Mobile Everything On A Budget

Today’s post is almost going to be a guide in and of itself, bordering lightly on an Ask Daley. It has been in development for a long time, and it was inspired by a rather detailed set of questions by a reader/acquaintance through the MMM forums. A gentleman that we’ll refer to as K contacted me about internet and television services while living on the road, retired, out of an RV. He and his wife were considering a setup of over $215/month, was exploring options, and asked for feedback. Although this is targeted at RV enthusiasts, there’s plenty of clever and useful things here for anyone looking to go less minimalist on mobile services than what the guide recommends to pick and choose from without breaking the bank. The following is what came out of this exchange…

The life of a road warrior...
♫ I’m *bum* *bum* KING OF THE ROOOOADDD!
RV By: timquijano

K originally was using Verizon Mifi at roughly 15GB a month ($150) and was rapidly blowing through the allotment due to streaming video usage, something that he and his wife valued on longer, darker, chillier evenings while out snowbirding it in fairer climes. He’d originally considered a Dish subscription coupled with a Winegard Pathway X2 heaping another $65 on top of the internet and phone costs, but really didn’t want to do Dish and decided against it while exploring the possibility of a grandfathered Verizon Unlimited plan. We’ll pick up where he asked about what traps might be in the deal, and what other options he might be missing. This is where we’ll dive in.

Verizon Grandfathered Plans

Proposed Verizon Unlimited Rental/Lease
$150/month – target price or cheaper plus $200-ish for hardware.

Assumption of Liability (AOL) is not wholly permitted and potentially against terms of service with many grandfathered Verizon Unlimited plans (but not all), and extremely difficult but possible to transfer – but a lot can go wrong. They’re freakishly expensive to buy into, especially without a guarantee of the plan always existing, but technically kosher from a purely terms of service standpoint.

Rental/Lease, however, is a direct violation of the terms of service as it’s reselling service through a corporate account grandfathered in. They’re cheaper to buy into, but unlike the AOL, they are absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt completely and wholly against terms of service. People are doing it, but against their contract with Verizon, which comes with considerably increased risk and a personal ethical compromise.

Here’s a better research overview with risks and vetted providers for grandfathered Verizon plans at potentially less cost (partial paywall).

Personally, the financial and availability risk with the AOL, though legal and a viable option? The return on investment (ROI) from buy-in just isn’t really worth it. From a hard-line ethical standpoint, however, the rental/lease option is a strictly no-fly in my book. Just because one can get an Unlimited Verizon data plan in this day and age doesn’t mean they probably should.

Alternative Options

First, let’s briefly touch on LEO satellite internet access (it had been brought it up in a previous discussion). This should be a back of the mind thing, and I haven’t particularly kept up with it. Currently, the two biggest pushing companies/networks wanting to go live with cost-effective LEO satellite internet for public access are SpaceX and OneWeb, with prospective live dates for their networks targeted around 2020 or shortly thereafter. As such, they’re not a realistic option to even consider likely for at least another seven years, assuming their date-to-live timelines don’t slip. So, let’s work with the technologies and providers we have available now… and given MEO satellite internet is both costly (no price benefit per GB over mobile broadband given the caps – unless one wants to watch and do everything that needs data at oh-dark-thirty) and an additional cost and pain to keep tethered on the go for the same reasons many don’t like to go Dish/Winegard for television, so we’ll just ignore it completely.

Next, we’ll touch on a decent resource geared towards RV enthusiasts and mobile internet options (already mentioned above). They have a paywall, but they also seem to be quite thorough on their research: RV Mobile Internet Resource Center

Now, let’s dive into my own research and thoughts.

Overview of the Situation

The biggest hurdle and largest desire we’re addressing is a broader selection of entertainment, and a greater availability of mobile data while mobile. The striking thing is how even with streaming video with great discipline in usage but without optimization, K was only using about 15GB a month. Historical personal experience both with myself and with my parents (who use mobile data themselves as their primary internet connection) has given me first hand experience that without any regular data usage for streaming audio/video entertainment and downloading sundry Linux ISO images, 5GB a month is kind of a happy place to allow internet usage and system updates (add maybe 700MB per additional computer to this total mostly for patching) for a couple people to browse to their heart’s content from a desktop or laptop. Now that’s not without some streaming video, but it’s not with a lot of it, either. Eliminate video entirely, and that number squeezes closer to around 3.5GB. Given the average mobile data usage of more frugal folks who have abandoned wired internet, rely on their phone, and don’t stream much will fall into the same ballpark with monthly usage, it seems like a good number range to keep in mind as a baseline.

