Categories: Go NorthRV Tech

Connectivity in Alaska & Canada

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​One of the challenges of RVing to Alaska is driving through the remote areas and not having good cell service to place calls and/or connect to the internet. Many people also don’t have service through Canada, as it requires having an international voice or data plan, and choosing the right one can be confusing!

Here is what we did to stay connected on our trip. (Plus a discount code at Mobile Must Have!)

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Use code “friendsofmortons2019” at checkout for your discount!


Assessing Your Connectivity Needs & Options

Before going out an spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on equipment, you should probably first assess your needs for connectivity. For us, we were going to need lots of data for all the uploading of videos and photos from our trip, and we needed to have the best set up possible to pick up the most signal in remote places and remain connected as much as possible via cell networks. You might be in a similar situation if you were trying to work full-time as you traveled.

However, if you’re not needing to be connected all the time, maybe just need to check email once in a while, watch some Netflix every now and then, then you probably could be okay with some of the other connectivity options available. Regardless, you’re going to want to do some research here so you don’t end up wracking up huge cell phone bills during your trip on accident, having features of your plan turned off, or speeds throttled. Check with your current plan and provider about traveling in Canada and Alaska, what add-ons are available, and what roaming fees and restrictions may apply.

Existing Voice & Data Plan Options

Step 1 is to check your current plan to see if you’re already eligible for roaming in Canada or if it something you can add-on for your trip.

If you have a Google Pixel and GoogleFi, you will be able to roam with your voice and data in Canada. While your data is unlimited (and you pay more the more you use), your voice is charged differently. Tom has a Pixel and after crossing the boarder it quickly reprogrammed its self and worked as normal on the Canadian carriers.  This has been a great inexpensive option for basic cell for us as its cost effective, works well and makes traveling very easy across boarders as it works in most countries around the world with no additional data costs or complexities.  As the phone operates on multiple carriers coverage also tends to be very good.  You can learn more about the Fi service here and if you sign up through this link you can receive $20 off your first bill.  GOOGLE FI –  ​https://g.co/fi/r/C16EPT 

WIFI OPTIONS

Many visitors centers and campgrounds offer WiFi to guests for basic internet usage. Video or music streaming is strongly discouraged as it can slow the experience down for everyone on these types of networks.

In Canada, there is a service provider called Shaw. They have launched Shaw Go WiFi Guest Access in municipalities across Canada, and with a free Guest Access account you can have access to 500MB of data per month on these networks. It’s not a lot, but it would allow you to check your email! Learn more here.

Our Setup

For our extended usage needs and need for unlimited unthrottled data, we teamed up with the folks over at Mobile Must Have to have unlimited data in the US and Canada, PLUS the best equipment to receive and boost signal. 

​If you’re heavy internet users like us, you might want to consider going this route. You can check out their equipment options on their website and/or contact them to see what options might be best for your situation.

Use Code “friendsofmortons2019” for 5% off your order! List of Gear:

Routers, Boosters & Antennae

Mobile Must Have has teamed up with a few providers to be able to offer unlimited data plans on AT&T and Verizon that are unthrottled.  This means that no matter how much data you use they will continue to work at full speed.  We have two unlimited international data plans for this trip that come as SIM cards.  You then need a device to actually connect to the cell network.   

  This is the Pepwave transit Duo router. On the left side the red and black connect to the RV’s 12V and on the right are all the connections to the rooftop antennas.   You can see our sim cards residing in the Pepwave router

The brain of our system is our Pepwave Max Transit Duo Cat 12 router.  This router is a rugged-ized device designed to take the rigors of the road and is frequently used by emergency vehicles, police, and bus systems to provide cell connectivity while on the move.  What is special about this router is that it is a dual modem unit.  This means that it can operate both of our unlimited data plans at the same time!  What this means is that if you have connectivity on both providers, or even two of the same provider, this device can significantly improve your internet connection by using the plans simultaneously to provide an upload and download at the same time on different plans, or double your download speeds when using multiple devices.  This router also features in depth controls through its intuitive dashboard that allows you select what devices you want to be priority, see real-time statistics, set limits (if you do not have unlimited) and so much more for advanced users.   

Another feature of the Pepwave router is that it can connect to a WiFi network and rebroadcast it as your own.  This can add security and help you pick up campground WiFi better if running rooftop antennas that we will talk about next. 

One of the best parts of getting this equipment from Mobile Must Have along with the data plans is that it came pre-loaded with the data plans and was all setup and ready to go.  Along with your purchase you also get a one on one consultation video call that will help you understand the system to get the most out of it.    They even offer remote assistance to troubleshoot the system if anything goes awry.  

 

Here is a shot of our pepwave dashboard you can access on any computer or phone. From here you can adjust the settings and set the priority of the connections you want to use. Note that we are broadcasting two wifi access points, the pepwave and the GoNorth for our trip. You set different passwords and limits if you want to share your network!
 

Here is a still image from the live chat we had with Erik from Mobile Must Have who helped us get the system setup.

This is the benifit of the dual modem, these are two different carriers and one cell is uploading while the other is downloading, making the connection much more stable. This was taken while in a very remote area where speeds were lower, but overall the network was still very usable. If the router is the brain then the antennae are the backbone.  While the router does come with antennas that can pick up cell service and broadcast WiFi, they are small and internal to the RV so will provide limited gain.  To improve this the Pepwave routers are designed to be connected to external antennas and we opted for the Poynting Mimo rooftop antennas, two of them because the Transit Duo router has two modems.   

(1) Poynting 2-in-1 RV Cellular Roof Antenna with MIMO Support
(1) Poynting 5-in-1 Cellular, WIFI & GPS RV and Marine Roof Antenna

These antennas are MiMo which means that there are two independent antennas that can propagate the uplink and down link separately which can significantly improve performance.   

