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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. 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 may be about to change: https://www.tuckstruck.net/truck-and-kit/geekery/starlink-for-overlanders/
Starlink is the satellite internet service offered by Space-X. $100/mo (and a $500 receiver) gets you blisteringly fast unlimited internet.
The catch to Starlink is that it only works in remote areas. If you have a cell phone signal, you're probably not far away enough from civilization to get Starlink. The receiver1) is also fairly large (about the size of a pizza box) and takes a lot of power (~50w continuous draw). It's a portable solution, but not a mobile solution. The current technology does not function while moving, and you have to manually update your location every time you move more than ~15 miles.
“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. – DollBabyLG2)
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 5) is asking you to click to agree to the wifi conditions.
“Pro-sumer” WiFi access points like Ubiquiti 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 ethernet6).
If the hack-it-together route doesn't appeal to you, there are pre-built solutions explicitly for these situations. Cradlepoint dominates in the professional mobile internet market, and for good reason. Their equipment is extremely durable, very powerful, and comes with a completely baller cloud-management interface. These are commonly used to provide wifi or data in buses, trains, delivery vans, and are targeted to fleets with hundreds of vehicles. However they are a lot more expensive than consumer are accustomed to, and much 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.
If you have the budget and knowledge for it, the Cradlepoint IBR1700 is almost intentionally built for van life. It's 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), and supports a native “WiFi-as-WAN” functionality.
Unfortunately they are also very expensive, typically $1,500 for a single-radio setup and an additional $500 for the second radio. Their capabilities are unbeatable though.
Mobile (or “cell” data) is the internet access provided by mobile telecomm networks.
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.
Often you can buy data at cheaper rates. Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) are resellers who buy excess capacity from major networks and sell it to customers at reduced prices. Examples: Boost (Sprint network), U.S. Mobile (Verizon network) and many others.
The tradeoff is that your data may be deprioritized when a particular tower gets congested. Your data will still work, it'll just be slower when all those folks paying full retail start streaming Netflix at 7pm or whatever. Can't put up with that? Pay full price and take your chances with congestion anyhow.
If you want to find an MVNO for your preferred network, search for “verizon mvno”, “T-mobile mvno”, etc.