Being retired means I now have the time to seriously geek out.  After having finished rushing around to get our house ready to sell, we’re now faced with a long wait for the closure process for the sale. Whenever I’m faced with a long period in which I have nothing to do, Pat should immediately confiscate my credit cards, because that’s when I’m tempted to do recreational shopping – you know, the kind where you don’t really do have to do it right now, but you “may as well get it done.”

As a case in point, we moved into a long-term hotel for the duration of our sale, and “free wifi” was advertised. What they didn’t tell us is that the free wifi is so abysmally slow (I suspect deliberately, just so they can tout it as free without paying for decent bandwidth, but Extended Stay America is not likely to read this so no changes are expected) that even just checking your email takes minutes instead of seconds. To get “the faster version” you have to pay $15 per week extra. Rather than play this game of bait-and-switch, and since we’ll be here for up to two months, I decided to channel that money into buying what will become our IT suite once we move into our motorhome.

So off to the Verizon store we went. Verizon has the best rep among RV’ers for having a network that covers more rural countryside in the U.S. than its competitors, and it also re-instituted an “unlimited” (reason for the quotes later) data plan, which admittedly costs more but will provide us with the sort of service we were used to with our home-based cable modem. We ended up buying two smartphones and a dedicated mifi hotspot called a “Jetpack”, all of which share the unlimited plan. Our thinking was that the mifi can handle all the RV-based clients – laptops, tablets (both of which we have one apiece) and various RV system sensors – while the phones are for our pockets when we’re away from the RV and can also be used as surrogate hotspots by turning on their tethering functions.

We tried this RV setup in our hotel room using the jetpack as a sort of router/hotspot, both of our tablets, Pat’s all-in-one PC and my laptop, and it sorta/kinda worked. One frequently used client device from our our old home LAN is an 8-terabyte NAS (Network Hard Drive). We use it for keeping soft scans of important documents, lots of videos, music, ebooks and a complete set of all of our family photos. In essence, it’s our “cloud” that we will be taking on the road. Although it can function in a pinch connected via wifi with the inclusion of a wifi adapter plugged into the back, it really likes an ethernet connection to a router to be effective. The 6620L jetpack fails in this regard, having only one micro USB connection. I tried the wifi approach but the result was slow and wonky.

So I chose the Pepwave Surf Soho Mk3 router for this task, and I couldn’t have picked a better device at any price. At $199 it’s not cheap, but it has every feature I needed to run Internet in a mobile platform like an RV:

1. It has a “USB WAN” port in back that connects to the USB port on the jetpack for a USB-tethered Internet signal. The jetpack’s wifi transceiver instantly became unnecessary after I found out how well the Surf Soho worked with the jetpack, so I turned it off and I roll with just USB tethering now. Speed checks in urban Columbia Md. produce results in the 15-25 gigabit range.

2. The “Mk3” part indicates that the SOHO was upgraded to the latest wrinkle in wifi protocols, called 802.11ac, which the 6620L jetpack doesn’t have, enabling much faster speeds to our tablets and wifi-connected laptop.

3. It has the ability to act as a wifi bridge at the same time that it’s tethered to the jetpack, so that it can take a campground’s Wifi signal (when we’re in Verizon dropout zones) and rebroadcast the wifi to all of our devices. This avoids having to reset all of our client devices to the campground’s wifi settings. This doesn’t mean that we can do online banking or other hacker-jackpot activities over an untrusted wifi hotspot. We will still have to find a Verizon 3G/4G signal somewhere for that.

4. The SOHO includes “Automatic Failover,” which allows me to set up a priority scheme covering items 1 and 3 above, so that the jetpack’s USB comes first, but if our RV is in a Verizon blind spot, the campground’s wifi (few of which are really that good but most fulltimers will tell you that, every now and then, you hit a nugget) automatically kicks in as the first choice without being told to.

5. It includes a complete suite of firewall and event logging software for times when we use a campground’s “untrusted” wifi signal.

Back of the Soho router, with 802.11AC paddle antennae, USB WAN input and ethernet outlets
802.11ac paddle antennae and USB WAN input make the SOHO a good fit for a mobile operation like an RV or boat.

In general I found the Surf Soho plugged all of the holes that were apparent by trying to use the jetpack as a hotspot and rudimentary router, and all three devices were small enough to fit in a 4″ x 9″ footprint suitable for installation in an RV’s interior cabinet.

Jetpack, NAS and router, small enough to RV with and complete enough to handle anything on the road
Jetpack, NAS and wifi router. Small enough for an RV storage shelf and able to handle anything on the road.

When is Unlimited not really Unlimited?

One wrinkle in Verizon’s Unlimited plan is the limit that they place on a device’s “unlimited” activity. After 10 gigabytes of monthly activity (22GB for the phones) the jetpack becomes “deprioritized” on Verizon’s network. Verizon says that this isn’t necessarily “throttling” because it doesn’t just chop your bandwidth when you hit the threshhold. Instead, if anybody new logs onto the network in your vicinity after you’ve hit your threshhold, they assume priority and you take a backseat, possibly with enough bandwidth to keep streaming video but not at the rates that the new guy is getting.

In practice in an urban area I’ve found that my speeds didn’t suffer all that much, and my jetpack’s usage numbers just passed 60 gigabytes 3 weeks into March. I still watch Youtube videos without getting buffered.  Of course it may be a different story when we get to the boonies, as Columbia is a fairly upscale city with newer infrastructure. We’ll see as the year wears on.