The bulk of his mobile data usage was going to streaming video, so the most useful thing is to work out a cost effective way to remove that cap and still provide some measure of both limited and “unlimited” data access to cover all his needs. The first and most logical thing that comes to mind as a solution is T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plans with BingeOn. Unfortunately, their coverage map isn’t quite as robust for road warriors as other networks, and BingeOn is no longer available on data-only plans, so it seems futile… or is it?

The biggest disadvantage and stumbling block of going T-Mobile is what to do as a fallback when you don’t have any network coverage at all, or are in a heavy roaming area? Well, that’s the beautiful thing about GSM networks and SIM cards with phones and tablets (but not modems and hotspots), you can buy fiddly little things that let you use multiple SIM cards (and networks) in the same device, and you just have to manually switch networks in software if you lose coverage with one network. Manual roaming coverage!

The other downside is the inability to get data-only plans with BingeOn now, which means if you’re paying for “unlimited” phone and text service, you might as well use it! But how do you go about using phone service from a device that’s primarily serving as a network hub? Well, there’s always Bluetooth headsets, smart watches and Bluetooth dialer phones with SIM card slots. (We won’t cover these particular things in this write-up.)

It’s not a magic bullet solution and takes a little work, but this route potentially opens up a lot more options at a much cheaper price without the financial risk of trying to get a Verizon Unlimited plan – which is like unicorn shopping. You can find a few for enough money, but you don’t dare look at the teeth or how that horn is attached.

Let’s start looking at the technical keypoints on how to make a DIY, hybrid, multi-network internet connection with some form of “unlimited” data work using off-the-shelf equipment here in the United States. We’ll also go over some nearly automagical data restriction methods to help reduce overall data usage without having to be rigidly self-disciplined.

Finding Our Requirements

Now that we know what we’re dealing with, we now need to examine what networks and platforms will best help us execute a game plan.

GSM Network Options

AT&T
Although AT&T does not have quite the footprint that Verizon does, it’s pretty close. More importantly, using AT&T hardware with LTE support doesn’t lock you into a single mobile network with one device. Mobile data prices per GB are also reasonably cheaper than Verizon. Unfortunately, there’s no unlimited data plans without signing up for DirecTV Now as well and going postpaid, only then you discover that you can’t tether for this huge wad of money. (Cue Admiral Ackbar.)

Sprint
Just… no. Given they’re CDMA first and especially with us being limited to their LTE network for service and the device ESN/IMEI being so closely tied into activation and service with them, there are no advantages to dragging Sprint into the mix.

T-Mobile
Although their mobile network is considerably smaller than AT&T and Verizon’s, and can be spotty out in the sticks and some parts of the country, their 3G HSPA+ and 4G LTE coverage nearly includes their entire coverage map now. Further, their mobile data is some of the cheapest in the industry, and shopping from T-Mobile directly gives you 128kbps throttled data usage over your high speed allotment and free video streaming via BingeOn from many providers (including Netflix and Amazon Video) that doesn’t count against mobile data usage. Basically, it’s cheap, and given the video streaming options? It’s a good add-on price, even if you’re hoping to use it for primary data access.

US Cellular
See Sprint. They’re also not very cheap.

Verizon
Hands down, Verizon has the biggest and best mobile data coverage of all the providers, but they also have the most expensive mobile data and the least flexible hardware options. Fortunately, their LTE coverage is massive and is almost equal in coverage to their CDMA map (which doesn’t cover much more), but is primarily on 700MHz band 13. Now, this also doesn’t mean that you couldn’t potentially exploit Verizon’s LTE network for mobile data access as a secondary carrier as opposed to AT&T, but you would need a device that also supported LTE band 13 to get that full coverage. You’d also need a dedicated Verizon mobile data device to activate the LTE SIM card if you planned on transplanting the SIM into another device for data only service, which may or may not be kosher depending on what device you use… but that option gets hamstrung for us if we’re going T-Mobile first, as we cannot use their Simple Choice plans on a data-first device.

