Digital Nomadism – PepLink Review

Digital Nomadism requires some gear to make it all happen.  After many months of research, I settled on a PepLink mobile router for a variety of reasons.  First, why a PepLink?  Well that starts with carriers and coverage.

NOTE: I’m not being paid for this review.  This is purely my opinion based upon my own research and our specific usage.

More than one provider

USA-Big-Four-Carriers[1]The goal of Internet connection in digital nomadism is solid connectivity.  As a 40 hour a week worker, granted remotely, connection is critical.  I researched a lot of options from a lot of sources (most prominently, Technomadia and their Mobile Internet Resource Center) and extensively did my own digging.  I’m bad that way, just ask Julie.

Knowing full well that using cellular as an Internet source has challenges, I spent a lot of time researching the best options.  The coverage of any given carrier is not consistently 100% across the whole of the United States (or Canada and Mexico, if you are so inclined).  So, per recommendations of my Internet sources, I knew we needed two solid carriers at a minimum.  The obvious first choice is Verizon, as they are the (purported) carrier with the most coverage.  Then you follow up with the second highest coverage carrier, AT&T.   So, between the two, you get the largest covered area of the continental United States.  Sweet.

Except, you need two plans and that can be bank.

How do we do two plans?

You can go retail and hit both Verizon and AT&T for plans.  MIRC does a FANTASTIC job of relaying info about the latest plans for a full time RV’er or now boat cruiser as well, since Technomadia now does both RV and boat life.  So, if you are thinking of adopting either RV or boat lifestyles, I highly recommend them for info about how to stay connected.

When we were doing our research on full-time RV living, it boiled down to our particular use case.  Since I was already a remote worker, Internet connectivity was a huge concern.  I lucked into an AT&T plan that was specifically for vehicles, the Mobley.  Thanks to a tip from MIRC, I got in on AT&T Mobley just before they discontinued the plan, so for $20 a month I get mobile Internet via cellular for $20 a month.  This has been so far, seemingly, unlimited.

NOTE: I believe that all AT&T plans are being throttled.  This means they will slow you down if the cell towers are congested.  Of course, in this day and age, this happens in prime time, so, streaming video becomes challenging.  I’ve been observing this behavior for a couple of months now.

Our second source is Verizon.  I’ve opted to lease a Verizon account, for about $150 a month.  I know, you say “OUCH!”  I did too.  But ultimately, given that we now are fully and completely cutting the wire, it is our only choice.  Still, I found a provider and it is dirt easy to pay and manage my connectivity.  Our provider is a fellow RV’er, so, he gets it.  The only issue is, Verizon is actively watching all “unlimited” data plans.  We limit our Verizon usage to under 200GB a month.  That may seem like a lot, but it really isn’t when all your work and entertainment is Internet based.

OK, two providers, now what?

So, you could simply go for using the Mobley as is for AT&T and use a phone with the Verizon SIM for a mobile hotspot.  Hotspots have a lot of restrictions on most networks and much lower bandwidth options.  Both AT&T and Verizon will allow you to connect to each as a WiFi source, but who wants to manage two connections and two passwords?  Um, not me.

Leveraging the MIRC, you’ll find there are other options out there, both providers and hardware.  I found a lot of great info on the MIRC site and recommend it for anyone wanting to go cellular for Internet service.

Many providers have mobile routers that support multiple SIMs.  This is a great thing!  BECAUSE TECHNOLOGY!

The two big players in the mobile router segment are Cradlepoint and PepLink.  There are others, but these two seem to come up more often.  They typically are oriented toward industrial (i.e. fleet) applications which means they have a ton of features and most you won’t ever need.  Ultimately though, depending on your use case. both brands can lend themselves very nicely to keeping you online.

We went with PepLink

front_reflect[1]We (really me, since I’m the tech guru of the two of us) decided to go with PepLink.  The biggest reasons I went the PepLink route was size and features.  Details to follow.

