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  • Writer's pictureTyler

How to Vanlife with a Full Time Job | Part 1: Internet

Updated: Sep 22, 2022


If you’ve ever considered living full time in a van or RV of any kind, you probably already know there are challenges to this lifestyle. We'll assume you already have some ideas about how you'll meet your basic survival needs:

  • Water

  • Food

  • Personal hygiene (staying somewhat clean)

  • The list goes on..

But what about working full time from a tiny, mobile living space like this? Maintaining a full time job while enjoying this lifestyle adds yet another layer of complexity, and there’s a lot to worry about when your job is at stake.


How will I get online? Will my connection be stable? Will I be able to take video calls? Will people judge me for being in a vehicle, and will my boss even be okay with it? At first, all this might sound pretty daunting. Don’t worry though, we’ve got some helpful tips that will help you stay gainfully employed on the open road!


This week’s topic: Mobile Internet / Wifi / Connectivity

  • Top mobile internet options for vanlife (pros and cons)

  • The tradeoffs of each option

  • Cost


Mobile Internet Options


Access to the Internet is probably the most crucial tool a remote worker has. Without it, most remote professional tasks are completely stalled or very limited at best. There is a lot to consider about how you'll connect to the internet while traveling before you jump into a van and leave the city behind.


How do you plan to get online? There are a couple popular options for vanlifers looking to get online. However, they are not equal, and working full time places much higher demands and higher stakes on reliable service than occasional streaming and entertainment. Here are the most popular options:

  • Paid campground wifi

  • Cellular data (cellular routers, hotspots, and tethering fall into this category)

  • Satellite internet (SpaceX’s Starlink is the most popular option by a wide margin)


Paid Campground Wifi


Let’s start with the simplest advice by ruling out paid campground wifi before we jump into the more nuanced tradeoffs between cellular data and satellite. Firstly, we personally live exclusively off-grid in free public lands, so relying on paid campground wifi is not an option for us. Furthermore, from friends who have tried this strategy, we know that campground wifi quality varies dramatically from one site to the next and should not be relied on for anything mission critical (such as earning your paycheck). Even if you plan to camp full-time in paid sites, which gets expensive fast, this is not a reliable way to work remotely when your job depends on a fast, stable connection to the internet.


The next two options are the ones that most vanlifers end up choosing between, especially digital nomads like us, and we have our preference. However, there are tradeoffs to both. Some people even choose to use both because of this, but that is pretty expensive, and not practical for most. For satellite internet, SpaceX’s Starlink technology is the most popular, and it has better performance than most of its competition. So that will be our reference point competing with the numerous cellular data based mobile internet options. Here is a quick comparison.


Cellular Data vs. Satellite



Cellular Data

Satellite (SpaceX Starlink)

Upfront cost

$ - $$$ ($0 - $2000+ depending on equipment)

$$$ ($600 for equipment)

Monthly cost

$ - $$$ ($50-$200+/mo depending on speed, network, and data caps)

$$ ($110/mo)

Coverage

★★★★

★★★★★ (with one major caveat!)

Reliability

​★★★★

​★★★

Speed

​★★★​​★★

​★★★​★★

Power Consumption

​★★★​★★

​★

Overall Usability

​★★★​★

​★★


This will probably ruffle some feathers with the folks who love Starlink. Full disclosure: we do not have Starlink personally because we chose to use cellular data instead for several reasons (which we'll outline here). Therefore, we cannot speak to its limitations first hand, but we gathered plenty of anecdotal evidence from friends, other reviewers online, and SpaceX’s self-published guidance and technical specs on the product to make a solid decision.


There is definitely a valid use-case for purchasing Starlink to use in a van, but for our criteria, it fell short. Here are a couple of the biggest tradeoffs between cellular and Starlink.


Coverage

Starlink works basically everywhere in the U.S. (from the middle of the desert where there is zero cell service to the tip of the highest mountain peak), so its coverage is basically infallible from a geographic lens. Cell data covers most of the U.S. depending on which plan(s) or network you choose, but there are sizable areas that have poor to no coverage, especially in secluded valleys between high mountain ridges (A.K.A. beautiful places to camp!).


This sounds like a point in favor of Starlink, but there is one glaring exception. Starlink’s receiver needs a full, unobstructed view of the sky to function reliably. Now, this might not sound like a big deal, but if you’ve ever been camping throughout the country, you’ve probably heard of these little things called TREES. They’re pretty common. Therefore, most campsites do not grant you this kind of clear visibility of the sky. When faced with the challenge of finding cell service vs finding a place to park with a full view of the sky, we knew that in the areas we frequent, cell service would be the more accessible of the two.


