Internet afloat 2020, this should be easier!
Working from boat, cabin, RV, or wherever you find yourself is so very 2020, but for most of us, that takes internet connectivity. Unfortunately, staying online via a cellular connection has gotten increasingly harder. I’m baffled about why the year of nomadic work is also the year that carriers have made it so very difficult, but what follows is an update on what I’ve done historically, what’s stopped working recently, and how I’m trying to remedy the situation.
Because I work, my kids school, and my wife teaches — all streaming from our boat home — we consume large quantities of bandwidth. An average month is around 250 gigabytes via cellular connections, but we’ve seen months with nearly 500 gigabytes transferred. It’s also safe to say that without working and reliable internet, productivity aboard Have Another Day grinds to a halt. So, we really value reliable and decent performing internet. Recently, that’s been harder to come by.
I should also note this struggle is nothing new. Ben E. wrote presciently back in 2013 about his Verizon unlimited solution and how well it was working for him and also his fears it may not last. If you read back to that entry you will recognize several of the issues he was describing as well as some familiar tools for dealing with those challenges.
2020 has brought challenges to many people and many businesses. I think it’s safe to conclude that cellular carrier networks are feeling the strain of very different usage patterns than when most of the country’s workforce was in an office, relying on corporate networks to supply connectivity. Now, so many of us are working from home or possibly alternate locations like our boats. With that move to alternate work locations comes a need for bandwidth and the obvious source of bandwidth is cellular. And with the increased dependence on cellular bandwidth, it seems the carriers have decided to manage this, in part, by cracking down on how their networks are used.
I wish that low-earth-orbit satellite constellations, like Starlink, were ready for prime time, but it’s just too early still. The constellations of satellites aren’t complete and there’s still lots of fine-tuning ahead. Starlink recently launched what they’re calling their “better than nothing” beta. I think the name makes clear what they’re promising and it’s not much. The early returns I’ve heard from beta users indicate that it’s a lot better than nothing, but it’s also limited to those much further north than southwest Florida.
Since early 2016 I’ve been using a reseller called 4G Antenna Solutions (4GAS) to purchase an unlimited AT&T data SIM. Unfortunately, in August of this year, after four and a half trouble-free years, 4GAS announced that my plan would no longer be offered. Instead of the $80 I was paying them for service they were moving to offering a $100 plan with 50GB of data or a $150 option with 100GB of data. Additionally, this option would only be available to businesses and was now being marketed as a backup connection option. This wasn’t a huge shock to me. The $80 plan I was on hadn’t been offered for quite some time but 4GAS continued to honor the pricing for existing accounts.
With 4GAS off the table, I went looking for a new solution. I’d had good luck with AT&T so I was interested in sticking with something on their network. I reviewed the options listed at The Mobile Internet Resource Center which lead me to Gypsy Wireless. Gypsy offers a plan that costs $100 for the first month and $75 thereafter. Gypsy Wireless was flawless for the first month and through the first renewal. Then, sometime after that, my Gypsy Wireless line stopped working. Just before this happened I’d heard about trouble with Finally WiFi (the U.S. operation of My Island WiFi). It’s long been warned that the resellers of major carriers’ networks sometimes operate in gray areas of the carriers’ terms of service and as such, trouble could be experienced if the carriers decide to crackdown. At this point, with word of three carriers having troubles it looks as though, as warned, AT&T was cracking down on resellers.
For quite a while my arsenal of internet connection options consisted of the aforementioned AT&T connection via a reseller, a Verizon Prepaid truly unlimited mobile hotspot (which Verizon no longer offers, mine is grandfathered), a phone with Visible’s unlimited 5 megabit per second hotspot (also on Verizon’s network), and our cell phones which are on T-Mobile but are limited to only 3GB per month of mobile hotspot usage. Now that the AT&T option is defunct, my only unlimited options are on Verizon’s network. Unfortunately, Verizon has proved to be the least reliable and slowest option at Have Another Day’s home slip. So I really wanted an option on AT&T or T-Mobile. Let’s talk about the options I’ve tried so far. It’s a pretty long list and if it’s exhausting to read, just think about how exhausting it’s been to try them all.
I’ve heard good things about Google Fi, its carrier switching capabilities between Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular, pay for what you use model, unlimited bandwidth after 6GB of metered usage, and free data-only SIM cards. Unfortunately, it turns out the unlimited bandwidth after 6GB is only at high speed until you reach 22GB of use at which point it slows to a nearly useless 256 kilobits per second. I had some optimism that perhaps the slow down wouldn’t actually occur, so I invested in one month of service at $80 and can confirm data is definitely slowed once the cap is reached. Honestly, it’s pretty disappointing to see Google use the same deceptive definition of unlimited.
