Internet for Work on the Road

My wife, three kids, and our dog travel around the US with an RV.

When I started putting this together, I was on Dauphin Island, south of Mobile, Alabama. I’m working from the truck while my wife and kids are at the Aquarium behind me. Later, we are all going to check out historic Fort Gaines, which is right in front of me. If you want to know why I would want to live in an RV, days like this are the answer. Did I mention its 61F and sunny in February?

RVers or not, one of the first questions I get when people find out I work from the road is “how do you connect to the internet?”. Like many jobs today, I need a constant, reliable connection for work.

I mentioned being on Dauphin Island because its somewhat remote here, not ideal conditions, and yet I have the connection I need to do my job.

A week later and I’m in Northern Alabama, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. I’m far more remote here, and have 0 to 1 bar of signal with both Verizon and T-Mobile networks. Others tell me AT&T works better here.

Primary Connection

Calyx is a non-profit focus on internet security. They have a fantastic benefit for their members: unlimited hotspot data. For $750, you get a 5G hotspot device and 1 year of service. You must pay the full year upfront, but it works out to $63/mo. Service in later years is $500, which drops the per month cost to $42 (still paid upfront).

Backup Plan

We keep Verizon phones and a Verizon 4G hotspot so we have a second, completely different network as a backup. The Verizon hotspot we have does connect to an external antenna which should give us a bit better connection in remote places.

Backup Backup Plan

Campground WiFi is rarely great, and can be expensive, but sometimes its the only option. I’m at a site in Northern Alabama where Verizon and T-Mobile are not working. I paid $15 for one week at 5Mbps down, 1Mbps up. This is about the minimum for video calls. I still get a bit of stuttering. Luckily, I rarely spend more than an hour of my day on calls, so these speeds have not been a big issue this week.

What’s the downside of Calyx?

I see two main issues.

First, you have to pay upfront for a yearly membership. Your payment is a donation, not a purchase. If the hotspot isn’t working out for you, maybe you happen to be in a bad signal area, too bad you cannot get your donation back. The is no early cancellation refund. The internet connection is a free bonus for members, not the thing you bought.

Second, you have to use the device they provide. The device varies based on your membership level. The device I have does not have external antenna ports, meaning I can’t put a better antenna on my RV roof and use that to improve the signal. I’ve seen people on Reddit talk about putting the SIM card in a different hotspot, but doing so could get you kicked out with no refund, at least according to their membership agreement.

Is Calyx better than PepWave? Or whatever other service?

First, PepWave is a brand of hotspot device. Multiple service providers offer PepWave devices.

Calyx is better than these services because the data is unlimited and unthrottled. I am not aware of any other service with such a deal. The connection speeds will be the same, though, if you are using the same network, assuming you are using the same device to connect.

Calyx is worse because they do not offer a device with external antenna, which is particularly relevant if you intend to be very remote or in mountainous areas. Most services have a small, specific set of hotspot devices they offer, and this is where you will find speed differences, particularly in remote settings. PepWave has devices that connect to external antennas, including mast antennas that can be lifted high above the trailer for better line-of-sight to the tower. If you plan on being far from civilization or in hilly terrain, a hotspot with an external antenna may be the best choice.

If you are reasonably close to a cell tower, external antennas will make little to no difference. My Verizon hotspot has 2 external antenna connections, but 4 internal antennas. It will only run on one set. The internal antennas can result in higher speeds with just 2-3 bars of signal due to having double the connection lanes.

Calyx runs on the T-mobile/Sprint network. My device uses the new 5G connection, and I’ve been blown away by the speeds. Depending on your location, you may get a faster connection with AT&T or Verizon, which are options through other services.

Will I switch to Starlink when its available?

If you haven’t heard of it, SpaceX recently launched a new satellite internet service. Starlink consists of thousands of low orbit satellites and small ground receivers, a bit like Dish TV service. But unlike Dish, there are far more satellites and they are much closer to earth, allowing for high speed internet connections.

If you had asked me 6 months ago, I would have said yes to Starlink, but now I’m not so sure. The service on our Calyx hotspot has been far beyond my expectations. Even if Starlink was faster, I’m already getting speeds above my needs, so the main benefit with Starlink is being to connect in far remote locations, which isn’t what we usually do.

Starlink brings a couple of logistical difficulties as well. Starlink requires a larger setup that takes up space in our already packed rig. The hotspot device we have fits in my pocket and I can take it with in the truck if I want to work outside the trailer, such as down by the beach.

Also, Starlink currently requires a fixed, though changeable, location. When you move, you need to register in a new satellite zone, This means on long travel days, the kids wouldn’t be able to complete schoolwork, play games or watch movies in the back seat of the truck.

What happens when you can’t get a good connection?

First off, we are remote here, but not way off the grid. The list of places around the US we haven’t visited that are within an hour of a city is endless. Unless I’m taking time off, we try to stay in areas that are not too remote.

As I mentioned, we have hotspots for both Verizon and Tmobile. Many campgrounds also offer wifi. Often the connection is slow and costs more than it should, but it is a valid fallback.

One day I may do a video on why campground wifi is often not secure, but for now you probably want to avoid using credit cards on campground wifi, especially if the network does not have a password or if the password is only entered in a web browser.

If we do end up somewhere without a way to connect, our options are to move or I hop in the truck during the work day and travel to the nearest coffee shop. Its not ideal, but just one of the tradeoff you deal with living this life.

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