The router I chose was the PepWave MAX BR1 Mini.  Most PepLink routers have the same set of features, but the Mini had several that I was most interested in:

  • It is a dual SIM chip router with auto failover, meaning I could plug both of my SIM chips in and set it up to failover based upon priority
  • Is is a a MIMO router (multi-input, multi-output).  This gives the router two antennas to manage cellular signal in and out.
  • Supports WiFi as WAN.  This is a nice feature, since if the signal from your RV park or campground is strong enough, you can connect the router to it as an Internet source.
  • Supports both 12V DC and AC power.  As an RVer…this is a great option.
  • Has two ethernet ports, which allows for more than one input/output if needed.
  • It was small.  Yes, in an RV, size matters.

Overall this is a solid piece of kit.  After using it for almost 6 months, I’m very happy with the performance.  Granted this is an overall feeling, but solidly based upon daily usage.  Sure there are pros and cons, as with any piece of equipment, but I’ve learned to live with most of the things I don’t care for.

The good

Firstly, having the ability to connect to local WiFi is awesome, since you can avoid data charges if your particular RV park provides free WiFi.  All of your devices in the RV connect to the same SSID (WiFi end point) regardless of location or connection type.  WiFi as WAN is great if your campground or RV park has solid service.   As any of you that RV know that isn’t a guarantee, but it is quite nice to have as an option.

Automatic failover from one cellular service to another is a great feature.  You can set the threshold of when your router selects slot A or slot B.  You can also then select the number of bars as your threshold before automatic switch over.  The switch over in this case is seamless, with a minimal amount of service “hiccup” as it switches services.  I’ve only had this happen twice but it was nice to not have to go manually switch things over.

Two SIM chips is a great option in a mobile router.  The router supports the 4 US carriers equally, so you could ostensibly have T-Mobile and Sprint in the router as well, making this an extremely flexible option.

Service prioritization is built in, so you can order whether cellular or WiFI sources are the primary connection choice.  This allows you to determine how your limited data is utilized because “unlimited” data is a lie at this point.  You can also set thresholds on specific sources so that you can only utilize so much bandwidth in a given month and then force a switch to a different source.  This is nice on plans that have low amounts of usable GB per month, or where you want to be sure you don’t exceed a threshold and risk your lease.

The not so good

There are two major limitations to the MAX Mini that are irksome and a couple of irritations.  That’s not bad considering the quality of the product, but as a user, I feel they can be improved upon.

Firstly, the WiFi as WAN option (which is a paid for license in addition to to the base price) is 2.4Ghz only.  That means in parks that are upgrading their WiFi to be only 5Ghz is limiting.  Other routers or future generations of the Mini may address this, but it has been a sad realization that the router only functions on 2.4 for WiFi as WAN.

Secondly, forcibly switching between services providers is a laborious task.  Sure, I can set automatic thresholds to switch between the two.  But let’s be honest, 4 bars of crappy quality is meaningless.  Sometimes, you have to force which service provider you want to use.  In the case of the Mini, you need go into the Admin interface, select the primary SIM, and then reboot, sometimes twice.

It only supports LTE and doesn’t support the newer LTE-A which has a better download capacity, but the difference between 100mbs and 300mbs isn’t critical for our use.

On the irritation side, the boot sequence on these routers is SLOW…like…tortoise slow!  I’ve also noticed that sometimes the reboot doesn’t immediately reconnect to the cellular provider of choice, requiring YArB (yet another reboot).  This isn’t typically an issue, until you are in the middle of a conference call and you have to reboot the modem for the next 5 minutes.  INCONVENIENT!

If we want to get to nitpicking, the admin interface leaves something to be desired.  Not awful, but certainly not winning any awards for usability.  Utilitarian is probably the best description.

Wrap Up

Realistically the PepLink routers are industrial routers (outside of the specific home/office routers), so their offerings aren’t generally oriented toward consumer level usage.  Then, ultimately, you get a pretty bullet proof product for your standard usage.

At the end of the day, we have a solid router providing good connectivity as we travel from location to location.  It sometimes take a little bit of massaging and cajoling, but modern technology is a wonder.   My net feeling is that the PepLink is an awesome little router, if you can afford to not have 5Ghz WiFI as WAN and deal with some quirkiness in switching providers.  It totally enables our digital nomad lifestyle.  I’ve had solid connectivity to my office across the country for 6 months…and expect that will continue into the foreseeable future.

I give this piece of kit a double thumbs up.