Allison mentioned that one of the reasons that we
ran away from Canada with our tails between our legs left Canada was that the internet wasn’t good enough to do work. I wanted to expand on that a bit in case any of our RV friends were thinking about adding a Canadian leg to their next journey. It might be kind of boring for those of you who come here for pretty pictures of where we are travelling (sorry about that).
How internet access works for us in the US
Here in the US, our primary source of internet is a Verizon Unlimited Data Plan (UDP) that runs a hotspot (Novatel 6620L). As a backup, Allison and I both have Cricket Wireless phones (Nexus 5 and iPhone 5S) with tethering enabled that run on AT&T’s towers. We also have a cellular booster that can boost the signal and really helps with upload speeds (and some with download speeds). For the most part, we’ve been pretty successful with that setup. We can usually browse the internet and hold a Skype call from wherever we are.
There have been a couple days where we’ve had to go to a coffee shop for free WiFi. Unfortunately, at a coffee shop, I always feel obligated to buy something every two hours or so which ends up making me feel uncomfortably full and lazy by the end of the day. Sometimes that’s fun, but most of the time, I feel lazy enough already working a desk job. Also, in Banff, that meant an hour+ commute each way from our site into town. All our exploring time was taken up by driving back and forth.
How it worked in Canada
When we were first planning the first year of our trip, we didn’t include a Canada leg because we didn’t think we’d be able to get internet there. But when we signed up for Cricket Wireless we found out that they allow you to use the plan in Canada and Mexico. A bit more digging revealed that we could spend up to two months per year there* and that our phones would work on any Bell or Rogers towers (two of the Canadian networks).
Unfortunately, it wasn’t as great as we had hoped. The biggest reason was that despite LTE being deployed everywhere we went, we never saw it with either of our phones. We were always stuck on a 3G connection. LTE = high speed internet that gives us enough speed even with 1 bar of signal, 3G = slow internet that is only barely fast enough for us when we have 3+ bars and get lucky with the tower**. Even when we were in downtown with good signal, we’d still see overloaded towers and poor upload rates. We only were able to have a stable enough connection for Skype calls while camped just outside the town of Jasper and using the booster.
So when our phones weren’t cutting it, I tried getting a Canadian cell plan. You can’t do that, it turns out, without a CID number which is like a social security number. When that didn’t work, I tried buying a phone that accepted the correct Canadian LTE bands to put our SIM card into, but none of the carriers will sell you an unlocked phone outright that you can do this with. If you have a plan with one of them for 3 months you can pay $50 for them to unlock it for you but that wouldn’t help us either since we couldn’t get the plan to start with!
Back to coffee shops
So since our phones weren’t giving us enough bandwidth and I couldn’t get a Canadian plan or a Canadian phone, it meant we were stuck going back to coffee shops every day.
This brought me to the final issue with internet in the mountains of Western Canada. It’s going to sound like no big deal and that I’m totally spoiled, but when my job requires me to be able to make good Skype calls, unfortunately it matters. The latency was huge everywhere! Even the free WiFi at every coffee shop I went to had high latency. I never saw round trip times lower than 170ms and it was usually closer to 250ms-300ms. This was even just trying to ping Calgary or Vancouver, not even trying to ping back to the US. In the US, round trip times over 100ms are surprising. Here at the far corner of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, we’re seeing 45ms. The numbers I saw in Canada were so bad that Skype calls to the US ended up being challenging to not talk over each other. I can only think that it was because the area is so remote, the only way to connect the towers is with microwave transmitters instead of fiber optics but again, just the network guy in me making wild guesses.
So overall, the mobile internet situation in Canada just didn’t quite cut it with the tools and plans I had available. We’ve heard of people having good luck with T-Mobile plans but unfortunately that wasn’t a good option for us in the US and so we didn’t have one when we went to Canada. Someone who didn’t need to be available for Skype calls or chose to stay in RV Parks with WiFi may have had better luck, but unfortunately, our preparations didn’t do it for us. If anyone else has been to Canada with US plans and had better luck I’d love to hear about it.
P.S. Don’t get me wrong, we are so happy we were able to go to Canada. We had an amazing time and saw some amazing things and we strongly recommend people try the route we did.
*Technically, if 50% of your calls, texts, or data usage is from Canada or Mexico for 3 months in a twelve month period they’ll cancel the account. YMMV.
**There are two possibilities for why we didn’t see LTE. First is that it’s possible that Cricket’s agreement with Bell and Rogers only allows 3G speed and they don’t tell you that. Or second, that our phones didn’t accept the correct LTE radio bands. Bell and Rogers use bands 2, 4, 7, and 17 and of those our phones only accept bands 2 and 4 (newer US phones accept band 17 but no US device accepts band 7). It’s possible that only bands 7 and 17 were in use where we were. If you have a band 17 phone (700MHz) and head that way, we’d love to hear if it works for you.