Mobile Internet in Canada

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.

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Cheat being a super considerate co-worker

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.

8 thoughts on “Mobile Internet in Canada

  1. Thanks for sharing guys – and for being the guinea pigs! I have a good friend in Canada so maybe I can ask her to get an additional line in her name that we can use and pay her for it in full in advance, fingers crossed!

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  2. We’re Canadian and spend upwards of 5 months travelling in a truck camper, mostly around NA. When we travel in the USA we use Verizon as a hotspot service provider. We’ve had mostly good success but have encountered a few areas with poor coverage. Many remote parts of Alaska and some in the lower 48 do not provide good coverage. When we travel in Canada we use Rogers as our hotspot provider. We’ve travelled all provinces and territories in Canada and with the exception of the more remote northern parts, have not had difficulty obtaining good internet service. Both countries have concentrated the best service in the high population density areas, which is not surprising. Canada just has more pristine wilderness left, and combined with a lower population in those areas results in less requirement. The number of customers that would need an internet connection in Inuvik, NWT doesn’t justify the cost of more efficient infrastructure. I think I prefer having my Canadian wilderness without internet intrusion … Website @ http://LOAFin-Around.blogspot.ca

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    1. We use Verizon as well in the US, and have had good luck with coverage. We do make sure to check the coverage maps as a part of trip planning though, since we need to work remotely. It’s a tough balance to strike- we love to be out in the wilderness and have real solitude, but we can’t be so far away that we aren’t able to work.

      We couldn’t get full access to Rodgers, which was frustrating. As a Canadian, how does the quality of the Rodgers hotspot plan (speed, especially) compare to Verizon in your experience?

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  3. Oh my goodness where to start. My girlfriend lives in Hamilton Ontario. All internet service cell or cable is marginal. We try to skype and once in a while it is normal. Most of the time pixelation and sound stutter are the norm. Regular voice calls are good when connected but the signal drops out so often we get disconnected a lot. I can text her but she cannot text me back on her plan. So we use WhatsApp which works good for us both. I have a friend in Sudbury Ontario and her internet is OK for use about 60 percent of the time. They just don’t have the sort of connections we have in the USA. I will be following the comments here to see if anyone can help out.

    Jerry

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    1. Yes, it was so frustrating for us! Nik needs to have access to Skype calls (so high speed downloads and uploads) for work. His remote job is what makes this whole crazy adventure possible, and we couldn’t really get the internet to support it. :-/ I didn’t realize, though, that internet is so flaky for everyone in Canada, though, not just us. That would definitely be tricky.

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  4. Really sorry about your troubles and no one telling you, You can get a unlocked phone from costco.
    Its what I am using and all good, I dont believe in being locked in to a plan at all, rubs me all wrong
    Terry
    I have a air card as well and I using roaming when I go to the usa, Next trip down I am wanting to get on with at&t
    You have a way better system down there then we do for sure,

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  5. We spent about two weeks in Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper last fall. We had no problem obtaining a SIM from the shopping center in Banff, and putting it in our iPhone. This allowed us great coverage, LTE, and the ability to tether to our MacBook Air. It was a prepaid SIM, but I’m not sure why your experience varied. Hope this helps clarify that it is indeed possible. The Canadian Rockies are indeed beautiful and worth the trip! Cheers!

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