Why Do RVers Need Wifi in An RV?
Technology dominates many aspects of our lives. Recently, remote learning and work have gained popularity. Many individuals and families are taking advantage of the opportunity to spend more time traveling in their rigs. Some even embrace full-time RV life and do work and school while exploring new and exciting places.
Having Wifi in an RV also allows RVers to enjoy leisurely activities like connecting with friends and family or binge-watching their favorite shows. You’ll need something to keep you occupied during days when nature doesn’t cooperate.
How Do I Get Internet Service In My RV?
So how do full-time RVers get internet? Don’t you need cable or fiber? Nope, these days wireless communications have gotten so good that we can have internet anywhere we go.
When it comes to getting RV internet, there are four primary options: cell, WiFi, satellite, and cable/fiber. Let’s look at each of these options more closely.
Cellular-based internet is by far the most common primary internet source most full-time travelers default to at this time. Cellular internet is the same internet you get on your phone but usually re-broadcasted as wifi inside an RV. These are typically hotspot devices connecting to the same towers that mobile phones use. Depending on your internet needs, some even choose to use their smartphone as a hotspot.
Carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile have massive infrastructures of towers and cellular coverage. There’s a good chance you’ll have access to the internet in many camping locations.
However, while cellular offers some fantastic benefits, it’s not perfect. You’ll quickly discover that despite your carrier’s promises of nationwide coverage, that’s not always the case. You may be without service or connected to an overloaded cell tower. This can make these connections useless. You’ll also often have to monitor your data usage to avoid exceeding data caps. You can quickly blow through your month’s worth of data in a few days, especially if you’re streaming HD content.
Cell internet, of course, means you need to be in cell coverage to get it. However, users can install special hardware on RVs that will pick up cell service much better than their phones. Cell service is usually available anywhere from 10 to 40 miles from a cell tower, depending on equipment, frequency bands, and terrain.
We use cell service as one of our primary providers and will share how we set it up in detail below.
Satellite internet has become a great option for RVers in the last few years with the advent of Starlink, and is now one of our primary internet providers. Not all satellite internet is created equal, however.
First, there are two different types of satellite internet, Geosynchronous and low earth orbit.
Pro Tip: We took a closer look at the impacts the Starlink Beta program ending for RVers.
Geosynchronous means that the satellite providing the internet sits in one location in space and rotates with the earth. Low earth orbit (as of this article, Starlink is the only option) uses a constellation of lots of satellites orbiting very quickly to provide faster service.
Geosynchronous service is slow. Not by download, per se, but in latency. Latency is how long it takes for requests to be received, and since a geosynchronous satellite is 22,000 miles away, even at the speed of light, things take time. Lastly, satellite internet is usually the most costly and restrictive internet source.
Low Earth Orbit Service
Thanks to Starlink’s service, satellite internet is quickly becoming a popular option among the RV community. It provides broadband-like speeds almost anywhere on the planet. This allows RVers to spend more time in areas where cellular carriers do not offer service. For those who rely on a solid and stable connection, it unlocks the freedom to park their RV anywhere.
While many see Starlink as the solution for all RV internet, it’s not without its flaws. First off, it’s not cheap. Not only do you have to pay hundreds of dollars upfront for the equipment, but you also must pay $135 per month for the service. While it offers unlimited data usage, there’s no promise that it will continue forever.
In addition, you’ll need a clear view of the sky to allow the Starlink dish to connect to the satellites in space. This may be ideal for those camping in the open areas out west, but many campgrounds have plenty of tree coverage to provide shade. The shade will prohibit a solid connection and likely result in frequent service interruptions.
While it is possible to get Starlink in motion, it requires a special, very expensive dish so its primarily used for stationary setups. We use Starlink about 50% of our time on the road when we have a clear view of the sky and are set up for a few nights.
Next up is WiFi service provided by someone else. WiFi is available from hardwired access points in many campgrounds, coffee shops, and sometimes even cities. WiFi coverage is not as extensive as cell, and you need to be nearby to get it. (usually within 100 to 1000 feet) It also frequently requires a password that you need to get from the provider.
Some travelers rely on WiFi from their campgrounds or coffee shops for their internet, but it can be difficult for primary use when you need to be connected all the time.
Like cell service, you can install special antennas on RVs that can pick up WiFi from much greater distances. Our setup includes this capability that we will talk about later.
The last option for RV internet is hardwired internet or the same type of internet you have in your home. This type is less than ideal for most RVers as they want wireless connectivity. However, for more extended stays at a location (or when nothing else is available), it is possible to hook up an RV just like home.
Many RV’s have cable ports and cable run wiring them that you can use for internet. Even if they don’t, setting up a wireless router at a nearby internet source is possible.
