Mobile Internet Satellite for Your RV – Campskunk’s Experience

mobile satellite internet for your RVWhen I was planning how to configure our Roadtrek for fulltiming, I had in mind the design criteria my bride of 27 years had lain down: king sized bed with memory foam mattress, high-speed internet, 250 channels of HDTV, a live-in chef, and a well-stocked freezer and pantry with lots of snacks.  Everywhere we went.

Now that's a tall order, especially the high-speed internet part. Data cards will cover you most places, and I had one of those ordered,  but Verizon and ATT rely on the cellphone network, and like most businesses tend to present their product in the best light. They do cover 98% of the people, true, but that's different than covering 98% of the territory.

If you've taken your cellphone camping with you, you'll know what I mean. Near towns and major highways, especially east of the Mississippi, you're fine.   Go out west,  however, and the coverage map starts to get white spots in it – especially in the wilderness camping areas we crave.  For a fulltimer, the internet is the mailbox, the phone, the water cooler at work, the gossip fence, everything. We wanted to sit for a week or two at a time, far from the madding crowd.   With our location preferences, we would be out of cellphone/datacard range at least half the time.  I needed an internet connection that worked everywhere.

Further online research located the mobile satellite internet community – primarily composed of Class As with automatically aiming rooftop dishes called Motosats.  That wasn't going to work for me – my Roadtrek was too small for such a large and heavy contrivance, and I had already covered the roof with solar panels, anyway.  The poor relations in this family were tripod folks – free-standing, manually aimed dishes that people carry around and set up when they light somewhere.  Looks like I'm destined to be a tripod person, I said to myself.

Satellite hookup for TV and Internet

This is how I get the signal into my rig – what was one connection for the TV (white) is now three connections. I had to pull a little wire, but it's worth it to have a tidy hookup. Red is transmit for the internet dish, blue is receive.

Off I went to order a tripod. Since I was closing out my sticks and bricks house, divesting myself of or storing everything that didn't fit in the Roadtrek, retiring, installing solar, an inverter, a MPPT, and extra batteries in my Roadtrek, and various other hobbies, I threw the system in the cargo carrier and decided I'd set it up when I got some free time.  I did.  It didn't work – I couldn't hit the satellite.  I had bought the equipment from a company which promptly went out of business  shortly thereafter, and rather than speak ill of the commercially dead, I'll just say I asked around for help and Barb Nolley and Joe Laube at Mobile Internet Satellite fixed me right up – great folks.  I have been online ever since.

Mobile internet satellite is a dying technology, however – it relies on a set of Ku band satellites that the parent internet satellite provider company, HughesNet, maintains – well, sort of maintains.  HughesNet is transitioning to faster (7-12 megs per second)  Ka band spot beam systems from new and different satellites for new installations, and is aggressively trying to get everyone to switch to the “improved” stuff, which won't work for folks who move around.  Spot beams are 400 miles wide – move further than that and you're out of the beam,  just like local TV channels on satellite TV.  Ku band internet, although old and slow (1 meg per second, about as fast as my 2G datacard) , works all over the continent.

To further complicate things, HughesNet doesn't support mobile applications.  They will install it at your house and service it there, but if you're out in the woods somewhere and can't get a signal, an installer isn't going to show up and troubleshoot your system. If you want to see the technical support, look in the mirror.  There is help, however, online at Datastormusers for free, and from Barb and Joe for a reasonable fee.

Startup costs?  You have to buy a tripod, an offset bracket,  and some cabling.   A dish with dish bracket,  a modem, and the LNB – the receive/transmit radio – is provided with your new Hughesnet account you also have to commission, along with an installation fee you get no benefit from – remember, you're the installer.  Used equipment is available, but figure $1000-1500 total for startup costs.  There's a $200 rebate available to get your installation fee back, but there's an elaborate procedure involving printed-out invoices and deadlines.  Pay attention to them.

