Caravan WIFI; our solution
There’s a heap of different ways you can get internet access when you are travelling, and in this post we cover the research that we’ve done over the years, what we’ve ended up with, and why. We left Perth in September 2022, with the intention of spending at least 12 months and maybe more on the road, as a family of 4, in a Hybrid Caravan.
What are your internet needs?
Like with many of our guides, we always start off with you. What is it that you need, and how can we help you achieve it? There’s a heap of people who are travelling Australia and only have access to internet when they are in major towns and cities through their phones, and they are perfectly happy with that setup.
Others require internet for all business hours, as they literally work a full time job from their caravans. Others run YouTube channels, or need it for the schooling they are doing with their kids, and then you have plenty of people who just want to stay connected, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.
Determining what you need is the first step to ensuring your internet on the road actually does what you need it to. How much data do you need, and when do you need access to it?
What internet do we need?
Up until now, we’ve been living at home for the bulk of the year, with fairly fast NBN (100mbps) at our finger tips. When we travelled, we’d just hotspot off our phones, and rely on having reception whenever it appeared. Our kids are doing distance education and don’t need internet connection all the time, and we can go for weeks without having an internet connection if needed.
On a private level, I’d be just as happy not to have internet except when its available through your normal phone towers. I actually find when you pull into a camp site and don’t have reception its more relaxing, but maybe that’s just me.
From a business perspective though, I need internet to run this blog, and the YouTube channel (if we continue it!). The thing is though, I can get away with sporadic internet connections. I’d say about 70% of the work I do on this blog can be done entirely offline, and its only the uploading of photos, and the editing and publishing of posts that I need a connection for.
This means we are happy enough not having access to internet all the time. Sure, it would make life easier, but is it really necessary? We think not.
Options for internet on the road
So, if you want internet on the road, we’ve got a heap of different options for you
Hotspot from your mobile phone
The easiest, cheapest and most simple is just to hotspot from your mobile phone, which we do often. Of course, you need reception in the first place, and you need the reception to be clear. We were in Denham for Easter, and despite having perfectly good signal we had rubbish data availability, because 17 million (OK, that’s exaggerated) other people were also trying to use it.
Inherently, this is a problem with all mobile data options, and one you just have to live with.
The data plans you have with a mobile tend to be the limiting factor, and then you need to keep your phone on, and often charging as it can kill the battery power pretty quickly.
If you want to go down this path, your best options are Telstra or Boost, as they have the best mobile phone service in Australia.
Using a Mobile Phone Modem
There’s a number of different modems that you can purchase, which are essentially a mobile hotspot device. They have zero mobile phone functionality, but connect to the 4G and 5G (if capable and available) towers and provide you with internet. Many are equipped with WIFI, and have the ability to plug external antennas in to give you even better reception.
Today, the most common item is the Netgear Nighthawk M5, M6 or M6 Pro.
You simply purchase the device and sign up to a data only plan, and away you go. You can pay the device off interest free over a plan period too, if that’s the path you want to take.
If you haven’t heard of Starlink yet, its a pretty amazing technology, being coordinated by Elon Musk. It uses a series of low orbiting satellites to provide internet all over the world, and its kicking some seriously impressive goals.
In Australia right now, reception is guaranteed for basically the bottom half, with the top half rolling out some time in 2023. You need a clear line of sight, and the speeds that people are achieving make NBN technology look seriously bad.
Only recently Starlink came out with the RV option, which allows you to move around and still get reception, without having a fixed address. It’s $174 a month, and nearly a thousand dollars for the satellite, so not a small investment, but you get unlimited data and you can have seriously fast internet in the middle of nowhere, which is amazing.
Total cost then (including the satellite), over 24 months is $5100, or $213 per month.
EDIT – you can now get the device for $450, which is a huge reduction in price, and makes it a lot more affordable.
What did we end up getting?
We really like the concept of Starlink, and seriously considered getting it, but didn’t for a number of reasons. For us, the continual setup, fragility, plus size and weight just make it impractical. I can see we’ll be moving often, and having another large item that is fairly fragile to pack up, store carefully and move around is just going to be annoying. I can see our kids would potentially damage it, or someone might walk away with your satellite.
They require 240V to run, which is fine, but we don’t tend to leave ours on all the time, and given we don’t need reception all the time it just seems overkill. Its also really expensive compared to other internet options (but actually really good value for what you get, as there’s no real competition).
In my mind, I’d rather a simple internet setup that works in less places, than having to mess around with a satellite to get better internet, at all times (when the sky is unobscured!).
Perhaps we’ll end up with this in the future, when it becomes even more compact and permanently mountable, but for now we’ve decided to give it a miss.
We purchased a Netgear Nighthawk M6
We’ve decided to keep it really simple, and found a bit of a hack that makes it really economical. The Netgear Nighthawk M6 is extremely light, portable and connects to 4 and 5G towers. We could run an external antenna on the Reconn R2 if we really wanted better reception, but we’ll see how it goes without it for now.
I was initially going to get this from Telstra, which would have been a rip off (like they often are). The unit is $550, and then you go on a plan for data.
75GB is $55 a month, and 400GB is $85 a month, plus the $550 unit, ends up costing $1870 or $2590 for 24 months. That’s $78 or $108 per month.
Instead, I discovered you can buy the unit through JBhifi, and get a much better deal still on the Telstra network, and you can request a call back online and don’t even have to visit a store!
We managed to get 300GB of data for $69 a month over 24 months, with a $600 gift voucher, which pays for the Nighthawk M6, and we get $50 back. A total cost then, of $1606 over 24 months, or $67 a month.
This was a special, and they’ve reduced the data back to 150GB, with only a $500 voucher but its still a much better deal than going through Telstra.
Nighthawk vs Starlink
So, we’ve ended up with a setup where we pay $67 a month instead of $193, and will have solid internet over the more populated areas of Australia, and very limited, or no internet over the rest of Australia.
Given the size, fragility, weight and setup time for the Starlink compared to the Nighthawk, and the fact that we don’t need to have internet all the time (and its actually nice not to!), I think we’ve made the right decision.
If not, I’ll let you know here in due course.
EDIT – for the most part, this setup does us just fine. I do get frustrated when we don’t have internet for more than a few days if I haven’t prepared work to do (as I hate sitting around), but its a simple, cheap solution that I’m fairly happy with.
Even with the starlink reduction, I’m not keen on upgrading, partly because we are locked into a 24 month plan, but also because of the setup, weight and space side of things.
How does the Netgear Nighthawk M6 perform?
After 6 months on the road, I can say I’m quietly impressed with the Nighthawk M6. It’s got a decent battery life, connects to signal when our phones will not, is easy to use and in general does a good job. There are times where it has not had any signal, and we are considering getting an external antenna to make it better, but its doing a great job.
I’ve only experienced a couple of times where our phones have had better reception, but for the most part the Nighthawk M6 will get much faster speeds than our phones.
What internet do you use on the road?