However, if you often travel in very remote areas with no cell service and open skies (e.g. the desert), you might decide the opposite for yourself. This is all about your specific use case. For us, cell data coverage was more abundant in the areas we planned to travel. Think about your specific case before we get into the other components of this important decision.


Reliability


So long as you do your forward planning and choose a location with cell service, cellular data is a tried and true method for accessing the internet off grid with very few kinks. It works like a charm, almost always, with very few exceptions or interruptions. Starlink, on the other hand, is a newer technology with admittedly lower stability and uptime. Typically this amounts to occasional short-term outages and hiccups in streams or video conferencing. In isolation, this probably isn’t a deal breaker. We’ve heard good things about Starlink’s reliability under the correct usage conditions (not moving, clear view of the sky), and this will only get better with time as SpaceX launches more satellites. I would consider this mostly a wash giving a slight edge to cell data in the current state, but as Starlink’s infrastructure improves, it will likely surpass cellular reliability quickly.


Speed


Both Starlink and cell data can provide very good speeds up to and in excess of 100mbps. We find this excessive and choose to only pay for 25mbps plans because this gets the job done just fine for two of us taking video calls, streaming, and doing our various other online tasks. With cellular data, a higher speed plan costs more each month (like, double or triple). Between the two, if you want the most bandwidth for intense data usage (e.g. streaming 4K video on multiple devices or other high data workloads), Starlink does provide better bang for your buck at $110 for 50 to 250mbps.


We opted for more coverage and redundancy instead of more speed by purchasing two 25mbps cellular plans on two different mobile networks for better coverage and reliability. More speed would have been overkill, but this redundancy saves us from having to relocate several times per month, so it pays for itself in added convenience and additional parking/working locations.


Power Consumption


Power consumption is one big reason (in addition to our coverage concerns regarding obstructed views of the sky) that we chose cell data over Starlink. A cellular router and antenna typically cost less than 10 watts to run. Starlink, by comparison, costs about 60 - 70 watts with recent improvements in 2022. That may not sound like a lot, but for reference, our entire off-grid set up at idle costs about 70 watts to run. This includes a roof fan, overhead lights, inverter, fridge, and other idle draw sources, so Starlink would roughly DOUBLE our idle power consumption - OUCHIE. This translates to either needing to spend a lot more on solar and batteries, driving more (or running a generator), or just having less time off grid. None of those sounded like acceptable compromises to us for what was already a less effective system in our use-case.


Cost


Starlink is expensive, but a robust cellular wifi system can cost the same, or even more. Our wifi equipment cost about $1200 up front, and we pay about $200 per month for two 25 mbps business LTE data plans. TIP: Starting a business will give you access to several affordable cellular plans with high data caps that are not available to individuals. Let us know if you’d like to learn more about these in the comments! Here is a popular site with a few mobile internet bundles to help you get an idea of what you’ll need and the price range. We purchased their “ultimate road warrior” package. The price has gone up recently.


You can build a much more affordable system than this with a free or cheap hotspot and a $50/mo plan with a few gigs of data. You can even use your cell phone for tethering in conjunction with a cell signal booster (like these) which prevents you from having to buy another plan altogether if your current plan allows for tethering and provides enough data, but this is not as resilient. Cell phones do not make excellent routers.


However, for us, reliability was a much higher priority than cost. Saving a few hundred dollars on wifi equipment means nothing if you lose your job in the process. We chose to over engineer this system with a powerful roof antenna, two data plans on two separate mobile networks, and a mobile router that automatically chooses the best performing connection between the two networks. This provides very reliable service. By comparison, Starlink charges about $600 for the equipment, and $110 per month at the time of this writing (Sep 21, 2022). Either way, if this is your livelihood, don’t pinch pennies here. You can save money in other areas of your build.


Our Take


At the end of the day, how you plan to use the system and where you travel will dictate which system is more suitable for your needs. When it comes to performing our jobs, cellular data is a more robust, reliable system with fewer drawbacks for our specific use-case. It costs a little more, but we don’t have to worry about trees blocking our reception, burning through our power supply, or turning off our router when it's not in use.


We have been on the road for about half a year now, and we haven't missed a single day of work because of connectivity issues. We have no regrets with the system we chose, but we also plan ahead to travel through extremely remote regions without stopping, or we stay during days off and leave in time to be back online for work. Depending on your travel habits, budget, and flexibility in your work schedule, you might have different needs. Next week, we’ll dive into staying mobile while working remotely: physical health, parking, planning, and living your plentiful life on the road while still getting your day job done. What wifi setup do you use? Let us know in the comments! Cheers!


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