Staying connected on the road is important. This is true not only for RV owners who want to stay in touch with family and friends, but also for RV owners who still work and maintain a blog like me. It wasn’t that long ago when we had to rely on wifi at RV parks and bookstores or had to purchase an expensive and bulky satellite system to get the Internet connectivity that we needed. The situation is much better now as cellular technology has advanced. Cellular Internet is not only more reliable now, but it’s also much faster. The purpose of this article is to explain how I stay connected using AT&T’s cellular network while enjoying the full mobility of my RV.
The smartphone is a wonderful invention. Aside from the obvious, I use it for everything from playing music, getting directions, and obtaining the latest weather to leveling my rig, locating dump sites, and determining elevation. I also use it to perform what is called “tethering,”a feature that allows me to share my smartphone’s Internet connection with other computers. Smartphone tethering can be accomplished in one of three ways: a direct USB connection, a Bluetooth wireless link, or a personal hotspot wifi connection. I prefer the hotspot option because it allows me to connect several computers at the same time and because it’s easy to do. Another great thing about using a hotspot is that since all tablets and laptops come wireless ready there’s no need to run wires or install special equipment in your RV. The smartphone I use for hotspot tethering is an Apple iPhone 5.
If you’re interested in hotspot tethering, you have lots of choices. Together, the four national cellular data network providers–AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint–offer over 60 smartphones that are hotspot capable. They come from the major phone manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, HTC, and LG, come in various shapes and sizes, and employ a variety of mobile operating systems, including Android, iOS, webOS, and Windows Phone. Of these, Google Android is currently the most popular with Apple iOS coming in a close second (I prefer iOS devices which is why I use an iPhone 5). If for some reason you aren’t interested in purchasing a smartphone, another hotspot option is available–a portable mifi device like AT&T’s Liberate. A mifi device works like a smartphone wifi hotspot, but mifi offers a few additional advantages by allowing you to manage your device connections and by providing superior battery life. A mifi router also costs less than a smartphone, which makes it an attractive option.
Before you can activate a wifi hotspot, you’ll need to purchase a monthly cellular data plan from one of the aforementioned providers. The largest data providers, AT&T and Verizon, require a two-year commitment, while the smaller providers, Sprint and T-Mobile, don’t. Verizon’s 4G LTE coverage is the best nationwide, including in rural areas, but their pricing is also the worst. On the other hand, AT&T’s pricing is excellent and their LTE network is faster, but their 4G coverage in rural areas is lacking. Due to their coverage deficiencies, AT&T significantly reduced their rates a few months ago to make them more competitive with Verizon. For instance, my AT&T 10GB Mobile Share data plan (with unlimited talk and text) for two smartphones and one “dumb” phone costs $145 a month, while a comparable plan from Verizon will set you back $220. Next to cost, coverage and network reliability should be your biggest considerations. So make sure you choose a plan that is affordable and offers sufficient coverage and reliability in the areas where you live and where you like to camp.
What kind of Internet services can you expect to use on a cellular data plan? Basically, you can do the same things on a cellular Internet network that you can at home. This means you can browse the Internet; heck email; shop; bank online; access company intranets; upload, download, and stream audio, video, and games; and use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoiP). However, if your data plan is limited like my 10 GB plan, you can quickly eat up your allotted data by watching Netflix, so we avoid using streaming video on the road and rely on DVD’s instead. This approach works for us and we’ve never once exceeded our 10 GB limit. Indeed, the most we’ve ever used in a month was 7 GB. But then again, we aren’t full-timers either. One final thing to remember is that those Internet services which require a lot of bandwidth, like Netflix and YouTube, will require service on a 4G tower to work optimally.
Activating a wifi hotspot on your smartphone is easy. To illustrate just how easy, here’s how you do it on an iPhone 5. Go into “Settings,” then tap on “Personal Hotspot” (I recommend establishing a strong password during setup as it will provide security for your connection and prevent others from using your hotspot who may happen to be parked near you. Once you establish a password, you won’t have to do it again). To activate your hotspot, simply slide the activate button to the right. You should now see your smartphone listed on your laptop or tablet’s wireless network listing. Select it, then enter the hotspot’s password. You should now be connected. See how easy it is? Note, that running the wireless hotspot will quickly run down your smartphone’s battery, so you’ll want to keep it plugged in to a USB charging port while it’s broadcasting. And if you’re wondering if you can tether and take phone calls simultaneously, the answer is, yes.
