We get a lot of questions on how to stay connected on the road. Internet connectivity is very important for most people and even more essential for digital nomads like myself.
I’ve tried a number of things since I built my first Promaster camper van back in 2016 but haven’t been really thrilled about any of them. I started with a Sprint MIFI that featured unlimited bandwidth but was severely limited by Sprint’s lousy network coverage outside of densely populated areas. Later, in early 2019 I fell for AT&T’s bait and switch routine when I put the Roadlink Togo “bubble” on the roof of my van. It was actually a great system but then they jacked up the data plan prices crazy high in late 2019 like a strange precursor to the nightmare that was 2020. So, now that hardware is worthless roof clutter unless I use its WIFI extending capability which I have never done and probably will never do.
The truth is that there are limitations and caveats to any mobile internet setup and the word “unlimited”, when used with mobile providers, is almost always “marketing speak” for “read the fine print to learn about the actual limits”. However, I’m pretty happy with the set of compromises in my current setup and I’m a heavy consumer of data that hasn’t run into any issues with this setup. Knocking on wood!
Visible By Verizon
My setup centers around Visible service which uses the Verizon network – including their new-ish 5G speeds where available – but offers “unlimited” data plans starting at only $25 per month total – without any taxes, fees or other nonsense. More on pricing below.
It’s well known that Verizon has the best coverage in the USA followed by AT&T. The other carriers seem to lag far behind in coverage. So, there’s a real advantage to being on the Verizon network with Visible – particularly when you’re outside of urban areas which is often the case with vanlife.
The base plan with Visible is $40 per month but if you join a “party” of 4 or more people the price drops to $25 per month. There’s an entire sub-Reddit dedicated to finding Visible parties and, importantly, you don’t need to know the people in your “party” since every party member pays their own bill. The primary thing to look for is a party large enough to support some of the members dropping off. One of the great features of Visible is that there are no commitments so a larger party helps ensure that you’ll stay in the preferred pricing bracket with 4 or more members. One example is the Technomadia party that has 60 members as I write this today.
Visible also has a referral program. If you use a referral code (like mine which is 3lSHB6) when signing up, you’ll receive $20 off your first month service and I will get a $20 credit for your signup!
How It Works
When you sign up, Visible will send you a SIM card that must be used in a smartphone that is compatible with their service. You cannot use the Visible SIM in a hotspot – it must be used with a phone. I wanted a dedicated phone for this purpose so the internet connectivity would be constant and I could use my “real” phone as I normally would, so I purchased the ZTE Blade A7 Prime phone for $79 from Visible when I signed up.
When the SIM card arrived up I had no trouble inserting it into the phone and activating the service.
I use the WeBoost Drive Sleek signal booster that utilizes a small, magnetic rooftop antenna to pull in and “boost” wireless signals. It has a “cradle” that I’ve mounted just behind the passenger seat. Whatever device you put into this cradle gets the signal boosting. So, this serves not only as a booster but a handy mounting point for the phone I’m using.
As I mentioned before, I use a teeny-tiny Mango router that has a USB connection to tether to the phone via USB. This becomes the “single” device that the phone’s hotspot allows and it creates a WIFI network inside the van much like a router at a home or office that I can connect all my devices to (other phones, laptop, security devices, etc.).
The entire setup with the phone, router and WeBoost signal booster was right around $300.
I’m writing this post at the end of March 2021 and I’ve been using the Visible system in my van since early February. In that time I’ve traveled from Colorado to Florida and, overall, I’m really impressed with the setup.
In my experience the service is truly unlimited. There are no speed limitations when using mobile data on the phone itself but the hotspot functionality (when tethering) constrains the bandwidth to about 5 Mbps (megabits per second). While this sounds crazy slow, I find it adequate for most things including video streaming, Zoom calls and working from the road. According to Zoom, for group calls you need 1 Mbps upstream and .6 Mbps downstream bandwidth for “high quality video”, 2.6 Mbps/1.8 Mbps for 720 HD video and 3.8 Mbps/3.0 Mbps for 1080 HD video. So, the “throttled” 5 Mbps should be good enough for even the highest quality video. For some real world context, I just completed a one-hour Zoom call with two other people from the van where I had “3 bars” of signal in an urban setting. During the call there were two brief periods of time, each about 15 seconds in length, that I saw the dreaded “your internet connection is unstable” message appear.
Another limitation is that there can only be one device connected to the phone’s hotspot. However, if you add a router to your setup, as I did, you can get around this limitation since the router is considered the single device but provides a WIFI network that all your devices can connect to. In all cases it appears Visible traffic is a bit slower and has higher latency than plans using Verizon directly and are subject to “network management”.
In my first three weeks I used over 44 GB of data! Perhaps even more impressive is that I have had a strong signal literally everywhere I have camped so far. I don’t expect that will always be the case but I’ve covered a lot of ground without any signal issues whatsoever. The Mango router is also impressive and the USB tethering has been super reliable. So far I’ve only had to “reset” it’s USB tether connection twice in many months and thousands of miles across the USA. In other words, the USB tether between the Mango router and the phone was stable for weeks at a time and, if it did stop working, I simply unplugged the USB connection from the phone, reconnected it and then went into the phone’s settings to “turn on” the USB tether again.
So, the bottom line is that this is a very affordable and solid solution for people who need regular, reliable data connections in their van and are willing to take the “slow but steady” route where the speeds are capped but the total bandwidth is not. It’s also a good idea to have your personal mobile phone service be with a different provider so that you have that secondary network as a backup that you can use if your primary option (Visible in my case) isn’t working in your location.
In this video created by Jake & Heather, they discuss a way to use Visible from a hotspot by “repairing” the IMEI number on the device which, apparently removes the bandwidth speed throttling on the hotspot, and allows multiple connections like my router that is tethered, because it’s treated as a “phone”. I have not tried this but it just might work!
Update – September 2022: some folks on the Promaster Forum report that some changes to the computer you’re tethering or the router that you’re using to tether can be used to work around the bandwidth throttling.
If you want to dive deeper into mobile internet, the Mobile Internet Resource Center website is fantastic and their post on Visible is worth a read.