This gives us three viable GSM data networks to play with – AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon LTE.

Now let’s look at key common US GSM Cellular Data bands between these networks.

AT&T
700MHz(b/c) band 12,17 LTE
850MHz band 5 HSPA+, LTE
1700/2100MHz band 4 LTE
1900MHz band 2 HSPA+, LTE

T-Mobile
700MHz(a) band 12 LTE
1700/2100MHz band 4 HSPA+, LTE
1900MHz band 2 HSPA+, LTE

Verizon
700MHz(c) band 13 LTE
1700MHz band 4 LTE
1900MHz band 2 LTE

Common LTE bands: 2,4,5*,12,13**,17*
*AT&T specific band
**Verizon LTE only w/SIM, no CDMA fallback

This gives us a list of what network bands our hardware should use.

Recommended Hardware Platform

Going Android would be the most cost-effective hardware choice, with the greatest flexibility. In addition to using the OS for WiFi hotspot usage, you could utilize Chromecast for streaming video straight to a television and let your phone/tablet/hotspot/modem also act as your remote control. I’m not much of a fan of Android anymore, but we should always work with the best tools for the job.

Going GSM mobile network also opens up a considerably greater selection of hardware that you can utilize with less restrictions with carriers, in addition to being able to utilize multiple providers with the same device.

This gives us a way to narrow down what hardware would best suit near universal, multi-network access.

Hardware to Execute

After examining and determining our best network and platform options, let’s move on to the tools needed to actually put things together.

Recommend Phones

This will potentially require a modem/tablet/hotspot IMEI to establish service for tablet/data plans directly with carriers. Using a data-only plan with a mobile phone can technically be against terms of service leading to termination depending on the carrier, yet is usually ignored. This said, T-Mobile really doesn’t want you to use their Simple Choice plans on data only devices. If a modem is needed/desired for activation on a particular carrier with this method, pick up a cheap, used USB modem or WiFi hotspot for AT&T/T-Mobile if the existing Verizon hotspot IMEI won’t work. This method would effectively be primarily turning an Android smartphone into a WiFi router/hotspot and LTE modem that you could also use to browse the internet on, excuse the T-Mobile plan which will let you use it for your “house phone” for calls and texting as well.

Now, given the ethics raised about breaching terms of service, one could make an argument that using a data-only plan on a phone could be considered a potential breach of TOS as well, and potentially unethical. This is technically correct. However, there’s a couple things to keep in mind about this particular potential violation.*

1) If a SIM card is provisioned for data access only, it doesn’t matter what device it’s inserted into, it’s only going to have data access. You can’t magically sneak in free voice and SMS services on their network because you stuck it in a device that has the capacity to handle voice and SMS services in addition to data.

2) Even if you do place a data-only provisioned SIM card with a plan that permits WiFi tethering into a phone, the data quantity used from tethering isn’t going to be any different than that of the same SIM card in a tablet or hotspot. Further, they should have even less beef if you’re not using the data connection for VoIP services, which the usage there-of is sometimes a terms violation for mobile data plans.

3) Lastly, from a terms of service violation standpoint, there’s a pretty massive ethical difference between using the exact same amount of data you would use on a tablet/hotspot with a device they would rather upsell voice and SMS on (even if you don’t need/want it) versus deliberately violating the terms to create and resell (or pay someone who is) for “unlimited” mobile data access provided with a hefty markup on a grandfathered and discontinued plan.

*This said, two wrongs don’t make a right (even when you’re dealing with some of the most unethical people on the planet). Given T-Mobile’s shift away from providing BingeOn with data only plans, this places us in a difficult position. Either we eliminate BingeOn entirely and just go straight data plan without unlimited streaming and thus spend more on a tablet, or we don’t use fallback data only service plans on the phone that don’t permit usage in non data-only devices.

