GNSS RTK Surveying - Cell Service

Obtaining cell service for your RTK unit can be a very frustrating experience. Your instinct might tell you that the best option is to walk into a store and talk with an expert. All you need is a SIM card with a data plan, right? Based on my experience, this is the WRONG move.

In most cases, the employees at the Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile store will have ZERO familiarity with RTK surveying and will insist on running through their point of sale script. This will result in numerous questions that do not apply to you or flat-out cannot be answered, such as "What is the IMEI number for your phone?" They will often try to look up your device on their system and of course, it will not show up. At this point, it will start getting awkward and the salesperson will ask for a manager. The manager will instruct the salesperson to use various workarounds for all questions and the end result will be a SIM card that you might be able to use. Often times though, the cellular network needs some sort of validation that the card is active and that is impossible from a GNSS head.

Here is my tried and true advice.

  1. Confirm the coverage map for the area you will be working in. In general, Verizon and AT&T have the best coverage and I suggest having both on standby. T-Mobile is typically good in metro areas but not in remote areas.
  2. Verify the communications technology your equipment is capable of using. Some equipment (like my trusty Carlson RT3 tablet) supports both CDMA (Verizon) and GSM (AT&T or T-Mobile). If you have older equipment, it is probably only GSM.
  3. In an ideal world, the best move is to use a WiFi hotspot and use the Data Collector Internet to recieve your corrections from the RTK network. This is easily purchasable online from any carrier or you can in fact walk into a store and buy these. Just don't get into a conversation about how you will use them. Just tell them you need a WiFi hotspot and leave it at that. Trust me on this.
  4. If you need to put the SIM card into the data collector, rugged tablet, or GNSS head (less common nowadays), BUY IT ONLINE. Simply choose the data plan that suits your needs but if you are only using your equipment once in a while, a Pre-Paid SIM card is the way to go. When you receive it, you can follow the instructions to activate it and create an account.

That's pretty much it. Once that is done, you should be ready to collect your topo or stake out your job.