This one hurt. I invested a lot of time in trying to make this work, and failed. T-Mobile offers a $50 add on to some of their plans called T-Mobile Global Plus 15gb. I’ve highlighted the most important feature above, “Unlimited 4G LTE Smartphone Mobile Hotspot in the U.S.”. This is the only spot in all of T-Mobile’s rate plans and add-ons that I’ve found a truly unlimited mobile hotspot offered. While I’d prefer a data SIM that can go directly into an LTE modem, I can make my peace with tethering via WiFi or USB to one of the routers aboard.
So, why did it hurt, you ask? Because despite the fact that they don’t say it anywhere in any of the marketing materials, this plan is only available to individual customers on the Magenta plan. I’m a business customer on the Magenta plan and hence can’t have it. This was news to me, the rep who sold me a new phone (and thought he’d activated the plan), and most of the ten or so phone reps I spoke with trying to get it activated.
Ultimately, I gave up, returned the phone, canceled the line, and moved onto the next option. Technically, I didn’t have to do this, I could have established a new line of service as an individual and added the Global Plus 15GB package. But, each additional line on my business plan costs $20, so the total additional cost would have been $20 for the phone plus $50 for the add-on package for a total of $70. If I’d gone with a standalone line it would have cost $70 for a single line of magenta plus $50 for the add-on package for a total of $120.
As it became clear T-Mobile was going to make this difficult I began to explore other options. I’ve been using GL.iNet routers (running DD-WRT) and some searching revealed that using an Android app called EasyTether and an EasyTether module on the GL.iNet router would allow using the phone’s on-device data off the device. Effectively, this allows you to bypass the carriers’ restrictions on mobile hotspot and tethering by disguising the traffic. While it works, I don’t love the idea of relying on a tool that could result in a game of cat and mouse with the carriers and that might violate the carriers’ terms of service.
Here’s where things get ironic. This search started because AT&T stopped resellers from offering unlimited services for $75-$100 a month but the final solution I found (at least for now) ended up being a $20 a month unlimited iPad data plan. The Mobile Internet Resource center has listed this plan for a while with notes about how to get a rep to sell it to you. I interpreted these notes to mean it was difficult to get. My experience calling in to a call center was quite easy; the rep immediately knew about the “iPad Unlimited / Tablet Unlimited” plan and quickly set me up with the new line of service. With taxes, the line should cost just under $25 a month.
So far it’s allowed mobile hotspot usage with no restrictions. I’ve run about fifteen gigabytes through it so far, so maybe I’ll experience issues when I use more data, but so far so good. Again, I’d always prefer a data only SIM card that can be directly inserted into a dedicated modem rather than a mobile hotspot off a phone or tablet. But, at this point this looks like a pretty good solution, even if I have to pick up a cellular iPad dedicated to this purpose.
What’s the future hold? Will AT&T do something to eliminate this option? It often seems like the carriers offer a good option and then, when people take advantage of that option, they take it away (I’m looking at you, Verizon $65 unlimited prepaid option). Maybe they will, but in the meantime, I’m hoping this will get me through until better options come online. I certainly hope that the low-earth-orbit satellite options will become a possibility, or maybe even that medium and high-earth-orbit options like VSAT will become more affordable.
I’d sure like to hear what others are doing and what’s working for them. Please, tell us about it in the comments. It’s definitely troubling to not have a good answer when readers ask what they should be using to get internet onboard. For now, I think the game of cat and mouse will continue and I fear we boaters are the mice.
After my truly unlimited plan through AT&T ended in May, I tried many different options (including island wifi until it ended). So far, I’ve had the best luck with using a hotspot from an extra phone dedicated to the purpose through Visible (Verizon). I also use it for my personal phone so it ends up being $35/month per phone. The hotspot data is supposed to be capped at 5 Mbps and limited to one device, but I only see that cap in cities. I share the hotspot with the boat’s wifi hotspot to which all devices are connected. It runs on the Verizon network and there isn’t a max data cap per month so I don’t really care about usage. So far it is working well.
I’m really impressed by what you get from Visible. And, if you find a group to join with Visible’s Party Pay you can get that $35 down to $25 a month. The challenge for me is that both of my viable connections are on Verizon and I’ve been having issues with Verizon in my current location.
