RV Envy

A comprehensive guide to mobile RV internet

Practically every RV blogger has written about how to get internet in an RV. But not a single post has solved my RV internet problems. And despite the fact we're in the era of global phones, incredible technology and 5G networks, many people still experience the same problems as 5-10 years ago.

Common problems

  • Trouble loading a webpage despite plenty of signal (or "bars")
  • Slow speeds or poor video quality even with an unlimited, uncapped data plan
  • Unreliable internet even on a 5G network

The reality

It isn’t as simple as 4G or 5G, mobile tethering or a dedicated hotspot, RV park wifi or unlimited mobile high speed data. There are variables in every case, so just having the most expensive device or connection doesn’t guarantee your RV internet will be worry-free.

No single product or service will magically offer perfect internet 100% of the time. But there are things you can do to improve reliability.

I’m going to share with you a summary of what I’ve learned in 3+ years of fulltime RVing across America. What I’m going to share are just my personal experiences, but since I’ve never seen this perspective online, I thought it was worth sharing.

Components of quality mobile internet

Mobile RV internet requires a few components working together:

  1. A mobile network (on 4G LTE or 5G) and a SIM card that communicates with the network
  2. A device that receives the mobile signal and makes it available to your devices, like a mobile phone or a hotspot
  3. Cell towers - the actual signal that broadcasts to your device

The biggest variable is how the local cell towers are able to communicate with your device. This largely depends on the quality of the network, how saturated your area is with cell towers that work with your provider, and if your device can actually connect to your local tower.

Cellular providers

There are two tiers of mobile networks:

1. Carriers who primarily run their own towers

This includes the big three mobile networks: AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. (This used to include Sprint, but they merged with T-Mobile in 2018.)

2. Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs)

If you’ve ever seen an ad on TV for companies like Boost Mobile, Consumer Cellular or Mint Mobile, they’re a different tier of mobile providers that piggy-back off the networks of the main three cell providers.

This means that, while you can usually score a deal on your monthly bill, you’ll likely end up with degraded data service. (This is because, when a cell tower is full with a network’s primary customers, MVNO customers are placed in the virtual “back of the line”.)

The primary mobile networks have also realized they’re hemmoraging customers to these cut-rate providers, so they’ve launched their own services to compete. T-Mobile owns Metro by T-Mobile (formerly MetroPCS) and Verizon runs Visible, a service that looks to automate all the tasks of a normal carrier into an app in order to reduce costs.

It should be noted that Google Fi is also an MVNO, which operates on two of T-Mobile’s networks (T-Mobile and Sprint towers).

Data-only services geared at RVers

Included in this tier are data-only providers that have cropped up in recent years who advertise unlimited data, specifically for RV customers like OTR Mobile, Nomad Internet, Bix Wireless and Never Throttled. (There are other complications with these companies, which we’ll talk about later.)

Why don’t I get the advertised speeds?

There are many variables, so in this FAQ-style section, I’ll try to break down the complexities.

I can’t load a webpage or a YouTube video, despite my device showing I have plenty of “bars”

This may be related to network congestion. Cell towers can only support so many simultaneous connections. Even though you may be physically near a cell tower, it can get overloaded if too many people are trying to access its services simultaneously.

According to one article, 4G LTE towers can only support 60 simultaneous data connections. More consumers are ditching their home internet in exchange for “unlimited” mobile internet. During peak internet usage (evenings, nights and weekends), networks are increasingly becoming oversaturated.

My hotspot isn’t really working, even know my network’s coverage map says I have plenty of service

Mobile networks support multiple radio waves, or bands. Unfortunately most mobile hotspots don’t support all the same bands as cell phones do. If a tower operates only on specific bands that aren’t matched by your mobile hotspot, you can end up in a situation where you have very little coverage with a hotspot, despite your cell phone working in the same location on the same network just fine.

5G will solve this all, right?

You’d think with cell companies creating brand new networks, that internet problems would be solved as soon as you see “5G” on your phone, right? If only it were that simple.

There are at least 3 different types of 5G, all of which offer different speeds and different coverage levels. (Keep in mind, you also need a 5G-compatible device, and service that gives you access to the 5G networks.)

