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Wi-Fi is like a box of chocolates

By Chris Guld
Geeks on Tour    

Wi-Fi can be the best way for motorhome travelers to connect to the Internet. Here's why.

1. All current laptop computers can connect to Wi-Fi hotspots.
2. Wi-Fi hotspots are easy to find. Many RV parks, cafes, truck stops and libraries have Wi-Fi hotspots.
3. There’s no contract; it’s pay-as-you-go. Many hotspots are free.
4. Some Wi-Fi hotspots are extremely fast.

BUT …

“You never know what you’re gonna get.”

You may get a great Wi-Fi hotspot

One RV park may have multiple access points (the antennas/routers you connect to) and have a full T1 connection (a high-capacity, high-speed, direct line through the phone company) to the Internet. In such a park, you could be just about anywhere and get a good connection. When you do, it will be a nice and fast web-browsing experience because of the T1.

You may get a poor Wi-Fi Hotspot

Your next RV park may be using a residential-size satellite dish for its Internet connection and only have one access point/router. A residential-size satellite dish may be a good way for one person to connect to the Internet – but not for dozens of people to share. And the one access point means you need to be close to it – it may only work in the clubhouse.

You may even get a great hotspot that turns bad

Things can change or go wrong. For instance:

  • You may have a great connection – and then some large RV pulls in next to you and blocks your signal so you can’t connect to the hotspot.
  • Radio Frequency (RF) interference may limit your connection to the hotspot.
  • The hotspot may get its Internet connection from a local cable company, and the cable company has an outage. This happened to us once when a construction crew mistakenly cut the cable. In this case you’re still connected to the hotspot, but the “backhaul” connection to the Internet is non-existent, so you can’t browse.
  • You might even be at an RV park hotspot where your Internet usage is monitored and you exceed your limit and therefore get cut off.

No. 4 is fairly rare, but it has happened to us. We’d stayed at a series of RV parks with poor or non-existent Wi-Fi. We had to rely on our Verizon tethered phone connection and were approaching our monthly limit. Then, we pulled into a park where the Internet was screaming fast. We were so excited! We downloaded all of our updates, watched our favorite TV episodes and TED videos, and caught up on lots of work.

Then it died.

We were getting no better than dial-up speed. Only then did we notice the fine print on the login screen, “This service is designed for e-mail usage and web browsing; downloading large files or excessive use of bandwidth will result in automatic limitation of access.”

Although it was aggravating to be on the receiving end of that message, a hotspot that monitors bandwidth actually is a good thing, usually. We used to support Wi-Fi hotspots and know how one or two users can ruin it for everyone else.
If you really need the Internet …

The main lesson to be learned: If you really need the Internet, you need more than one way to connect as you travel. Wi-Fi can be great, but when it’s not, you need cellular or satellite. If you do use cellular or satellite, remember that Wi-Fi can be a good alternative when you’re in a bad cell area, or when there are too many trees for your satellite dish.

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