Cellular Connectivity Upgrade – Pepwave Mk2

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After a year or so of using our Verizon hotspots we were starting to look for an upgrade.

The models we use :

Verizon Jetpack® 4G LTE MHS MiFi 7730L (newer)
Verizon Jetpack® 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot—AC791L (older)

For most folks who need to work from camp in a remote location, but are only using an internet connection for a weekend or a few days, using a hotspot (assuming you can connect to the network) along with a cell booster is probably all that you need.  A hotspot creates a mobile wifi network with cellular data so you can share with your laptop, tablets, phones etc.

We rarely use a pre-existing or land-based wifi connection (someone else’s wifi), because in general, we are not camping in an area with any internet connection.  Thats kinda the whole point of dry camping / boondocking in the middle of nowhere.  So our go-to setup is cellular data.

We have two hotspots, why ?  Because Verizon caps high speed data at 15g per line (when used as a hotspot).  Their “unlimited plan” caps the high speed and goes almost immediately to 600kb.  For my work purposes, this is just too slow and unusable.  Therefore, when one hotspot maxes out, we switch to the other one.

side bonus for the hotspot that gets throttled after 15 gigs, you can use it to stream music and video and not really worry about going over your cap.  For this reason, we try to use only 1 hotspot at at time, so we are sure to max one out before switching to the second hotspot.

Of course, in a pinch, you can use your smartphone as a hotspot (if your account allows it, some carriers charge more for this).  This is convenient but for long -term data connection, it gets kinda old using your primary device (which is also your phone) as a hotspot.

So why upgrade, whats not so great about the hotspots ?

  • the wifi range of each unit is very short, like somewhere in the realm of 10 feet for a high speed connection.  this means having to walk back to the camper if you need to be connected.  (the structure of the camper probably blocks some signal too)
  • to take advantage of the Weboost, the internal Weboost antenna MUST be as close as possible to the hotspot.
  • the Weboost internal antenna is only 10 feet long, so the hotspot has to “live” within that range, which happens to be about the corner of the driver’s side of the slideout
  • the hotspots need to be charged constantly.  They are charged via USB, but they dont last long, especially if there are multiple devices using the signal.  Luckily we have plenty of USB power in the rig, especially near the Weboost amp unit.
  • the hotspots get HOT, especially when its hot outside.  When the hotspots get too hot, they just shut down.  This is to protect their lithium battery, but its pretty inconvenient if you are in the middle of something important.
  • they are BOTH on Verizon, naturally, which means if our phones (T-Mobile) and our hotspots (Verizon) dont have signal, we are out of luck for connecting.
  • each hotspot has its own SSID (wifi network name), this is helpful for keeping track of which one is which, but this also means switching between networks when flipping between hotspots
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Here we have a frozen block of cheddar cheese underneath the hotspot, hoping to keep it from automatically shutting down due to overheating.  Note the Weboost internal antenna right on top of the hotspot for best signal boost.

So, what was out there that might improve this experience ?

Well, I took a hard look at building my own system, cobbling together some components (mostly MicroTek, something like this).  That seemed pretty wonky due to most folks stating that the stock MicroTek router software was usable but a challenge to configure.

I also investigated the gear from Wifi Ranger .  Despite the name, they also support USB tethered hotspots in their GoAC routers.  I spoke to their tech support multiple times to get my head wrapped around their setup.  They are known for great service and support and easy to use router software and custom firmware that they put onto the stock MicroTek routers.  They are primarily a wifi solution, not really a cellular data solution.  They are also SUPER expensive.

I follow the good folks at Technomadia who have had several reviews of the Pepwave routers, specifically the Pepwave Max BR1.  These are well made, industrial strength cellular routers that come highly recommended.

In a chance drycamping encounter with Brenda and John of GeoAstro RV I noticed the Pepwave Max BR1 in their rig.  They were happy to report that they were really loving the performance of this unit.  On top of that, they highly recommended Erik over at LivinLite as not only a source of technical guidance but also a place to purchase the Pepwave, and give Erik a little business to offset his technical advice.  I highly recommend Erik’s store and expertise for RV internet connectivity.

Here is a great post by Erik about their cellular data setup

Granted, all the folks mentioned above are Full Timers, so of course they have much heavier data needs than most weekend warrior / occasional campers  types like us.  However, due to my work, I fall into the same category for needing a fast (as possible) and reliable (as can be expected) internet connection.

