4 Ways to Get Internet at Your Off-Grid Cabin
Like the idea of living off the grid, but don't want to give up the internet? Learn about the options for staying connected despite being in a rural location.
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In our busy, crazy world, the idea of living off the grid in a cabin might be captivating. There is a certain charm in the notion of disconnecting from the outside world. The trouble is, off-grid life would be isolating without some sort of internet connection. The ability to contact people online better prepares you for emergencies and makes it a whole lot easier to keep in touch with family and friends.
A web connection is also great for simple but useful activities like checking the weather forecast. And, as someone who’s spent time in the wilderness with zero human contact, I can attest to how lonely it can be. If you’re planning to build or spend time in an off-grid cabin but don’t want to completely sever your connection with the outside world, understanding the options and challenges of off-grid internet is a must.
The first thing to realize is that the internet simply isn’t available everywhere. Some places are too remote to have internet or cell service of any kind. But if your off-grid cabin is in one of these places, don’t despair. A solution may be coming to these areas.
A communication satellite network called SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, is in the final stages of launching a global internet service called Starlink. The company claims it will offer greater speeds than anything currently available.
If or when this service boots up, it’s vital to have a reliable source of electricity in your off-grid cabin before thinking about internet. This source could be as small and simple as a portable solar generator, or as big and complex as a fully electrified system powered by photovoltaic panels, windmills or micro-hydro energy.
Whatever off-grid power source you choose, your next step is deciding what type of off-grid internet connection best suits your needs and location.
If you have a decent cell signal at your off-grid cabin, consider using your smartphone as an internet hotspot. It’s simple, doesn’t require any additional equipment, and you can easily get online on your computer as long as the phone’s nearby.
To use this option, you’ll need a good data plan that doesn’t charge outrageously for every gigabyte used. Many cell providers now offer infinite or unlimited data plans where you pay a set amount each month for all the data you need.
Though my wife and I don’t live off-grid, we use the smartphone hotspot technique as our exclusive source of internet. Our infinite data plan allows us to use YouTube, Netflix and other bandwidth-intensive online services without issue.
Cell Phone with Signal Booster
Hotspotting off your phone is great, but unless you start with a strong cell signal it won’t work well for you. That’s where cell signal boosters come in. Varying in size, complexity and price, they’re designed to capture and amplify the incoming cell signal, giving your phone more to work with.
Many folks report mixed results from cell boosters, but my own experience has been good. Where I live, in rural Northern Ontario, Canada, our cell signal wasn’t fantastic when we first built and moved into our forest cabin. We only got two bars or so consistently, and often had trouble watching videos online or using Skype.
We bought a signal booster similar to this one, and it made all the difference for us. We now get three to four bars consistently, and almost never have issues watching videos or using video chat services. To gauge your signal strength more precisely, google simple procedures that will tell you the exact numeric signal strength your phone picks up in decibels. I never found that necessary.
If you’d rather not hot spot off your phone or you lack good enough cell service, another off-grid option is satellite internet. Ask around your area to find out which internet providers (if any) offer satellite coverage at your location.
Satellite internet gets a bad rap for its relatively high cost and sluggish connection speeds, which are often noticeably slower than a fiber-optic connection in the city. Still, satellite internet is certainly better than nothing. It also could get a massive overhaul soon if Starlink pans out.
If you’re fine without the fancier features of the internet like Netflix, Skype, YouTube, etc., ham radio is a viable option to remain connected off-grid. Radio signals can transmit small amounts of data, allowing licensed ham radio operators to do basic things online like send and receive email.
There’s no monthly fee with this option. It also operates independently of cell towers and internet satellites, making it the most universally applicable approach. However, you’ll need a ham radio operator’s license and a robust radio setup to get started.