One question I get all the time is: “Can I reliably get the internet on the road as a traveler, and if so, how?” Based on my experience, and the experience of the many other vandwellers I know, the answer is “Yes, you absolutely can!” Running this website means I MUST have good internet at all times and I’m able to do that. But, there are two things I did to ensure that happens, and I suggest you do them too:
- I signed up for data with Verizon because it has by far the best coverage in remote areas. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been camping with friends and they had a different carrier and they got nothing while I had a strong 4g signal. For awhile, I had an ATT phone, and that was my experience also, Verizon worked where ATT wouldn’t. However, if you spend most of your time in cities, then they’re all the same and you should buy on price and convenience. But if you think you’ll ever travel beyond cities, I recommend Verizon even if they cost more. A good deal on a phone that doesn’t work half the time is not really a good deal. I have a friend who had ATT but it never worked were we were while my data was great. He got so fed up with it he paid the fee to end the contract early and signed up with Verizon, he’s never regretted it!
- I bought a Wilson Sleek Cell Signal Amplifier. If you’re a traveler and spend much time camping in remote areas, even as good as Verizon is, there will be times when your signal will be weak and intermittent. If constant access to the Net is critical to you, you really should own an amplifier and the one I highly recommend is a Wilson Sleek. If you like to get really remote, then you should also add a good directional antenna and I also recommend a Wilson antenna for that. Buy it from Amazon here: Wilson Electronics Sleek 4g Cell Amplifier
This post is a review of the Wilson Sleek and Wilson Directional Antenna and installation instructions. Fortunately, installing the Sleek is a simple process:
- You plug in the USB power cord into the Sleek and into a 12 volt cigarette lighter plug.
- Put the 4 inch magnetic antenna on the roof and run the wire to the Sleek.
- Plug the antenna in.
- Adjust the arms to fit your phone or Jetpack. It comes with different size arms to hold different sizes of devices and it’s a simple matter to adjust them.
- Put your device into the cradle and its working. The Sleek takes the Verizon data signal from the antenna and amplifies it into your device so it gets a stronger signal.
And you’re done, its working and doing a very good job. Even with the small 4 inch magnetic antenna that comes with it I usually get 2 extra bars. However, sometimes that’s not enough. For example, where I’m camped now I’m 20 miles away from the tower, which is located at the nearest interstate. Without the Sleek I get no signal at all and even with the Sleek I’m getting a lot of drops and fairly slow service when it is working. What I need is a better antenna to capture the weak signal.
I follow a blog called RVSue and crew (http://rvsueandcrew.net/) and she uses a Wilson Directional Antenna that she plugs directly into her Verizon Jetpack (it’s one of the few with an antenna jack) and she reports that it drastically improves her reception (get the whole story on her antenna here: http://rvsueandcrew.net/8014-2/). Because I’m often in places where not even the Sleek amplifier gives me as good of reception as I want, I decided to give an antenna like hers a try. I figured if it does so well without the Sleek, it should be even better with it. So I bought one and hooked it up. Buy it from Amazon here: Wide Band Directional Antenna For Cell Amplifiers
It’s every bit as good as she said it is! Where I am now I’m about 20 miles from the nearest tower and even with the Sleek and a truckers antenna I could only get 1 or 2 bars of 4g. That sounds pretty good but it’s not very reliable and it would often drop and come and go. So I installed the Directional Antenna and it picked up another 2 bars over the Sleeks antenna giving me a rock solid 4 bars of 4g. But more important is its reliability; I rarely get drops or break the connection. I’m extremely pleased with its performance and it’s more than worth the extra cost and the slight hassle of finding the tower.
Because it’s a directional antenna you can’t just plug it in and have it work, you have to find the tower and point it as nearly directly at it as you can. I’ll explain how to do that but first let me explain briefly the difference in an omni-directional and a directional antenna (it’ll be brief because I don’t really understand it all).
An omni-diectional antenna is a generalist, it receives cell signals from cell towers on a full 360 degrees around it. So if you’re in a city where there are towers all around you and fairly close by, it’s a great choice–you install it and forget it. But as a generalist it doesn’t pull in towers that are far away. A directional antenna (also commonly called a “Yagi” antenna) is just the opposite, it will only receive signals from the specific towers it’s aimed at but it will receive that signal from a tower that is much further away.
Here’s an analogy I read on one page: imagine you blow up a round balloon that is a foot wide; that means that from the center of the balloon to the furthest wall is only 6 inches—that’s how an omni-directional antenna works; in a big but shallow circle. But now imagine that you take that balloon and squeeze it into a long tube that is 24 inches long. The distance from the center to the furthest wall is now 12 inches, or double the distance. So it reaches out a long way, but it has a very long, narrow beam.
In my case, where I usually only have one tower anywhere nearby and it is a long ways away (20 miles away right now), I need to squeeze the balloon and I can do that with a directional antenna. Because it’s a long narrow beam and not a round balloon, I have to aim it fairly close to the tower. How do I do that?
I have a Smartphone app that locates the cell towers near me and puts them on a map. That makes it very simple to aim at the tower, I just look at the map and know generally where the tower is. It’s called Signal Finder and is on the Google Play store here: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.akvelon.signaltracker&hl=en
If you don’t have the app, or to fine tune it even more, you have to physically turn the antenna and watch the bars on your device until it’s at its best. So what I do is:
- Turn on my Sleek and hook up the antenna to it
- Put my Jetpack into it and turn it on.
- Then I check the App to try to find the general direction of the tower and then turn the antenna in that direction and check the bars of the Jetpack, hopefully I got fairly close and show some bars. But even if you don’t have the App, it’s still easy; it’ll just take a little longer.
- Next, I turn the antenna until I get some bars, or the bars I have get weaker or stronger. Without the App I might start in the exact wrong direction and have to slowly turn the antenna in a 320 degree circle to get my first bar, but that’s okay, it will only take 5 minutes and we all have that much time to spare.
- When you do have some bars, keep turning slowly until they are getting stronger, then keep turning it slowly in that direction. Once the bars start going down, the signal is getting weaker and I know I’ve turned away from the antenna so I stop going that direction and start going back.
- By slowly turning the antenna back and forth to the right and left, getting more or less bars on the Jetpack, I can find the exact direction of the tower and know I’m getting my strongest signal.
Writing it out makes it sound complicated but it really isn’t. Anyone can do it and probably get it perfect the first time.
You might be thinking, “This is going to cost me a couple hundred dollars and sounds complicated, I’m not sure I’ll bother with it.” but believe me, when you’re camped in the middle of nowhere and have a fast 4g signal it will all be worth it!
This post got too long so I’m breaking it up into two posts. Next time I’ll describe the antenna, cable and adapters I had to buy to make them work with the Sleek and I’ll also tell you how I mounted the antenna on a 12 foot mast to my van.