and Treo). He studied every aspect of mobile phone and tablet technologies and is using that expertise to help RVers today.
The detail this book goes to is staggering. From explaining nationwide versus regional cellular data carriers to getting into the nitty gritty of what “roaming” is all about, and what hotspots and routers really are, to discussing cellular frequency bands and the all important topic of security, this book covers it all.
What’s better, Chris and Cherie continue the discussion and keep it current at their RV Mobile Internet Resource Center, with an accompanying public Facebook discussion group. They are also keeping a list of RV internet strategy blog posts that describe various real-life technology setups that RVers are using. They even offer personal advising sessions where you can find out what the best solution is for your unique situation.
Of course, all of this technology is changing daily. When we started RVing full-time in 2007, we got by with pay phone cards and free WiFi at coffee shops. We were unaware in those days (although we had our suspicions) that cell phones weren’t nearly as smart as their progeny would soon be, and we had no idea just how far the industry would come.
In just a few scant years everything has changed, and who knows where the future will take us!
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