New to RV: Reliable internet on the road?
May 23, 2020 10:00 PM   Subscribe

My spouse works in an industry severely affected by Covid, and has leave over the summer. I work remotely in IT. My job requires a stable internet connection, though I can deal with intermittent patches here and there. Spouse wants to buy or rent an RV and tour the US this summer, in places that are open and safe. It goes without saying that we, and our children, will practice safe social distancing, etc. I am more concerned about how to ensure a reliable internet connection - and sometimes I need serious access, if I am encoding a livestream (I am not a blogger, this is for corporate work).

I understand we can install a cell booster to enable reasonably steady and reliable internet access. But I'm concerned about those times when I need a serious connection for encoding. Wifi at a campground doesn't seem sure enough to me, nor does hooking up to a McDonald's.

Advice from you travelling folks out there?
posted by heigh-hothederryo to Travel & Transportation around United States (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My boss just brought this up yesterday! He did a lengthy experiment on working from an RV with his family. My impression was months-long. Bottom line: nope. There's not enough predictable broadband WiFi at RV-parkable places. And all the cell providers lie their asses off on coverage maps. Satellite wasn't an option; I don't remember why.

Mind, he was trying from off the beaten path places. If you park at e.g. a Walmart in Chicago...probably?
posted by j_curiouser at 10:08 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]

You want Chris & Cherie, the owners of this site, are staples in the connected RV world and have made their names with their work and research in the space. Yes, some of the content is behind a paywall, but there is still loads they give away for free.

Short version - RV park wifi is not even close to reliable. Hang out where there's free wifi (McDs, Starbucks, etc) or get a cell booster they recommend with a data plan they recommend on your network of choice. And just about everyone who needs extremely reliable internet on the road actually has two plans on two different networks as coverage differs per network.
posted by cgg at 10:19 PM on May 23 [7 favorites]

I travel the US extensively for a nine month period and it is hard to get reliable Internet access. You can get a cell phone booster and you can get a hotspot from one of the major cell providers (although I'd suggest one of each of AT&T and Verizon as being a baseline essential start).

I can't tell you that Lowes hardware stores were always the fastest and most reliable Internet that we found (and will let you park an RV over night in their parking lots if you ask first and their city ordinance allows it) so we used to park outside one of those overnight or for long enough to do what we needed to do. But RV Park Internet is invariably very patchy and not reliable. If you just need to surf and do some stuff and mess around on the Internet it's fine but if you need a solid stable reliable connection you will need something else.

The good news is if you stay in populated areas then as long as a cell phone that would give you enough bandwidth you are normally pretty good. It's only when you start actually really be a tourist in national parks and stuff that cell coverage is terrible.
posted by Brockles at 10:22 PM on May 23 [3 favorites]

What do you mean by encoding a livestream? If you mean just being a random participant in a WebEx/Zoom/etc, you can mostly get by with a cell connection. If you mean being the main speaker with content that has to be live (e.g. not prerecorded) and your livelihood depends on it, I wouldn't recommend this.

I understand we can install a cell booster to enable reasonably steady and reliable internet access.

Not really. They can improve the quality of your network connection but at best you're still working within the constraints of the cellular network.

I travel with hotspots that work on Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. In other words, everyone other than AT&T. It's enough to keep e-mail and IM going most places but I wouldn't rely on it for live video.

If you're doing real-time video chat with people over a cell connection, the latency inherent to cell technologies also means that you'll be talking over people a lot more often than when you're on a land line.

What you get in RV parks will vary, both depending on where you are in relationship to the nearest access point and how big their external pipe is and how many people are trying to use it along with you. Based on what we're seeing so far with people coming out of lockdown, I suspect most parks will be fairly crowded.

in places that are open and safe

The places that are safest also have the worst cell phone signal.

Satellite wasn't an option; I don't remember why.

It's slow, expensive, and there's a lot of latency. I've done small bits of remote work over it in emergencies and as long as you don't need a ton of bandwidth, it'll get done, but slowly.

Lastly, have you lived in an RV with kids for an extended period of time before? They're a lot smaller in practice than they might seem. Mine's a 33.5 foot with one slide, which puts it on the larger size of RVs, but it's still smaller than most efficiency apartments. That's a bedroom with a queen sized bed and about one foot of clearance on each side and a small combination living room/dining room/kitchen. My house's master bedroom has more space by itself than the entire floorspace of my RV.

Are your kids capable of self-entertaining if you're trapped inside the RV for 3 days because of rain while you're working?

How sensitive to noise are you? If you're not parked someplace with 220, you'll need to run the generator for AC, which can get obnoxious.

You may find that you're better off looking for rental properties that you can jump between that have dedicated internet connections and a room that you can commandeer as your office.
posted by Candleman at 11:10 PM on May 23 [4 favorites]

Apparently there are hotspots that take multiple SIMs *and* use them all at once. I think it was a special service type of thing where the hotspot is talking to something like a VPN on the other side to be able to split up the data over multiple connections and reassemble it on the other end before dumping it on the Internet proper. I wish I could remember where I saw this, I think it was like a TV journalists piece of kit.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:52 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]

How much notice do you have that you'll need reliable and serious connectivity? Maybe rent/buy a rig that allows you to zoot into some town for internet access while the family kitchen stays in camp? This could be some kind of pull-along trailer such as a 5th wheel, teardrop, or popup, or you could haul a motorcycle on the back of your RV.

