Wifi Wireless Internet Access

Getting online - on the road

It doesn't seem like all that long ago.  I started publishing Two-Lane Roads magazine in 1991, but it was somewhere around 1996 when I began web-publishing; and finding it a real challenge to upload stories and photos to my website while on the go in an RV with my RV Parts mods. In those early years, I traveled with only a desktop computer; no laptop.  I would get all excited seeing a campground listing that promised, "phone hookups", only to find that the campground was wired for phones, for the convenience of the seasonal guests.  With a week's notice, one could get the phone company to activate the phone line, and keep it live for 6 months.  "Not really what I was looking for; I only plan on being here a day or two."  Sometimes the campground office would have a phone jack for campers to use, but only if they had a laptop.   And even then, you would be limited to a few moments, just to receive or send emails.  Even when I finally bought a laptop, I found I really didn't enjoy working online in the campground office or laundry room, with other campers waiting to use the phone jack.

Desperate to be able to upload content for my website, I tried an acoustic coupler which could be temporarily mated to the handset of a pay phone.  It did work, but only with a great deal of perseverance.  I would always find a place to park with at least two pay phones, so the other phone would be available for other people. Even so, I would almost always be interrupted by someone who needed the second pay phone right away.  I also got some evil looks from people who must have suspected I was really up to something terribly sinister, with a phone line running from my RV into a pay phone. 

Another issue I had, "way back there" in the 1990s.  We had cell phones, but they didn't always get a signal way out there in the remote campgrounds; plus we had to pay big bucks each day for "roaming", plus long distance fees.  Several times a week, I would like to phone Mom, or one of my sisters, from the pay phone, somewhere in the campground.  I'd be standing, for an hour or so, swatting mosquitoes; while other impatient campers waited for the phone. 

Wow, am I happy to see those days behind me!    

Thank goodness, cell phone rates came down, roaming fees went away, along with toll fees.   Every call nationwide is a local call, for a reasonable monthly fee.  Imagine, I can now sit in my RV, mosquitoes on the outside of the window screens, and chat with Mom as long as I wish, while sipping on a cold beverage.   


Today, if you only need to send / receive email, and a bit of web surfing, you can do all that today with a hand held device such as a Blackberry. 

But what if you still feel the need to use the computer while on the road?   Today there are way more options for connecting the computer online, too.  There are easy ways to get online on the road, and there are harder ways. If you have a laptop computer, you will have more options, but even if you have a desktop computer, it can be done. Let’s begin with the really convenient ways, and work our way down to the less convenient.

The latest and easiest connection is Wi-Fi - a wireless broadband connection 10-20 times faster than dialup.  Most new notebook computers are ready for wireless high-speed Internet access (Wi-Fi), or you can add a transmitter to the USB port of any computer.   A growing number of RV parks are adding the Wi-Fi equipment.  Most are in private campgrounds, but today, even state parks offer Wi-Fi  in some of their parks.  

State parks with Wi-Fi -- news article in USA Today, at least 28 states now have Wi-Fi in at least one state park; and several states have half their parks set up.
Some parks will offer the service free; others will require a subscription to one of several services.  You can pay for one night, or a month, or longer, at rates which are probably less than you would pay for DSL.  

Do you see a problem here?  Too many providers.  If you move from park to park, you may want to pay by the day, as the next park may be on a different system.

Broadband wireless from Verizon Wireless

What if you prefer to stay in parks which do not offer Wi-Fi?  I have been using Verizon Broadband wireless.  Service areas are generally in urban areas where Verizon digital is available.  You need to buy an "aircard" which inserts in the pc slot in a notebook computer.  The speed is not as fast as DSL, but it is much faster than dialup.  I have found the service to be extremely reliable.  Plans vary from about $40 to about $60 / month depending on use, plus equipment purchase and start up fee.

