As I have said in another post, being able to ensure I have a good cell signal is critical to me. If I do not have reliable cell service, I don’t have reliable internet. If I do not have reliable internet, I cannot work from the road. After almost nine months travelling-with-Charlie, one thing I know is that I love working from the road!
Because cell coverage is so important, it is a central factor to how we plan our trips and choose where we are going to stay as we move from place to place. However, nothing (not even the internet) is perfect. Sometimes the reality of the cell coverage when we get to a place does not match the expectations I had for it based on the research I had done.
Most of the time we have no issues. So far we have stayed a week or more in 13 states and one Canadian province. With few exceptions, everything has been just fine. However, two weeks in New York were sketchy enough to make the whole time very exciting. Even if cell coverage is good enough, such as where we are now in Oklahoma City, a minor tweak can make a big difference. This being so, I just wanted to share our set up and experiences in the event it helps anyone.
While we were still at the house and before I even broached the subject of going on the road to my boss, I ran everything off cell service for a few months to be sure it would work. When I was sure we could do it and had gotten his ok, we ordered Charlie.
Once the order was in, while I was researching everything, I heard a lot about cell boosters. The object of a cell booster is to take a weak signal that may be barely usable and amplify it so that it becomes something you can depend on. It doesn’t make something out of nothing, it just makes what little there is more usable.
After watching videos and reading a lot, I decided on the weBoost Drive 4G-X. I intended from the beginning to get a larger roof antenna for it, but I knew I was not going to want to cut holes in Charlie’s roof at first, so I left that until later. I still haven’t gotten a bigger antenna, and currently, we still depend on the one that came in the box.
When I was getting our cell providers all arranged, I got unlimited ATT service and our hotspot. This hotspot had connectors for an antenna but no details about how that worked. I did some searching on Mobile Internet Research Center and found a couple of videos about MIMO antennas. Their recommendation at the time was the Netgear 6000450 MIMO Antenna. I ordered one and checked that box on my “Digital Nomad Survival Checklist.”
When my orders came in, it was play time. I wanted to be sure that things worked, that I knew how to hook them up when I needed to, and what I could expect.
I hooked up the cell booster in my home office to try it out. Since the booster antenna needs a metal base plate, for a time in my office, I had one of my wife’s small baking pans stuck in the window blinds with the antenna magnetically attached.
I did not see too much difference with the cell booster since the cell coverage at our old address was pretty good anyway.
The MIMO antenna made a more significant difference. From what I understand this antenna helps both with the download and upload speeds. I ran a bunch of speed tests with this attached, and I could see a difference. This antenna just hooks up to the hotspot and has suction cups so it can stick on the window.
The MIMO antenna is directional and works best if it is facing the tower. The way I am currently using the cell booster, from inside the RV, it works better if it is “facing” the cell tower as well. The way I figure out where to put these in the RV is to use antennasearch.com. You just enter the address where you are and let it do the work. When it is done, you are presented with a map of all the antennas surrounding you and their distance from your location.
This is where a compass can come in handy. You need to know which way your RV is facing so that you can put your antenna in the window that most closely aligns with the antenna you want to aim at. Sometimes this is easy enough, but I have been turned around so bad in some locations that I actually had to get my compass out and check to make sure I was facing the way I thought I was!
Most of the time I only need the MIMO antenna, and it does help. However, when we were in New York visiting my daughter and her family for two weeks, we stayed at Beaver Meadow Family Campground in Java Center New York. To paraphrase Luke Skywalker, if there is a bright spot to the cellular universe, this is the spot it’s farthest from.
When we got there I kind of panicked. None of the three carriers we have: ATT, Verizon, or TMobile, had any signal to speak of. I got out the cell booster and hooked it all up. I stuck the antenna to the same baking pan as I had used at the house and put it on the back of the sofa in the window nearest the fireplace.
Classy or not, it worked. I was able to work just fine the two weeks we were in Java Center. Nobody on any of the Skype calls I have each day knew any difference, even when I was sharing my desktop with Outlook and other network resource hogs going at the same time. So far this has been the only time I have had to use it, but just those two weeks were worth the money we paid for it, and it will continue to work if we need it again. After that two weeks I trust that as long as we have at least as much signal as we did in Java Center, we will be fine.
I will add an external antenna to the cell booster, probably when we are in Mesa this winter. I am not as scared of cutting through the roof, and after putting our network antenna and router in the cabinets in front, I see how wide open it is behind them so it should be reasonably easy to do.
I look forward to the time in the future when Mireille and I can go where we want and not care at all about cell coverage or internet, but for now, I enjoy working and getting paid! Until we decide it’s time to retire, these tools allow us to live this life which we have come to love so much.