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High-speed Internet for motorhome travel Print E-mail

By Chris Guld
FMC magazine, March 2008 

So you want to hit the road but can’t imagine being without your DSL or cable for high-speed Internet access. If only you could have all your Internet-based computer resources with you, you could go anywhere and stay away indefinitely, right?

You can take it with you!

With a high-speed Internet connection, you can travel wherever you want and still be in communication via e-mail, photos, and even videos. Your travels can be shared with all your family and friends by using online photo albums and travel journals. You can do your banking online and manage your mail-forwarding addresses using Web-based services.

Many of us now do our jobs while on the road, thanks to the Internet. My husband and I have been computer support professionals since the early 1980s. In 2003 we sold our home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and took to the road. We knew we needed an Internet connection, so we equipped our motorhome with a two-way Internet satellite dish. My clients hardly even knew I was gone! We love our satellite dish, but it’s not the only way to connect while traveling.

Three types of Internet connections on the road

You can’t take your DSL or cable connection with you — they require a wire. And wires won’t stretch to the end of your driveway, let alone to the next state or the other side of the country. So, the connection has to be wireless. There are three different wireless technologies to which you can connect:

1. Satellite: Connect to a satellite 22,300 miles away.
2. Cellular: Connect to cellular providers’ towers up to 30 miles away.
3. Wi-Fi: Connect to a wireless network, also known as a “hot spot,” up to 300 feet away.

Satellite

We chose the satellite option, because we wanted to be able to camp in wilderness parks and still be able to conduct our business on the Internet. As long as we have a clear view of the southern sky, we can connect. We spent nearly $6,000 to purchase and install the equipment — an automatic, roof-mounted satellite dish called the Datastorm. We justified it by saying, “With it, we have a business; without it, we don’t.” When we thought of it as a business investment, $6,000 didn’t seem like much at all. The monthly service fee is $80.

A less expensive satellite option is a manually pointed, tripod-mounted dish. The equipment ranges from $700 to $1,500, with monthly service running about $60. It takes around a half hour to set up each time you park, as opposed to pushing a button for the automatic type. Plus, you need space to store the dish and tripod when you travel.

Cellular

Cellular is becoming more popular, and from a cost perspective, it is the middle choice. The initial equipment cost is negligible. Prices for the data card you need can be as little as $50 or as high as $250. Sometimes the data card is included in the price of your computer or as part of a promotion. You need a contract with a cellular provider such as Verizon or Sprint — typically, it’s a two-year commitment at approximately $60 per month.

In the past year, cellular data-card technology has come a long way. We talk with many travelers who love their data cards. As with standard cellular voice service, coverage area is important. Some areas may be best covered by Sprint, some by Alltel, but on average, we hear the best reports from Verizon customers. All providers have areas with no service.

You also need to know that, just because you can connect, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll have high speed. When you use a data card, you connect through your service provider’s nearest cell tower. These providers continually upgrade equipment on older towers and add new cell towers with even faster data service, called EVDO (an acronym for "Evolution Data Only" or "Evolution Data Optimized"). So, your location makes a big difference in your ability to connect, and at what speed.

You also need to understand your cellular provider’s terms of service (TOS). The phone and the data card are two different charges, even if they’re posted on the same bill. Our friends Greg and Marilyn Gundy traveled to Alaska this summer (see their fun and informative blog at http://www.gundyville.blogspot.com) and used a Verizon data card as their primary method of Internet access. Here are Greg’s comments:

"RE: Alaska: Verizon works almost everywhere — everywhere, that is, where any other cell phone works, and some places where others won't. Many if not most of the campgrounds have Wi-Fi — some terrible ones, some good ones, a few great ones; most are free, some are pay-go, and a few are a combo that require 'signing in' once per hour to stay hooked up. The PC card works nearly everywhere the phone does, but at times it is just too slow to be worthwhile. The PC card in Canada, even when it works (and it often does) incurs an additional charge on the bill — even with the North American plan; the phone works in Canada without additional charge."