Do you consider the average coffee shop reliable and serious? What are the consequences (to your career) if you happen to be fighting 20 other laptoppers?

A friend looked into this a couple of years ago, and IIRC, he was using 750kbps as the minimum needed for livestreaming. Some satellite service (Inmarsat, Thuraya, Globalstar, Iridium, ...) offers 400kbps uplink, so 2 subscriptions bonded together might get him there. Initial equipment cost was a few thou, and usage charges were a dollar a minute.

"in places that are open and safe" - one problem with this is that you don't find out if it was safe until 2 weeks later.

I might be looking at what else I can get with that money. A pool, new bikes, telescope, VR rig, magazine subscriptions, MOOC subscriptions, massive 4K tv will all probably not amount to half the RV cost.
posted by at at 6:46 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]

RV camping is tricky in the summer -- more people are traveling, and sites with hookups are in demand because you really want to run the air conditioner. The pandemic makes this more difficult because many state/national campgrounds are closed. It'll be difficult to avoid shared spaces like bathrooms, laundry rooms, registration, etc.

Forget about campground wifi, and coverage maps are not really useful as most campgrounds are on the edge of signal boundaries.

If you don't already have the RV traveling skillset, I'd avoid it this summer. Go for some nice AirBnB/VRBOs with fast wifi.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:14 AM on May 24 [5 favorites]

Maybe rent/buy a rig that allows you to zoot into some town for internet access while the family kitchen stays in camp? ... Do you consider the average coffee shop reliable and serious? What are the consequences (to your career) if you happen to be fighting 20 other laptoppers?

Please don't do this. Traveling from town to town and lingering in small businesses with a bunch of people is exactly what we need to not being doing right now.
posted by Candleman at 11:53 AM on May 24 [6 favorites]

Your goals of travel + internet + safety are incompatible. As mentioned, reliable internet is going to be incredibly difficult. Also, "places that are open and safe" is a questionable premise, how do you expect to do social distancing while traveling, nevermind needing internet? Because, yeah, coffeeshops are a no-go and so are gas stations, state parks, grocery yourselves and the people of those communities a favor and stay home.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:43 PM on May 24 [4 favorites]

As a resident of a state about to receive a tourist influx, I'm asking you kindly to reconsider this plan. You will only be a welcome visitor in places that are demonstrably unsafe.
posted by donnagirl at 1:43 PM on May 24 [4 favorites]

I traveled around the US for 7 months in 2017 / 2018 and the only constant was that campground WiFi is universally - 90% at least - terrible. Really, really bad, as in maybe if you’re lucky you can check your email, but as far as serious work, forget it. Many campgrounds throttle it - I lost count of the private campgrounds with cutesy WiFi passwords that were some variant on No Streaming, or that made you sign pledges promising not to even try to stream movies or have more than 2 devices on WiFi - or they’re just not equipped to handle more than maybe 4 or 5 people online at once, so if the campground is crowded, forget it. In the summer the campground is going to be crowded.

I looked at various recommendations, including I think the one linked above, and it seemed like all the best options were $$$ and no guarantees. If you have serious money to throw at it, you might be able to get satellite. I had a Verizon hotspot which ate data and I spent more time in various Starbucks than I really wanted - and I was just blogging, not trying to actually work. The other problem is you’re not going to know until you get there what kind of connection you’re going to have in any given campground / area. I had great WiFi in a state park in rural New Mexico (outside Roswell) and utterly terrible WiFi near Chicago. There’s no predicting it.

You probably know this, but a lot of campgrounds are not open yet and/or may not open this summer. So make sure you call well in advance; staying in Wal Mart parking lots is fun the first time or two but it gets old really fast.
posted by mygothlaundry at 2:42 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]

Oh and let me add that the other universal is that every single campground lies through their teeth about their WiFi. They all claim it’s free and fast and robust and usually it is none of those things. Do not believe them. Also, bring a DVD player for the kids, you’re not going to be able to fall back on Netflix or Hulu.
posted by mygothlaundry at 2:48 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]

I fulltime RV. I am at a campground that has excellent wifi. That's one of the reasons I haven't left. I am starting to see some RV parks offering 'good' wifi at a daily rate. I balance that out with a jet pack, hotspotting off my phone, planning a visit to a friend's house, etc. You sort of need to piece it together and be ok with driving to the top of a mountain to have a conference call at times. You can also plan on renting a hotel room every so often so you can have stable access.

I do agree that this isn't really the summer for this trip. I am staying in place probably until winter, depending on how things play out (longer if needed, of course).
posted by MountainDaisy at 10:01 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]

« Older Tesla Model 3 vs Honda Insight vs ???   |   How to clean dusty plastic sheet protectors? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments