Great RV Wifi and Cellular on a budget

by thenewstates

The Number ONE question we get as full-time RVers who work from the road is: How do you get internet and stay connected? It’s actually a combination of the right hardware, creative use of calling and data plans, and some configuration trial and error. However, let me just say that you do not need a technology background to get this going. As a heads up, our plans consist of Google Fi for voice and a prepaid Verizon Wireless hotspot plan. Most of this tutorial will apply even if you don’t have these exact services, but trust me when I say this is the best we’ve found. Ready to setup or reconfigure your mobile internet? Here we go!

JUMP AHEAD – HARDWARE | PLANS | SETUP

Hardware

There are three major components we need to get this party started.

  • Router-While you can use just about any router, the key is finding a router that makes it easy to jump between different SOURCES of internet. We use an older router,
    Peplink Pepwave Surf On‑The‑Go because it is out of the box setup to do exactly what we need. Others have had great success with ASUS routers, so I suggest Google to see if you may have an existing router that can do the work.
  • Hotspot Modem- For us, the key was finding a modem that could operate on its own power (needs an internal battery), wide spectrum of frequencies it can connect to on the road, and was on our chosen network. In this case, we selected the Verizon Jetpack MiFi 7730L. Again, look for one on your particular carrier if you prefer not to use Verizon, but as you’ll see later we couple this with Google Fi for almost unbeatable coverage.
  • Cell Signal Booster- As a surprise to no one, park campgrounds tend to be in remote areas (what, do you mean all that nature gets in the way of cell service? Yes.) and you will need some help to pickup at times a VERY weak signal. We went heavy duty, and selected a weBoost Connect RV 65. To keep this article focused on the WiFi and mobile internet setup, it will not include specifics on how to set these boosters up, but will come in a future tutorial (soon, I promise).  

 

 

Plans

OK, now this gets fun. What if I told you it was possible to have 4 DIFFERENT cell carriers from only 2 PLANS? You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true.

Calling

We use Google Fi (formerly known as Project Fi) for all our calling and text needs. This is Google’s home-grown service that provides automatic cross carrier roaming (an exclusive feature to specific Android phones) and an extremely flexible/generous data plan. Incredibly, Google offers a cell plan that roams on T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular (which is pretty key in rural areas). Here are the details of the plan we have (and full disclosure, we do receive a referral bonus if you click on our Google Fi link, but would highly recommend this even if we didn’t get a credit):

  • Unlimited Calling and Text in the US is only $20/month
    • Texting is also included and unlimited WORLD WIDE
  • Data is charged at $0.01 per MB ($10/GB)
    • No rollover, no paying for data you don’t use. They literally bill you by the MB each month. Easy.
  • After 6GB a month of data ($60) you pay nothing more, and get high speed until 15GB.
    • This is key. 4G speeds up to 15GB, after that it slows down to 3G.
  • International data is the same low price of $10/GB.
    • No roaming!
  • International calling (WIFI calling is unlimited and free) is $0.20 per minute
  • Previously available only to specific Google Android phones (Pixel/2/3, LG, Moto, etc) now you can use it on iPhones and many unlocked Android phones with reduced features.
    • Check out this LINK to see about compatibility

Are the wheels turning yet? For $20 plus a very reasonable price on data, we basically have world phones. When you pair it with the data plan below, our Google Fi plan can use the Verizon hotspot to make free WiFi voice calls and receive texts. Plus, we aren’t burning any of the Google Fi data, because we’re using the Verizon hotspot most of the time.

That’s 4 different carriers, in only two very affordable plans.

Data Plan

Back in November, 2018, Verizon rolled out new prepaid calling plans. In the past, they were frankly not very competitive on price, but of course boasted the network coverage of Verizon. To make this as easy as possible, here is a screenshot of the plan we have:

Yes folks, that is an Unlimited Verizon data plan for $65/month (if you auto-pay, but why wouldn’t you?). No throttling after a certain amount of GBs. No catch? THERE’S A CATCH.

So, what does this mean? Several people have asked me, and I can understand why this might be confusing on when and how “Network Management” can kick in.

  • Network Management has nothing to do with signal strength
    • No matter the power of your booster, it’s all about the tower.
  • It’s all about the tower
    • When you are in a higher population area (think cities, theme parks, etc), there are more people using each cell tower, makes sense?
    • At a tower level, if there is too much demand, Verizon will take steps to make sure the majority of people have a good experience using their connected device (phone, hotspot, tablet)
    • With this prepaid plan, your connection speed WILL be slowed down FIRST before a standard contract account user.

In the two months since we got this new prepaid plan, we have been noticeably slowed down at ONE location. During our visit to Orlando (a city) we stayed in Kissimmee (near a theme park), and had our speeds slowed to well below 1mb/s for several hours at a time. What did we do? Switch to our Google Fi data, of course! We’ll cover below how to handle all the switching between plans in the SETUP section below.

 

 

Setting it all up

Alright, grab some hot cocoa, and let’s get to work so you can get to work (see what I did there? No? Yeah, it really wasn’t even a good dad joke). Reminder, these instructions are based on the hardware and plans mentioned above, so please comment below or reach out on social media if you are trying to figure out how to do this with other gear.