Mobile network operators want to make their data access into special snowflakes that get charged at different rates depending on the device used, but it all comes out of the same pot. However, the reason why they’re cranky about making data only plans available on phones is it potentially cuts into their insane profits if people use stuff like Google Voice instead of them for voice and SMS service, so they want to restrict SIM card activation to IMEIs that aren’t actual phones and want you to own a data-only device to activate the account with. Of course, most terms of service agreements restricts what you can activate a specific plan/SIM card on, but they don’t always restrict what devices you can transfer that card into. Basically, this can fall into a technical gray area with intent versus letter as well as their wanting to differentiate hardware and function, so read any terms you agree to.

On with the phones…

2,4,5-HSPA+ 2,4,5,12,13,17-LTE Phone (recommended Verizon/AT&T/T-Mobile):
Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo (SM-G903W) $150-300 used unlocked

2,4,5-HSPA+ 2,4,5,12,17-LTE Phone (recommended AT&T/T-Mobile):
BLUE Dash X Plus LTE (D0030UU)$120 new unlocked

2,4,5-HSPA+ 2,4,12,17-LTE Phone (AT&T/T-Mobile):
BLU Dash X LTE (D0010UU)$90 new unlocked

Some may object to the suggestion of Blu handsets given the recent Adups security scare, but these are models that never shipped with it installed. I would also point out that in Blu’s case, it appears to be accidental given the limited number of handsets it was found on. If the general public can forgive and forget various manufacturers and Sprint’s usage of CarrierIQ on their Android handsets a few years back, and completely overlook what Google is doing with the Android platform and all their services directly not to mention what they want to do… it’s the sort of thing that almost sounds like the plot to a plausible dystopian thriller novel, oh wait, it is!

Anyway, this gives us a short list of viable handsets.

Recommended Tablet

No restrictions on data plan activation with provided IMEI like using a phone would, but considerably more expensive hardware outlay. Best course of action if you feel the urge to be 100% above board and ethical in your dealings if you choose to use data-only plans and/or eliminate the T-Mobile Simple Choice plan.

2,5-HSPA+ 2,4,5,12,17-LTE Tablet (recommended ATT/TMo):
Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet LTE (SGP771)$600 new unlocked

This gives us a very short list of viable tablet computers.

Dual-SIM Adapters

This is the magic piece of flimsy hardware that will enable you to switch between SIM cards and networks nearly effortlessly. No need to restart the device, and it even automatically switches APN settings. There are cheaper options floating around Ebay and Amazon, but can be potentially flaky. MagicSIM is about the only provider I know of that offers a solid warranty and a guarantee that it’ll work, but that guarantee unfortunately comes at a price premium. On the bright side, it’s quite feature rich for the money – you can even set times for when it switches/defaults to a specific SIM card, so one can insure the cheaper network gets switched back on by default if you forget to switch it off the more expensive one.

Now, given the mention of the two specific Blu handsets , you’re probably apt to point out that they already have dual SIM card slots. They do! However, the second SIM slot supports 2G GSM only. Given AT&T will finish shutting off their 2G network in a few days and T-Mobile’s 2G network is sparse and the data speeds really slow, you can see how worthless that second SIM slit really is for what we need. Dual SIM adapter it is!

MagicSIM Dual SIM Adapter (micro SIM) – $35 (for the phones)
MagicSIM Dual SIM Adapter (nano SIM) – $35 (for the tablet)

This gives us the ability to use two mobile data plans on the same device.

Services and Bandwidth Hacks

Now that we have our hardware lined up, let’s start looking at specific carriers to use with it and various tweaks to optimize data usage with it.

Mobile Data Provider Choices

With the volume of mobile data expected in usage, going straight to the main mobile network operators is usually the best bet… usually. Let’s detail out the best deals for the three networks, and do our best to stay away from postpaid if at all possible.

T-Mobile Simple Choice Plans
Requires a phone to activate and use these plans. Includes BingeOn with unlimited SD (480p) video not counted against data cap, throttled 128kbps after 2GB on 4G capped plan, access up to 28GB over 4G data without deprioritization on unlimited plan with up to 14GB of unthrottled 4G data tethering. I would make a point to disable data roaming in the device settings and restrict access to T-Mobile only, however, as they will terminate accounts for excessive data roaming (200MB). All monthly plans.

