Mobile Internet and Unicorns

We did it. We pulled it off. We have a Verizon hotspot plan with no data cap and no throttling and no sketchy third party company that goes under (thanks for nothing OmniLynx).

For starters lets talk about the different ways to get internet on the road.

  1. Public WiFi Hotspots (no I will not hack Private hotspots for my work internet connection, regardless of how easy it is nowadays). Think Starbucks or airport free wifi. Many campgrounds also have free wifi. We’ll probably use these when they are convenient but they don’t really help us when we’re 5 miles away from town on BLM land. Antennas are good, but not that good. If we were retired and didn’t need constant connectivity for our job, this would be a reasonable option. So it’s free or really cheap, but it severely limits where we can go.
  2. Satellite. Most Satellite internet companies are changing their systems to optimize for stationary houses. This is great for people who live in rural areas because they get much better bandwidth and data limits, but this means that they don’t support you driving around the country and setting up willy-nilly. There are a couple of companies which will work with mobile applications but they have 2 problems. First, the dishes are really difficult to set up. Second, your connection still needs to travel 29,000 miles up to the satellite, and then 29,000 miles back down to earth which takes time. Round trip times around 3/4 of a second aren’t unusual for satellite links and that much latency basically makes Skype unusable (imagine needing to say “Over” at the end of every sentence so that you don’t talk over each other). And lastly they cost as much per gigabyte (GB) as Cellular does below.
  3. Cellular. 4G internet is pretty darn ubiquitous now. Verizon and AT&T have coverage maps that now include even most of the western US. We’ve been taking a Verizon hotspot around when we go camping for the past few months just to see if we would have service and we have only rarely been disappointed. The kicker is cost. Most of the time, you pay per GB with Verizon currently charging $110/month for 20GB and AT&T at $140/month for 20GB data and voice and texts included. I like using 20GB as a standard metric because that is about the amount of non-streaming data we use per month, (yes I track crazy numbers like that). Unfortunately, streaming Netflix or Spotify kills those numbers very quickly. Our usage when we were streaming Game of Thrones every night trying to catch up, was up around 200GB/month. Verizon will give you 100GB/month of data for the low price of $710/month. No thank you.

So given those options, we were looking at using cellular as our primary source and free wifi as a secondary backup source of internet and we’d be ditching our streaming habit. We’d probably get 20GB, maybe 30GB if we felt stressed about watching our limit all the time, of Verizon and use our phones as a backup hotspot with AT&T. We weren’t happy about paying $120-$200 a month and still losing streaming as we’ve ditched TV service in favor of streaming at home, but we would have gotten by.

But then, I learned of the magic of the mythical “Grandfathered Verizon Unlimited Plan” otherwise known as a unicorn. Basically, many years ago when the iPhone had yet to come out and 3G was a new-fangled thing, Verizon (and many other carriers) offered plans with an unlimited amount of data. The networks were so slow, no one could use very much data even if they tried, so it was easy for the carriers to use it as a marketing ploy. As the years have gone by though, networks have gotten much faster. You can now push a LOT of data over a 4G LTE connection and unlimited plans are very expensive for carriers to keep honoring. So, the carriers have stopped selling these plans and, to make customers move away from their precious unlimited plans, they’ve started increasing prices and putting restrictions on the plans. Most carriers say you get ~22GB of full speed and then you’ll get cut down to 2G speeds if the carrier feels like it (see, it’s still technically “unlimited” just slow unlimited) but that obviously won’t work as a full time work connection).

Verizon took a different route. They stopped selling unlimited data plans but feared regulators getting mad if they started kicking people off of their plans, so they got sneaky. They said, “you can’t get a cheap phone upgrade without moving to our latest plans,” so anyone who has taken a discounted phone upgrade through Verizon has lost their unlimited data. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people did not realize the bargain they were making when they got their $99 subsidized iPhone, so there are very few of these truly unlimited plans left (unicorns are very rare).

Fortunately there are smart people out there who saw through Verizon’s rouse and said “fine then, unlimited 4G/LTE data on Verizon’s huge network is obscenely valuable, I’ll just pay full price for all my phones from now on.” Some of these smart people have even put their plans up on Ebay for rent for $200 per month or for sale for $500-$1000 up front. Verizon makes you jump through all sorts of hoops to transfer a purchased plan to your name (unicorns are very hard to catch) but it is still barely possible (especially if you have lots of help from RV Mobile Internet and VZWUDP).

We found one of these mythical unicorns and are now running all of our internet needs (including posting this post) through a hotspot on that plan. The best part is, I looked around for a very long time and found an extra special unicorn that only costs $45/month for 30 min of voice, 0 texts and unlimited data instead of needing to pay an extra $30/month on top of that for 450 voice minutes (there are even more hoops to jump through for this special kind of plan). $45/month is less than we were paying Comcast for Xfinity internet and our connection is faster with Verizon!

Long story short, life is full of rainbows and glitter and we couldn’t be happier.

Larry Wentzel with modifications by me. CC BY 2.0

If you have any questions on how we did it or what the experience was like shoot us an email or leave a comment below.

2 thoughts on “Mobile Internet and Unicorns

    1. I assume you mean what if Verizon stops honoring Unlimited terms to everyone in the future, not what if the plan I buy gets broken in the transfer process. If you’re worried about the transfer process, buy the guide from RV Mobile Internet, it’s worth every penny.
      Unfortunately I have no idea if they’ll end up eliminating the unlimited plans. For those people not under contract, I’d be surprised given the terms of their purchase of the 700Mhz spectrum from the FCC, but it could definitely happen. I’d be EXTREMELY surprised (and angry) if they eliminated it for people still under contract. I got extremely lucky and picked up a plan that was under contract for another 22 months. So, $700/22 = $32/month + the $50/month I pay = $82/month amortized cost. So even if they kill unlimited the day my contract is up, it’s still worth it to me. Given that I need good internet on the road to work, it would be worth it to me at $150/month. You can always rent a plan for $200/month if it is worth it to you (remember that it replaces your home cable or DSL connection too).


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