The wired RV park
A few years ago, RV manufacturers began to pre-wire the rig for a telephone; but just about the time some RV park owners began wiring their campsites with "always on" phone jacks, Wi-Fi became more popular.  Today it makes way more sense for the park owner to provide Wi-Fi than to wire the campground with phone jacks.  And while it might be handy to have a wired phone in your coach, what RVer doesn't have a cell phone today?   If you do want to connect your computer modem to a dial-up , select a campground near a major city, where your ISP is more likely to have a local access number.

Phone jacks elsewhere in the campground
Many RV parks will provide a phone jack and desk in the office, game room, or laundry room for your laptop computer.  Not quite as private as in your own rig, but there is no charge for this, and the number of campgrounds providing this service will far outnumber those with jacks at the sites.

But what if you can’t find a campground with phone jacks, or what if you simply have this rule, where you will not stay in a commercial campground? Well, there are many other places where you can plug in to a phone jack, IF you have a portable laptop computer. We’ll continue on with this discussion in a few paragraphs, but first, let’s talk about wireless solutions.

Cellular phone modems
You may not need to buy an air card, as many new cell phones are able to double as a wireless modem, with a connect kit.  Just a few years ago, if you had a cellular phone and you were traveling outside of your local area, you’d incur “roaming charges” of perhaps $2 per day plus $1 per minute. Pretty expensive for web surfing! But today there are some pretty attractive cellular deals available. Including some one-rate plans, with no roaming charges, no long-distance charges, just a flat charge per month.

Every call you make, anywhere in the USA, is a local call. Lots of folks discontinue their land line phone service, and you never need to use a pay telephone again.

And yes, it is possible to get online with a cellular phone.  Once configured, your computer dials the cell phone to connect with your existing ISP; once connected you get email and surf the web just as you would with a land line. Speed is much slower than a land line - about 14,400.

You will need to find a cellular provider with "digital" capabilities, and you'll need to be located in a "digital" region in order to get online (your cell phone will indicate when you are.) You will most likely find "digital" regions in populated areas near major cities. Mind you, the same cell phone can make and send calls nearly everywhere, as it will switch from digital to analog mode as needed, but the computer interface will only work when you are in a digital region. Sprint calls their digital area "PCS," Verizon calls theirs "CDMA."

iGo.com - mobile technology outfitter. Here you will find advice and products. Click on “Advice and tips.” Or click on other categories to buy products like batteries for laptops and cell phones, wireless modems, GPS devices.

Pocketmail combines a PDA with an accoustic coupler, and may be a good choice if you need to send and receive e-mail often, but you rarely or never need to surf the web. First you buy a Pocketmail handheld (about $99) then sign up for the $15/ month Pocketmail e-mail service. You will be assigned a Pocketmail e-mail address. Your Pocketmail PDA will have a built-in acoustic coupler. Mate the coupler with the handset of any telephone, pay phone, or cell phone, and dial the toll-free Poketmail number. The access number is toll-free anywhere in the USA; from all other countries you still have access but you would need to pay for a long-distance call. If someone sends you an email with an attachment, such as a photo, your PDA will not display it, but you can save it at the Pocketmail computer and access it the next time you have access to the Web from a real computer.

Satellite dish
Many RVers own a small RV satellite dish system. Just imagine, you could be a thousand miles from the nearest TV station, and still receive a couple of hundred channels, with digital picture quality and stereo sound. Wouldn’t this be great?

And, in late 1999, the government cleared the way for DirecTV and Dish Network to broadcast local channels in major cities across the USA. So if you sign up in (for example) Miami, where the affiliates of NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX are all broadcast on DirecTV, you should be able to receive these 4 local stations on your satellite dish no matter where you are parked. On the other hand, if your billing address is outside of any local viewing area, you may be eligible to pick up the network feeds off the satellite.

You may have noticed that many RVers, rather than mounting the satellite dish on their roof, place their dish on a tripod located some distance from the rig. Why? Because they might be assigned a campsite under the trees, but the satellite dish requires a unobstructed view of the southern skies. Camping World sells a tripod for this purpose; it even includes a level and compass to help in aiming the dish toward the satellite.

Speakeasy.  Test the bandwidth of your Internet connection. At the end of the test you'll see just how fast your computer and modem are, compared with other solutions.