This photo courtesy of VentureBeat sums up the differences between 5G networks (width is coverage range, height is speed):

  1. Low band nationwide - more coverage, slower 5G speeds (similar to 4G)
  2. Mid band metro - moderate coverage in urban areas, faster speeds
  3. Millimeter wave dense urban - minimal coverage in downtown areas (as little as 100 yards), extremely fast speeds

When camping in an RV park, if you see 5G on your device, there’s a good chance it’s low band nationwide coverage, which isn’t much better than 4G.

So even if a network coverage map shows my area has 5G, it might not work with my hotspot?

You got it. Despite virtually every coverage map showing 5G coverage in all major cities and surrounding suburbs, your experience may not measure up.

It’s important to keep in mind that every mobile network wants to spin their coverage as being the best. AT&T actually got in trouble for this when they claimed to be the first to launch 5G with their 5G Evolution offering, which wasn’t actually 5G at all. In my experience T-Mobile’s Nationwide network frequently delivers speeds slower than their equivalent 4G network. (My experiences may relate to network saturation.)

Verizon offers two flavors of 5G, 5G Nationwide (slower 5G speeds) and 5G Ultra Wideband (very fast speeds in localized, urban areas). It’s worth noting (as of the time of this writing in Summer 2021) that both my wife and I continually have trouble with Verizon’s 5G networks. (If data stops loading, we check which network we’re on, and it’s always 5G. Disabling it and switching to 4G usually solves the problem.)

Make sure your 5G-compatible device works on your network

More than a decade ago, it wasn’t uncommon to have a device that didn’t work on another cellular network. (Example: Verizon and Sprint ran on CDMA technology, whereas AT&T and T-Mobile used GSM, which was more popular globally.) Phone companies and 4G tech largely solved this, to where most devices worked on most networks by including all the technology to work on all networks.

5G has reintroduced this fragmentation. Google offers a 5G Pixel phone which works on most 5G bands, except there’s a special Verizon Pixel which is the only Pixel device to work on Verizon’s Ultra Wideband network.

The point: Just because you have a 5G-compatible device, there still may be some caveats in connecting to all the cell towers you think you’ll get.

Data limits

Throttling

Most cellular plans with unlimited data offer a certain amount of “high speed data”, then restrict usage to slower speeds for the remainder of the billing cycle. This is more common in cell phone plans - dedicated hotspot plans are usually not affected.

However, some plans allow you to use unlimited high speed data. MVNO hotspot plans don’t typically get throttled, though they’re prone to limited speeds when networks get busy, and are usually placed behind the network’s primary customers in terms of priority, meaning in peak times (often evenings and weekends), coverage will suffer greatly in dense, urban areas.

Tethering from a cell phone

A common way to get internet on a laptop is to enable tethering on a cell phone. This creates a wifi access point that you can connect to, just like you’re used to at home or at a coffee shop.

This service works well, as cell phones have access to the largest number of available bands. But this isn’t unlimited data usage. Most networks offer up to 15 GB of mobile tethering before speeds are severely restricted.

But there are options.

Google Fi’s service offers up to 15 GB of high speed data, then slows speeds to 600kbps for the remainder of the billing cycle. However they have an option to restore full speeds at a pay-per-GB price.

Verizon’s Visible network allows unlimited high speed internet, but claims to only allow tethering with a single device. The only drawback is that the speed is limited to 5000kbps, though it’s definitely usable for most needs. However, there’s a good chance Visible won’t get service in more rural areas, as part of how Visible keeps costs low is by removing access to older 3G towers. (If you frequently travel to remote areas, Visible might not be the best option for you.)

3rd party pay-per-GB plans

A handful of companies offer plans on AT&T or Verizon, but are charged per GB. Examples of this are in-car plans offered through Ford, Chrysler and Chevrolet. (Connected devices typically use these plans, too.) You’ll often get access to 3 GB of data for $45 every three months.

Specific to the RV market, Winegard offers a wifi hotspot with built in LTE modem (essentially a wifi hotspot built into your RV with a better antenna), but charges per GB for data. This can work if you only use a small amount of data, but doesn’t really work for large amounts of data usage as it becomes prohibitively expensive.

Unlimited plans

Unlimited data vs pay per GB

Traditional internet plans have capped the amount of data you can use. More recently, there has been a plethora of “unlimited plans”. But is it too good to be true?