Wi-Fi

Many RV parks offer Wi-Fi, the most popular option. Most RV park directories will indicate when Wi-Fi is available. You also can find Wi-Fi in libraries and many coffee shops. Wi-Fi covers a small area known as a "hot spot." Whereas a cell tower covers approximately 30 miles (radius), a Wi-Fi hot spot’s access point covers only 100 to 300 feet. Wi-Fi originally was developed for home and small office networks. To make it work in an RV park, the original technology is stretched by adding more power and multiple access points.

It’s very easy for an RV park to add Wi-Fi to the office/clubhouse. All that’s needed is one access point/router on the Internet connection that serves the office. Then anyone willing to bring his or her laptop to the clubhouse has access. (Making Wi-Fi available to all the RV sites is much more difficult.)

The equipment needed on your computer to use Wi-Fi is inexpensive. Most laptops built within the past two years have a Wi-Fi adapter built in. If your computer doesn’t have one built in, or it doesn’t work at a given location, you can purchase an external USB-type adapter for about $40 to $100.

The primary reason that Wi-Fi is the most widely used Internet access technology on the road is that there is no contract involved. You pay only for what you use, as you use it, for example, $4 per day; $18 per week; $30 per month. Many hot spots offer the service for free, especially the ones where it’s only available in the clubhouse or office.

Which is right for you?

How you use the Internet determines which technology — satellite, cellular, or Wi-Fi — is the most suitable for you and your situation.

Our friends Andy and Diane Thomas hit the road about the same time we did, but they weren’t planning to work. They had just sold their business and were going to use that money to take a year off and see the country. They wanted the Internet, but it wasn’t critical for them to have access to it every day. They found many campgrounds with Wi-Fi hot spots where they could connect to the Internet.

When their campground didn’t provide Wi-Fi, they would drive to a local library and connect. Most libraries have some kind of high-speed (broadband) Internet connection. If they had to do without Internet for a few days, it was no big deal. So, Wi-Fi was great. They paid $3 to $4 a day when they used it, and many parks offered it for free. If they had to carry their laptop to the clubhouse to use the Wi-Fi, they didn’t mind. In fact, they often met interesting people that way.

One year of vacation turned into a desire to stay on the road for a portion of every year. Their goal is to visit all the national parks in the United States. I love visiting their Weblog (www.dianeandy.blogspot.com) and seeing all the gorgeous places they’ve been. They still have a lot of parks left to see, and they can no longer justify an indefinite “vacation.” So, they learned how to conduct online stock trading.

The second time Andy and Diane went on the road, they called ahead to be sure each campground offered Wi-Fi. Regardless of their careful questions, they didn’t always have an Internet connection when needed. They learned to ask more questions. Instead of simply asking, “Do you have Wi-Fi?” they would also ask, “Is it working?” and “Can we get it at our site?” They weren’t having as much fun this time around.

Before heading out the third time, they gathered their pennies — lots of them — and had a satellite dish installed on their motorhome. Now they don’t have to call ahead at all! They don’t need the park’s Wi-Fi, because they have their own Internet. They can even go to the out-of-the-way national parks and work while there. They may not have phone service or electricity, but they have Internet! Read this entry from their blog:

“We don't have cell service, but we do have Internet. Gosh, we love this satellite dish! In both Kings Canyon and in Sequoia national parks we had sites that had enough space through the trees to allow for a connection. Since we have no electric hookups, we've turned the generator on to raise the dish, we leave it up, and connect whenever we turn the generator on. It's nice to have e-mail access since we don't have cell service. At least we can communicate this way.”

Even with the satellite dish, there came a point when the honeymoon ended. In stock trading, 10 minutes can be an eternity. I might say that our satellite Internet connection has worked flawlessly for four years, but I do plenty of work on my computer that doesn’t require the Internet. I might not even notice a 10-minute outage, but with stock traders, that 10 minutes can make or break their day!

And it happens.

Diane and Andy also went through a period of technical difficulties. After all, satellites really are rocket science! There’s a lot that can go wrong, and they had a period of a few weeks with on/off service. During that time, they tried once again to find RV parks with good Wi-Fi.

My bet is that when they head out the next time, they’ll also have a data card with cellular Internet service. If you absolutely, positively must have Internet access, you need to use all three methods.

Go ahead! Get away and stay connected

The good news is that RVers now have several choices for obtaining high-speed Internet on the road, and they all work pretty well.

The bad news is that RVers now have several choices for obtaining high-speed Internet on the road, and not one works everywhere all the time.

In summary, the three methods for obtaining high-speed Internet on the road are Wi-Fi, cellular, and satellite.

1. If you absolutely, positively need the Internet at all times, you’ll need all three.
2. If you’re a casual Internet user, Wi-Fi should meet your needs just fine.
3. If your needs are somewhere in the middle, and you’re willing to commit to a two-year contract, cellular is a smart choice. Wi-Fi can be your backup when you’re in an area with no cell phone service.


Wi-Fi FAQs

Since Wi-Fi is used by the most people, it generates the most questions:

How fast is Wi-Fi?

It depends. Usually Wi-Fi is very fast, but it depends on the source of the Internet connection. An airport in a major metropolitan area may use a dedicated T1 line, making it blazing fast. In an RV park in the mountains, it might be a standard satellite dish sharing on the Wi-Fi network, which will be pretty slow. It also depends on how many people are using it and what they’re doing. Wi-Fi is a shared system.

Do I need an Internet service provider (ISP) in order to use Wi-Fi?

No. When you’re at a Wi-Fi hot spot, you are sharing the Internet service at that location. You only need an ISP (e.g. AOL, Earthlink, or Netzero) if you’re going to use dial-up.

My laptop has built-in Wi-Fi capability. Will that work?

Maybe. First of all, make sure the internal Wi-Fi is turned on. On some laptops you need to press a button or a key combination to turn it on. If you are close enough to an access point (the antennas that send the Internet signal out), it should work fine. If you are a distance from the access point, have obstructions in the way, or are at a bad angle, it may not work. Internal Wi-Fi adapters (and cards) are intended for small indoor installations. For good connections in an RV park, you need more power for the distance, and you need to be able to point your antenna toward the access point antenna. It’s a two-way radio; the signal needs to get to you, and you need to be able to send your signal back. Line of sight is critical. Sometimes simply moving your adapter/computer to the other side of your coach makes a big difference.

Can I buy a better adapter to achieve a stronger connection?

Yes! We recommend the USB-type adapters for the RV park environment, mainly because they are on a wire and can be positioned for the best connection (remember those old “rabbit ears”?). Costs range from $30 to $200. Ask for a USB 802.11 (b or g) Wi-Fi adapter. When you use a USB adapter, you should turn off the internal one.

Is it safe to do online banking using a Wi-Fi Internet connection?

Yes, if your computer is up-to-date with the latest operating system files and antivirus and antispyware programs. Wi-Fi is no less safe than any other method of connecting to the Internet. Your computer’s safety is your responsibility.

Bank Web sites are secure no matter how you’re connected to the Internet. They provide security (encryption), which is enabled from your computer, through the wireless network, through the public Internet to the bank’s Web site — and back. You’ll see a lock as well as the https: in the address bar. So, even if a hacker were able to capture your wireless transmission, he or she wouldn’t be able to decipher it.

That said, never send financial or other private information in an e-mail.

Can someone else on the same Wi-Fi hot spot access files on my computer?

It is possible; unlikely, but possible. A Wi-Fi hot spot is a network, and networks provide methods to share files among different computers. If you turn off file and printer sharing, it becomes impossible for anyone to access your computer. In Windows XP you do this by: Start/Control Panel/Network Connections. Right-click on your wireless connection, choose Properties, and uncheck File and Printer Sharing. Windows Vista handles this automatically by selecting a public hot spot.

Why do I get a better connection in the middle of the night?

Radio frequency interference can be a problem. Wi-Fi is 2.4 gigahertz — the same as microwaves. When everyone is cooking dinner, it can be harder to maintain a Wi-Fi connection. Those 2.4-Ghz cordless phones also can interfere.

It’s a lot like AM radio that can receive signals from a station three states away when the radio waves are quiet at night.


Chris Guld, and her husband, Jim, are self-proclaimed “Geeks on Tour” (www.GeeksonTour.com). They travel the country in their motorhome and offer computer education for travelers at rallies and RV parks.

 
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