The internet is a lifeline for 'dwellers but it not always available in the ways it is for sedentary folk. There are several challenges:
A megabyte saved is a megabyte earned.
This is the holy grail of long-term van life, especially for those who prefer wilderness and remote areas. Historically Satellite internet services have been plagued by very high prices for minuscule data usage, and unrealistically bulky equipment (think DirectTV dishes). However with the advent of Starlink this is changing: https://www.starlink.com/rv
Starlink is the satellite internet service offered by Space-X, and offers a tier of service specifically for RVs. $135/mo and a $600 receiver (or $2,500 for an in-motion receiver) gets you extremely fast internet in most places in the country.
The catch is that Starlink only works in remote areas. If you have a cell phone signal, you're probably not far away enough from civilization to get Starlink. Out west this is usually not a problem, but east of the Mississippi river there is usually too much population density for the service to be usable. See the coverage map here: https://www.starlink.com/map. This is a good solution for boondockers who set up camp in the wilderness, but it doesn't offer much usability for urban dwellers.
The receiver1) is also fairly large (about the size of a pizza box) and takes a lot of power (50-100w continuous draw). The less expensive receiver isn't designed for the sort of vibration and forces imparted when driving, so the majority of Starlink users keep the dish inside the van with them and only deploy it when they're stopped somewhere for an extended period of time. See one user's experience here: https://www.tuckstruck.net/truck-and-kit/geekery/starlink-for-overlanders/. The in-motion receiver is designed to mounted to the roof of vehicles and be operable while moving, but for most van dwellers the costs is not worth it.
Another downside is that to work, the receiver needs a completely unobstructed view of the entire sky. A single small tree somewhere in field of view is sometimes enough to make the connection drop out every few minutes, so sometimes having the portable (non-vehicle-mounted) dish is preferable. You can park in the shade, and run the dish out into a clearing (it's weatherproof).
When using Starlink on the RV plan, your traffic is de-prioritized over users who have a fixed address in the area and you may experience slower speeds.
The Starlink dish is powered from the included router, or a PoE injector which runs off of AC wall power. Experiments with powering the injector directly off of 12v DC using a Buck/Boost converter have yielded net power savings of ~30%.
Mobile (or “cell” data) is the internet access provided by mobile telecomm/cellular networks. This is always going to be a monthly fee.
There are two components of this equation; Who the carrier is, and what hardware you're using to connect.
Perhaps counterintuitively, having a non-Verizon carrier can actually be desirable at RV meetups, since everyone else is likely to be hammering the Verizon towers.
At the simplest level, just use your cell phone. If you have a laptop, most phones offer a “hotspot” functionality where they will broadcast a (small) WiFi network that you can connect your laptop to. This works well for intermittent usage, however many cellular carriers restrict how much data you can user for this per month (Usually 10-20gb/mo for a consumer plan).
Sometimes called “jetpacks”, these small devices are about the size of a deck of cards and effectively function as cell phones doing a perpetual hotspot (like above) but without the phone. They broadcast a small local WiFi network that you can connect your laptop, maybe phone, and a few other devices to (typically they don't support more than 5 WiFi devices connecting to them).
You buy them typically through your cellular provider, and they are billed monthly just like any other cell phone line. Usually carriers have different types of plans available for these devices, and while larger packages are available in the 100gig+ range they get very expensive.
Bigger versions of “Hotspot” devices, they offer more speed and capabilities at a higher cost. They typically have external antenna connection options, and sometimes the ability to bond multiple connection types together at once. Functionally they offer similarity to a consumer home Wi-Fi router, with the addition that you can stick a SIM card in them for internet instead of needing to plug them into your cable modem.
https://www.peplink.com\Peplink is extremely popular in the world of overlanders and cruisers (boaters). They offer good capabilities in terms of speed, features, and connectivity at a price that is more paletable to most people who are living in a van. Their Max BR1 line of cellular routers offer a reasonable blend of capacity and capabilities for the price.
Cradlepoint dominates the professional end of the market.
These are commonly used commercially to provide wifi or data in buses, trains, delivery vans, and are targeted to companies with hundreds of vehicles. Because of this they are a lot more expensive than consumers are accustomed to, and more complicated to set up. They are intended to be deployed and managed by IT professionals, and to be used with roof-mounted antennas which can add complexity to a build.
A decent starting point is either the compact IBR900 (less expensive, 2×2 cellular radio, reasonable speeds) or the IBR1700 (physically larger device, but a 4×4 cellular radio for more speed as well as things like USB ports, OBD-II connectors, ethernet ports and GPIO pins).
