The 2018 Definitive Guide to Getting Internet in Your Motorhome, written by Your Connectivity Experts at Motorhome WiFi
I never cease to be amazed at the speed at which not only technology progresses, but how we adapt to new development overnight and take it for granted. Back in 2011, when Motorhome WiFi was born, we were selling USB WiFi boosters and 3G dongles (remember those?) with limited European data and equally limited coverage. Aided in no small part by occasionally gravitating toward a certain fast food chain, Motorhomers remained connected and contactable throughout the UK and Europe.
Roll on 2018 where technology and the demands we place on it have skyrocketed. We now want internet not only to interact on Social Media, but to access streaming TV services and control smart home devices such as lighting, heating and CCTV. It’s as challenging as ever to navigate the available options to find a solution which meets your requirements, so we’re on hand to try and demystify it for you.
A WiFi booster is potentially a useful gadget to carry in your inventory. Simply put, it is a tool to increase the range from which a WiFi connection can be obtained. It is not in itself providing you with an internet connection, therefore you can never be sure of the outcome in a given location until you try it. Deciding if you would benefit from such a device is a question you will likely already be able to answer. If you stay on sites where you have to stand outside your van to obtain a connection, or if the quality or speed of the connection increases as you walk towards the source, these are ideal scenarios where a WiFi booster will help. They are particularly popular with people who overwinter abroad or who predominately visit campsites and want to maximise the on-site WiFi provision.
What you shouldn’t have is high expectations of picking up connections from ‘miles away’, or that there is in this day and age a tremendous amount of random ‘free’ WiFi that there was in the days before smartphones and default security on wireless routers. Of course, these sort of connection opportunities do still exist but what has changed most of all is our tolerance to spending time driving to seek them out.
If you are a BT Home Broadband customer you have access to ‘FON’, which is a network of 21 million free hotspots, which a WiFi booster could help you tap into. The source of these hotspots is the same residential home router as you have, so you still need to be in relative proximity to residential locations – perhaps more useful when using the aires network in France or Brit Stops / Pub Stopovers in the UK.
The tool itself consists of two parts – an external antenna which picks up and amplifies signals and an internal router which is broadcasts your own secure network, to which you connect your WiFi enabled devices. This has the added benefit of, when campsite WiFi is paid for and restricted to one item per access code, being able to share that connection with multiple devices. Therefore if you’re used to buying ‘his and hers’ WiFi codes you could argue that such a product could begin to pay for itself over time.
The type of antenna that is used externally can have an impact on the performance and usability. A directional type antenna would always yield the best results. Directionality is usually within the region of 90 degrees; in the event the signal could be coming from anywhere you would need to attempt a connection in a ‘North, East, South, West’ arrangement. An Omni-Directional antenna has a 360 degree field of view and so does away with this, but doesn’t quite have the same reach and is susceptible to interference on busy sites.
[icon_star] Product Spotlight
The iBoost system from Motorhome WiFi both increases the range and quality from which a WiFi signal can be received. It’s powered from 12v and connects wirelessly to your devices. The Directional version is the best performing, most popular and the best value at £159.99
Also available in a neat carry case to store your system with a 240v mains adapter for £189.97
Mobile Broadband – The Hardware
The future of motorhome internet connectivity is no doubt Mobile Broadband, with some motorhome manufacturers now offering this as standard fitment and many dealers are also offering aftermarket options for you to consider.
Your experience of this type of connection may be limited to your experience of using a smartphone and you will be firmly in one of two camps. The first is that your phone works everywhere you go and you haven’t got a problem. The second is that you struggle with obtaining a connection more or less frequently depending on how far off the beaten track you like to use your motorhome. If you’re in the second camp and want to improve your situation, Mobile Broadband could help.
Firstly, most smartphones have the facility for you to share the connection from the phone itself to other WiFi enabled devices, called tethering, look for the ‘Personal Hotspot’ function in your settings menu.
Alternatively, you can purchase a little gadget called a MiFi (or MyFi) which does the same job slightly more efficiently. A MiFi will accept its own SIM card and will produce a WiFi connection inside your van for between 5-10 devices depending on the model. This means you don’t need a phone at all and you can easily monitor and control your data usage so that you don’t find that your phone has unexpectedly run out of data because of one your devices connected to it.
A MiFi device is a great tool to have, but it still requires two things – a decent 3G or 4G data connection and its own SIM card with a paid for data plan, either on a contract or a Pay-As-You-Go basis (more on that in a bit).
In terms of picking up a connection, a MiFi device is arguably not much better than a phone and so just by having a MiFi doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be any better connected. However, what some MiFi devices have which mobile phones do not is the facility to connect an external antenna. If you already have a MiFi, look at the bottom where the USB charging socket is and there may be one or two flaps which can be opened to reveal small brass ‘TS9’ type connectors.
