The 2015 WheelingIt Internet & Phone Set-Up
I get quite a lot of questions about what we do for internet and phone on the road. The truth is that the “best” deals are constantly changing and vary from person to person. What may work perfectly for us might not work for you (or might not be worth the cost to you). Do you need a lot of internet? Or just a bit? Do you CARE about snazzy phone service? Or will a cheap pre-paid phone do the job?
It’s such a complex topic that I can’t possibly talk about all the options in one blog post, and much prefer to leave that to the experts. For those of you just getting into this, I really recommend researching all your options by buying the most excellent The Mobile Internet Handbook (just updated this year), checking the latest articles on the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center and, if you want to go into even more depth, joining the Mobile Internet Afficionado group. All three are run by our RV buddies Technomadia, and I don’t just recommend them because they’re friends of ours. Their expertise & constant research in this area has been essential to keeping us up to date on what’s going on. That’s how we find our best deals!
That said I’m quite happy to talk about what we currently have since the previous posts I have on the blog on this are woefully out-dated. So, here goes…
Which Cellular Provider?
Most RVers get both their data & phone plans from a cellular provider, and that’s how we’ve operated since we hit the road in 2010.
When we first started RVing Verizon had the absolute best coverage nationwide, and these days that’s pretty much still true. However AT&T has significantly expanded over the years and is now a very serious contender for RV travelers, so much so that in many areas you can’t tell the difference between the two and in some spots AT&T is even better!
We RV’d our first 4 years exclusively with Verizon and haven’t regretted it. If I had to chose only ONE provider today, that’s still who I’d go with. Last winter we switched to a combo of AT&T & Verizon and we’ve also been very happy with that. For those of you who really “need” internet having both is a nice combo since sometimes one is better (or faster) than the other.
The other guys (Sprint, T-Mobile etc.) don’t really do well outside of big cities, so unless you’re traveling in very restricted, city-dense areas I wouldn’t consider them at all.
Note/ The Coverage? App (iPhone/iPad) is a great way to check coverage while you’re traveling and see overlay comparisons of the various providers out there. The screen shots above are from that App.
Contract or No Contract?
I’ve always been a fan of no contract plans. You might get a cheaper up-front deal on a phone with a 2-year contract, but you invariably pay more over the long term and you are immediately locked in and at the whim of waiting out the contract.
For the past many years every single plan we’ve signed on the road has been no contract (month-to-month) and it’s served us very well indeed. We’ve been able to ditch and pick-up the best new plans as they come out without any long-term ties. Given how much this stuff changes I highly recommend this approach.
Cellphone Plan -> From Straight Talk to AT&T
For many years we ran a single, joint cellphone on Straight Talk which, for $45/mo provided us unlimited talk/text and 3GB of data (they call it “unlimited” on their website, but you’re actually throttled after 3GB). Our phone ran on the Verizon network and honestly worked fine. We didn’t have the snazziest or newest phone, and we weren’t able to hotspot or share the data, but the price & service worked. We also carried a super-cheap “backup” pre-paid phone from Tracfone to use when we were separated. This phone could only really be used for phone calls, but was so cheap it didn’t matter. It ran on the AT&T network and cost us ~$100 per year.
If a better deal hadn’t shown up, we’d probably still be on this combo and I still recommend both Straight Talk & Tracfone for folks looking for cheap service. Just make sure you chose your phone model carefully since the phone you buy determines which network you’ll end up on.
The “better” deal that came up for us was joining a family plan with some extended family back when AT&T & Verizon had their data wars going on last fall. We bought our own phones (I got mine on eBay) so that we only had to pay $15/mo for each phone plus whatever data we were going to share.
The advantage was that we got to add Paul’s mom to the plan PLUS we got our own individual phones (Paul had been lobbying for this for a while) PLUS we got 10GB of shareable data that we could hotspot as needed to any device. We initially signed up with Verizon (see below), but eventually ended up on ATT. That’s what we have now.
Data Plan -> From Millenicom to Verizon Unlimited
When Millenicom died in Oct of last year we (and many other RVers) were very sad indeed. We’d had it as our main dataplan for years and couldn’t possibly imagine finding a better deal. What were we going to do?
Then came the “double data wars”. All of a sudden AT&T and Verizon started battling it out offering BIG deals (40GB, 60GB etc. plans) on their Family Share plans for quite reasonable prices. For folks like us who rely on a pretty hefty amount of data this was a very attractive proposal. We immediately jumped into a Verizon no-contract family plan offering 40GB/mo and two phones. For a while that worked perfectly for us and if a better deal hadn’t come along we’d STILL be on that plan since it far and above supersedes anything on offer at those data levels today.
What came along was the chance to get a Verizon Unlimited plan. Now I’m going to say up-front that this is NOT something for everyone. There are real risks involved in getting an unlimited plan and real risks involved in how long these plans will be around (there are ZERO guarantees!), but for us it was worth it. We managed to snag an unlimited plan a few days before the particular method we used to get it went extinct.
I didn’t blog about it at the time since there wasn’t much point in writing about a method that no-one else could use, but it turns out there is a recently confirmed loophole which makes them a possibility again. My recommendation if you’re serious about this is to read about the process in detail on some of the phone forums or follow the MIA guide (you must be a member for the latter). Again, NOT for everyone and NOT something I would recommend as a standard due to the initial costs & risks (most folks are better off with a Family Share plan), but it might be worth it for some.
We run our data plan on a Novatel 6620L MiFi that I acquired recently from eBay. Full price on this device is over $200, but I bought it for under $150 (brand new). It’s one of the recommended MiFi’s in MIA.
Boosting -> Wilson Sleek
Given how much we rely on internet and love traveling in the “boonies” I consider boosting equipment pretty essential stuff. It can’t do magic (you can’t boost a signal that isn’t there), but it’s given us solid, usable signal in places where we might otherwise have almost none.
We’ve only really bought a few iterations of boosting equipment over the years. The Wilson Sleek has been our go-to booster since 2013 and boosts both our AT&T phones and Verizon MiFi (one at a time) and we’ve been very happy with it. The company now calls itself Weboost, but still sells similar stuff. We typically just slip our 6620L MiFi into the Wilson Sleek cradle, run the antenna wire out the window and put the stock antenna on the roof (it’s magnetic and needs a metal ground-plane to function properly). Voilà…boosting complete.
In addition to the stock antenna we also have a Wilson Paddle Antenna for more marginal areas that attaches to the Sleek with a beefy cable and an adapter connector. We’ve only really used this set-up once since the stock antenna does the job most of the time, but I like having it around. New boosters are coming out ALL the time, so research before you buy.
That wraps up our set-up. Those of you astute enough to add-up the numbers will see that we’re currently paying ~$178/mo for our combo of 3 phones, 10GB of AT&T data and unlimited Verizon data. Since we don’t have a TV plan anymore this is the sum total of what we pay for our connectivity & online entertaniment, and if a better deal comes along well, we don’t have any contracts so you know we’ll be ON IT!
Feel free to ask questions about our current set-up below. I’m no expert (that’s what I go to MIA for), but I can certainly answer stuff related to what we have now.