By Tony Barthel
How do you get great Internet when you’re on the road in your RV? As more and more RVers take to the road, the challenges of staying connected become greater. While many RV parks boast that they have Wi-Fi, as someone who travels a lot I can tell you I almost never find RV park Wi-Fi to be worth a darn.
So we’ve chosen a weBoost Drive 4G-X cell signal booster and installed it permanently in our little travel trailer. Why this one?
weBoost has really become the company to turn to for boosting cell signal on the road. Their combination of antennae and products are well respected and tend to work well. There is also a big community of users out there and lots of resources in the event things don’t work out as well as you had hoped.
There are basically three main pieces of the weBoost system: an outdoor antenna, an amplifier and an indoor antenna. The outdoor antenna is connected by cable to the amplifier which is connected by cable to the indoor antenna.
As instructed, we mounted the weBoost exterior antenna on the ladder of our travel trailer. The antenna wants to mount to something metal and the ladder is one of the few metal things on the trailer. They also want it to be higher than the air conditioner, if possible, and away from windows as much as possible as those are framed in metal. We had to custom craft a mount for our weBoost Drive 4G-X but now weBoost is selling the Drive X RV which comes with a better antenna and a ladder mount.
The outdoor antenna has a cable that must be routed to the interior booster box and ours was routed along the roof down through the same hole that was drilled by the RV manufacturer for the TV antenna. We then had it pulled out near the TV antenna connector and attached to the amplifier.
Our trailer has both 110vac plugs and also the typical cigarette lighter adapter right near one another so I simply plug the amplifier into the cigarette lighter adapter and we’re good to go. Since this works all the time whether we’re connected to shore power or boondocking, it has worked out well.
Does it work?
Cell signal is measured in decibels, or dBm. The lower the number, the better, essentially. Signals that measure about -110 dBm are almost completely worthless, whereas an excellent signal is -50 dBm. This is also a logarithmic scale so a -3dBm signal change represents a doubling of power.
In other words, a cell signal that measures -76 dBm is twice as powerful as a cell signal that comes in at -79 dBm. weBoost claims it can provide up to -50dBm of gain – which is really impressive – and, of course, this depends on a lot of factors.
How do you know your signal’s strength?
Smartphones come with a field test mode. While we are used to seeing the bars on the phone to represent signal strength, smartphones can be placed into field test mode to show the actual decibel reading. iPhones and Android phones access this differently and if you’re nerdy enough, as I am, it’s easy to find how to determine this.
On two recent outings I measured the results of the weBoost to see what was actually happening.
On the coast when the weBoost was turned off I was getting -135 dBm, which means I wasn’t able to use the phone for anything more than holding the door open. With the weBoost turned on the signal went to -115 dBm, which wasn’t great but made it so I could at least make a lousy phone call.
However, the fact that the boosted signal was so meager explained why the campground had two working pay phones on the property.
While camping in the Redwoods recently I did a similar test and the cell signal went from -105 dBm to -80 dBm, which is a significant change and made a vast difference in my phone’s usability.
In both cases I was using an iPhone XS Max.
weBoost’s interior antenna device really has poor range. Unless you’re right near the interior antenna, you’re not going to get much. Further, if you’re in a smaller RV, as we are, having the outdoor antenna and the indoor antenna too close together can also be problematic as it creates a feedback loop or “oscillation” issue where the antenna are effectively interfering with one another. This would also be problematic if you’re in something like a Class B RV.
Worth the money?
Would I buy this device again for the current $500? You bet. The weBoost Drive X RV absolutely turns the lousy cell coverage that I have out here in Northern California into something that’s at least usable. While I wouldn’t rely on it for streaming video and such, you can usually boost the signal sufficiently to make an emergency phone call or catch up on what’s happening on social media.
The weBoost also works with essentially all major phone carriers and there is nothing to change and no settings based on phone carriers. In fact, setting this all up out of the box is really easy, even if you’re going to permanently mount it, as we did.
I also bought a second antenna for the device which is a small magnetic antenna that sits on the roof of my pickup truck so that I can use it going down the road. Since the amplifier portion is powered by a cigarette lighter, we just take it out of the RV and bring it into the truck where there are separate outside and inside antennae. Nothing like making our phone-based GPS usable where the signal is weak.
What about Wi-Fi?
There are Wi-Fi amplifiers and many new RVs are coming with either a Wi-Fi amplifier or enough pieces that you can upgrade to one. Some require specific plans and such, though. Meh.
My RV park Wi-Fi experience has been wholly miserable at best. There was a case where I was at a park with decent Wi-Fi and got my personal information hacked. This isn’t difficult to do for someone who knows how. Essentially they just look at the information that is being sent to the park’s Wi-Fi and store that info. If that happens to be user names or passwords or credit card information, they now have that.
If you happen to come across an RV park that actually has serviceable Wi-Fi make sure you are behind some form of router to protect your information. The cell companies are pretty good at protecting your information so I am less worried using a cell phone over the cellular network to make purchases than I am using park Wi-Fi.
The Bottom Line
If you’re on the road a lot and want to be able to use cellular devices, the weBoost Drive X is a game changer. It can take a signal that’s barely usable and turn it into something functional. Since the absolute vast majority of RV parks that I’ve been to have horrible Wi-Fi, I still rely on my cell signal for anything usable.
And, for that, the weBoost is what makes it tolerable.