By Nanci Dixon
As many of us know, when we cut the cable to our internet and TV source, whether a weekend warrior or full-time RVer, our data life changes. Some of us realize how dependent we have been on technology – how hooked into our phones, tablets, computers we’ve been – and say, “Yeah, we are free!” For the rest of us, it can be like cutting off an appendage.
Connectivity has become an integral part of our daily lives. For some, it is a necessity when working remotely; for others it is a lifeline to family and friends; and for still others, it is a way to stay entertained and informed. For us, it is all three. No doubt about it – we need the internet!
The two major ways to receive the needed data signals are through a Wi-Fi connection and through cell phone data. Some satellite companies also offer Internet options but they are extremely expensive.
When in a campground the Wi-Fi connection is usually coming from the campground office, sometimes with repeater antennas stationed around the campground (but sometimes just from the office). In the past, this was notoriously bad but it is gradually improving as campgrounds are beginning to meet the needs of their customers.
The best and most secure way to access campground Wi-Fi is to have a Wi-Fi antenna outside your RV connected by coax cable to a router inside your RV. Having a router allows protection by taking the public internet signal and making it private, separated by the router firewall. Even if the campground Wi-Fi is password protected, it is still a public signal and can potentially get hacked by anyone connected. The external antenna allows a stronger connection to the campground signal, as well as security through the router.
Setup for private Wi-Fi is easy. The Wi-Fi antenna is installed permanently on the RV or on a portable device, such as a collapsible pole to raise the antenna high in the air to receive the strongest signal. Some newer RVs come equipped with a place on the roof to mount an antenna with a pre-installed cable that will connect to a router inside the RV. The router is configured on your computer, tablet or smartphone and will be accessed by a password you choose. I suggest giving your system a unique name so you can find it in a crowded, data-hungry campground!
Keep in mind that the Wi-Fi you receive is only as good as the original campground signal, your distance from the signal, the quality of any repeaters the campground is using to broadcast the signal, and how many people are gobbling up the limited amount of data available.
I have found that very late at night or very early in the morning is the bast chance I have for downloading an image, backing up data, or updating a device. Early evening or on rainy days it is almost always impossible to get speedy internet in a crowded campground. I am considerate of others using the internet and seldom try to stream movies or anything else that will take up large amounts of data knowing that campground internet Wi-Fi is a shared asset.
There are several companies that specialize in mobile Wi-Fi. An internet search will provide a number of options and reviews. After extensive research, we chose a WiFiRanger system.
In addition to a Wi-Fi system, or perhaps instead of one, you can set up a cell boosting system. There again are several companies that specialize in locating and boosting cell signals to a usable amount. We decided on weBoost.
The physical setup is similar to the Wi-Fi antenna/router system but with a few additional options. It is basically an external antenna connected to a booster connected to an indoor antenna to broadcast the signal. There are usually a few more options for the external antenna. They can be mounted permanently on the roof or side of the RV, or on a pole. Or they might be portable with a magnetic antenna or with the antenna stuck on the inside of the RV window. They were originally designed to help keep emergency vehicles connected. The magnetic antenna was designed for those that can be placed on the roof of a car and the booster plugged into a 12V outlet if needed.
Cell boosters work well and can increase the reception and bars on a cell phone or tablet, but they only work when there is a signal available and then only when the signal is strong enough. Similar to campground Wi-Fi, cell data is still divided up between users. In many parts of the country, one cell provider will have more coverage in a particular area than another.
We have two different carriers, AT&T and Verizon, to avoid the dreaded dead spot. We looked at different carrier maps and chose the ones that would provide the most coverage as we travel and camp in areas for extended times. Some lesser-known carriers are now advertising that they are using the cell towers of the major carriers and can provide better, more consistent service at less cost. Having not used those, I cannot recommend one way or the other.
Even with so-called unlimited data, we try to divide usage between the carriers to not be slowed down after they reach their limit. We also use our devices as a hot-spot and can connect to the WiFiRanger to broadcast cell data throughout the coach. That, however, uses the limited hot-spot data up quickly! Independent hot-spots are also available.
We have found that in very remote areas we can get phone calls when holding the internal antenna right up to the phone.