We consider connectivity a necessity, and are willing to commit considerable monetary resources to ensure that we have internet/cell service at all times in all places. If you think connectivity is not a necessity, try living without it a few days, especially in a place without TV or radio.
No email, no texts, no phone calls, no video or audio streaming, no audio books, no Kindle, no podcasts, no Facebook or Twitter, no Words with Friends, no photo or video sharing, no searching on Google, no Google maps, no weather reports, no news or sports, no blogs or blogging, no Wikipedia, no Dropbox or Google Drive, no online banking or investing, no campground reservations, no shopping on Amazon. Admit it. Connectivity isn’t just a necessity, it’s an addiction. GOT TO HAVE IT!
Our habit runs about 200 GB per month, much of that for streaming video and audio. We have a satellite dish on our roof, but we don’t use it. So we’re dependent on our over-the-air antenna or on streaming over the internet for all our TV news, sports, and entertainment. Over-the-air can be spotty, and the channel choices are limited. That’s why it’s not uncommon for us to stream 3-4 hours of video and audio a day between the two of us, not to mention all the other uses listed above.
Until recently, finding an affordable plan that provided that much data was a challenge. But currently, all four major carriers offer reasonably priced unlimited data plans. But there are catches, since most carriers offer unlimited plans only on smartphones, but not on dedicated hotspots.
This poses a problem for nomads like us because a dedicated hotspot is the best way to get a internet signal to the WiFi dependent devices in our motorhome, such as smart TVs, laptops, tablets, printers, etc. Most campground WiFi is barely usable. If you want internet, it’s better to bring your own despite the obstacles and cost.
Our current setup includes two dedicated hotspot devices and two smartphones spread among the top three carriers. We like redundancy. Below is a discussion of how we use these devices, how much our plans cost, and what we get for the money.
Note: the article below was updated in Jun 2017 and may be outdated.
ZTE Falcon Z917 Netgear AC815S
Our primary internet provider is Cricket/AT&T. The service came with a ZTE Falcon Z917 hotspot. The device is branded by T-Mobile, but we bought ours unlocked from 4G ANTENNA SHOP in July of 2016. They configured it to work with Cricket/AT&T. AT&T and T-Mobile use similar technology, and it’s not uncommon for their devices to work on the each other’s network.
Previously, we were using Sprint smartphones along with a Verizon Jetpack hotspot on an unlimited data plan. We rented our Verizon service through a small vendor we found on eBay for $150 per month. Unfortunately, the vendor was unauthorized. In July 2016, Verizon cracked down on them and we lost our service. Our Sprint service proved inadequate as a reliable backup.
We turned to Chris and Cherie at RV Mobile Internet, and read about an affordable plan with Cricket/AT&T then being offered by 4G ANTENNA SHOP, who are authorized. Signup was quick and easy.
We paid $79 for our device plus $65/month for unlimited data. We’ve been very happy with both the service and the device, especially since it was so much cheaper than what we were paying the third party vendor for Verizon.
Cricket is owned by AT&T, and uses AT&T’s surplus capacity. The main difference is that Cricket customers get lower priority than regular AT&T customers. Normally, this is not an issue. But in a situation where there are a lot of AT&T customers trying to access a congested cell tower, we Cricket customers automatically go to the back of the line.
The ZTE Falcon Z917 is a solid performer. We have to re-boot it every few months, but other than that it works like a champ. The main limitation is that it can only handle 10 connected devices at a time. This can pose a problem because we have the following 10 devices:
- Vizio Smart TV
- Three streaming devices: Apple TV, Chromecast, and Amazon Firestick
- Two laptops
- Two iPad tablets
- Two Android tablets
- Wireless printer
- Two smartphones – usually not on WiFi
- Two WiFi enabled cameras – usually not in use
Update: June 2017. We’ve camped at a number of remote locations where our ZTE hotspot was not able to pull in a very strong signal. We thought the solution might be to get an antenna. However, the ZTE does not have the option of adding an external antenna.
So we purchased a Netgear AC815S hotspot that does have the option. We bought ours directly from AT&T for $199.99. The in-store sales person was very helpful and even allowed us to test the hotspot with our Cricket SIM card inside the AT&T store to make sure it would work.
The Netgear AC815S allows up to 15 devices to be connected, versus 10 for the ZTE. It uses LTE Bands 2, 4, 5, 12, 17, 29, 30, versus 2, 4, and 17 for the ZTE, It has a number of advanced features, such as carrier aggregation, which the ZTE doesn’t. And the AC815S has a very useful LED touchscreen; the ZTE has no screen. RV Mobile Internet rates the Netgear AC815S as a Top Pick.
But the main reason we upgraded hotspots was to get the external antenna. Our first antenna was a little 12 inch magnetic mount single antenna, but it didn’t work very well. Then we tried the dual Netgear MIMO antenna. We’re glad we did. What a difference!