I’ve also been told — and confirmed myself — that you can remove a Visible phone SIM card and install it in a MiFi or similar WiFi hotspot, change the APN to VSBLINTERNET and you’re off to the races. Others have reported not seeing much throttling on Visible’s hotspot data but I have seen some pretty strong indications of it.
Thanks for the tip about VSBLINTERNET. I will have to try it. We currently use a Winegard Connect that we used to have on our RV. Not the latest tech, but it works fairly well as a wifi device for the boat. After a year of truly unlimited AT&T service, it was frustrating trying to find a plan that I don’t have to count every mb…
Cricket has two good data-only plans ($50 for 40GB, $90 for 100GB) and uses AT&T. Nomad offers unlimited data-only on Verizon’s network for $129/mo, but there are a handful of complaints about being throttled back by Verizon after hitting several hundred gigs in a month. Support from Nomad is minimalist. An insider told me they might not be around for long because they’re not a full MVNO.
Cricket doesn’t just use ATT, it is owned by them which, hopefully, makes them less likely to get cut off than a lot of the semi-sketchy ways to get an “unlimited” plan.
Their data only (“simply data”) plans allow you to add more data in $10 chunks, so it effectively boils down to $10 per 15 gigs. You can sign up for the $35 for 20 gigs plan then just add however much you need as you go. It doesn’t compete price wise for the very heavy unlimited plan users, but for more moderate use or as a secondary plan might be a good option.
And I was about to go back and research your earlier articles after my experiences this summer 🙁 We have Verizon “Unlimited” family plan (with our fones plus my MiFi), but if you use “hotspot”, it slows down dramatically at 22 GB – and while we don’t use the kind of Internet you guys do, 22 GB isn’t enough for a month. I tried “tethering” the MiFi to my ethernet bridge, but Verizon sees EVERYTHING the MiFi does as “hotspot”, even though their rep told me otherwise. Since we won’t be using cellular Internet much while we’re ashore this winter, I’m really looking around to see what’s out there. I do have an elderly unlocked iPhone I could put a SIM into for testing, so that may help.
Keep up the good work!
If you’ve got an old iPhone I think there’s a good chance that Visible would work well for you. It will cost between $25 and $40 a month for service (depending on if you take the time to find a “Party” to join for their Party Pay discount) and can be entirely month to month. There’s no contract so you can just activate for a month or two if that’s what works for you. The hotspot is unlimited, but it might be limited to 5 megabits per second — there are conflicting reports on that.
I might just do that, Ben – I moved my SIM from the olde fone to my new iPhone 11, so they would need to send me a SIM, but I see they’ll do that. I should time it so I can really test the “unlimited” limits 🙂 At least with the Verizon network, I already know the coverage.
I too had an “Unlimited” ATT prepaid data sim I purchased on Ebay. It worked for over a year renewing each month for $35 per month. ATT terms of service said they could throttle after 22GIGs but it they ever did throttle I never noticed. But like you, ours quit working end of OCT then we got an email it had been canceled for non-use which was BS. After 2 hours on the phone with 4 separate ATT reps they sent me to th local ATT store saying the notes in my file would enable them to give me a new sim…. that too was BS. Local store said they dont even have the option to restart a cancelled acct. So we like you are in search for a better Cell Data option….. Thanks for your article!!!
Great article Ben. I continue to want to learn more and more about staying connected. I am on an unlimited International AT&T plan. I purchased this plan through aftermarket company Mobile Must Have. I pay a little more than the options you listed ($149 a month) I assume because of international data, however maybe because of this I have been able to keep my plan? I was told the plan doesn’t have a data cap or throttling, what is the best way for me to confirm this? It has worked pretty well for us, but not perfect as we have started down the southern rural inland waterways. Overall I am pleased, but also interested in adding backup plans in case this ever stops working.
The carriers make it very difficult to know what’s happening and if they’re throttling. There are hints (if you see downloads a lot slower than uploads you’re probably seeing traffic management) about what they’re doing but the main indications are massively slowed performance. For the most part, I’d say it’s a no news is good news situation.
This summer I switched my Verizon service over to what’s called “Get More Unlimited 5G UW” at $80/mo. Not because I’m likely to see any 5G around midcoast Maine, but because it includes “unlimited” hotspot use defined as “You get 5G Nationwide / 4G LTE up to 30 GB, after which you can still connect at 600 Kbps.”
