In the old days, our family would plan an RV vacation two or three times a year, one of them being a two-week trip of a lifetime. We rented a popup trailer and visited Gettysburg, Washington DC, Boston, and New York City for one of them and were in Washington DC the day President Nixon resigned. One year we traveled through Mt Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, and Glacier National Park.
In those days, there really wasn’t any “connectivity” as we would have the post office hold our mail, go to the bank and get $1000 worth of Travelers Checks, and tell all our friends we were going to be gone for a couple of weeks.
We did not have cell phones, gaming devices, or 150 TV channels, just ABC, NBC, and CBS from an over-the-air TV antenna. So I guess you could say we were totally “analog”, meaning we found cities using a printed map from either individual states or an Atlas. Recently I asked my folks how we ever found campgrounds like the one in downtown New York City just past the Lincoln Tunnel. They said we would stop at the first rest stop in the state we were traveling to and get brochures from the “rack”! Today we are connected digitally in everything we do from video cameras at the front doorbell, to constant news updates on our phones.
What Is RV Connectivity And Why Do We Need It?
Connectivity or being connected means so many different things to different people. It’s like trying to identify the “average” RVer! We need to read and send emails to not only friends but for business and communication. More and more people are working remotely and need to access the information and operations they did from an office environment with either desktop computers or a mainframe or hub. We need to search for the answers to questions, get weather updates, find the best campfire recipe, or even figure out what to do for a snake bite! And we need to be able to call or receive calls while on the road.
When you are in one basic geographical location such as your home, you typically know who has the best services in the areas of connectivity you need such as the best cell phone provider/signal and a handful of internet options. And you have the benefit of friends and neighbors that have tested these providers.
The challenge with RV Connectivity is finding the best providers for all these communications needs traveling in an RV. If you are just traveling in what I call the “comfort zone” relatively close to your residential area, you know what works best. If you are going to travel around the country it is much more challenging.
There are several cell phone providers to choose from and they all advertise the best coverage in the country. One of the issues with cell phones and RVing is the coverage and strength of the signal when traveling around the country.
Check out www.signalchecker.com to check for a location with cell phone coverage in an area you plan to travel to.
Type in the zip code of the area you are planning to visit and you will get a listing of the coverage. This is a generic overview of the coverage in the area, for more specific details about your provider, there are links on this site to all the major providers.
We experienced cell phone issues in our trip shooting footage in Death Valley and there are some places where you just will not get a signal. However, at the Longstreet Inn and Casino in Armargosa Valley, we had 1 bar flickering on and off so it was very unreliable. We used the Weboost cell booster and the Drive Reach RV and it pulled a signal to about 2-3 bars for not only my US Cellular phone but a Verizon and Sprint! We chose the Drive Reach RV as it had a better signal reach than other models and was compact.
The Destination RV model has a telescoping pole if there are trees and other things that can block a signal and has an even farther reach, however, since we wanted to use it not only at the campground but also on the Jeeps, the Drive Reach RV was best for us.
A cell phone is used for more than just calling, it’s a mini-computer that can connect you to the internet and browse, get emails, and be a GPS navigator so you will need to identify how you are planning to use it to determine how much “data” you will need. I remember when my granddaughters first got their cell phones and started texting all their friends. Then they got the first bill and it was over $200 for the month! They were put on a specific amount of data and if they hit it before the new cycle, they could not use their phone!
Most providers now offer unlimited texting, but limited data. The difference is the amount of streaming or downloading from the internet in movies, music, and other data. Or uploading videos such as a podcast or other data. If you are just using email, browsing the web, or posting blogs, the small data plans are fine. However, if you want to stream HD videos, and movies, and upload videos to platforms like YouTube, you will need to get a much higher data plan. Keep in mind, this is only for your cell phone plan, you might be able to use a smaller data plan if you can use the campground WiFi.
What Is WiFi And How Is It Different Than The Internet?
The internet is basically the data stream or the language that is connected throughout the world by various “hard-line” methods such as fiber and others.
Wi-Fi is the term given for wireless technology that connects the internet or data to computers, cell phones, and other devices without needing a physical connection. So Wi-Fi and the internet are actually two separate things but work together. The internet is the data and Wi-Fi just broadcasts it wirelessly.
What Connections Are Available?
Most privately owned campgrounds today offer a WiFi service and it is typically free. Campgrounds in State or National Parks seldom offer WiFi. The challenge with campground-provided WiFi is the signal is not very strong beyond 100’ of the router in the main office. Some campgrounds have upgraded their system adding boosters and repeaters to strengthen the signal to sites outside the “sweet zone”.
You can also get a wireless signal at some rest stops along the interstate highways, truck stops like Flying J and Pilot, and even parking lots at fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, Cracker Barrel, etc.
Campground WiFi is generally not very reliable and typically very slow as they do not get the most expensive package available. Plus, more people using one service slows most providers’ signals down.
There are products available that will boost the signal from the original source called boosters, extenders, and repeaters which basically do the same thing. They work well in a residential setting where only one person is using it however they actually diminish the signal in a campground where multiple people are trying to boost at the same time.
If the internet is important to your connectivity or you need to uplink video podcasts or other data-rich features, you will not want to rely on the campground or other free locations. There are other options available.
In addition to the signal for the cell phone, you will also want connectivity for laptops and the television. For that, you would want what is called a hot spot device. Some cell phone providers have a hot spot mode designed into the cell phone rather than getting a separate device and plan. The downside of using the hot spot mode of your cell phone is it will run the battery down quickly, use data faster, and is typically slower.
Because of these issues, several cellular providers also offer a standalone hotspot device however, there are others available. We have tested several and I really like the TravlFi model as it uses the strongest signal from all the major providers so I’m not limited to one that might not have a strong signal in a specific area. They have several data plans so if you just need to check emails and do a little browsing, you don’t need an expensive plan. And there is no contract, you can purchase monthly as you need it. Here is a shot of me using it in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Learn more about the product and plans at; www.travlfi.com
TravlFi just introduced the Journey XTR which is a 4G Router and booster. It is not as portable but has a better range and also uses the major cell providers. You can get a signal and then hard wire a tower or other device if needed.
Other options include roof-mounted antennas that also use a G4 cell signal such as the Winegard Connect or the Air 360+ which is a combination of an over-the-air antenna with the addition of a Gateway inside the rig for reception. The Gateway mounts inside the unit on the ceiling.
Be watching for Part 2 where we will talk about connectivity as it pertains to over-the-air TV signals, streaming, and satellite options.
About the author: Dave Solberg: Managing Editor, RV Repair Club
For the last 25 years, Dave has conducted RV maintenance and safety seminars, developed dealer and owner training programs, written RV safety and handyman articles authored an RV handbook reference guide and logged over 100,000 miles on the road in an RV.
RV Repair Club is your go-to online resource for enthusiasts who want quality RV maintenance, repair, and upgrade information – a community where passionate RVers can come together to gather knowledge and share their experiences.
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