How I Stay Online From the Road

One of the few positives to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is that now, more than ever, companies are allowing people to work remotely when the nature of the job permits it. Rather than being tied down to an office in a specific location, as long as you can get online, you can work from anywhere. As a professional writer, I fit this description, and was thrilled to land a 100% remote position with FIXD right before the fire that started this wacky adventure.

The challenge, however, is staying online to get my work done without a permanent WiFi router wired into my sticks-and-bricks home, like I used to. Despite a strong argument that it should be, the internet is not yet considered a public utility the way electricity, telephone, and cable TV are, so being able to get online can be hit or miss. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to keep myself connected when I need to be.

This not a how-to article about getting yourself online. Everyone’s needs and situations are different, so there is no simple one-size-fits-all solution. I can not recommend the Mobile Internet Resource Center highly enough if this is a subject you’re interested in. Most of what I’m presenting here, I learned from them. They have a ton of information available for free, with even more available if you become a member, like I did. What I’m presenting here is simply what I did, how, and why.

Hotspots and Cellular Plans

Before van life, I had an iPhone on Verizon. When I hit the road, I upgraded my plan to an “unlimited” data plan. (No modern data plan is truly unlimited — if you use too much, they’ll slow down your speed. An “unlimited” plan won’t cut off your data completely, but it may throttle your data speed so much that it becomes unusable.) This includes 15 GB of data through the phone’s built-in mobile hotspot, as well as 30 GB through a standalone hotspot, a Jetpack MiFi 8800L that a friend gave me. It’s the most data you can get through a current non-business Verizon plan.

It still wasn’t enough, especially for two of us. Both of the first two months, we blew through the data caps and had our speed throttled. We learned to be more efficient with how we used our data, but there’s still no getting around video conferences for work, which eat up a ton of data. As our journeys took us out of the northeast, we found Verizon’s coverage to not be as universal in the south. It was still pretty good, but there were still holes where we couldn’t get any data, and had to keep driving until we found a signal. I picked up a Netgear MIMO antenna to aid the hotspot’s reception a bit. It does help, but it still can’t make Verizon towers appear where they don’t already exist.

To help with this, I picked up a basic Franklin T-9 hotspot for T-Mobile. This provides me 100 GB of data for $50/month. I pay far more for my Verizon account that provides less, but this way I have access to both networks. Where one is weak, quite often the other is strong, so between the two of them I’ve vastly expanded my coverage. Verizon is strong in the northeast, but in the southeast it seems T-Mobile does better.

These days, I now favor the T-Mobile hotspot as my primary, since I get so much more data than Verizon. I’ll try T-Mobile first, but if the signal is poor, I have no problem switching on my Verizon hotspot. A total of 45 GB of backup data on Verizon between the hotspot and my phone is now pretty good, since I’m not using it all the time.

WiFi

Of course, one way to avoid data caps and throttling is to use WiFi where available. Public libraries are an excellent place to get free, fast WiFi, and most towns have them. When visiting friends, they’ll often let you on their WiFi. I rebuilt this website from the ground up over a weekend while parked at a friend’s house, mooching off their guest network.

Coffee shops and restaurants can be good but are hit and miss. People who work at McDonald’s are burger flippers, not IT professionals, and can’t be expected to troubleshoot why “McDonald’s Free WiFi” won’t connect to the internet. Truck stops can have excellent WiFi, but you often have to pay for it, which can be expensive if you’re not a trucker buying hundreds of gallons of diesel at a time.

Campgrounds and RV parks are also of variable quality. When we stayed at the Virginia Beach KOA, the WiFi worked, but my Verizon hotspot’s speed and reliability were better. At Sumter Oaks RV Park, the WiFi was excellent, though I had to pay for it. Also, I was limited to only being able to connect three devices at a time, which was inconvenient for two people using it. (I now have a way around this — keep reading to find out how.)

Typically, though, WiFi is a good option, and preferable to cellular hotspots — if it works.

What About 5G?