Unlimited Talk & Text with 2GB Data – $50
One Unlimited Talk & Text with “Unlimited” Data – $70

T-Mobile Prepaid Data Plans
Requires a modem/tablet/hotspot to activate plan. Throttled 128kbps access up to 28GB over 4G data cap without deprioritization, unused high speed data rollover, and permits tethering. I would make a point to disable data roaming in the device settings and restrict access to T-Mobile only, however, as they will terminate accounts for excessive data roaming (200MB). All monthly plans.

2GB plan – $20
6GB plan – $35
10GB plan – $50
14GB plan – $65
18GB plan – $80
22GB plan – $95

TOAST.net Mobile Hotspot (AT&T Mobile Broadband)
8Mbps LTE speed cap, $20 SIM card (micro), $10 setup fee, no roaming, no contract, no restrictions on whether the device is a phone/tablet/modem/hotspot/whatever – as long as it has a valid IMEI (non-blacklisted) and AT&T service bands. Can upgrade to bigger plans on the fly if data runs out (or smaller on low-usage months), but overages are 4¢/MB – however 80%+ of data plan usage gets daily email alerts. Miraculously cheaper than AT&T GoPhone Mobile Hotspot. All monthly plans. Solid customer support, too. We personally use them for our vDSL service.

3GB plan – $30
5GB plan – $45
7GB plan – $60
10GB plan – $80
15GB plan – $110

Verizon Prepaid Data Plans
All plans are hard capped with data usage, no rollover of unused data. Requires a Verizon compatible modem/tablet/hotspot to activate plan. Most data airtime plans are good for 60 days.

1GB/30 day plan – $20
2GB/60 day plan – $35
5GB/60 day plan – $60
10GB/60 day plan – $100

This gives us an assortment of mobile data options that can now be paired up to fill gaps.

Minimizing Data Usage

First, we’ll start by restricting/throttling hotspot data speeds on our Android device by using it like a router instead of a phone.

Bandwidth Ruler Pro from InnoStad – $3.49 – This will allow you to cap data speeds, which is especially useful to automatically reduce video data usage by throttling bandwidth to a lower quality stream if there’s no quality settings – but it does require rooting the device to do so. If you restrict available bandwidth to around 3-4Mbps or so, that should help a lot and hopefully automatically disable most HD video streams. If nothing else if you don’t root the phone, it’ll still help keep track of data usage.

Now, let’s focus on video streaming settings if not using BingeOn (BingeOn forces 480p). Limit playback to 240p/360p/480p quality in player settings (or low-to-medium, or whatever is a notch or two below HD). This will restrict video data usage to roughly 150-400MB/hour.

  • 240p is roughly VHS video quality ~150MB/hour or ~6:40 hours per GB of data, ~640kbps* down
  • 360p is roughly NTSC analog broadcast quality ~250MB/hour or ~4:00 hours per GB of data, ~1.2Mbps* down
  • 480p is roughly DVD video quality ~400MB/hour or ~2:30 hours per GB of data. ~1.5Mbps* down

*These throttled bandwidth speeds will give you roughly twice the bandwidth necessary to stream the video at that image quality, which should provide good buffering and still provide bandwidth overhead for surfing or doing other things without impacting image quality or the buffer.

How to minimize data usage with minimal effort during general browsing on laptops/desktops:

  • Chrome or Vivaldi web browser (both are Blink/Chromium based browsers and can use Google Chrome plugins).
  • Vivaldi has a built-in toggle for enabling/disabling image loading during web browsing, which gives it another leg up on Chrome beyond the less dumbed-down interface.
  • Either the uBlock Origin (simple) or uMatrix (complex) plugin from gorhill from the Chrome Web Store should be installed to help gut a lot of advertising bandwidth from loading.
  • There’s also an official Google plugin from the Chrome Web Store called Data Saver that automatically does data compression on HTTP traffic, so if you don’t mind using Google’s proxies to further datamine what you’re looking at, it’s a quick and easy way to further automagically reduce data usage.
  • There’s a plugin called Disable HTML5 Autoplay by Eloston on the Chrome Web Store that can be used to prevent HTML5 video from auto-playing and further caching to reduce bandwidth usage.
  • You can turn off Flash from auto-playing video by going to:
    Settings > Privacy > Content Settings > Plugins > Let me choose when to run plugin content
    This will easily eliminate more wasted bandwidth without over-complicating video watching.

