Keeping in touch is a challenge all motorhomers face.
Increasingly, being connected while RVing means we need reliable, speedy access to the Internet. Internet access lets us shop; surf; read the news; pay bills; download movies; and use apps to plan our routes and to find the campgrounds, restaurants, and rest areas we need. To connect socially, we can post photos, update blogs, and have video conversations via Skype.
Whew. It’s a wonder we have any time to sightsee, what with all that online time.
Several devices enable RVers to go online as we travel. Some RVers are happy with the now-ubiquitous and free campground WiFi. I am not one of them. Admittedly, I probably use the Internet more than most RVers. I have found campground WiFi to be too slow for my purposes, unless I go online at 2:00 a.m. when the other RVers using the overloaded WiFi system have gone to sleep.
Other RVers are content with cell access via their iPad or Android tablet. Some set it up as a temporary WiFi hotspot and use it to connect computers and other mobile gear to the Internet via a cellular provider.
But a key tool that many of us end up acquiring is a data card, which lets us set up our own dedicated WiFi networks to connect our assorted tablets, smartphones, and computers to the Internet.
The wireless providers offer such data cards, and they are branded under various names. I use the MiFi card on the Verizon Wireless network.
The Verizon Mobile Hotspot MiFi devices are essentially wireless routers. MiFi stands for “My WiFi.”
The device I use can provide Internet access for up to 10 devices at a distance of up to 30 feet. This is the primary way I update my blog, my Facebook page, and other social media accounts that Jennifer and I use to share our adventures as we are traveling across North America. I also edit my NBC-TV technology videos from our motorhome and use the MiFi card to send the final story to NBC each week.
With Verizon — and this is pretty much true of the other providers — you first need to acquire the device. Verizon has a couple MiFi models that are free with a two-year contract, and some newer ones with longer battery life that cost up to $49.99 with a two-year contract.
So, that’s step one: Get the device.
Now for the fees. With Verizon, it all starts with a $20 monthly fee to add the MiFi to what they call a Share Everything account. If you have a different provider, check with them, but most have similar fee structures and procedures.
This monthly access fee is on top of whatever you are paying for cellular service each month.
After that, the costs are far from over. You also incur the cost of your shareable data, or the data your card or router will be sending to your devices on your hotspot network. The cost depends on how much digital information that card handles each month, measured in gigabytes (GB). (One GB is equal to approximately 1 billion bytes.) Costs are tiered, based on the gigabytes you consume while online: 4 GB is $30 a month; 6 GB is $40; 8 GB is $50; 10 GB is $60; 12 GB is $70. The maximum is 50 GB for $335 per month.
But how do you know how much data you need? An online calculator tool at www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/splash/datacalculator.jsp helps you estimate the amount of monthly data you should purchase. You enter some information on how you’ll be using the Internet, and it helps you come up with the best plan. Once you select a plan, you can adjust it up or down anytime, but it’s best to use it for a month to see the patterns.
Here’s how that data translates into real use when selecting a 4G mobile broadband device.
5 GB of usage is equivalent to:
- 25 e-mails per day
- Viewing 5 Web pages per day
- Streaming 60 minutes of music per day?
- Streaming 10 minutes of lower-quality videos per day
- Uploading and/or downloading 2 photos per day
12 GB of usage is equivalent to:
- 50 e-mails per day
- Viewing 25 web pages per day
- Streaming 60 minutes of music per day
- Streaming 30 minutes of lower-quality videos per day
- Uploading and/or downloading 2 photos per day
Clearly, streaming video and music takes up the most bandwidth.
You can experiment with the online calculator and come up with your own usage, but, generally, I would suggest RVers start with a 4-GB or 6-GB plan. That means $30 or $40 per month will be added to your cell phone bill, plus the $20 monthly account fee.
For more information about the Verizon MiFi devices, visit a Verizon store or www.verizon.com.
Data cards, by far, are the most popular connectivity choice among RVers. And they are not without their own issues. This past summer, when I was at FMCA’s Family Reunion and Motorhome Showcase in Gillette, Wyoming, my computer showed I was in the range of 14 other data cards from various wireless providers. With that many just around me, and many, many more data cards in use in the motorhomes throughout the rest of the complex, the cell tower we were all accessing at the same time was overwhelmed. Like free WiFi at a campground, the data cards were clogging the Internet connection, and everything was very slow until bedtime approached.
One of the issues many RVers have with Verizon, AT&T, and other cellular providers is that they require a two-year contract, with set bills each month − bills that must be paid even in the off-season, when coaches may be in storage.
That’s where some enterprising competition has developed. Alternative sources may help you find more affordable packages, some without the need of long-term contracts.
- Millenicom (www.millenicom.com) specializes in mobile connectivity and offers several plans with no contract. The least expensive is a MiFi data card and 20 GB of 3G/4G data for $69.99 per month. If you need more data, $79.99 a month gets you a USB-type data device and unlimited coverage. They also charge $99.99 to purchase the data device, $49.99 for an activation fee, and a $15 shipping fee.
- WiFi in Motion is a deluxe kit offered by a company called SinglePoint Communications (www.yoursinglepoint.com) that offers a wireless router, a cell phone booster that amplifies wireless signals, and an antenna. They also sell data plans. You can request a quote from their Web site.
- WiFiRanger, among other things, offers routers, data cards, and various solutions many RVers use to set up elaborate RV networks inside their motorhomes. A WFR Connect plan includes a data card for $129.99 with a 20-GB data plan that costs $69.99 per month. Details are available at www.wifiranger.com, an FMCA commercial member.
- Satellite Internet’s big plus is that it pretty much guarantees connectivity from anywhere, even those remote wilderness corners of North America that have no cell service. The downside is a much slower Internet speed and a startup cost well above $1,000 for gear and $100 to $150 per month for data. Companies most typically used by RVers include HughesNet, iDirect, and SkyEdge. You can search online and find companies such as Mobile Satellite Technologies (www.mobilsat.com) that can create a custom system for your coach.
As noted, I likely spend more time using the Internet than the average RV traveler. For me, Verizon’s MiFi data card has worked very well in 95 percent of my travels. But each RV is different, and each motorhomer has his or her own needs.
Somewhere in the list of options above is the right solution for you.
Veteran journalist Mike Wendland, F426141, FMCA’s official on-the-road reporter, travels the country with his wife, Jennifer, and their Norwegian elkhound, Tai, aboard the couple’s Roadtrek Type B motorhome. Mike can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.