Staying Connected While Working from the Road

The most frequent question I get is “How do you stay connected to the internet while traveling and working from the road?”  This post will be a living document to answer that, and will evolve as I have time and more insights. In general, staying connected has been easier than I expected/feared, and I haven’t felt like I’ve had to compromise my travel for connectivity too much (though I seldom park in really wild areas). While this post is fairly minimal, I’d  highly recommend looking at the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center, which has some excellent overviews of technology and options.

Generally, cell phone service providers don’t want to provide unlimited internet services to heavy laptop users: laptops are data hogs, and cell providers don’t make money selling laptops.  As a result, current “unlimited” plans are unlimited for cell phone data consumption- not for other devices. Cell phone plans also have a cap on the amount of data which you can use while tethering your laptop to your phone.

I use ~3-5GB of data/day for work, much of which (~2GB) needs to be on my laptop. Some calls could move to phone-based apps, but in my job screen-sharing is frequent and so it would be hard for me to get below ~3GB/day. With a 15GB/month hotspot and 15GB/month cell phone tether allowance, I would need to get an additional hotspot plan or a third-party unlimited SIM card to meet my WiFi needs over LTE.

While many people move into a van for the chance to boondock in remote places, I actually *prefer* to park around people/towns much of the time to mitigate feelings of loneliness and isolation while traveling solo during the pandemic. About a third of my time is also spent parked outside friends’ houses for outdoor socializing and having a reliable bathroom. As a result, I’ve felt it’s made more sense for me to focus on collecting good WiFi, and have invested in a set of enterprise WiFi antennas/amplifiers from Mikrotik. These products have great results (I can sometimes get high-speed WiFi while parked 150ft from a library or cafe), but take a lot of expertise and configuration headaches and have no/limited customer support (I’ve probably spent at least 20 hours configuring these). The WiFi Ranger products attempt to wrap some of these enterprise-grade components in more user-friendly interface. Seabits.com has some helpful posts and comment threads on configuring these products.

Key rules:

  • Always have a backup.
  • For important meetings, go with the most reliable solution (for me, this is the hotspot plugged into an external antenna in-town). Don’t assume that things will work.
  • Signal is better with an external antenna, particularly if your vehicle/camper has metal sides. Get a hotspot with external signal ports

Choices in order of preference:

  • Laptop WiFi (directly logging onto a friend or public wifi)
  • Mikrotik WiFi
  • Phone tethering
  • Hotspot

Antennas:

  • Hotspot (Inseego 8800L / Verizon JetPack 8800L): This has ports which take the following antennas:
    • Roof mount Poynting 5-in-1 puck
    • Window mount Netgear (haven’t ever needed)
    • Directional – Poynting XPol-5G-2 (have only needed to use once)
  • Mikrotik: Groove 52ac, SXT2, SXTsq 5ac. Hap router (the 5ac would be a worthwhile upgrade, but requires longer lead time shipping)

Apps:

  • iOS:
    • Ookla speed test
    • WiFi Map (premium subscription, moderate value)
    • Coverage Map (use rarely)
  • Laptop / MacOS:
    • Bandwidth+ (Mac store), monitoring daily data usage
    • Winbox4Mac (Mikrotik control)
  • Web:

Bugfixing/Gotchas:

  • Specific to Mikrotik:
    • Renew/Release/Apply configurations to renew request for IP lease
    • Your phone or laptop will show a mix of 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. Be sure to check both bands with your antenna(s).
    • Many networks will have multiple access points with a common SSID. Scroll through the list to find the one with the best signal.
  • Use the “Keychain” app to find the login details of a network which you’ve previously logged into from your laptop and which you now need the key for to enter into the Mikrotik page
  • Captive portal (login page) public WiFi: your credentials with the router may expire, but your laptop not recognize this issue- leading to needing another login. Save the IP address of the credential page (or look it up by attempting to connect a different device), or try common DNS addresses (1.1.1.1, 2.2.2.2, 8.8.8.8).  This is sometimes also an issue when logging onto a new captive portal network with the Mikrotik system.
  • 2.4GHz internet is generally more crowded, and you are more likely to notice a dip in speeds when shared services get hit by other users (I.e. when library patrons hop on the internet). Try switching to a 5GHz alternative.

Likely places for free open internet:

  • Libraries, community centers, courthouses
  • Downtown parks or pedestrian zones
  • Hotels
  • Gyms
  • Cafes, breweries, restaurants

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *