GoGear: RVer's Guide to Streaming Media

It's awesome, if you have bandwidth

Don Cohen Don Cohen  |  05.28.2015

The seismic change in how we consume and use video has been making its way into our homes and our RVs, but all this great choice comes with confusion.  Entertainment technology is quickening in pace.  For instance, we’ve got two DVD players built into our Navion’s entertainment systems, and I’ve never used them.  Come to think of it, I’ve only shoved a disc into our Blu-ray player in our living room at home once in the past three years.  Why?  It’s all about streaming, baby!

RVers traditionally consume video in one of four ways:  over the air, cable, satellite and DVD.  A fifth option, streaming, has quickly muscled it’s way into the home, but still remains challenging for the RVer.

For budget-minded TV viewing travelers a combination of an over-the-air antenna and a DVD player will pretty much fit the bill.  For those who like cable news, reality shows, and network series, a satellite is going to be the best answer.

However, the real action is happening over the Internet in the world of streaming media.  YouTube, Netflix, and their many companions are upending the traditional hegemony of the content companies (movie studios, tv networks) and transmission companies (telephone, cable, satellite).  And while this flood of change is rapidly engulfing traditional residences with a proliferation of choices, it’s only just lapping at the drop-down steps leading up and into our RVs.

Bandwidth Hell Explained

The biggest hurdle the traveling viewer needs to overcome is finding and affording useable bandwidth.  Most RV park and public wi-fi hotspots are severely limited by speed, but at least they’re generally free.  Cellular data networks offer 4G LTE which is quite fast, but it’s metered data consumption gets expensive.

Many cell users go with fairly low data plans offering 500MB to 1GB of data per month.  Here’s a rough estimate of how much streaming data consumes:

Streaming music services send their songs out a different bit rates.  A lower fidelity bitrate like 64kbps is what Pandora uses and (for most casual listeners, this is fine).  At that rate, you’d burn through 1 GB of data after playing music for 36 hours.  A higher fidelity data stream at 128kbps would be 18 hours.

Video streaming eats up a lot more bandwidth, a lot more quickly.  Netflix has a nifty feature that allows you to adjust bandwidth.  However, many video services don’t offer that control and just automatically push data to you with no easy way of knowing how much you’re consuming.

For low quality, Netflix consumes .3GB per hour, medium quality (standard definition) .7GB per hour, and HD quality is up to 3GB per hour.  Simply put, you can easily blow through your monthly data plan just watching one movie.

To be able to adequately stream video from free RV park or public wifi hotspots, you need about 1.5Mbs of speed.  On the road I often check bandwidth speeds on my MacBook using a speed test web site (there’s quite a few).  On my iPad and iPhone there’s a free app called Speedtest by Ookla that I like.  More often than not I find my public wifi download speeds are in the 300-700K range.  While that’s fast enough for getting e-mails or viewing basic web pages, that’s not good enough for video. Now, when I’m on AT&T’s cellular data network I’ll see speeds ranging from 1.5Mbs to a very robust 7Mbs which is plenty fast.

The times I find RV park wifi to be the fastest is in the middle of the day when everyone’s out and about or very late at night.  Just remember, these public systems are like like plumbing where the water pressure drops while everyone’s flushing their toilets at half-time during the SuperBowl.

At this point you may have been losing your zeal for streaming on the road, but the good news is that bandwidth is increasing in speed and the costs are on a slow, but inexorable downhill march.  And it’s probably going to get better.  I take comfort in remembering that when my parents traveled in a motor home in the 70’s and 80’s the only communication options were pay phones and CB radios.

In just this past year AT&T now rolls our unused data for the month into the next (only one month rolls at a time), which means that when we take a trip for 3-4 weeks we often have twice the normal data volume available to us.

Digital Media Players

While access to fast data can be expensive, the playback technology is very affordable.  There are several media players out there and all of them sell for less than $100 dollars.  There are three well known stick players:  Amazon Fire, Google Chromecast, and Roku Streaming Stick.  And then there are two petite, but more powerful boxes:  AppleTV and Roku 3.  For RVers I think the two boxes worth considering are the AppleTV and Roku Family.  The Roku Streaming Stick plugs into a TV’s USB port and runs off the TV power.  The Apple and larger Roku boxes require 110V power, but if you’re dry camping and running off an inverter, take very little power.

If you slosh while you walk from drinking gallons of Apple Kool-Aid, then an AppleTV is for you.  The AppleTV provides a wide range of “channels” and, with a separate subscription, you can access popular services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go.

appleTVThe AppleTV is a perfect device if you’re happy living in Apple’s eco-system.

If you have another Apple device such as an iPhone, iPad or MacBook, and use iTunes, the AppleTV offers something very compelling — AirPlay.  AirPlay allows you to wirelessly stream media from any of your Apple devices to the ATV.  That includes photos and video you shoot with your iPhone and music and movies you’ve downloaded via iTunes on your MacBook or iPad.  This strategy has worked well for us as we occasionally purchase a TV series to watch on the road and download it to either an iPad or a Mac.  I’ve also played my iTunes library (from my Mac) through our TV entertainment sound system, not needing to be connected to the Internet.

Roku 3Roku offers several different streaming media players including a wireless jack for headphones on the Roku 3 remote.

If your household is less Apple-centric, perhaps using a Windows laptop or Android tablet, then the Roku products are the hands down choice.  While the Roku lacks the ability for you to wirelessly stream local content from your computer or tablet, it does have a USB port that you can connect with a cable.  Content-wise the Roku offers all the standard programming services you get with the Apple TV, plus dozens more.

Streaming media players have no on-going costs unless you subscribe to a premium service such as Netflix.  They are small, consume very little power, and are inexpensive.

Streaming is going to change the way we think about and consume television.  Right now the trend for phone and cable providers to increase both the speed and the cost of service.  However, just like we witnessed in traditional phone and cell service, prices ultimately start to drop over time.  I think we’ll see the same hold true over the next five years.

We’ll also start to see digital player circuitry built into future TVs.  And that cable box you have sitting under your set at home?  It will eventually disappear with just a tiny modem feeding all your house TVs and wireless devices (including your door locks, light bulbs and appliances).  I expect that a lot of that “gee-whiz” technology will be finding it’s way into your RV sooner than you think.  Today major manufacturers like Winnebago are working closely with home entertainment and automation companies to offer us more options for seamlessly extending our digital lives on the road.

While it can be confusing and bit frustrating at times, there are moments that I look around our motorhome and think of the corporate industrial 16mm movies I saw in elementary school that painted a picture of a high-tech future.  Eliminating the possibility of hovercars, I don’t think that even the most wildly creative of films came close to anticipating much of the technology we have in our RVs today.  Although that hovercraft idea. . . .


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17 Comments

  1. Alfredo Posted on 05.17.2017

    T mobile has free streaming on many services.(incluiding Netflix). Yo can use devices like chrome from Google that hook up directly to your tv. I have te t mobile device that hooks up to the odb port and allows tethering.

  2. Tom Reed Posted on 02.09.2017

    Don,
    In May we pick up our custom ordered Navion in Iowa. We live in the NW and generally don’t spend a lot of time inside our motorhomes when not moving. We opted out of a sattilite antenna for that reason. At home (all Apple), we ditched our cable TV in favor of an over-the-air antenna (news etc). The rest of our viewing via Apple TV, with various apps, some free, some not. To my question: Winegard has a new WiFi extender. It’s a bit pricy at over $500. Any thoughts on going that route for those times when we are in a WiFi location and wish to stream? Also, Netflix now has a service that allows a subscriber to download two hours of content for viewing later and no WIFi signal required. At least that’s my understanding. Haven’t tried it yet. Any thoughts?
    Thanks,
    Tom

    1. Don Cohen Posted on 02.12.2017

      Tom,

      in our household I’ve witnessed a pretty seismic shift in our television viewing at home in the city and, given your comments, I think a permanent trend is emerging where traditional television viewing is relegated to sports and news. We almost never watch anything anymore in real-time. Programs are either recorded on the Tivo or, more and more often, streamed.

      Having Comcast at home now means we can watch any of the channels we get via their app as long as we have a decent internet connection. And yes, we can also download some programs for offline viewing on Comcast, Amazon and Netflix. The only limitation to downloading programs from Netflix (if they’re allowed) is the storage space of your device. So no problem downloading and bingeing on a whole season of shows.

      The Winegard wifi product looks interesting. I talked with them at the Louisville RVIA show and was especially intrigued that it also had a 4G LTE modem (data plan is extra). Anything you do that can give you an edge in getting a better wifi signal is a good thing. However, the sad reality is so many RV Parks and other wifi hot-spots are not capable of serving up the high bandwidth demands of video streamers.

      My hunch is that competition will continue to push cell phone data prices down and that the cost/performance curve between satellite versus cell streaming will start to favor cell data in the next year or so.

  3. Aggie Rev Posted on 01.22.2017

    Thanks Don, one more question. My RV Park has a page that pulls up where I enter a password to access the parks wifi. Will the Pepwave stay connected to the RV Park wifi, and then the Apple TV to the Pepwave?

    1. Don Cohen Posted on 01.22.2017

      Yup. It should. Big disclaimer: IT’S RV PARK WIFI WHICH MAY MEAN LOW BANDWIDTH AND DROPOUTS THROUGH HEAVY USAGE TIMES. Over the past few years of traveling, I’ve found that 4PM-12AM are rough times for RV park connections. For night owls, late evening streaming chances improve. For digital road warriors, bandwidth in parks is usually quite decent during the day.

  4. Aggie Rev Posted on 01.17.2017

    How did you connect your apple TV to the park wifi?? I am having real trouble with this because my park wifi requires a guest password through a browser online. When I select the wifi on Apple TV settings, it never asks for the password, so the Apple TV never actually connects to the internet wi-fi

    1. Don Cohen Posted on 01.17.2017

      This is a common problem and you’re not alone. Unfortunately AppleTVs generally can’t connect to park RV networks. When we have used our AppleTV over wifi it’s actually connected to an in-coach router (like WiFi Ranger or Pepwave) which in turn is connected to the RV park network. It also works well connected to our AT&T hotspot, but beware of the high bandwidth use!

  5. RokuRussian Posted on 07.22.2016

    I really like the Roku. It’s much better than Google or Apple TV.
    There are a lot of channels and you have to pay only for internet.
    But if you want, you can add $channels. Like Netflix, Amazon videos and all this stuff. For example i’m using Roku Russian channel for my mother, Netflix for me and my wife. Extra $12 a month only! Amazing!

  6. CK Jaguar Posted on 01.05.2016

    Karma Go Hot Spots provide  unlimited data service over the Sprint LTE Network for only $50 a month. The speed is capped at 5 Mbs and I use it for Netflix and Amazon Prime videos with no problems at all. It works very well for me.  This code will take you to Karma Go and give you $10 off the $100 purchase price: ck73452748  

  7. Darrel Ahles Posted on 06.23.2015

    Dish Tailgater system works great for us. We get our regional sports broadcast for our local professional teams wherever we go (MLB, NHL, NBA). We used the optional set up for local channels while traveling – it scans over-the-air channels and adds them to the on screen guide so you get the local network news and all other network programs . Fox carries many NFL games and over-the-air does not work for this network. With this we don’t have to miss our Broncos! They have many movie channels available on upgraded options, but the basic plan is $35 per month and just $7 if you have Dish at home. You can buy one month at a time and suspend it when not in use. The system costs around $450 complete ( Tailgater and reciever). No contract. You can move the small Tailgater easily to avoid anything blocking the view to the south. Its easy to use. We use the add on hard drive ( about $100) to record programs at home and then bring it along. It has 1TB storage so its good for dozens of movies ( couple of hundred is SD) I keep my favs on it in case the home DVR goes down and I lose my recordings. Ive had dish for years and they continually imporve their RV system. Be sure to ask for their RV specialist when installing a system. (Serius music is on it too)

  8. Rick Jameson Posted on 06.23.2015

    Gee thanks. You’re the wifi hog that streams movies all the time and uses up all the bandwidth at the parks, so no one else can use the wifi. While you are being too picky to watch what is being broadcast on cable or satellite, and too snooty to resort to an “old-fashioned” DVD, your streaming raises costs for the parks, ruins the wifi experience for those trying to keep track of family and friends online, or researching places to visit while traveling. Yeah, thanks to you and the other selfish streamers. (Written with humor, not anger. But accurate.)

    1. Don Cohen Posted on 06.24.2015

      Rick,

      (With a smile) Your point is well taken. On those occasions I’ve logged back into my Tivo at home to catch the CBS Evening news, it’s usually towards midnight when park wifi traffic seems to be minimal. Here in Denver we’re about to see a big battle between CenturyLink (1GB service) and Comcast (2GB service). I think this is a harbinger of an increasing overall speed capabilities that, in many cases, will help RV park owners get more bandwidth to their properties. Concurrently, we’re finding a lot more opportunity to use our AT&T wifi hotspot. We have a 30GB a month plan and, because of their recent prior month rollover policy, have often set out with a healthy 50+GB of data availability for 3-4 week trips.

  9. Bob Duthie Posted on 06.23.2015

    Good article but streaming video to RVs is rare to find and not there yet. I’ll bet it won’t even be close to available at the GNR. I recently bought a 2016 Trend 23B to replace our 2007 View which had DirectTV satellite. I will not install satellite on the new unit because of the overall cost, the difficulty to find sites that are not blocked by trees, and the only Network National News comes from New York which is only convenient in the Central & Eastern time zones.. My strategy on the new unit is a BlueRay player using Netflix BlueRayDVDs and/or cheap Walmart DVD movies. For Internet I use a Verizon iPhone 6 hotspot with 4G and 30GB per month package deal. I get my national news on the Internet using the USAToday app.

  10. Lewis Edge Posted on 06.23.2015

    We are big fans of streaming video at home, but having tested scores of campground Wi-Fi systems along the US east coast from northern Maine to the Florida Keys, I’ve found only two campground Wi-Fi systems that would support streaming video for even a short time. None would sustain an uninterrupted stream for a full-length movie. Many campgrounds will deliberately throttle down my speed if their system detects my attempt to stream video. I believe that for part-time RVers, DVDs are still the only practical source of commercial free movies. Redbox kiosks are in many locations. A satellite receiver with digital recorder and movie channel subscriptions can work for full-timers as long as they don’t prefer shady campsites. Neither of the satellite services are cost-effective for weekend campers unless they also have the same satellite service at home. Maybe unplugging and enjoying the outdoors is the best option.

  11. Kenneth Lenger Posted on 06.23.2015

    A comment regarding streaming iTunes video using an Apple TV. If the media content is protected, like most all iTunes media is (their music is not), then the Apple TV needs to briefly connect to their server to validate that your Apple TV is authorized to view the content. After the validation is complete, then no more bandwidth is used. I have found this to be very irritating when camping in remote locations, like the Grand Canyon, where internet service is either hit and miss or not available at all. The odd part is that I can view the iTunes media on my MacBook and stream it to the TV over HDMI without the need to authorize the content, but if I stream the same video from my MacBook to the TV using an Apple TV, then the content must be authorized. This seems very inconsistent to me. We have purchased hundreds of TV episodes and several movies and enjoy the experience a lot. Thanks for the article.

  12. schuyler Posted on 06.10.2015

    Hi that article is helpful…but how does one increase bandwidth? Or speed? Which wifi devices work best to stream media? If I have a smart TV or Apple TV what is the best possible way to connect it to the Internet in an RV?

    1. Don Cohen Posted on 06.20.2015

      Wireless bandwidth is determined by the speed of the signal origination and the distance you are from the source. For instance, if a park wi-fi has an overall 10MBs speed, but you’re a hundred feet away from the antenna, your actual speed could be less than 1MB. The issue is the same for cellular data. So the answer is capturing an improved signal.

      Some wi-fi hotspots have jacks for an external antenna, but a booster will be even more effective. I like the one we have from Wilson Electronics which is a cradle (connected to an external antenna and using booster circuitry). I use the cradle during the day to hold my iPhone. If we’re somewhere in the evening with a shaky or slow cellular data signal I’ll slide our hotspot unit (Sierra Wireless ATT Excite) into it which often helps.

      Another popular RV choice is a WiFi Ranger. This is a combination router and external antenna system that costs around $500 dollars. You use the Ranger to connect to a wifi source and then connect all your devices to the router (just as you would at home if you have multiple devices sharing a cable or DSL modem). I’ve had one and it works. However, it’s definitely not for non-techies!