"ON Grid" Internet... for the Van, Yo
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
Well, it's not off-grid because it's about being on the Internet. But, when we travel we would like to have the option of connecting to the Internet in as many places as possible and that's what this entry is going to be about. What I will share with you at this point is where my research has led me and I will follow up with hands on testing when we get all the hardware in and set up in the van. We didn't plan on this part of the build to be so soon but with the current pandemic this may move up in the queue of things to do. In the mean time, folks have been asking us about our plans for Internet connectivity and here is what we've found so far.
Our Use Case
What we want is for The Rocinante to have it's own Internet connection and WiFi network pretty much wherever we go. This is different from something that boosts the signal for our cell phones like a WeBoost setup. We need the van to have its own connected network even when we are not with it so we can look in on things like interior temperatures, battery status, and security cameras. So this means some kind of LTE router with it's own device plan with a carrier and a WiFi network all powered by the electrical infrastructure of the van. In simple terms it needs its own hotspot. And we could use one of those portable hotspots but they are not really designed for what we want to do. So we decided to look into fully integrating this into our build.
What are the components?
LTE Router for Internet connection
WiFi Router to provide connectivity to devices in and around the van
External Antenna for maximum range and speed in the boonies
Data Account with a carrier and SIM card
LTE and WiFi Router
The best thing I have found so far is something called the MOFI4500-4GXELTE-SIM4. It is an LTE router for connecting to the Internet via a wireless carrier device plan and it also provides a local WiFi network. These units are typically installed in retail locations, or businesses and homes in rural areas where terrestrial broadband is scarce or nonexistent so they have to rely on wireless for their Internet connections. I found several reviews of this unit and its variants about getting connected to the Internet out in the boonies and it has become very popular for those applications. It's very configurable and certified by all the major US carriers and has a reputation of pulling in signals and attaining higher data speeds than most anything out there. The company that makes it is out of Canada and they have a bundle for use in mobile applications with a special voltage regulator to make sure the device is not damaged by varying vehicle voltages. That Package is currently $399 See it here.
The unit comes with antennas for both LTE and WiFi reception. The WiFi antennas should be fine for use with a van but we might want have our LTE reception antennas positioned outside the van. For general use we went with this unit from Proxicast mounted on top of the roof of the van.
We might also want to use directional LTE antennas in order to focus the signal reception in the direction of the nearest cell tower. For that we need something like this Wilson Electronics Wideband Directional Antenna currently $55.99 at Amazon
Update: We ended up installing an omnidirectional antenna and it is working do good we may not have to do the directional one. Here is what we installed: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DF9XK5Y/ref=cm_sw_r_sms_apa_i_NJNqFbH5G8W5N
And now about Carrier Data Plans
There are tons of plans out there with various forms of "unlimited" data. But I'm finding that the ones the carriers intend for you to use with wireless hotspots are very expensive. But I have come across a trick from the video below that lets you use a normal phone device SIM and plan on the MOFI router as this router has the ability to look like phone device to the LTE network. This means you can indeed get unlimited, unthrottled data from carriers. At least that's what we see in the video. I look forward to testing this out myself and I will update this entry when I do.
Update October 8, 2020
So after a month with Cricket the book is that it is very slow, coverage is not as good as Verizon was and I still have a 22G limit to worry about. I don't want to worry. So I did some more research and decided to try Visible Wireless after seeing others have some success with it.
So here are the steps I did:
I went to the Visible Wireless site and created an account.
I ordered a SIM card and paid for their plan which is $40 per month for unlimited everything. They even include tethering at 5mbps even though that is not how I am going to use it. But it is nice to know as I may want to switch my cell service to Visible. It's a good deal if you don't need Mexico and Canada coverage as they offer none. And that is fine since Covid and all right now.
When I got the SIM I added the app to my phone without installing the SIM and logged into my account.
I activated my SIM following the instructions in the app. I still have not installed the SIM in the phone. The app said I had successfully activated service and instructed me to install the SIM and restart the phone. I did not install the SIM in my phone.
I took the SIM to the MOFI 4500 installed in the van and swapped out the SIM for the Visible SIM.
I restarted the MOFI.
I logged into the management portal in the MOFI and went to the modem module section and changed the APN setting to "Visible Wireless" at the APN dropdown.
I saved the value and restarted the modem.
Bingo. The Internet light was on and I had Internet service on the van's WiFi.
So far things are working and providing Internet to multiple devices. I will report back in a few days to make sure everything continues working.
Update September 5, 2020
We blew through the 15GB data allotment from Verizon pretty quickly during our last week plus trip through Colorado. So I did some research and found some folks having success with the "unlimited" plans from Cricket Wireless which is an AT&T MVNO. I went online to order a SIM to see if I could activate it on the Mofi 4500 and they accepted the IMEI number of the Mofi so I went ahead with my order which was delivered via UPS Next Business Day. I was concerned I would run into some of the same problems as before with needing to receive an SMS message to authenticate the new account and activate the SIM. It turns out I was able to activate the SIM and use it to get the Mofi 4500 connected to the Internet. What I was not able to do was register for an account via the Cricket web site or their app without receiving a temporary password via SMS. I got on chat with Cricket customer service and they confirmed I would have to be able to receive the SMS with the temporary password to be able to set up my account to manage payment and see how it was recording my data consumption. The agent then suggested I could put my SIM in a phone briefly to be able to get the password then put the SIM back in the Mofi router after setting up the account. That worked. I can now log into my Cricket account and see my data usage and manage payment, etc. And it looks to be scoring the data as normal smartphone traffic rather than "hotspot data". So It all appears to be working. It's not super fast. Cricket is limited to 8mbps but that is more than fast enough for video conference meetings and transferring photos, etc. Time will tell how this works out long term.
Update Aug. 10, 2020
I don't think I have found the plan/SIM that is perfect for us yet. My first attempt resulted in my getting a prepaid plan for Metro by T-Mobile by walking into the store with the router and the young lady working there looked up the IMEI and said they could activate on one of their "high speed unlimited plans" for $60/month and with that I get Google One and Amazon Prime. We got the device activated and working, actually but the catch came later when I wanted to see how I could manage and pay for the account. It seems the only way they have to authenticate you to access the account is via SMS messages. The Mofi router has no interface for dealing with SMS messages so I called customer service and they said SMS was the only way to access the account. So, I had an account but could not access or even pay for it to keep it working.
My next stop was at Verizon since we have Verizon phones. I checked out a plan they have for "connected cars" online and they invited me to see if my device could be activated. I put in the IMEI for the Mofi and it it recognized the device and said I could activate it and add to our account for 20 bucks and get "15GB of high speed data" per month. I ordered the SIM online for delivery at my local Verizon store. When I got back it looked like all the work I had done to change around plans and add this device had disappeared from my account in their system so I called customer service and got lucky with someone that was willing and able to help and now we have the Mofi on this Verizon plan with a 15GB limit. That is not going to work for both Becky's work and my photography for a month but it did work well enough for becky to be able to work from the road. But I am still looking for how we can get closer to 100GB per month at a reasonable price.