Ongoing costs? Right now I'm paying $60 a month for 250 megs per day – about 7.5 gigs a month if you use it all. The structure of data limits is different from the datacard rules, though – instead of a monthly limit and fees for overage, HughesNet uses a daily allotment – use more than your allotment in any 24 hour period and you enter the dreaded FAP (fair access policy) penalty – dialup speeds for the next 24 hours, unless you cough up $5 bail money to get back up to speed.  My plan was sunsetted by Hughes, since they aren't encouraging new Ku band accounts – right now the cheapest plan you can get commissioned on a new account is $110 a month, with a much more generous FAP limit – 350 megs per 4 hours.

Satellite settings

Elevation is the big knob on the right, and the scale is along that semicircular path bottom center. Skew scale is at 9 o'clock on the plate at the little arrow.

How hard is it to set up and use?  Well, it's definitely harder than using satellite TV because you have to aim precisely.  TV beams are “fat” – 2-3 degrees wide. You just bang around and you'll find them because even with sloppy aiming you'll eventually get close enough to get a blip you can fine-tune.  Satellite internet setups are called VSAT (very small aperture terminals) for a reason – the beam is maybe half a degree wide.  Ordinary hand tremor will take you in and out of the beam,  so you have to set up very accurately and search methodically.  With these three years of practice, I can set up in about 15-20 minutes, but plan on some trial and error at first.

There is software available to make life easier for bootleg HughesNet users – Don Bradner's DSSatTool takes your GPS coordinates as input and spits out the azimuth, elevation and skew numbers you need to aim your dish.  It also reprograms your modem to your current location's parameters.   The HNFapAlert utility tells you how much of your daily allotment you've used up.  I also use a signal strength display, DW6KSS, which lets me know how accurately my dish is aimed. With this, I can carry the laptop out to the dish and aim it precisely – no pesky inline beepers or OPIs.

Modem

The five blue light thing is the modem, supplied by HughesNet. I also have a router for wireless connection to the laptops. Don't laugh at the Minnie Mouse earphones – kids' stuff has good sound quality, and lasts much longer in an RV environment. Just don't forget and wear them outside 😉

It's a far-flung but paradoxically close-knit community, all these mobile internet satellite users. Obviously we're nomadic, but the rare encounter with a fellow mobile HughesNet user is a welcome event, although the spouses usually roll their eyes and disappear into the rigs in a hurry, knowing that the conversation outside is going to be VERY long and VERY boring.

Here is a map we use to let each other know where we are. Everyone updates their location as they travel.  We move with the seasons,  just like America's original inhabitants.  And until they manage to catch up with us and put us on reservations, we'll still be out here, wild and free, roaming the country.  And connected – EVERYWHERE.

Kids today think they've fallen off the edge of the earth the first time they venture out of cellphone range – their smartphone gets dumb in a hurry.  They are most grateful when I offer them connectivity.  The real reward of this system, though, is when the park ranger sidles up to you and sheepishly asks if he can get on your WiFi network, because you're the only person within 100 miles who's online.  It's a good time to ask them about extending your stay past the 14 day limit…  🙂




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  • Lisa

    Oh, thank you! Just what I needed to know!

  • shari groendyk

    I don’t know how you do it, but somehow you make things I don’t quite understand, still fun to read! Thanks for another lesson. I’m kinda counting on osmosis ….

    • Campskunk

      shari – NOBODY understands this stuff, and if you do understand it, there may be something wrong with you 😉 mrs campskunk’s interest in this stuff is limited to whether it’s working or not. i try to explain why or why not, and suddenly the conversation is over. i just understand enough to stay online – there are guys on that Datastorm message board that scare me.

  • Cheryl Gregorie

    Amazing!

  • Cathy Mason

    Great article – just what we needed in our search for full-time connectivity. I cannot STAND being without internet, but we hope to be on the road a LOT more very soon. Thanks! 🙂

  • Webb Kat

    Well written informative article.

  • Can this be used for your regular home too?

    • Campskunk

      yes, but if you can get regular cable internet it’ll be way more reliable and faster than Hughesnet. maybe if you live somewhere really remote it might be feasible.

  • oh yes

  • How much?

    • Campskunk

      like the article says, $1500-2000 in startup costs, plus $60 a month with a 2 year contract.

  • I would like to have one of those so where do I find one of those and how much it cost ???