No, I am not a 5G conspiracy theorist. 5G is nothing more than the range of microwave frequencies that next-generation cellular devices will use. So why does my setup not include anything that supports 5G?

The T-Mobile plan I got could’ve included a free 5G hotspot rather than the Franklin T9, but only if I waited a few days for them to order it. We were on a schedule at that point, and didn’t have time or places to park overnight lined up to stick around the area that long.

The truth is, I don’t actually need the extra speed that 5G provides. With limited data before my speed gets throttled, I’m not generally uploading large files like YouTube videos over cellular. It’s worth a trip to a library or some other place with WiFi once a week if I need to do that. Having enough data at regular speeds that won’t get throttled is more important to me than having fast data.

If I upgrade in a couple of years or build out another van, then yes, I’ll certainly embrace 5G at that point. It’ll be more widespread than it is now, and it’ll make sense to do. I’ve had to make this system up piecemeal as I go along, so to a great extent I’ve taken what I can get at the time I need it rather than planning ahead. Next time, I’ll certainly plan ahead.

Mobile Router

My latest addition to my online arsenal is a WifiRanger Spruce mobile router. Each hotspot kind of works as a router as well, generating its own WiFi network and connecting devices to the internet. This standalone router, though, gives me a great deal of control over how I get online, and makes it easier at the same time. Now, my laptop and other devices can simply stay on the “Smokey Da Van” WiFi network, rather than hopping between hotspots or whatever external WiFi happens to be handy. Through a USB splitter, both of my hotspots plug in, providing internet access through either cellular network or another WiFi network as needed.

If there’s a good WiFi network nearby, I can configure it to use WiFi as WAN, sending everything from my own WiFi network to the other one for internet access. That’s what I did while visiting friends as I traveled New England, linking up to their WiFi to put my own network online. If I run into a situation like at Sumter Oaks again, where there is a limit to how many devices I can put online at one time, that’s fine. I’ll simply connect the router to the park’s WiFi, then share it with all of my devices on my own network. Technically, I will have only connected one device to the park’s WiFi.

Location, Location, Location

In addition to the hardware itself, it’s also worth mentioning why I installed it where I did. The router came with its own base that attached to the wall. I used Velcro to mount the USB hub nearby, and a pair of soap holders for a shower to hold onto the two hotspots. A couple of rubber bands keep them from falling off on even the bumpiest roads.

The most important part of my installation is that I mounted them as high in the interior of the van as possible. It was already wasted space above the driver’s seat. But critically, they’re mounted inside the fiberglass portion of the high-top roof, outside of the steel frame of the original van body. Metal can block radio signals. That’s why if you go inside a steel building you often lose cell signal, even if the general area has excellent reception once you go outside. This is why an external antenna is a huge help if you’re inside a low-top cargo van, with no windows and the original steel roof. In my case, though, all of the transmitters and receivers are above the steel body, and fiberglass doesn’t block signals the way steel does. Even without exterior antennas (which are always the best solution), my reception is quite good on both hotspots, and I can use my Smokey Da Van WiFi a fair distance outside the van, not just inside it.

Conclusion

There are certainly slicker ways to do this. Many other more sophisticated mobile routers have built-in hotspots. Simply insert your SIM card and you’re online. I chose this route because I already own these two hotspots, and am committed to the T-Mobile one on a two-year plan (it’s free if I keep it, but I’ll get charged for it if I cancel early). I didn’t have the time or money to invest in a slick one-piece solution in the beginning because of my circumstances, so I have building blocks instead.

The key is to do whatever works and makes sense for your personal situation. Since I hit the road long before I was ready, I had to piece it together as I went along. The result is a setup made of individual bits and pieces that play well together. If I had time to plan and install a system before hitting the road, I’d be able to do one of those sophisticated routers with built-in hotspots and antennas on the roof for better reception. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for anything in van life, especially when it comes to getting online. If you don’t work online like I do, you may even be able to get away with your phone’s built-in hotspot data, which is a far simpler solution than mine. Do your research (the Mobile Internet Resource Center is great), and choose the best solution for your vehicle and your data needs.

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