The most popular Pepwave models for RV use are the following :

Pepwave MAX BR1 :  $299

Pepwave MAX BR1 MK2 Router With North America 3G/4G/LTE : $599

Pepwave MAX BR1 MK2 Router With Cat 6 LTE Advanced Modem : $699

Wow, you are thinking, those things are REALLY expensive.  And you’d be right.  But, if you compare them to other devices :

  • a decent hotspot (Verizon Jetpack® 4G LTE MHS MiFi 7730L is $199) if you need two like we do, thats $400 smackers.
  • a modern smartphone like the iPhone 8  is $699
  • wifi ranger’s Elite AC  is $699

the price starts to seem reasonable, at least by comparison’s sake.

So what are the differences between the three Pepwave models ?  Here is Erik’s response :

To answer your question on the difference between the mini and mk2

  1. Mini has 20DB wifi Mk2 has 25DB
  2. Mk2 has 5G and 2G wifi, Mini only has 2G
  3. Mk2 supports wifi as wan, meaning you can pickup campground wifi using the built in antennas. Mini can support also but it’s a 99.99 license upgrade fee
  4. Mk2 support auto failover, meaning it will switch from sim A to sim B and to campground wifi automatically depending on environmental situations and configuration options. The mini needs to be failed over manually.
  5. Both support 12v input, both have 2 sim slots and will support multiple carriers (only one can be used at a time).
  6. Both work well in heat and will not have the issues your having with hotspots (most of that heat is probably due to the lithium batteries but they aren’t really made to be used as heavily as you’ve got them being used so it could be a number of factors.)

not mentioned in Eriks response (but available on his website) : what is different about the Cat 6 version ?  ” this router has a built-in Cat 6 LTE Advanced modem that supports major cellular data providers throughout North America and around the world. “

So what does that all mean ?  taken line by line :

  1. the Mk2 models have a stronger wifi signal, that means it will broadcast further (WiFi Range: 250-300′ through walls, much greater unobstructed (variable depending on interference from other electronics and physical interference such as walls and ceilings)
  2. the Mk2 has dual band wifi.  Modern computers, tablets and smartphones can use the 5ghz band and have much faster wifi data speeds
  3. this one he explained in easy terms, but wifi as wan means you can “repeat” an existing wifi signal (like at a friends house, an RV park) which makes it faster and more stable
  4. same here, this means that if one sim cannot connect, the mk2 automatically switches over (it isn’t instantaneous, but this scenario is unlikely)
  5. 12volt support is vital, as this will only “sip” power directly from our house batteries, and we wont have to “make” AC power from our inverter to power this router
  6. see frozen cheese picture above

So there you have it, things were really stacking up in favor of the Mk2 model.  We decided to spend the extra $100 for the Cat 6 model, primarily because it could be used internationally.  Its entirely possible we will drag the rig down to Mexico, or who knows ? Costa Rica ?  Also, this unit could be taken along on a long International excursion (without the camper) where perhaps wifi service wasn’t reliable OR available.  We could also remove the Pepwave from our camper and take it with us internationally.   The international model also has support for more cell bands which should help it be a bit more future compatible as North American cell providers add new frequencies.

Along with this purchase, we are also trying out one of Erik’s unlimited ATT data plans.  Unlike our Verizon “unlimited” plan (which caps at 15g of high speed), this is a fully unlimited high speed account.

So… we have used the Pepwave Mk2 on just two trips, and its been amazing.  Even without the Weboost running, we get very fast data (mostly due to the freakishly oversized cell antennas on the Pepwave, but also just being a very fast cell device).

On our first trip near Twin Lakes, CO, we could not get ANY data on ATT 4G LTE.  We could only pull in 3G.  The speeds on ATT 3G there were about 700kb 😦 , however, the Verizon sim was pulling down about 17-20 mb of 4G LTE 🙂  .  This is precisely why you want to have a fallback of multiple cell providers.  (all your eggs in one cell provider’s basket is a recipe for no internet “somewhere” you may roam).   This device works with ANY cell provider (tmobile, att, verizon, sprint too)

On a recent trip near Carbondale CO, we were able to try out the unlimited ATT cell, which worked without a hitch at about 17-25 mb of 4GLTE. Granted we were near downtown Carbondale, but still, the Pepwave was pumping out data like a champ.

The router performs great with not overheating, having no issues in 90F+ weather.  The wifi range is truly 200-300 feet (at least) !  The router uses hardly any power, especially on DC.

Initial setup of the router was easy as pie, however I am a bit of a nerd and know my way around router software as well as wifi networking.

The software on the Pepwave is easy to set up in a basic way, but for me it was also very easy to customize my setup.  How to use the router’s advanced settings is a blog post in and of itself, but basically, you have pretty fine grained control of when to failover your sims (such as…. if we can only get 3G on ATT, switch to Verizon).

Using the Pepwave also means just one SSID wifi name to connect to, whether its cellular data from ATT, Verizon or re-broadcast wifi, all devices just connect to one network, and the router handles the traffic. This means not having to constantly reconnect the wifi to a different network.

 

 

 

 

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