The dual MIMO antenna makes a significant improvement in signal strength. We just plug it into the back of the hotspot and then attach the antenna to a window with the included suction cups, and we’re good to go. It comes highly recommended by RV Mobile Internet, and gets our vote as well. Chris and Cherie report that it often works better than a much more expensive signal booster, which cost hundreds of dollars and can be a challenge to install. We bought our Netgear MIMO antenna on Amazon for just $29.95. The Netgear AC815S hotspot combined with the Netgear MIMO antenna has proven to be a very satisfactory upgrade.
Our backup internet provider is T-Mobile. We find that we usually have a strong AT&T signal, but occasionally there is no AT&T service in the area. At those times, we fire-up the Alcatel Linkzone 4067 from T-Mobile.
Unfortunately, T-Mobile does not have an unlimited hotspot plan. Ours is on a grandfathered Simple Choice 6 GB plan. In addition to the 6 GB of high speed data, our Simple Choice plan includes Binge On, which gives us unlimited video and audio from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Google Play Music, plus many others. It also comes with Data Stash, which means if we don’t use the full 6 GB, the unused amount is rolled over to the next month.
We bought the device in January 2017 during a promotion that T-Mobile was running. The regular price is $72. We put down $24, and they financed the balance for 24 months at $2 per month. The deal is that they give us a credit each month equal to the monthly payment. So it essentially cost us $24.
We like T-Mobile service a lot. It’s often faster than our Cricket/AT&T service. It’s not uncommon for us to connect the Vizio Smart TV to the Alcatel hotspot rather than the ZTE. As long as we’re only streaming Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and YouTube, there is no data usage.
The Alcatel is very similar to the ZTE, and works just as well. Plus it can handle 15 connected devices at once. In fact, the T-Mobile SIM works in the ZTE, so we are keeping the ZTE as a backup since it will work with either T-Mobile or Cricket/AT&T.
We have two devices with T-Mobile. One is the Alcatel Linkzone hotspot described above. The second is a Samsung Galaxy J7 smartphone for Becky.
We originally purchased the Samsung in July 2016 on the T-Mobile Simple Choice plan. We switched to the T-Mobile One plan in February 2017. It includes unlimited data for $70 per month, all taxes included.
Note: T-Mobile was our replacement for Sprint, and provides much better coverage. Sprint is the smallest of the four national carriers. It’s cheaper than the others, and tends to have decent coverage in most cities. But we would not recommend Sprint to anyone who travels outside major urban areas.
The Samsung smartphone itself is fine. What makes it special is that we bought it on a promotion as well. The regular cost was $240. We put $18 down, and T-Mobile financed the balance for 24 months at $9.25 per month. Like the hotspot deal, T-Mobile gives us a credit each month equal to the monthly payment. So the smartphone essentially cost us $18.
Our smartphone plan includes a hotspot function for no additional cost, but it is limited to 10 GB of high speed data. So in a way, our smartphone hotspot is a near duplicate of our Alcatel hotspot device.
It’s easy to get these two kinds of hotspots confused. Both provide WiFi to our other devices. But one hotspot is a function that can be turned on inside the smartphone, while the other hotspot is a separate dedicated mobile device. And there is one other key difference. The SIM card in the Alcatel hotspot device includes Binge On with free unlimited video and audio, but the hotspot in Becky’s Samsung smartphone does not.
David’s smartphone is a Moto Z Play, which is on Verizon and serves as an additional backup internet provider when Cricket/AT&T and T-Mobile are not available.
So far, we’ve only stayed in one place without service from Cricket/AT&T or T-Mobile. That was Salt Springs Recreation Area in Ft McCoy FL. Fortunately, Verizon was available. It was weak and slow, but we were glad we had it.
After swearing it would never offer an unlimited data plan again, Verizon resurrected theirs in February 2017. We got ours the first week. Verizon simply has the best coverage nationwide. And that’s important to us. We’ve only been in one area without Verizon, Hidden Cove RV Park in Arley AL. Normally, we can count on a good signal from Verizon, even when the other carriers are missing in action.
The plan includes unlimited data for $85 per month minus $5 for auto pay, which brings the fee down to $80. The hotspot function is available for free, but is limited to 10 GB of high speed data.
The smartphone regularly cost $408, which they finance for 24 months at $17 per month. But Verizon was running a promotion at the time that gave us $10 off each month. So the phone will end up costing us $168.
The Moto Z Play is a nice smartphone. It’s main claim to fame is that it can be easily transformed with a number of Moto Mod snap on modules. Verizon’s website describes it this way.
Snap on one of the Moto Mods (each sold separately) to make the most of every moment. Transform your Moto Z Play Droid into a high-powered camera with 10x optical zoom, a theatre that projects videos up to 70 inches, a boombox with renowned JBL sound or a battery powerhouse for extra hours of use.
I sprung for the “boombox”, which is an attachable speaker that snaps on the back of the smartphone. It works surprisingly well.
So how much do we actually spend a month on connectivity? About $150 for two smartphones, and $90 for unlimited internet, not including taxes or device payments. You could make a good argument that we are paying too much because we have overly redundant service, especially with the two hotspots. But we know that that the Cricket/AT&T service can end abruptly, since it is from a third party vendor. So we’re keeping the T-Mobile hotspot for now, just in case.
6 GB +Binge On