We don’t use it, but we have gigabit fiber available at our Florida-based lot so it would be possible to get hardwired internet when we stay long-term.
Can You Get High-Speed RV Internet?
So the next question we get asked is, “can you get high-speed internet from these wireless services?”
It’s going to depend on what you consider high speed. For standard high-speed home internet service of 50 – 100 Gbps, yes, cell, WiFi, and low earth orbit satellite can provide these speeds. They are, however, very condition and location-dependent. Most of the time, we can get cellular internet speeds of 10-50Mbps. However, there are places where we struggle to get 2Mbps. Starlink regularly hits speeds well over 100Mbps but can be weather or priority dependent.
If you consider high speed in the gigabit per second (Gbps) realm, these services will not provide that. The latest millimeter 5G services can do this but are limited to short-range city use only.
However, if you need speeds like this, you are probably a more advanced user who probably knows more about all this than most of us anyway.
Mortons on the Move RV Internet Setup
As we mentioned before, we have been improving our connectivity for the entire time we have been on the road. When we first started RVing, 3G internet was still the primary provider, and we had an unlimited plan through a minicom company.
We used a phone as a hotspot and constantly struggled with the net. We tried WiFi and cell boosters and spent lots of time at coffee shops. Slowly over the years, we improved our equipment and plans until we finally reached our current setup, which is working very well.
I will preface that this is not a cheap setup, but if the internet is critical to you like us (our livelihood depends on it), then spending the money for the best might be worth it.
So we primarily use cellular-based internet and Starlink and combine them into one stable stream. We will get into how we do that but need to first cover the basics.
There are two sides to an RV internet setup. The Hardware and Software. Hardware refers to the physical equipment installed in the RV that gets us service. Software is the data plans themselves. Let’s take a look at what we use.
When we talk about hardware, we’re talking about modems, routers, antennas, and cell boosters. Here are the exact pieces of equipment we use, and we expand on them below:
- Pepwave MAX BR1 Pro 5G / CAT-20 Mobile Router, WIFI 6
- Parsec Husky 7-in-1 antenna
- ** Updated Antenna, We have also been using the Akita antenna and seeing much better gains than the husky
- WeBoost Reach cell booster
- High-gain directional Yagi external antenna (for rare situations)
- Starlink Router and Dish
- Starlink Mounting Pole MMH
The very heart of our RV internet system is what’s called our modem. The modem is the device that talked to the cell provider and is also our router that can combine internet sources. We use a Pepwave MAX BR1 Pro 5G / CAT-20 Mobile Router, WIFI 6. This device does a lot of things.
First, it connects to cellular towers, and you can think of it kind of like a fancy cell phone. Unlike a cellphone, however, this device can connect to external antennas that are much more powerful than a cell phone.
This is a 5G unit that can connect to the latest and fastest cell networks. In the past, we used a dual modem unit but the single 5G connection has been more than adequate.
This Pepwave router is an industry-hardened device designed for rugged service in law enforcement, busses, ambulance, and military applications. Its cell connectivity is MIMO which stands for “multiple-in multiple-out,” so it can both receive and transmit data at the same time more efficiently than with a single antenna.
Starlink has its own special modem that it needs to communicate to the satellites. This modem can also output its internet via ethernet or wifi. Since we don’t want to have to use multiple different wifi connections, we use the pepwave router to connect the two networks together.
The router handles your local internet connections – both wireless and hardwired connections. Our Pepwave modem is also a router that rebroadcasts the cell as WiFi inside the RV. It also has ethernet ports to accept a hardwire connection. We can connect to the device from its WiFi network and see what it is doing in real-time and make changes.
The WiFi features go beyond just broadcasting. It can also receive WiFi and add it to the cellular service for an even better connection. You can connect the Pepwave to external WiFi antennas and pick up a campground or local WiFi from much greater distances. It will even act as a WiFi booster.
We also use the pepwave to connect both the cell connection and the wifi from our Starlink router together so we only have one wifi network to connect to. In the router software, we can easily modify the connections.
While the Pepwave is an incredible device, it only comes with a set of basic cell antennas. While these work well, they have minimal gain and can only pick up from the modem’s location.
We extended the antennas to the roof of the RV and used a high-gain option. Our primary antenna is currently the Parsec Husky 7-in-1 antenna. This is a very simple roof-mounted antenna, but it performs exceptionally well.
This antenna has 4 Cellular LTE antennas, 2 WiFi antennas, and one GPS antenna in it. An antenna like this both receives and transmits WiFi from its location. So, since we are broadcasting WiFi from the roof, our WiFi coverage outside the RV is much improved.
