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Best Way to Watch TV over Cellular when Camping

Best Way to Watch TV over Cellular when Camping

avatar   Scott
Trip Date 06/25/2018
Posted On 08/31/2018 17:08:01

Camping | Customizations | How to watch TV in RV | DirectTV | Dish | Cable TV | Crackle | Netflix | Hulu | AnyCast | Internet | United States

For RVers who want cable/satellite TV while traveling, but don't have a satellite dish in their RV, this post is for you. Read on for my experiences and recommendations with watching TV by using a cellular phone and broadcasting the display on to the big screen in the RV.
  • You may be thinking that this is not a viable solution, but I've done it successfully and enjoyably over the last year in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas Missouri and Kansas for about 10 weeks total.
  • You may be thinking that this is too techy for me, but it is not hard to setup.

There are several aspects and considerations to make watching broadcast TV over cellular work including:

  • a cellular service provider;
  • a smart phone device (a 1996 era flip phone won't work!);
  • a home TV service provider; and
  • a wireless display adapter that you'll need to connect to your TV.

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Cellular Service Provider

You may go to the same camping locations all of the time or you may travel to lots of different locations; you may be in the country or near a city. You may already have a cellular contract or you may be switching soon. All of these are considerations.

Your plan may include hotspot support or you may have to pay extra, however you don't necessarily need hotspot support to watch TV on your phone or to display it on your TV. The extra charge for a hotspot, on Sprint for example, is about $1 per day and you can turn the service feature on and off as needed. (The main advantage of having a hotspot is that you can watch TV and browse the internet at the same time.)

This article is a good resource for data limits on various plans: Cellular Service Plans.

We used to have Sprint which is great for international travel and near big cities or major highways, but not so great in rural areas. We heard Verizon had the best rural coverage, but you pay extra for international. T-Mobile is great internationally, includes hotspot and has great rates. AT&T has good coverage, but costs more for international (although it has good bundle opportunities with U-Verse Internet and DirecTV). I am not sure about the secondary providers - some have hotspot support but generally don't offer international coverage.

There are many features of each plan and you need to determine which meets your needs best including coverage and data amounts. We switched to get my phone on Verizon and my wife's phone on T-Mobile which gives us good coverage in the US as well as internationally. In the city they both work great and in rural areas Verizon definitely has a better signal. If needed, we can trade-off using the hotspot of the other's phone, depending on where we are.

We have iPhone 7 model phones, but this information also applies to any recent iPhone or Android model. While Apple devices use AirPlay protocol to project the screen, Android uses Miracast protocol. Also, if your tablet has cellular service, it will work the same as the phone.

Screen Sharing

There are several display devices that can be used to project your mobile device screen onto your TV. I chose the AnyCast M2 Plus because it was cheap and didn't include any other content services like those that AppleTV, ChromeCast, Roku or others provide. I just wanted the screen sharing feature. It supports AirPlay and MiraCast and plugs into the RV TV using the USB for power (any other USB plug works too) and the HDMI input for video signal.

AnyCast M2 Plus

AnyCast M2 Plus

The AnyCast M2 Plus works in two modes. The simple mode is where the AnyCast broadcasts a wifi display hotspot and you can connect to it with your phone. In this mode your phone stays connected to cellular 3G or LTE but can broadcast the display to the AnyCast. In simple mode you don't need to use your phone's hotspot data limit - you are using your normal data usage limit. (Most cell phone plans have two data limits - 1: the amount of data used through the hotspot; and 2: the amount of data used natively by the phone device, which generally is a higher limit.) The downside is that you can't surf the web at the same time from another device since your hotspot is off.

In the other mode, you turn on your phone's hotspot and use a second device temporarily to connect to the AnyCast Wifi. Then, configure the AnyCast to connect to your phone's hotspot. In this mode, you can broadcast your phone display to the AnyCast and use other devices to surf the web while you watch TV. You can connect other devices to either your phone's hotspot or the AnyCast which routes internet requests through the phone's hotspot for internet connectivity. Awesome! (I prefer connecting other devices to the AnyCast because sometimes when I have several devices connected to the cell phone hotspot, the AnyCast will get kicked off while I'm watching TV. I then have to reconnect it, but I miss what is happening on the TV during that time. All seems to work great when only the AnyCast is connected to my phone hotspot.)

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To get it all running, turn the TV on and use the source button on the remote to select the AnyCast device. The AnyCast has instructions on how to connect to the wifi and displays the necessary password on the TV screen. Determine which mode of operation you want:

  • If you are in hotspot mode, turn your phone hotspot on and use another device to connect AnyCast to your phone.
  • If you are in simple screen sharing mode, connect your phone directly to the AnyCast display wifi hotspot.

Then, for iPhone, you can use the tray menu that slides from the bottom of the screen to turn on AirPlay screen mirroring. For Android, use the Cast settings object in the settings to turn on screen mirroring with MiraCast. At this time, you can see and hear your phone on your TV. You might need to flip it sideways.

DirecTV App

DirecTV App

I had been using the DirecTV iPhone App to watch broadcast TV on my cell phone and I mirrored the screen to the TV in my RV. However, on June 1, 2018 this feature stopped working. The DirecTV App was changed to put out the message "HDMI streaming is not supported" or sometimes "Please discontinue screen recording to continue streaming". You can still watch on your phone or iPad, you just can't stream it to a big screen. From what I've read online, this was intentional to limit streaming for DirecTV customers that have satellite service.

There is another offering called DirecTV Now which is an internet video streaming service. HDMI streaming is enabled for that service. So, even though you can't use the DirecTV app, you still need your DirecTV service or other cable service to watch some video sources like cable channels and news channels. For example, some news apps with a live TV feature work great, but still require you to sign-in with your cable or DirecTV account credentials.

It occurs to me that some new Smart TVs have screen sharing built in, but probably the flat panel in your RV does not; that is where AnyCast really helps out.

Cellular Service and Wifi Display Compatibility

While I have used this successfully in many places, I have encountered a few locations where the LTE service will not work while also connected to the AnyCast Wifi Display. In these cases, you can't stream to the big screen while using cellular data - you can only use one or the other. The phone behaves as if cellular cannot coexist with any Wifi connection. In most places, cellular can coexist with a Wifi connection used only for the display. (I suspect this may be due to older software installed on some cell towers.)

Video Content on your Phone

Now, what can you watch? If you have a cable or satellite provider at home, there are phone apps that let you sign in and watch live TV on your phone. Some may have restrictions for using cellular data and streaming your display to another device. News channels have apps that have live broadcast right from the app, but you still need to sign in with your home service provider account credentials due to contractual requirements. These sources seem to work better due to lower bandwidth requirements. Most cable channels also have apps or internet websites (such as the History Channel) that let you play already aired shows - just search for the show that you want. The Crackle app has free movies and TV shows. Netflix and Hulu also have great content for a low fee.

Signal Strength

The main issue is how good is your signal? On Verizon, it has worked great for me at many places - except one where we were deep in a valley in Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest. I have seen and heard about people in campgrounds using cellular signal boosters like mBoost to improve their cellular internet signal - these boosters will improve your cellular TV experience too.

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Interestingly, sometimes inside my RV I can't get a good signal, but if I place the phone on the handle of a cabinet and step away without touching it, it will get and keep a signal. So, if you have a weak signal, experiment with positioning your phone in strategic locations (perhaps in a window sill, or maybe even removing your phone from its case).

For the electrically minded DIYer, on several occasions I have come across this article on how to build your own signal booster and I wonder how well it works and whether it would work in an RV? Please comment below if you think this will work, or if you have tried it.

DIY Cellular Booster

Cellular Data Limits

Most plans have data limits and then slow down after the limit is reached. This happened to me after watching about 20 days of evening TV on a recent long trip. Even at the slow speed I could still watch TV, but not surf the web enjoyably at the same time. Every now and then the video couldn't keep up. However, I could restart it and keep going. Sometimes I would switch to my wife's phone to use her hotspot data.

I have DirecTV and bring along our DVR loaded with content when we leave on an RV trip. Before our recent long trip, I programmed my DVR to record a wide variety of shows and movies to fill it up. It has been very enjoyable to play content from that, although I can't record more while I have it traveling with me on the road without an antenna dish.

At this point, I don't think I need a portable satellite dish - maybe when we hit the deep desert. For now, AnyCast is working great for projecting the phone display on the TV (particularly in combination with Verizon).

Finding The Parts

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Best Way to Watch TV over Cellular when Camping

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