In order to activate a wifi hotspot, you’ll need to be located in an area serviced by a 4G, 3G, or 2G cell tower. If you’re in range of a 4G cell tower your smartphone will display either a “4G” or “LTE” in upper left-hand corner (LTE stands for Long Term Evolution). I’ve been able to receive full 4G service on the road even with a signal strength of one bar. As long as you have one bar and the phone says you’re receiving a 4G signal you’ll be able to surf at high speed. If your phone displays either a “3G” or an “E” (this stands for Edge) instead of 4G, however, that means you’re receiving a 3G or 2G signal respectively. Of these, 4G LTE provides the fastest Internet connectivity with download speeds between 5 and 13 MBPS, while regular 4G offers download speeds between 3 to 8 MBPS. These speeds are much faster than 3G downloads which top out at 950 KBPS and Edge 2G downloads which max out at 250 KBPS. Because of the low speeds you won’t be able to upload, download, and stream audio, video, and games on an Edge 2G tower.
As you can see in the map above, AT&T’s 4G data coverage in Arizona is excellent in the major metropolitan areas and along the interstate corridors. This includes popular snowbird and boondocking destinations in Quartzsite, Yuma, Tuscon, and the greater Phoenix area. Unfortunately, 4G service is non-existent in the towns of Heber, Show Low, Pinetop, and Eagar, popular summer retreats for locals looking to escape the heat. It’s also non-existent in the Navajo Nation in the northern part of the state and some of the more remote parts of the state. Yes, you can get Edge 2G service in most of these areas, but it is a lot slower than 4G service. Fortunately, the cooler climates in Flagstaff, Prescott, and Payson have excellent 4G coverage to help offset 4G coverage deficiencies in the White Mountains. Note: in the map above, 4G coverage is indicated in dark orange, 3G light orange, Edge 2G tan, and Edge 2G shared provider tan with diagonal lines.
What’s the range for a typical cell tower? That’s a great question. Cellular transceivers and antenna arrays transmit on frequencies in the UHF radio band (primarily between 700 – 2100 MHZ), which propagate line-of-sight, similar to rays of light, so the higher the antenna array is mounted the further the signal will travel. Hence, in rural areas you’ll usually see cell towers perched atop mountains and hills, while in urban areas you’ll see them mounted on buildings and atop tall radio towers and monopoles. Unfortunately, intervening hills and buildings can weaken or block the signal entirely. Because of this you should try and set up camp at higher elevations to obtain the strongest signal. Thus, depending on the terrain where you’re located, the height of the cell tower, and the amount of power transmitted, you can receive a 4G signal from as far as 45 miles away.
As a retired Navy communicator, I often take note of cell tower locations while I’m on the road. They’re usually easy to spot, but that isn’t always the case. As cellular providers strive to improve coverage by erecting more towers they sometimes encounter resistance from municipalities and the local population. Not everyone wants to see a cell tower in their neighborhood or wants to see one overshadowing a prominent landmark in town, so cellular providers will sometimes be required to conceal or camouflage them before a permit is issued. These “stealth towers,” as they’re called, take on various forms from grain silos, church steeples, and building attachments to simple poles, Saguaro cacti, and trees. Some are hidden so well you wouldn’t know they were there unless somebody told you.
At this point you may be wondering if cellular Internet will work for those who like to boondock in remote rural areas, out in the “boonies,” if you will. The answer really depends on the location. If you examine the AT&T 4G data coverage map above, you’ll notice large gaps in coverage primarily west of the Rockies. This is due not only to the mountainous, sometimes desolate terrain, but also the low population density found in most of these areas. Fortunately, some of these gaps are covered by older 3G and 2G towers and will be replaced in another 3 to 4 years by 4G towers, yet some gaps never will be closed because of the rugged terrain. If you need service in a particular area, I would access your provider’s website and download coverage maps of the area. These can sometimes provide clues on where to camp and what areas to avoid. In areas with spotty coverage, I’m often able to pull-in a signal by heading for the high ground. For those interested, click here to view AT&T’s coverage maps.
So if you need Internet in your RV, you should consider purchasing a hotspot capable smartphone (or a mifi router) and a cellular data plan with the amount of data that you need. If you don’t own a smartphone yet, you should get with the times and buy one (over 56 percent of Americans currently own one). You can pick one up for as little as $100 for 16 GB of memory or $200 for 32 GB. With the thousands of apps you can download on them, you’ll find the smartphone a wonderful RV’ing tool and invaluable communication device. And with the wifi hotspot capability you can stay connected on the road as well, if not better, than you can at home.