Working from the road

Awhile back in our life on the move series I promised that I’d give some more details on some of the logistics of doing work from the road, in particular how we’ve stayed digitally connected.  This was something that I worried about quite a bit before we left because I rely heavily on an internet connection for work and I had absolutely no concept of how much data I used on a regular basis or the reliability of 4g data.  The good news is that the solution for me turned out to be pretty simple and the price, while a little high, was definitely doable.

The Punchline

I’m going to go into quite a bit of detail here but if you just want the short story….what I would recommend to someone going nomadic then here it is:

Get yourself a good 4g mobile hotspot from Verizon and figure on using 20GB per month (assuming you adopt a healthy data diet).  In my experience that is all you really need.  You can always add more later if you feel the need.

The Hardware

There are lots of folks who travel full time and have done extensive write ups on the hardware they use and such.  After reading those I figured I would get

  1. a mobile hotspot from AT&T or Verizon,
  2. the WiFi Ranger antenna and router, and
  3. and 4g/3g range extender

When it got closer to go-time and we had unexpected tow vehicle expenses the prices of those items became a bit too hard for my tightwadness to swallow.  Of those three, (1) was the only absolutely critical piece and fortunately it was the least expensive (at least for the hardware).  I ended up going through Verizon (more on that later) and bought the top of the line unit, the Jetpack AC791L, because it got great reviews and it had jacks for an external antenna (in case I got the range extender).  All the Verizon sales people want you to do the contract “because then, the hotspot is free/cheaper!!”.  Uh, no its not…you are simply financing it at 0% interest.  And that would be a good deal except I was not planning on keeping the service for the 2 year length of the contract.  If you dig deep enough in the fine print you find the early termination fee which starts decreasing by $5 per month after the first 6 months.  Go ahead and do the math if you like, but the folks at Verizon aren’t dumb, they have calculated it such that whether you buy the device outright, you pay for it over 2 years, or you terminate early you’ll end up paying the same amount for the device.  For the consumer the only way you really pay more is if you do the contract and cancel withing the first 7 or 8 months.  So for me and my 6 months I planned on using the service it was better to buy the unit outright.  This boggled the sales people’s minds why I would fork over all that money right now…oh well.

Most people agreed that (2) was valuable mostly because of the router.  The antenna did a great job of pulling in available WiFi but campground WiFi was usually so unusable that they ended up using paid data through their hotspot anyway.  So I decided to rely mostly on my paid data and any campground WiFi we did get would just be gravy.

I also noticed that review sites for campgrounds, particularly those at Campendium, showed signal strength for AT&T and Verizon and often showed good coverage at places we were interested in without the need for range extenders.  So, I decided that (3) could wait.  If it became an issue it was readily available on Amazon and I could have one in my hands within a few days.

In the event that we did come across usable campground WiFi I wanted a way to use it from the safe side of my own router and firewall.  Instead of getting the more popular and expensive Go2 router from  the WiFiRanger kit I got a PEPWave Surf SOHO.  It’s just like the router you have in your house except instead of getting internet through a physical CAT5 cable from your provider, it gets internet through the air waves.  On paper I could also hook my mobile hotspot to this unit and it would automatically switch between public WiFi and my hotspot based on priorities I set and the signal availability.  However, this did not pan out.  Yes, it did work…but putting the PEPWave between the hotspot and connected devices made the connection painfully slow.  PEPLink support was more than willing to help but it required me having a hardwired ethernet connection for them to remotely debug…but I did not find this issue out until we were on the road with no hardwired ethernet connections available.  When campgrounds have had WiFi the PEPWave was nice as I could get it connected to campground WiFi and then everyone’s devices just worked as they always connected to the same hotspot, ThisOlBoxOnRoad.  Honestly, we could have done without this device…it was mostly for convenience and safety.

To summarize our hardware:

  • Jetpack AC791L ($200) for the absolutely necessary mobile hotspot, and
  • The optional PEPWave Surf SOHO ($180) for convenience and safety when using public WiFi.

The Carrier

I did not debate long between AT&T and Verizon.  Most people I spoke with said that having both was the best bet, but if you had to choose one then Verizon was the top choice.  I did a brief price comparison and Verizon’s data was cheaper than AT&Ts as well as having more options.  I did consider Google Fi but the networks were not in most nomad’s top two choices and the data prices were high (although it is nice that you only pay for what you use).  We have three mobile phones in the family and we use RepublicWireless.  All three have unlimited talk and text for $10/month and Steph’s also  has 2GB of 3g data for an additional $15.  All of them can also leverage WiFi for data and voice if need be.  In summary:

The Data 

Next I needed to figure out how much data we used.  About 2 weeks before we left I found this free program called GlassWire that I installed that tracked my data usage in real time.  Had I found this earlier I would have used it for a few months to get a better feel of how much data I used and what were the biggest users of data.  I decided to start with about 20GB per month based on my gut feel and confirmation from Mike at ditchingsuburbia.  With Verizon you can change your data plan up or down at any time so I knew there was flexibility to adjust.  The pricing is a little convoluted when you adjust so just ask the agent to calculate it the different ways available and pick the one you want.  The point is, there is some flexibility in data so you can dial in what works for you over time but it is more cost effective if you predict your data usage correctly.  To summarize:

20GB per month ($130 including the “line fee” not including taxes) is very doable for a family of 5 when sticking to a data diet

The Results

This relatively simple setup has worked amazingly well.  We have always had at least 2 bars of 4g everywhere we have camped (well it was 1 bar in Carabelle but still usable).  You can check out our map and our stats page to see the details of where we have been and where we have stayed.  The speed of 4g is pretty amazing.  The battery life on the Jetpack AC791L easily gets you through a heavy day of use with juice to spare.  It is important for everyone in the family to stick to the data diet and be ready to gorge themselves anytime there is free, usable WiFi at a campground, restaurant or museum.  I’ll do a follow up post on the data diet but for now I hope this provides a simple and cost effective way for you to start out.  So if one of your excuses to not follow your dream of traveling was that you need a reliable internet connection without breaking the bank, then we’ve just knocked that obstacle out of your way!

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