  1. Buy the equipment, get the plans, activate your devices.
    1. I’ve included some links above, but feel free to comment if you have questions!
  2. Configure your portable hotspot and the mobile phone hotspots.
    1. This will be a little different for every phone and mobile hotspot, but for the Verizon 7730L Jetpack:
      1. Connect to the Jetpack WiFi using the network name and password shown on the front display
      2. Once connected, open a browser and go to http://192.168.1.1
      3. Click “Jetpack settings” on the left, and you will be prompted for a password. This password is located (via the menu on the front display of the jetpack) at HELP>Jetpack Admin Website at the bottom of the screen. It is specific to your device, and usually is also the initial password for the default WiFi network that comes with your Jetpack. Sometimes they are different, so here is where to find this specific password.
      4. Once logged in, look towards the center of the screen for a tab labeled “Primary Network” and click on it. This is where you will type your new Network name and password.
    2. DO NOT name every network the same. We use the same root Network name, then add a suffix for the device. EXAMPLE: WiFiNetwork-Jetpack
    3. You will later type these all into the configuation section of your router, so perhaps keep all the passwords the same? Just a thought.
  3. Download “Fi Switch” from the Google Play Store on all phones you intend to use as a hotspot
    1. This is a 3rd Party app that allows you to easily switch between the 3 different carriers provided by your Google Fi service
    2. To use, Open the app. You will see the current Cell network you are connected to with signal strength next to it (-95dbm for example. The closer to 0 the better signal. Number will NEVER be positive).
    3. If you need to switch carriers, just tap one of the buttons for Sprint, T-Mobile, or US Cellular. Your phone dialer will now appear. To activate the switch, tap and hold where the digits would normally appear for a number you are calling and select “Paste” from the popup. The phone will use the special code you pasted to switch networks (which can sometimes take up to 30 seconds, so be patient).
    4. To switch back or to another network, just repeat the steps above by first opening Fi-Switch and pasting a new code into the dialer
    5. I highly recommend the “Auto-switch” button for most times to allow your phone to select the strongest network. 
  4. Configure your router – This is actually not too bad thanks to the easy setup of the Peplink Pepwave Surf On‑The‑Go so here are the basic steps:
    1. Connect to the default network (see packaging for name)
    2. Open Chrome/Internet Explorer, etc and go to the address http://192.168.20.1
    3. You will receive this terrifying warning:
    4. Do not panic! This happens everytime you login to Peplink and is totally normal based on my experience with the router. To bypass this warning in Chrome, click ‘Advanced’ and select “Proceed to 192.168.20.1 (unsafe)”. Don’t worry, it’s your own router, it’s safe. 🙂 
    5. Congratulations! You’re connected to your router, and ready to setup all the various ways you’ll get internet. Bonus: After you’ve done this once, the switching becomes automatic, so you shouldn’t have to access the router configuration very often at all. 
    6. Here’s our main screen to show you. Make sure “Wi-Fi” is selected on the left, then click “Settings”
    7. Remember all those network names and passwords you setup earlier on the mobile hotspot and your phones? We’re going to enter them in the next step. scroll down to the area labeled WiFi WAN Settings. 
    8. Profile 1 will be ready for you already, so click “Refresh” and find the WiFi network of your mobile hotspot. Find your network, and click it. Next, type in the password you set for your mobile hotspot WiFi in the box labeled “Encryption key.” 
    9. Now, we need to add your phone’s hotspot feature to the router in case you can’t use the Verizon mobile hotspot. Click the plus (+) button to the right of Profile and you should see Profile 2 appear. Repeat the step from earlier, and click refresh to find your Phone’s hotspot WiFi network. Click on it, and then type in your password.
    10. Finally, it’s time to setup your Router’s WiFi network name. Scroll down to the bottom and find the section labeled “AP Settings.” If not already selected, click “Configure Manually” and it should fill in the little dot to the left of the word Configure. What you type here is what you will connect to from now on with your laptop, smart TV, etc. Enter the network name in AP SSID, select encryption of WPA/WPA2 Personal and type your desired network password into the box labeled Encryption Key. 
    11. Congratulations! This is pseudo the last step. In the bottom right corner, click SAVE. You will now freak out because you will get kicked off of the router’s WiFi network. Don’t Panic! This is normal, and the router is now going to reboot. Wait about 5 minutes, take a walk around the outside of the RV, then sit back down. On your laptop, connect to the new Wifi network you created in Step 10.

Let’s test the new network setup!

You should be already connected to the Peplink router’s WiFi network on your laptop. Let’s check on some things. First, try and access http://www.speedtest.net and check to see what network name appears below and to the left of the “GO” button. Does it say Verizon? Yes? Congrats, you are now using your mobile hotspot for internet! Go ahead and run a speed test to test it out.

Now, let’s test your fallback phone hotspot connection. Go ahead and turn ON the hotspot function on your phone. Count to ten, and now turn OFF the Verizon mobile hotspot. Now, count to 20 (or do another one of the those famous laps around the outside of the RV) and refresh the Speedtest page. What Name do you see below and to the left of the GO button now? Is it T-Mobile, Sprint, or US Cellular? Congratulations, you’re now using the data from your phone hotspot across your RV!

Notice how you didn’t have to go into the router settings and change from one network to another or connect to a different WiFi netowrk on your laptop? That’s because from now on, all your smart devices will connect to the Peplink router and IT will automatically switch to whichever hotspot device you have turned on (mobile hotspot, hotspot feature on your phone, etc). Isn’t that awesome??!!

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