And I did manage to briefly exceed that 30g limit despite limited cruising, largely because the Cel-Fi GO+ I bench tested last April really can boost cellular better than others I’ve tried:
Holding my breath, as I haven’t been knocked off my AT&T Unlimited Plus plan yet. We have two iPhones, and a SIM card in a Netgear LB1120 cellular modem that is connected to our boat router. Around $160 per month on the multi-line account.
Pretty solid coverage between the Keys in the spring, up to and around the Chesapeake this summer, and back down to Ft Myers this fall.
Have used over 100 GB every month this year (including one month at 247, and several in the 160-190GB range). We get a warning text every now and again that we might get throttled if towers are busy, but only a handful of times did we actually notice and ascribe slow data rates to that.
Have changed over my router source to the onSpot wifi here at the marina, where we will stay until New Years.
Just had an exchange with gl inet. Their routers currently are not tethering with iOS 14. They are working on a solution. Used to work great…
you might try installing OpenWRT on your router. I have it tethering to my vizible phone in hotspot mode and can wifi connect to it with iOS 14 without issue.
Unfortunately Gordon is referring to a problem that was introduced with iOS 14. From what I understand, Apple did something that broke the ability of many devices to USB tether to iOS based devices. Apple insists they haven’t broken anything and isn’t planning on fixing anything, but meanwhile, many users can no longer use their devices as they were before the upgrade.
Question on the iPad plan. I called ATT to activate the plan for $25 per month. They want an IMEI before they will send a SIM card. Can that be an IMEI for a generic MiFi type router or does it have to be one for the iPad? I don’t have an iPad with cell so was hoping to use one of the many differnet LTE enabled routers I have here.
Also, although I have a pile of blank SIM ATT SIM cards I purchased a while back at an ATT store, they would not activate these over the phone. The person I was dealing with told me that they would mail me a new SIM card. Too bad since we are on the move right now. Although I might be able to find an ATT store somewhere.
Visbile has been working ok dowbnn the ICW but
1) coverage has not been as good as when I was using ATT
2) They are throttling me to 5 Gb.
I have the phone tethered to an OpenWRT router and that is working VERY well. It allows me to have many devices connected to the cheopo android phone I purchased for this service. Without the router I can only connect one device at a time.
Haven’t tried moving the SIM to a MiFi router although that sounds like optime.
I definitely had to provide an iPad IMEI. I’ve heard anecdotal reports that AT&T does enforce the requirement that the IMEI comes from an iPad. I’ve also seen reports of success using an IMEI from an iPad collected from places like eBay auction photos.
AT&T insisted on mailing me a new SIM as well. I was able to walk into an AT&T store and get a new SIM prior to receiving the one they’d mailed.
I suspect you mean Visible is throttling you to 5 mbps on hotspot and I’m seeing the same. I’m sitting here currently doing some testing in the RV. I’m in a rural area and I have AT&T, Visible, and T-Mobile all connected to various devices. I seem to be able to get a pretty reliable 5-10 mbps out of the devices but I’m struggling to get any of them to perform any better.
I do have the Visible SIM in a Mikrotik wAP LTE (https://mikrotik.com/product/wap_lte_kit) with the APN changed. It’s worked pretty well and sure is easy. Previously, I’d been using a DD-WRT router and the Visible cheapo Android phone as well.
I am doing wireless tethering. With OpenWRT you can use the one radio on the router to act a both a client and an access point.
So… you tether the OpenWRT router to the phoe via WiFI and then broadcase a new SSID from the router. No USB required.
Even home internet is a pain these days thanks to data caps. I keep waiting for more choices but it always seems like everything is always a year off. I don’t use a ton of data on the boat or camping so unlimited on Tmobile has been fine for that purpose. At home thanks to video meetings etc I now regularly go over the 1.25TB cap on COX and have also started to notice what appears to be throttling in the evenings.
Like Ben says so many years into this it shouldn’t be that hard.
Looking forward to a Panbo review on Musk’s Starlink sometime this year. $100/month unlimited 150Mbps. Supposed to arrive in Florida and Europe in March. Mid ocean will take longer because they need laser links between satellites but coastal should be mostly in place this year. Musk says it will work fine on a boat and the phased array antenna can track 100 degrees of arc without moving the antenna – so it may be true. Here’s a really long video where a guy tears down his brand new antenna – it reveals excellent waterproofing and the ability to withstand high wind loading.
I’m really looking forward to being able to do just such a review. I’m really hopeful that all the acrobatics we’re having to do right now to get good connectivity is a temporary condition soon to be replaced by simple, reliable, and widely available low-earth-orbit satellite internet.
Ben. With 5G, what would you do to future proof ? Wait or focus on the best 4g today.