A good installation guide is here: https://ridingroadsandtrails.com/sprinter-wifi-on-board/
Notes from a professional wireless network engineer
I use a Cradlepoint IBR1700 router connected to a Panorama Antennas LGMHM4-6-60-24-58 11-in-1 dome antenna which is mounted to the roof of the van. The router is ruggedized and designed to stand up to vehicle motion and vibration, and will run off of anything from 9-36v DC (it comes with a pigtail connector to wire into your battery system). It has a 4×4 MIMO cellular radio with the option to add a second, giving the ability to run two different SIM cards from two different providers and load-balance across them both at the same time. It also has three Wi-Fi radios (4×4 5GHz, 2×2 5GHz, and 2×2 2.4GHz), supports a native “WiFi-as-WAN” functionality, and integrates into the SD-WAN solution that allows me to connect easily to the datacenters that I oversea for my day job. The total price for this setup is around $2,500, and while the performance is incredible I hesitate to recommend it to non-IT people due to the cost and complexity of installation. It's not hard, but it's significantly more than a jetpack or consumer-grade wifi router from best buy.
These devices try to give better cell service by picking up weak signals and re-transmitting them at a stronger strength inside the van. WeBoost is a popular brand.
Real world performance is somewhat of a mixed bag. They can help in a few specific situations, but in many other situations they will make performance worse or result in even slower speeds. Much of this is because while modern cell phones (and cellular routers) can typically bond together multiple data streams at the same time for a greater overall throughput, a WeBoost can only pick up an amplify a single data stream. Cruiser and R/V forums and youtube are full of comparison articles and videos doing side-by-side tests.
The short answer is that for how much a WeBoost costs, the gains are extremely limited. It's usually better to put the money towards a Cradlepoint or Peplink router with a good roof-mounted antenna, as that will generally give better performance in a wider variety of scenarios.
“WiFi” in this sense means connecting to the WiFi being broadcast from a traditional fixed internet connection. This could be the WiFi you find when parked outside a Taco Bell, Library, your friend's house, etc. Shore WiFi is to internet access as shore power is to electricity; cheap and plentiful. When shore wifi is available one should be prepared to take advantage of it.
Use the resource appropriately and fairly; heavy use like streaming netflix or uploading YT vids can seriously impact the shared network. If it's a business, spend your money there. Follow the guidelines in the End User Agreement on the splash page.
Go inside wherever you can find wifi service. make sure you at least buy a drink or something so they know you are a customer. Be quiet, respectful, stay out of the way, leave if all the tables are full and there isn't room for other paying customers, etc. You can often stay for quite a long time - just be considerate of others and you'll likely never be asked to leave. – DollBabyLG3)
Wifi is often available in cities, but the Access Points may be too far to hit with individual devices. Solutions often include better antennas, better placement of existing antennas, or the installation of repeaters/routers.
In order from simplest/cheapest to most complex/$$$
WiFi works best with line-of-site, and does not pass well through metal. Relocate the device or park the vehicle so the laptop has a clear[er] view of the target. Line-of-sight through glass is better than having metal in between.
External adapters are add-on WiFi cards that you connect to your computer (typically via USB). They are a single-device solution; they get wifi into that device, but not to any others.
The advantage of an external adapter is that they are often more powerful than the WiFi adapters that are built into laptops, and have larger (or the option to add larger) antennas. When used with a USB extension cord they can give you a lot more flexibility in making sure the receiver has good line-of-site to the access point (Such as taping the receivier to the front window while you're chilling in the back of the van out of sight).
Dongles (and routers – see below) with removable antennas are nice because you can upgrade to an antenna better suited to your uses. Common upgrades include:
Wifi extenders/repeaters/routers work by hopping a wifi signal from some further access point. They are multiple-device solutions; all your devices will leverage the repeated wifi.
Many also remember SSIDs (access point names) and will reconnect to them as you travel. You might pull into a McDonald's parking lot and hear your phone ding: the router has already connected to the wifi and your phone 6) is asking you to click to agree to the wifi conditions.
“Pro-sumer” WiFi access points like Ubiquiti Nanostations can be configured as part of a relay system, typically when mounted outside the vehicle. This makes for maximum range but can reduce stealth. Antenna wire losses are eliminated because the antenna is inside the receiver, and the signal brought into the vehicle over ethernet7). Remember that the Nanostation is directional; you need to point it at the WiFi you're trying to connect to.