These antennas are low profile and designed to be omnidirectional, meaning they accept signal from all directions.  We had seen test results however that showed they had a slight preference for accepting signal to the side, so we installed them 90 degrees to each other and connected one antenna from each rooftop unit to each separate modem.  We also installed aluminum foil tape on the roof prior to installing the antennas to act as a “ground plane” and help reflect signal into the antenna for better reception. 

  One of the MiMo rooftop antennas is a standard MiMo while the other one is a 5 in 1 unit meaning it has a few extra features.   The 5 in 1 also includes a GPS antenna so that the router can determine its location and two WiFi antennas so that the router can both broadcast its WiFi signal and receive external signal from the roof, significantly improving WiFi rebroadcasting performance.    

While these antennas perform well for most instances there are times when the cell is too weak to be stable and this is where a booster can improve performance.  We installed a weBoost Drive 4G-X RV Cell Phone Signal Booster with an omni-directional antenna on the back of the RV for these circumstances.  This booster has a small internal antenna that we place near router to rebroadcast cell in weak service situations.   While doing this negates the benefits of the MiMo antennas on the roof and we do not see the same performance, it can still make the difference between having usable internet or not.  

  Here is the weBoost booster we are using connected to its omni directional antenna on the roof. We also can connect it to a directional antenna we have. While setup of the directional is challenging, when pointed correctly can give a much higher gain and better signal when very far from the tower.   This is the Pepwave Router in its boosted configuration. We have replaced two of the rooftop mimo antennas with the internal antennas and placed the weboost internal antenna behind them. This allows the weboost to rebroadcast directly to the pepwave.

Installation

Here is where/how we installed our equipment on the Lance Truck Camper (start at 9:55):

Coverage & Performance in Canada & Alaska – Our Experience

We’ve been pleasantly surprised at our ability to stay connected during our trip. We’ve found that we haven’t been out of service for weeks like we initially thought, but only for a couple days at a time and largely by choice. The longest stretch by miles that we were out of service was along the Alaska Highway between Fort Nelson and Watson Lake.

Other places of disconnection were Canol Road (dirt road to middle of nowhere), Top of the World Highway (dirt road), Denali Highway (another dirt road), and the Dalton Highway (rough dirt road to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska – although there was really good service in Coldfoot mid-way!). 

Most small towns surprisingly have cell service. Many places even have fiber run, so it can be surprisingly good! Sometimes however we have noticed that we might have full bars, but really slow response. We believe that in these instances the cell providers are using the microwave towers we see everywhere to transmit the data wirelessly to these remote locations.  Microwave transmission is more subject to weather and is much more limiting in data handling, hence the slower speeds. 

We’ve been doing a lot of planning and scheduling the publishing of content to make this patchwork of service availability work for our needs.  The cellular providers do have pretty good coverage maps that we have found to be pretty accurate for Alaska and Canada.  Sometimes we lose service before where the map says and other times our booster can push way beyond it however, so you cannot fully trust them. 

In the video below, we talk about using this setup on the fringe of service in Jasper National Park:


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Using Data Apps to Communicate

One last consideration for traveling international is how to actually communicate.  Since we have predominantly using data for our communications to reduce our voice minutes usage, we’ve been utilizing peer-to-peer apps like WhatsApp?, Google Hangouts, and Facetime​ to hold calls and send messages over data/WiFi instead of voice calls while in Canada.   This has been working great along with traditional email. 

One challenge we ran into with international data as well is the fact that some US servers will not allow traffic from other countries.  To mitigate this we use ExpressVPN in this situations to make it appear as if we are still within the unites states.  

​Overall we have been pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to stay connected on a trip through Alaska and Canada if you spend the time to understand the limitations and put the equipment in place that will perform properly.  While this system we installed is not cheap it was part of the budget for the trip and will serve us in our normal travels through the contiguous United States as well.  


The Go North Expedition is made possible by Lance Camper ManufacturingBattle Born BatteriesTruma North AmericaDometicMobile Must HaveHellwig Suspension Products, and viewers like you through Patreon. Thank you!

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Mortons on the Move

We are Tom & Caitlin Morton. We gave up the stationary life for one where we are constantly on the move. We live in a fifth wheel RV and travel with our two pups, Mocha and Bella. We enjoy hiking, biking, boondocking, videography, and upgrading our RV to suit our off-grid mobile lifestyle. Our goal is to share educational, entertaining, and inspiring content with our readers and viewers.

View Comments

  • Really helpful information for us. We’ve just found your Go North channel and have enjoyed it so much! The whole series is high quality!

  • I'm curious what you thought of the other booster that you installed which you don't really talk much about after briefly pointing it out in episode 2 during the install of connectivity devices at Lance. The device appears to be a Cel-Fi booster, but I don't think it was ever mentioned by name. In episode 6 when you had a weak signal and needed to work, you highlighted the weBoost device in use and didn't mention why or why not about the mysterious "middle" device in the wall-mounted stack. I'm also interested in the directional antenna. This looks like one which is available with the Cel-Fi as well as other systems from weBoost, but not the one that you used from weBoost. What made you buy the directional antenna before embarking? Could you link which antenna you bought and from where? Was the default omnidirectional antenna from weBoost not sufficient at that location? Thanks for your help. We found your Go North show and made it our "drink a glass of wine and watch something on Amazon Prime" weekend show. We're not fully through it yet, but my wife has already asked me to upfit the camper for Alaska.

    • :) So glad you have been enjoying the show. So the middle booster was a cellfi rebrand that we were asked to test for the trip. We found it very challenging to use as it only boosts one carrier at a time and only works in one country at a time (It actually got locked to Canada and not wont switch). Since it was a test piece we did not showcase anything about it and the weboost was our primary booster.

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