Data On The Road – We tested three services for sweet internet on the road

One challenge that remains for full time RV dwellers is an internet connection. Those staying seasonally at just a couple campgrounds a year can sometimes get service to your campsite from the local cable vendor or ISP. For a timeframe less than six months, that’s a lot of process to endure. The rest of the time you’re dependent on mobile data, which can be frustrating both in terms of cost and service availability.

As I started researching mobile data options, it quickly became a story of sadness and hope. Sadness that our options for mobile internet have improved only marginally in the last decade and hope that, finally, the embers of change are beginning to smolder.

So, I’ve been on the watch for mobile data options. And, after talking to many RVers, I’ve narrowed the options to three. Do keep in mind that, in some ways, wireless is like real estate. The same options may not be available to everyone and you may have local options that are different.

For this test I compared:

Tracfone
Google Fi
Visible

Where I Tested The Contestants

For this test I picked a campground with no Wi-Fi and notoriously poor cell service. To my surprise all the services had a decent signal and could keep pace with the data demand. Our national wireless network is better today, though there will still be places out west where cell service is non-existent.

I ranked the services on their ability to produce a home-like internet connection, ability to connect to a variety of devices and cost. Of the three I tested, only two provided a quality hotspot experience:

Tracfone

Tracfone has the most expensive data plans but a wide variety of phones and plans, including one with a mobile hotspot. My Tracphone phone worked great and kept pace with my data needs but I could never get the hotspot to work and it was probably lucky I didn’t as I would have burned through my data allotment in a couple days. Plenty of people get the Tracfone hotspot to work, so don’t count my experience as typical.

Even though it has no contract and a wide variety of pricing options, I considered Tracfone the weakest of the competitors.

Google Fi

Because Google sources its service from two different carriers, automatically selecting the strongest signal between the pair, you’ll always have a good signal and excellent data throughput. I can work and watch movies on Fi with no problems at all. Google Fi provided the strongest signal and fastest service in a variety of usage scenarios. The downside with Fi is the cost of data. $10 a gig doesn’t sound like much but it really adds up in hotspot mode. I was able to rack up a $40 data charge in just over a week. It should come as no surprise then that Fi is coming out with an unlimited data plan. For one line it’s $70/month and does allow a hotspot and tethering.

If you don’t travel a lot, Google Fi credits you back for the data that you don’t use on your monthly plan. If you pay for 2 gigs a month (the plan I have) and only use 1 gig, Google will credit you back for 1 gig of service on your next month’s bill. That makes Fi the lowest price service if you spend most of your time at places that have Wi-Fi. Fi is excellent at remembering connections and sets up an encrypted VPN on public connections automatically.

If you travel a lot and can swing the $70 a month for unlimited data, I believe Google Fi provides the best deal in terms of reliability and throughput. If you only travel occasionally and can afford the odd big bill, Fi’s strength is convenience. Though it should be noted there is no monthly data rebate on the unlimited plan.

Google Fi is month to month with no contract required and supports a variety of phones. What Fi doesn’t have, that the others do, is a low-cost phone option.

Visible – The Clear Winner

Visible is the new kid on the phone service block and I’m always skeptical of new guys. They come along with a tempting offer and, as the service gains subscribers, they start chiseling away at the deal. That said, right now Visible is offering unlimited text, talk and data for $40 a month, with all fees and taxes included. Still, you have no idea what it will be in six months. The company resells Verizon service, so they’re also subject to changes and pressure from their network provider.

If you like Verizon, then you’ll love Visible. In my opinion they fix everything that’s wrong with dealing with the bigger carrier. Visible has no contracts and the niggling add-on fees are built into the bill. So, it’s $40 all in for unlimited data, text and talk.

Visible also offers a $20 smartphone to use with the service that is far more functional than a phone of that price range has a right to provide. My biggest criticism of Visible’s $20 smartphone is that it doesn’t have a depolarized screen. So, if you’re wearing sunglasses, like in the car, the screen will be black. But I could still use the Visible phone as a hotspot on the road in the car, with my Google Fi phone using the Visible phone for mobile data. For $20, I’m sure not going to quibble. It works.

Our Visible phone’s hotspot was the most like our home internet connection. I’m writing this article while watching the James Bond classic Live and Let Die on Hulu. I have multiple tabs open and they’re all keeping pace. The only downside is you can only connect one device at a time to the hotspot. Even at that, my opinion is Visible is the best of the three. There will be some inconvenience if you have to switch back and forth between devices. It is also a problem for me that when my phone comes in range it tries to monopolize the hotspot and take it away from my laptop. What I liked most about Visible was that in operation it was, perhaps ironically, mostly invisible.

The one connected device limit may not work for families with kids who might need an open hotspot. In that situation, you may want to look at dealing with Verizon for a mobile hotspot. Doing so you’ll be locked into a contract at throttled after 15 gigs. That’s a big data cap but you’ll be surprised how fast it goes. Another thing to consider is that a two year contract in mobile technology is a lifetime.

If you’re interested in trying Visible, do me a favor and use my party link it will help me fund more research like this in the future.

Starlink – The Connection of the Future

Every day I pray to my model Falcon 9 rocket to speed along development of Starlink (I don’t actually do that). When finally deployed, likely sometime in 2020, Starlink will provide broadband speeds, broadband throughput and ground-based lag times from a satellite connection. When Starlink is deployed you can spend $70 a month for an internet connection that works literally anywhere, as it won’t be using the cellular network. The satellites are in low earth orbit, which means the signal doesn’t have to travel 22,800 miles to satellites in geosynchronous orbit and back down…about 270 milliseconds, forever in internet time. The lag associated with that signal round trip is why satellite internet hasn’t really caught on. Also, satellite internet is really expensive and requires a big antenna that has to remain stable.

Starlink should fix all those problems with an antenna about the size of a pizza box, which will be able to keep a connection while in motion. Personally, I will gladly pay Starlink to be rid of Comcast and cable.

SpaceX has already launched two sets of satellites and will be able to start offering service after six to eight flights. I plan on being one of the first to sign up.

There you have it. A $40 solution for mobile data that will be perfect for one or two people until Starlink is online and solves our mobile data woes once and for all.

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