How to minimize data usage during general browsing on mobile devices (phones, tablets):

  • Dolphin Browser allows you to turn off and on image loading while browsing the internet.
  • Dolphin also has an Adblock plugin that can be downloaded from their website.

How to minimize system data usage with system usage and OS updates:

  • Restrict all operating systems to only notify of updates instead of auto download and wait to patch over a reasonably safe public WiFi hotspot or a friend’s house if you feel inclined and you don’t have data to burn.
  • Pay for and use apps without advertising in them on mobile devices – stay away from adware.

This gives us a solid overview of how to easily minimize data usage across multiple devices without too much active self-discipline.

The Execution

Basically, we turn a phone or tablet into a modem/router/hotspot and set it up to access two competing mobile networks, one of which is T-Mobile and the other being AT&T or Verizon. This gives us a primary data option that provides mobile data on a somewhat smaller network with “unlimited” video streaming and various speeds of mobile data up to about 28GB without impacting overall quality of service depending on price. Through frequent usage of T-Mobile’s BingeOn, this should have a dramatic impact on how much overall metered, high speed mobile data that winds up actually being used. Further, T-Mobile’s plan is sufficiently cheap, it makes the cost pill a bit easier having two mobile accounts, even if you can’t always get a signal. But most importantly, doing this still gives us a fallback network with more expensive data for more rustic areas so you always have a connection, even if you don’t have unlimited data. Given most of the data usage will be streaming video, we can possibly even get away with the 2GB Simple Choice plan, but it can be adjusted accordingly if need be. The fallback plan to start with would probably be good at around 7GB, and could still be used exclusively for 3GB of generic data plus 16 hours of 360p streaming video in a month.

Now, signal boosting hardware is always an option to help improve coverage and reception, but I’m not going to dive into that as it’s something one should only spend money on if you find you need it. If it comes to that, there’s plenty of guides on good signal boosting hardware, including the RV internet site mentioned earlier.

Anyway… from there, we then do a minor shift in approach to data usage, and utilize apps/settings/plugins that help to automatically reduce overall data consumption without exercising constant vigilance, and introduce a couple methods of massive data savings that shifts the biggest data usage to deliberate activation through something as simple as toggling a switch or pushing a button for mindful controlled usage. These changes not only reduce the overall amount of data used in general internet browsing, but they can automatically reduce and restrict the amount of data that streaming video uses as well, even if you’re *not* getting unlimited video streaming.

For pricing, let’s figure the One plan on T-Mobile and 7GB on AT&T (using Toast) for starters. That’s $130/month (plus some tax) for 21+GB of data plus “unlimited” video streaming while on T-Mobile’s network. Alternately, going T-Mobile and Verizon, you’d be looking at $130/month for 19+GB of data with “unlimited” T-Mobile streaming. Both options are still somewhat lower than just 15GB of mobile data alone over Verizon or paying for a rented Verizon unlimited grandfathered plan. If you find that you have T-Mobile coverage more times than not, you could cut the fallback data down to around 2.5-3GB, and only pay $100/month (3GB – AT&T/Toast) (5GB/60 days – Verizon). Heck, even going with 10GB on ATT/Verizon only puts one in the $150-170/month range, which is already in range of the 15GB of Verizon only data plan, and would still be less than any major data plan coupled with Dish. On the high end, one could even go 15GB on AT&T coupled with the T-Mo plan and still only hit $180/month… still higher than the starting baseline cost, yet still less per month than the original hypothetical Verizon plus Dish plan and within striking distance of a Verizon grandfathered plan.