  • Lance Ziolkowski

    Hughes Net is possibly the worst company you can do business with. Seriously don’t use these guys.. just look at the company reviews anywhere

    • Campskunk

      agreed- they’re terrible. almost as bad as not having any internet at all 😉 there’s another company- Starband i think- that provides mobile internet satellite, but i have no experience with them.

  • Linda Janney

    We told them to stick it where the sun don’t shine after 2 years of HORRIBLE service. Slow, slower than watching paint dry slow!!!! Do NOT even consider HughesNet, unless you like throwing money out the window. Customer service is a farce. Either get local stations, get a booster, OR the campgrounds cable. But, it is camping people…….go outside and enjoy nature!

  • Teresa Carr

    Or Dish network has a service for rvs. You buy the box and you pay by the month and can cancel when camping season is over. When calling it can be frustrating getting to the right dept. Think the receiver was under 200.00.

  • We have a Tailgater satellite. So much better reception, sets up in about 3 min.

    • Campskunk

      that’s for TV, as is DirecTV and Dish. this is internet- different animal entirely.

  • CampSkunk, I have tremendous respect and admiration for your lifestyle and reporting. I also realize you are carrying this device in your StowAway behind your RoadTrek. But… for most RoadTrek owners, I don’t think they want to consume that much space when there are other alternatives. I don’t mean to start a war, but here is another perspective from the Wynn’s RV blog (quoted and linked below)

    “We don’t recommend satellite internet for a host of reasons. I am sure there is someone out there that likes it but everyone we have ever known with satellite hates it, home based or on the road. It’s slow, expensive, you can’t park under trees, you can’t use it while driving, it has major usage limits that punish you by down-throttling the mbps…and do you really want to carry around that stinkin’ bulky dish that you have to align to the stars each time you park?”

    “There is really only one true mobile internet option, a hotspot. Whether it’s a hotspot created from your cell phone or a designated device, this is by leaps and bounds the best way to go (in our humble opinion). Not only because we say so, also because most any other travel blogger out there worth their domain will say the same.”

    http://www.gonewiththewynns.com/mobile-internet

    • Campskunk

      we have a Verizon MiFi hotspot. and i agree, it works great – except when you’re out of cellphone range, which is where i spend half my time. out west the coverage drops off fast outside cities, and is usually non-existent where i go – Chaco Canyon, national forests, Big Sur, etc. if i were always within cell range (pretty much everywhere east of the Mississippi, for example), i wouldn’t bother with Hughesnet. the equipment is bulky, the service sucks, and you have to know a fair amount of electronics to keep it working. but when it’s the only way to get online, it’s not so bad-looking 😉

  • Loni Green Lmt

    Campsunk is pretty savy.
    I am going to guess he has definitive reasons why he goes with satellite instead of hotspot.
    The first reason I can think of is hotspots might be undependable where they camp. Slow is better than no.
    And customer service?
    They probably call him for answers.

  • In this day and age smartphone will do in the majority of areas, if not it’s an omen to enjoy the place and time because the Internet will still be there when you get to a coverage area.

  • When i had my truck back in the mid 90’s i had a direct tv system for it. They offered it for the truck drivers. Worked awesome. And the whole system back then was only 150$. Go figure. This might be a nicer settup but definately not the 1st to come out.

  • When out camping try SAToolz for your iPhone, it let’s you see if any obstacles like trees are in the way before you try setting up your Dish. It’s available for Dish Network, DirecTV, Exceed and HughesNet. Search the app store for SAToolz.

  • Tim Starkweather

    New at RV use, my intent is not to travel extensively at this time. It appears replies are a year + old so looking for hopeful current events regarding internet usage. Dislike the thought of a high $$ data card but also a hot spot requires acquiring a password? Scrambling for a solution and not fond of the idea of setting up a dish…whether a tripod or tailgater….away from the home or mounted to a window. If anyone views this response and can make suggestions it would be greatly appreciated which is most reliable, functional, easy to use, etc. Unless linked to a network, my limited knowledge means a router would not work? Most devices are wireless whether a printer, laptop, etc but I have not piggybacked to my cell phone as yet either. So much to learn. thx

  • ajcrowner

    Have you tried out the connect? Saw this at Camping World… http://www.winegard.com/connect