To prepare for the transition to full-time RV living, I invested in a mobile satellite internet kit designed for RVers in early 2006. Until recently, this was my main internet connection.
I have found that the satellite system works great in most places, and generally provides a steady connection when in rural areas where no other connection is available. I don’t always use it; if an RV park or campground has WiFi available, I usually opt for that for general web browsing (I still use the satellite for secure web browsing and as a backup). The strength of the satellite system is its ability to capture a signal almost anywhere in the lower 48 states, and it has saved my bacon in some out-of-the-way places.
It isn’t perfect, though. In northern states I’ve visited (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, Oregon), the view angle for the satellite is very low, which combined with the abundance of trees and hills makes the satellite setup difficult or impossible. Even in a good location with a clear view of the southern sky, there is a seemingly endless list of possible issues with the satellite connection: solar flares, weather at the network centers, cloud cover, storms, rain, electrical interference from power lines or other WiFi signals… you get the idea. I’ve spent days agonizing over a trickle-speed connection while trying to get work done.
Since the satellite’s main strength, in my opinion, is its usefulness in out-of-the-way places, I didn’t consider going with a cellular data plan since I wanted more flexibility to truly “use it anywhere.” I’ve found, however, that my travels generally find me close to towns and cities—at least on work days. As much as I thought I’d be in the boonies, it hasn’t turn out to be the case.
So, I decided to take another look at cellular broadband, popularly called EVDO, as an option. My hope was that the technology had advanced enough in the last two years to leave the satellite behind and transition to EVDO. This would mean three big things to me: fewer worries about where to park (trees, latitude, etc), smaller and cheaper equipment, and faster, more reliable service.
I read, researched, prodded, and poked. Several fellow RVers suggested checking out EVDO plans on Sprint and Verizon. Popular online RV forums are filled with success stories from RVers who are connect with EVDO. I also followed Alex King’s experiences with Sprint, which led me to EVDOinfo.com.
The resources and information at EVDOinfo.com helped tremendously, and I was pleased with the speed reports and the price points. Finally, I settled on a Sprint Mobile Broadband plan along with the Franklin U680 USB, a CradlePoint CTR500 router, and a Booster Antenna.
The system arrived, and I haven’t set up the satellite since. One big surprise for me: latency is not as much of an issue as I had expected. With the satellite connection, I’d experienced horrible latency when typing in remote shells, and using Skype or any SSL connection over HTTP had proven difficult and slow. In contrast, the Sprint EVDO connection is fast and responsive over a remote SSH connection, and secure web pages load quicker.
If you are an RVer, I’d recommend looking into an EVDO system. If you have a connection with cable or DSL, and rely heavily on it, I’d suggest an EVDO plan as a backup to your main connection. It also works great as a traveling WiFi connection if you are on the road a lot.
First, read a good introduction: Easy EVDO. See if your area is covered, first in the official coverage maps (Sprint, Verizon), then in the EVDO coverage maps submitted by users. Then, to start looking at hardware, go to the 3Gstore, a one-stop shop for all your EVDO needs, brought to you by the EVDOinfo folks.
Speeds are comparable to DSL when the EVDO connection is at its best. As a bonus, the connection has three different speed ranges (depending on your location), which is nice compared to a satellite system that is either on or off. When EVDO isn’t available, for example, but you are still within voice range, you can still surf the web and view emails, though at a much slower speed.
Here is how the Sprint speed ranges break down:
- Best: EVDO-A provides 450–800kbps download with bursts to 3Mbps and 300–600kbps upload.
- Next best: EVDO Rev-0 provides 400–700kbps download with bursts to 2Mbps and 50–100kbps upload.
- Slowest: 1xRTT provides 50–100kbps download and upload (dialup speeds). This is available anywhere voice service exists.
To get the most out of an EVDO plan, you will want to be in the EVDO-A coverage area most of the time.
EVDO vs. Satellite
I have to say that the satellite connection I was using doesn’t stack up well against my new EVDO connection. One exception is the “use anywhere” situation, but as I mentioned above I don’t often find myself out of cellular range on work days.
Strengths as compared to satellite:
- Doesn’t need a clear view of southern sky.
- Faster setup time: no pointing or modem rebooting each time.
- Cheaper, lighter, and smaller hardware.
- The equipment is confined within the RV, meaning I have no exterior equipment to take down/up each time I move.
- Can be used anywhere (coffee shop, in the car) as long as the modem is powered. Or, the USB EVDO card can be used on just one computer to get access. This is a huge deal for frequent travelers that are constantly trying to find a WiFi connection.
- Can be used while moving (doesn’t need to be stationary like the satellite dish).
- Provides lower levels of service when EVDO isn’t available (slower, but I still have a connection).
Weaknesses as compared to satellite:
- Broadband coverage is only around populated areas. (But, both Sprint and Verizon’s coverage areas are expanding.)
- 5GB cap of usage per month. My satellite plan also has limits, but they are much higher, and based on daily usage, not monthly.
- Signal strength affects the speeds: the closer I am to the tower, the better.
- The USB modem’s onboard antenna isn’t very strong; I had to to purchase a booster antenna to guarantee service in all the places I visit.
- In reading the service agreement with Sprint, and viewing their marketing materials, the service doesn’t appear intended to be a full-time connection; instead it seems to be designed for as a backup to a regular connection (cable, DSL) or as a travel connection between office and home (for example).
Update: I added links to the “official” coverage maps for Sprint and Verizon.