Obviously, if one is willing to ditch Verizon coverage for AT&T? You can save even more money overall on your secondary fallback network connection, and you probably won’t lose too much coverage (excuse the wilder parts of Nebraska, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon). Most importantly though, the more you can use T-Mobile coverage and BingeOn, the greater the total savings and the less metered bandwidth you’ll have to pay for in general. T-Mobile’s coverage isn’t amazing, but I suspect most folks would have coverage more times than not – especially East of the Mississippi (excuse West Virginia).

There’s a few paths that one could take on providers and execution, but as you can see, the real gems are going to combine T-Mobile’s One plan with 7GB on TOAST.net providing data fallback on a Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo, coupled with some cheap Bluetooth dialer phone with SIM slot (such as the Talkase T1) with a Truphone SIM to forward inbound calls to your T-Mobile number for occasions when you’re using the AT&T data SIM. Combine this setup with a good automated directional antenna like the Winegard Rayzar Automatic for OTA broadcast reception (assuming one doesn’t already have a decent OTA motorized Yagi directional antenna on their RV), and you should pretty well be set. This would give someone around 35+ hours of streaming video plus up to 14GB of high speed tethered data while on T-Mobile’s network using BingeOn, provide an extra 7GB of fallback data on the AT&T network for better rural coverage, offer “unlimited” talk and text, dirt simple and cheap PAYGO fallback phone service with free inbound calls for the times when you can’t call out using your primary phone, all for less than what was being spent for 15GB of data on Verizon alone. Rough total? $130+tax/month, plus another $8 for Netflix or something like it. More than plenty of mobile internet, phone, entertainment, all road warrior friendly like for less than $150 a month and about $250 in hardware, and could easily be scaled down farther for greater savings depending on real-world usage needs.

The best part? Technical prowess to get everything set up and useful is pretty entry level, excuse perhaps rooting the smartphone.

Perhaps not a perfect solution and certainly no unicorn, but a decent one that I suspect will mesh nicely with most RV setups, help reduce overall costs, and give one more for their money. What more can you ask for in a world of hucksters selling the snake-oil of unlimited services?

If you can use it, may it benefit you. Personally, even if I was on the road, I think I’d mostly stick with books and puppet shows, but that’s me. Stay warm, everyone!

2 thoughts on “Mobile Everything On A Budget

    • It’s doable, to an extent. The iPhone SE (A1662) as an example could be a good option for the phone end as a Ver/ATT/TMo friendly handset to use as the base station, with the SIM-removable, cellular modem version of the Apple iPad Pro 9.7 (A1675) as a Ver/ATT/TMo friendly tablet option. MagicSIM adapters work with these devices as well.

      The problems, however, come down to data management and antenna design.

      With the antenna design on Apple products, they’re quite simply just trying to pack in support for too many frequencies with too many tiny fractal antennas in too small a package, and their antenna designs (and reception) consequently suffer for it and have for a while. I don’t pick on Apple exclusively for this, by the way. A lot of smartphone manufacturers are falling into this trap trying to produce as few model variants as possible for the global market as LTE band frequencies explode across a ridiculous swath of dissimilar spectrum. Unfortunately, though, this makes them less than ideal devices for taking on the road where reception quality could prove to be a dicier proposition unless you want to shell out even more money for multiple directional, broad-spectrum-friendly passive antenna and signal booster rigs for one’s RV. This, too, however can be a very poor solution as most phone manufacturers (Apple included) no longer provide external antenna jacks anymore.

      The tools/software cited for turning an Android handset into a pseudo-router just aren’t there with Apple’s platform, either. I’m not particularly pro Apple for a multitude of reasons, but I’m not particularly pro Android much anymore, either. Of the smartphone platforms available, I’ve ironically found myself firmly in the Windows Mobile camp now despite the doom and gloom reports… but you’ll note that I didn’t recommend Windows handsets in this guide, either, because the software tools necessary aren’t there for that platform just as they aren’t there for Apple. Right tools for the job, etc. Heck, you’ll note that Android itself to get it to fully work as we desire still requires rooting.

      It’s not that you couldn’t use them (the modem bands are there), you just won’t be able to have as tight a control over data management as you could otherwise, and reception could be less even. If those two points don’t bother you, then modify the guide accordingly to accommodate the hardware change, and happy trails with your walled garden devices!

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