Overall, this antenna has provided us with excellent service where there is cell coverage.
We have been testing out the Parsec Akita antenna and have found it to perform better than the Husky. We have pole-mounted this antenna and also run it inside up against the wall. In both installations, it outperformed the Husky.
Starlink of course, has its own special antenna that you cannot modify, but we use the Starlink pole from mobile must-have and mount it to the back of the RV. With the hardware mounted inside the RV we can easily set up Starlink in only a few minutes whenever we stop.
In addition to the Parsec Husky, we have a cell booster that we put up, but only rarely. The rooftop MIMO Husky will almost always outperform the cell booster. But in those rare situations when we are just on the fringe, we bring out the big guns.
Most of the time, when we are on the fringe of cell service or have no cell we try to find a clear view of the sky and rely on Starlink these days, however. Boosting was more important before Starlink but here is what we have onboard.
We run a WeBoost Reach booster when nothing else will work. It will never provide the same quality of a link as the rooftop antenna but can get us some service when nothing else works. The booster has both internal and external antenna connections.
For the internal antenna, we swap out one of our rooftop links for a “candy bar” antenna. We then wrap the candy bar antenna with the WeBoost internal antenna in aluminum foil to shield it from the booster’s external portion. If the external antenna sees the internal antenna, it will limit its boost.
For the external antenna, we run a long cable up a pole to a high-gain directional Yagi antenna. This antenna is very directional and needs to be pointed at the cell tower to work correctly.
What’s great about this setup is that we can force the router to connect to a different cell tower if one is overloaded by pointing at it (if we have multiple options within range).
Software (RV Internet Data Plans)
All the hardware we have is pretty fantastic for getting connected, but it isn’t very helpful unless it has a data plan to work with. This is the software side of things and is much more susceptible to change.
In our 6+ years, we have been through 14 different cell plans!
Unfortunately, only two of the plans we currently have are available to purchase as they come and go so regularly. After we share what we use, I will share some resources to look for current data plans that could work for you.
The best setup with cell plans is to always have a backup on another carrier. You never know when one might not work because of coverage or if it might get shut down.
With that said, here is our plan lineup.
Verizon (800 GB) Mobile Must Have Data Plan – This runs in our Pepwave router all the time. You can check out their available Mobile Data plans here.
Starlink Home Internet With Roaming Enabled – Starlink offers both an RV plan that allows you to start and stop service as needed and travel with the dish and a home-based plan. The home plan provides the fastest speeds when you are home but requires an additional “roaming” plan for using it away from a single address. Because we have a “home” address that has no service, we choose to use the home plan.
Backup Cell Plans
In the event that ATT and T-Mobile don’t provide the best cell coverage in an area, we have three backup cell plans that we can use on other carriers.
Visible Unlimited Cellular Cata Plan – This plan runs on an old phone that we use to create a hotspot. The Pepwave then connects to the phone and rebroadcasts the internet.
Visible plans are still available, but they currently cap them at 5mbps speeds. They are cheap and make a great backup data plan.
ATT Mobley Unlimited Plan – (No longer available) – This device has its own router and was sold many years ago at just $25/month for unlimited internet. ATT quickly shut down the plan when they realized they made a mistake, but it’s still working for us. We use this plan primarily when we are away from the RV.
These types of deals come and go, so keep an eye out for them and grab one if it pops up!
Google Fi Cell Phone Plan – This is Tom’s primary cell phone, but the phone can act as a hotspot and has prepaid data. The data has a price cap, so it can be used as an unlimited plan if needed.
This phone works internationally and on carriers like US Cellular. Sometimes it’s the only phone with service, and we will use it as a hotspot that the Pepwave rebroadcasts.
Having five sources of RV internet might seem crazy, but sometimes only one will work. With this setup, we cover the following carriers: ATT, Verizon, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Sprint (T-Mobile just acquired them), and most international carriers with Google Fi.
Speed Fusion (Bonding it all Together)
If you need even faster or more reliable cell, the Pepwave routers can provide it by bonding all your internet connections into one. They do this at a server or cloud level with some very fancy technology.
Speed Fusion is a subscription that you can sign up for, and costs vary per month based on how much data you want to bond. 500GB costs $20 per month.
This service makes cell connections even more reliable and faster. We don’t think this is necessary, but if you want the absolute best, Speed Fusion is it! We do use it to connect both the cellular and Starlink services together sometimes when we need rock solid internet for video and phone calls.
How to Find a Good Service Plan for RV Internet?
While you could buy the same hardware that we have, getting a good data plan is a bit tougher. The first place I always recommend picking up a data plan is from Mobile Must Have. They offer a great unlimited ATT plan, but it is so popular they are usually back-ordered.
