By Chris and Jim Guld
Options for connecting to the Internet have changed a lot in the six years we’ve been motorhoming. In 2004 we had to convince people that high-speed was better than dialup. The main high-speed option was Wi-Fi. Cellular data cards didn’t exist, and satellite was pretty new.
Now, dialup is unheard of, Wi-Fi is taken for granted, cellular data cards are mainstream, and satellite is old hat.
What is a data card?
You get it from a cellular provider, and it "connects" to a nearby cell tower. It receives and transmits data. Think of it as a cell phone for your computer.
Some data cards fit into the Express Card slot in your laptop computer. Be sure your laptop has an express card slot before purchasing the card!
Other data "cards" connect to your computer’s USB port. Every laptop has a USB port.
Cellular data cards are also referred as Mobile Broadband Modems. A modem is a device that connects your computer to a communications network. In this case, the communications network is one of the cellular carriers such as Verizon, Sprint, AT&T or TMobile.
Why are data cards so popular?
In the short time they have been available, cellular data cards have become a primary way for travelers to connect to the Internet. They are SO easy. The first time you use it you will need to install some simple drivers from the disk provided. From then on, getting online can be as simple as plugging in the device and booting up your computer. If there is a cell tower within range, you’re online. You may have to click on a button to “connect,” but even that can be set up automatically.
Coverage has improved dramatically. The cellular providers have been busy adding towers all over the country. If you tried this method in 2006 or 2007 and didn’t like it, you should try again. We talk to RVers all the time who say they’ve traveled the entire country and almost always are able to get online with their cellular data cards. They love their data cards.
How fast are they?
The speed of your Internet connection will depend on the cell tower that you’re connecting to. If you’re close to a fast tower, you’ll be thrilled with the speed you get -- it’s as good as the DSL you’re used to at home. If you’re not in a digital coverage area, you’ll be lucky to get dialup speed.
How do you know you’re in a high-speed area? We use Verizon, and when we see a Verizon Wireless, 1X-EVDO indicator on our phone with more than two bars, we know we’re in a high-speed area. If we’re on “Extended Network” or see 1X without the EVDO indicator, we can connect but it will be slow.
My litmus test is to watch a video. I am currently connected with Verizon (tethered cell phone) and I just watched a five-minute video on Youtube.com without a hiccup. That’s a good connection. For those of you who like numbers, here is a speed test (right) I just performed at TestMy.net.
You’ll have to learn what the indicators are for your provider and equipment. Other terms that indicate high-speed include HSPA (AT&T’s network) and 3G. Actually, 3G is used to describe high-speed mobile Internet in general. It means 3d Generation. You may already be hearing rumors about 4G!
Why would you use anything else?
Price is the first limiting factor. Mobile Broadband services usually cost $60/month and require you to commit to a two-year contract. Wi-Fi is $1 to $5 per day with no commitment required, and in many places it’s even free.
Usage limits is the other specific factor. Most plans limit you to 5 gigabytes per month. This has nothing to do with minutes but everything to do with what you’re doing on the Internet. If you read e-mail, browse Web sites, upload and download pictures, 5 gigabytes is more than enough for a month. If you share your connection with one or more other people, and any of you watch videos online, you could exceed your limit. A full-length movie is often 2 gigabytes.
There is a charge per megabyte of overage. We know people who have been billed $1,000 and more in a month when they were over and didn’t realize it.
On the other hand, rarely does a Wi-Fi hotspot have any bandwidth limits. When you’re at a good Wi-Fi hotspot, that’s when you can get those big downloads like Windows service packs and full-length movies.
Coverage is still limited. If you want to boondock in the middle of a national forest in Wyoming, odds are you will not be within range of a cellular tower. Satellite is still the only way to ensure that you have an Internet connection just about anywhere.
Do The Geeks use a data card?
Yes, and no. We have a Datastorm Internet satellite dish, and we love our satellite dish. Last fall, our 5-year old system needed some new parts. We planned to spend the winter in a park with good Wi-Fi, so we opted to turn off the satellite service.
Since we got back on the road this spring, we have been able to make do with a combination of Wi-Fi and our Verizon phone "tethered." So, we are using Verizon for an Internet connection, but we don’t have a data card. The cell phone cannot connect at the highest EVDO speed -- Rev A -- but we do get Rev 0.
We’re getting by with the combination of Wi-Fi and tethered cell phone, but we do miss our satellite Internet. We find that some of our itinerary is based on knowing where there is good Wi-Fi, or a good Verizon signal. When our dish was active we could go wherever we wanted.
This technology is a fast-moving field. There is plenty of recent news:
1. Verizon’s price for overages has been lowered from 25 cents/Mg to 5 cents/Mg.
2. Verizon’s price for tethered cell phone Internet access has lowered from $59/month to $49/month.
3. Verizon has introduced a data card/router combination device called the Mi-Fi.
4. Walkinghotspot.com is a software solution that turns your SmartPhone into a Wi-Fi hotspot with unlimited broadband access. It’s not available for Verizon phones. Pretty magicial stuff.