This is where Mobile Broadband really comes into its own, since fitting something like a rooftop mounted 4G antenna could increase your MiFi devices performance by upto 5x. We have been testing these products extensively in Scotland and North Yorkshire and the feedback has been exceptional in areas where mobile phones simply refuse to work. Similar technology is used in rural ambulances and other essential applications and is now making a real difference to motorhomes’ enjoyment of their vehicles.
Antennas are a difficult subject for network operators, since to say to customers they need an antenna to access their network undermines the coverage on which they compete with each other. This is why they are not better promoted but in practice, areas marked as ‘no service’ on their coverage maps could in fact be locations in which you could obtain a very useable, independent internet connection for use in your motorhome either when stationary or in motion.
A typical fitted system including roof antenna and MiFi costs in the region of £300 plus fitting. If you find that cost a little high then lesser performing suction mounted antenna and MiFi options are available for around £180.
[icon_star] Product Spotlight
Motorhome WiFi 4G Pack 2 is our most popular 4G Mobile Broadband system. The 4G roof antenna is unique to us in that it includes a specialist fitting kit to accommodate the varying thicknesses of motorhome and caravan roofs upto 70mm to correctly mount and brace the antenna through the roof. This fitting has been tested by leading manufacturers and is now offered as a standard factory fitment in a number of Swift motorhome models who offer a 10 year water ingress warranty on their vehicles.
Mobile Broadband – The SIM Card
While the hardware is fairly self-explanatory, the SIM card to go into it can be a bit more complex. For moderate users, the most popular option is a pre-loaded SIM card from the network operator Three. These SIM cards are available with two packages, providing either 12GB of data valid for 12 months, or 24GB of data valid for 24 months for a RRP of £40 or £60 respectively. The SIM cards themselves have no shelf life until first use and so can be kept until required and activation is as simple as inserting into a MiFi device and then turning it on. The data can be used at any time during the period of validity. That means that if you don’t use your ‘van for a couple of months, your data is still available until the SIM card’s anniversary.
If you venture into Scotland you will likely find that EE’s coverage is superior, thanks in part to EE winning government funding to replace the emergency services contract by 2020. Pay As You Go (PAYG) SIM’s are available on a 30 day basis with upto 10GB for £22.
If you use your motorhome sufficiently or are a heavy data user (see TV section below) it may be worthwhile considering a contract data plan. If you own the hardware (eg a MiFi or a Mobile Broadband system in your ‘van) then most operators offer a simple 30 day rolling contract, whereby you can give 30 days notice to cancel at any time. Plans are available for upto 200GB of data, but around 50GB provides the best value at circa £30 per month.
Foreign use is another area of SIM cards which requires consideration. As of 15th June 2017 any UK SIM card can be used abroad for no additional cost for upto 2 months in a 4 month period. In practice this time limitation is not consistently enforced, but its worth preparing for that eventuality if you are abroad longer than 60 days. In addition, all but Vodafone also limit the amount of data you can use abroad at around 15GB per month and so be sure that your data plan meets your requirements for foreign travel. Finally, while the Three SIM listed above is great value, access abroad is limited to 3G.
Special prices available for multiple SIM card purchases.
TV via the Internet
Streaming TV via the internet requires a fast download speed and has the potential to consume between 0.5-1GB per hour depending on the quality. This means that rural campsites may not have sufficient bandwidth even with a WiFi booster, but Mobile Broadband is increasingly winning in this area, subject to a good signal and suitable data plan. Make the most out of the 3/4G networks by adding one of our roof antennas to your vehicle for best performance and speed.
When watched via a phone or tablet, BBC iPlayer, Netflix and Amazon Prime all have the facility to download certain content for playback from the device’s own memory within 30 days, so you could do this before you leave home.
If you do want to stream when away, you will need either a Smart TV or a plug in device like an Amazon Firestick, Apple TV or Chromecast.
While paid-for streaming services should still work abroad, which includes Sky Go on a portable device from 1st April 2018, the likes of BBC iPlayer do not as they are geocentric and only designed to be viewed by residents in the UK. You could get around this with a subscription to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) so that you appear to have not left the country, a topic that warrants an article in itself.
If you use Netflix for your TV fix, then many 30-day contracts from Three include ‘Go Binge’ which means Netflix and some other subscription content does not count towards your monthly data allowance. This isn’t the case when used abroad, however.
[icon_star] Product Spotlight
Make the most out of the 3/4G networks by adding one of our roof antennas to your vehicle for best performance and speed – see our Mobile Broadband Page for more information
We have seen a lot of customers migrating from Satellite Internet onto 4G Mobile Broadband in recent years. While it may still have its place in mission critical applications, the high cost of the equipment (£3500+) and monthly contract (£30+) for what is by today’s standards a rudimentary internet connection is no longer as appealing. I would urge anyone to ensure they have completely ruled out the alternatives before committing to such expense.