Many people have expensive unlimited plans; my needs are simpler:
best coverage available
at a low cost
and I don’t need much bandwidth. Stability for me is more important than speed or GB/month.
I don’t talk on the phone much, and all my “text messages” are routed over data via Google Voice.
saving money with MVNOs
Generally speaking, the cheapest plans are not from the major carriers but from resellers who buy spare network capacity and sell it under their own name. These are called MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operator). Sometimes an MVNO buys time from more than one carrier.
ATT: AirVoice, TracFone, Straight Talk, etc Tmobile: Republic, Liberty, MetroPCS, etc Sprint: Ting, Virgin mobile, etc Verizon: Net10, Puppy, Selectel, PagePlus, etc.
the mobile plan
The plan I selected was 100mins talk, 100 texts (neither of which I use) and 12GB of data at 1mbps, then 128kbps thereafter. That’s $35/mo for Verizon coverage. I don’t pay the extra $10 for hotspot functionality.
The closest plan to that one now is unlimited talk/text and 20GB of data @ 1mpbs then 128kbps. $40/mo. If you want to use your phone as a hotspot add $10/mo (or see below).
the tether workaround
I use a generic Verizon-compatible android phone with this plan. To get hotspot-type functionality I run EasyTether Pro, $10.
EasyTether uses android’s ADB functionality to route data from the phone out to bluetooth or USB. The author maintains an epic collection of drivers for whatever you are connecting to.
Since we are interested in mocking up a hotspot it is simple enough to connect to a wifi router.
Originally I was using an MT-300A like the one on the left, $25. It’s a tiny thing, sitting in the palm of your hand with plenty of space left over. The place I wanted to install it didn’t do it any favors when it came to connecting to things outside the van. I’d basically have to point the van in the direction of the open wifi.
I wanted more outdoor range so I picked up an AR300M with external antennas, $45. The AR series is Atheros chipped rather than MediaTek; apparently that’s a functional upgrade. Also more RAM, etc. The external antennas are nice, but the big win is the ability to change out those external ants for aftermarket ones with a different design or more gain.
My handheld phone
The Verizon phones lives in the van, cabled to the router.
I carry a dual-SIM android phone with no paid data plan.
SIM1 slot: a Freedompop SIM with free 200MB of data/mo on it. Used to be 500MB/mo with easy ways to get up to 1GB/mo, but they put the kibosh on that. Fpop is my emergency plan. Note that fpop is kind of a beat-down and there can be nontrivial amounts of hoop-jumping involved.
SIM2 slot:grandfathered PAYGO TMO plan with about 1000 minutes and $10/yr to extend the expiration of those minutes. Like I said, I don’t use the phone much.
When I am around the van or public wifi I have normal data on it. Otherwise I use offline maps like OsmAnd and have Wifi Map on it to help find accessible hotspots. If no wifi is available the fpop SIM does its duty.
how it works
This setup works in two ways.
Pseudo-tethered: it’s Verizon phone –> easytether –> minirouter == wifi inside and outside the van. One benefit I hadn’t predicted beforehand was eating in a restaurant with no wifi. I connect to the router in the van from my table and the laptop/chromebook is happy.
Repeater: wifi (open or known password) somewhere –> minirouter == wifi inside and outside the van. If I am near accessible wifi and I have device/app updates to do, I connect the router to the wifi to save on mobile data. The aftermarket antennas are so good sometimes if I am in a building with weak wifi it’s actually a stronger connection to my van’s repeated wifi than the building’s wifi directly! Both of the minirouters have the ability to automagically connect to any known wifi SSID, so when you approach the wifi the router is already connecting to it.