Unlimited phone hotspot plans

By using an unlimited plan, customers agree to allowing their networks to “manage” their data usage. For example, when watching Netflix on your phone, your network may be showing you a lower quality version of the video, which uses significantly less data than its full HD-equivalent.

Unlimited hotspot accounts

It’s more common to see hotspot plans from Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile that are truly “unlimited” (though carriers often add and remove these unlimited plans, or offer them for limited times as promotions under a 2-year contract), but I’d pontificate the reason they can do this is because the hotspots don’t support all network bands, ultimately resulting in far less coverage. (This is why your cell phone may get better service than a hotspot, a very common problem in RVing.)

MVNO hotspot plans

The plans offered by companies like OTR Mobile and Nomad Internet operate by purchasing a block of data from mobile networks and hedging the bet that their users won’t actually use tons of data.

Unfortunately as more customers discover these “unlimited” plans, the usage goes up, which in turn drives up prices for everyone overall. (For example, when first joining OTR Mobile, the plan cost around $50/mo. Current rates are over $100/mo.)

It’s not uncommon for mobile networks to cut off access for these plans. In my time with OTR Mobile, they’ve not only changed carriers but have also sent multiple new SIM cards I’ve had to insert (with very little notice) to keep my service running.

My advice when purchasing a plan through OTR Mobile or similar:

  • Anticipate prices to go up over time, and for service quality to degrade.
  • Expect long customer support wait times.
  • Don’t entirely rely on one of these services. Use it while it works, but have a backup option ready to go.

My setup

My setup is atypical, because I own far more devices than any normal human being. (I outline recommendations for more normal people in the next section.)

With 20+ connected devices in our RV, I chose to use a residential wifi router inside the RV. (I’m not joking: My setup contains 2 smart TVs, 7 Sonos speakers, a Google Home Hub, Chromecast, 3 laptops, 3 tablets, 4 cell phones, and a smattering of in-car tech that also connects to wifi.)

This lets me connect everything to my own network. The benefit of this, is that my own internal network is independent of the source of the internet.

For example, if I’m in an RV park with great internet, I simply connect my wifi router to that network. If the connection is poor, I change my wifi router to connect to a hotspot. This allows me to change the connection for all my devices at once, saving a ton of hassle.

Internet sources

  • Verizon 4G wifi hotspot (prepaid, unlimited, unthrottled) [grandfathered] - $60/mo
  • T-Mobile 5G wifi hotspot (2-yr contract) - $50/mo
  • OTR Mobile 4G hotspot on AT&T - $110/mo
  • Google Fi SIM card - pay per use, but up to $80/mo
  • Visible LTE plan with unlimited, throttled hotspot - $40/mo

Wifi router

I use a Pepwave Duo, which is like a normal LTE wifi hotspot device, except with some added benefits:

  • Accepts 2 SIM cards - this lets me skip using the hotspots offered by cell phone carriers, which typically don’t have as many bands, resulting in fewer connectivity options
  • Can connect to wifi over 2.4 GHz or 5GHz networks - if there’s really good wifi in my area, all I have to do is connect the Pepwave, and all my devices are instantly connected
  • Supports external antennas - this potentially offers better reception by allowing me to connect to a higher-powered antenna that can sit outside the frame of my RV

SpeedFusion in the Pepwave Duo

The Pepwave Duo has a feature called SpeedFusion which allows you to “bond” multiple internet connections together. This means you can stay connected to multiple networks and the Pepwave will automatically route traffic through whichever network has the strongest connection and highest speeds at that particular moment.

Since it accepts two SIM cards and also connects to wifi, it can theoretically connect to 3+ networks simultaneously. Pepwave divides up the internet traffic, sends it through their servers, and reassembles it at the other end.

Theoretically this is great when connected to an RV park’s wifi that is less than reliable. Being able to leverage the connection when it works, but also seamlessly switch over to a better network when it doesn’t, can help save bandwidth on metered hotspot plans.

This solution isn’t without its problems - it’s far from perfect, and can be somewhat unreliable. But the concept is promising and I expect it to continue to evolve over the years. (Note: Some network providers restrict their SIM cards from being used in these devices, since they are geared toward customers who typically use a lot of data.)

My recommendations

You probably skimmed that last section and asked yourself, “But what should I get?”