Secondly, keep an eye on the Mobile Internet Resource Center news. They have a subscription service where they share the latest information, but you can find lots of good info for free through their news site.
Finding a plan to meet your needs is the hardest part of getting connected, and will take the most research. But keep at it, and eventually, you will end up with a great plan you don’t need to think about much.
Planning Our Travels Around RV Internet
The last piece I want to cover in this article is how we plan our travels around connectivity. Even with the best equipment, connectivity is still not perfect, and we end up in places where the internet is weak.
We always plan ahead using apps like Campendium or RV Trip Wizard to see what others have said about connectivity in a campsite. If we know that service is bad, we may still go, but knowing it will need to be a shorter stay. Cities and urban areas almost always have great cell coverage, so we don’t worry about it when visiting them.
Overall, if connectivity is essential, trip planning will need to be part of it. Amazingly, we went all the way to the Arctic Ocean and had pretty good connectivity the whole way because of our planning, gear, and data plans.
Installing An RV Internet System
Once you’ve chosen your RV internet gear, you need to install it in your RV somehow…and somewhere. This can be a trick, as many people don’t like the idea of drilling additional holes in their RV roof. Here are a few things to consider when installing gear.
Non Hole Installations
If its temporary you might not need to drill holes. For a long time, we just ran a cable out of our water bay and installed our equipment in our basement. This enabled us to install it without holes, however, we had to set it up each time we arrived.
Another option that we now use for our booster is to run cables through slide seals. There is usually an inch of space around slides that cables can run along. Again, this is a temporary solution.
RV internet equipment needs power, usually 12 volts (although our Pepwave can accept 5v to 48v!). Getting power to the area you need can be tricky in RVs as running new wires in the wall is usually not an option. Things to consider to get 12v to your equipment is tapping into existing power sources like lights.
Our most recent install actually utilized some old speaker wires that were already installed in the wall. We didn’t have 12 v where we needed it but used the speaker cables to connect to a 12V supply and ran wires off them to the equipment. Sometimes you just need to get creative.
Sometimes drilling holes is unavoidable. Luckily, if you are installing a roof mount as we have, most of the time, they seal up very well. We have never had a leak from our cell equipment.
One thing that you do need to consider when drilling any hole in an RV roof is if you will hit anything. There are ducts, wires, and structures in RV roofs that need to be avoided.
One way to make sure it’s safe to drill through a roof is to find a light, or duct nearby that can be removed so you can look around and make sure there is nothing in the way. If you cannot do that it’s always best to drill a small pilot hole in the roof.
We used a very long bit that we drill through one side of the roof then move it around and feel for any structure or wires with the bit. If it seems ok we then go all the way through. If everything lines up we then drill the larger hole for the wires.
FAQ: Are RV Wifi Boosters Worth It?
We see many RVers make the mistake of buying Wifi boosters, erroneously believing that they’ll improve the internet in their RV. However, internet connections at campgrounds are typically terrible, with busy networks. A better quality signal in an overloaded network is useless.
However, some cellular boosters can boost and strengthen signals from cellular networks. These can be worth purchasing. However, effective options can be expensive and provide minimal improvements in some situations. If there is no connection to boost, they cannot assist you.
We rarely use cell boosters anymore and opt for better-quality antennas instead.
FAQ: What’s the Best Option for RV Wifi?
The best option for RV Wi-Fi will depend on your needs and where you use it. Starlink is a fantastic option, especially if you boondock out west where you don’t have lots of trees. However, cellular hotspots are still the go-to choice for many RVers who spend most of their time in campgrounds where trees and other obstructions may make it difficult to get a clear view of the sky with Starlink.
You’ll have to consider your situation and determine which service will provide the best results. However, many full-time RVers may subscribe to a cellular hotspot and Starlink to help ensure that they have a solid connection practically anywhere they travel.
FAQ: Can My Cell Phone Be a Hotspot?
Many modern cell phones have a hotspot feature allowing users to share their phone’s data plan with nearby devices. However, it’s essential to know that not all service plans will enable this feature. Just because you have an unlimited data plan on your phone doesn’t mean you also have unlimited data to use as a hotspot. You’ll want to chat with your carrier and ask about any restrictions or data caps for your plan.
Reliable RV Internet On The Move Is Possible
If you’re accustomed to having WiFi in your home, it might seem weird or impossible to get reliable internet on the move. With today’s technology, however, it is very possible and getting better every day.
Unfortunately, getting connected on the move is a bit more complicated than plugging in a modem in your home. You will need to learn the nuances of how it all works.
Overall, with a bit of understanding and guidance, anyone can get and stay connected on the road!
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