  1. Look for an unlimited hotspot plan on a primary network provider (Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T)
    1. They’re usually offered for a limited time, so keep your eyes peeled. As of Summer 2021, T-Mobile offers a 5G hotspot and unlimited 5G coverage under a 2-year contract for $57/mo all-in. (Don’t expect this to work reliably in remote locations.)
  1. Have a backup hotspot option with your cell phone plan
    1. Many cell phone plans offer a hotspot option so you can connect your laptop to it. It’s likely capped at 15 GB/mo, so use it sparingly, but this will be far more reliable than a data-only hotspot.
  1. Bonus option: Maintain a plan through Visible for truly unlimited service. Speed is capped to 5mbps, but should be enough for most basic needs. Visible advertises the hotspot as only supporting a single connected device. (Using your own router can help get around this limitation.) Note that Visible likely won’t work in rural areas, as it doesn’t support 3G networks.

The future: Satellite internet

Elon Musk’s Starlink is a new internet service currently being tested. It’s satellite based - like Dish or DirecTV, except for internet. This method will likely trounce all current forms of RV internet once it’s more widely available.

It’s anticipated Starlink will offer an RV-focused offering, but it’s unknown when this will be available for RV installation. (As of 2021, they’re currently focused on fixed installations, meaning satellites that are installed permanently.)

Other notable tips

Checking coverage

I can’t say this enough: Don’t bother checking the coverage map on phone carriers website (like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile). They are an inaccurate representation of real-world performance. (You know how car makers have an MPG rating which you can never actually achieve in real life? It’s sort of like that.)

These maps don’t account for other factors like network congestion, which bands a tower supports, or topography.

Instead use an app like Opensignal, which aggregates actual data speeds from real customers in specific locations.

Using RV park free wifi

If I had to sum it up: Just, don’t. RV park wifi is notoriously unreliable, especially the ones that are free. (I’ve spent nearly 3 years fulltiming, and can count on one hand the number of RV park wifi networks which have beaten out my hotspots in terms of performance.)

If you decide to forego hotspots in exchange for RV park wifi, prepare for major disappointment.

Some RV parks say that they block streaming services (which most don’t actually). Some parks use a third party service which offers a decent level of service, but just remember: you get what you pay for.

In summary…

Despite living in the world of 5G networks, reliable mobile internet is still as spotty as ever. (It doesn’t help that many people who live in regular houses are foregoing a home internet connection altogether, in exchange for unlimited data plans on their phones.

There’s only so much bandwidth to go around, and when it gets saturated, you’re out of luck.

I hope this post has been useful in explaining some of the components and caveats for getting decent wifi on the road.

If you have recommendations, clarifications or corrections, please get in touch, as I keep this post updated as new products or services become widely available.


Appendix (Advanced)

Too nerdy for the normal post, here are some tips for nerds and tinkerers.

  • Pepwave Duo
    • Mentioned earlier, but T-Mobile blocks their SIM cards from being used inside this device. This means T-Mobile SIMs, including ones provided through 3rd parties like OTR Mobile, will not work. (As of mid-2021, OTR Mobile offers a SIM card through AT&T which does work in the Pepwave. I’ve also had no problems with my Verizon SIM card.)
  • Poynting external antenna
    • As mentioned earlier, the Pepwave Duo supports external antennas. In my testing in suburban areas of large metropolises where I had poor internet, the Poynting did not significantly improve internet speed or reliability.
  • GL.iNet routers
    • This tiny USB-powered routers serve as mini routers - a great, portable option to allow you to connect all your devices to it. Then only this router needs to connect to your internet source. (It’s like a Pepwave, but without all the extra features.) Note: This doubles as a great solution when trying to connect multiple devices to hotel wifi or even wifi on a plane.
  • LTE + wifi combo like Winegard Connect 2.0
    • This device came preinstalled on a Jayco fifth wheel I owned. While it was a cool feature to have, there were a lot of common compatibility problems which resulted in this not being a super reliable option. (Winegard also offers their own branded SIM cards, which are absurdly expensive.) Instead, use a Verizon or AT&T SIM card.
  • Wifi boosters
    • I haven’t personally leveraged any of these options, but King wifi is a popular version (Cedar Creek group thread). The reason I haven’t tried any wifi boosters is that wifi typically isn’t the problem (RV parks don’t traditionally have the best internet anyway) - it’s the source internet that really affects internet speed and connectivity.

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