Two-way satellite.

There are at least 3 companies offering broadband internet by two-way satellite.   These systems were designed for people and businesses which are not serviced by cable or DSL.  Because the dish receives AND sends signals from/to a satellite some 22,000 miles over the Equator, aiming the dish (and holding it steady once it is aimed) is far more precise than your typical TV-only satellite.  For this reason, all three will tell you their systems are not intended for marine or RV use. 
That said, one company, Motosat, has developed a roof-mounted satellite which automatically seeks and finds the satellite using GPS, and (if there are no trees in the way) can find the satellite in about 10 minutes.  And their system can be certified by HughesNet.  Very expensive, about $6,000 installed.

Now, there are other people who will sell you the same Hughes satellite and modem, along with a sturdy tripod and 60-page instruction book telling how to aim it.  Sure, it takes a bit of patience to aim it.  On the other hand, you do have the freedom of parking the RV under a big shady oak tree, and setting the dish out in a clearing.    I know of RVers who are very happy with this setup.  And I know of RVers who predict a novice will one day damage the satellite due to mis-aiming.    Should make for interesting campfire chatter.  

Motosat Datastorm - roof-mounted satellite, electronically locates satellite in about 10 minutes, provides 2-way broadband internet using the Hughes satellite (formerly DirecWay).  Service costs about $60 / month or more for faster speeds.   Service available just about anywhere in US or southern Canada, provided satellite has a clear view of southern sky.  Locate a dealer / installer. 

Maxwell Satellite - info about HughesNet (formerly DirecWay)  portable two-way broadband Internet connection by satellite. This company sells everything you need to get a tripod-based satellite dish, for around $1,600 plus about $60 / month or more for faster speeds.  Again, will work just about anywhere in US or southern Canada, provided satellite has a clear view of southern sky. 

Seems like the same satellite dish should be able to pick up TV signals from a satellite.   Not the case.  If you want satellite TV on the go, you will need a second dish, and another bill..

Other places to hook up your laptop
Meanwhile, if you have a laptop, here are some additional places to get online.

Flying J Truck Stops
When I say truck stop, are you picturing a greasy spoon restaurant? Well, erase that image! The Utah-based chain of Flying J Truck Stops are clean, and their family restaurants serve food the entire family will enjoy. But the best part is that many of their restaurants will loan you a telephone to use while you wait for your dinner. Some of the booths have wired telephones, or they will loan you a cordless phone. You can make free local calls or toll-free calls. And their restaurants even have tables with phone jacks, so you can plug in your laptop computer and surf the Web while you eat. Now, even if you don’t own a computer, wouldn’t it be a whole lot more comfortable to phone friends & family while sitting in a restaurant, rather than while standing in the campground in the rain?

While talking about Flying J, also look at the Flying J RV (Real Value) card.  This free card offers at least 1 cent per gallon discount on gasoline, diesel, or propane; even more on depending on monthly purchase total.

Mail Boxes Etc.
Since they also handle mail forwarding, RVers and people on the road may already be aware of this firm. Copies, FAX service, and phone jacks at some locations in USA, Canada, and many other countries.

Office supply stores
Each of these big office supply store chains operate business centers (services similar to those offered at Kinko’s) in selected locations - but not in every one of their stores. In those stores where they provide business services, you may find a phone jack.

Let someone else provide the computer
Now, you see what I mean, when I say that folks with a laptop computer will have far more options than with a desktop computer? Another way to get online is to simply leave your desktop computer in your rig, and don’t even try to connect it to a phone line. Use someone else’s computer; at a cyber cafe, for example.

Cyber Cafes
Cyber cafes are particularly popular in university towns, but you’ll find them popping up all over. I was really surprised to find one in a historic drug store in old Saint Augustine, Florida. For the price of a sandwich or a cup of coffee, or sometimes for an hourly charge, you are provided a computer with Internet access.  If you are planning to send e-mail, compose it on your own computer first, then take along the disk. You might be paying for the public-access computer by the hour, or others may be waiting to use it, so if you are receiving mail, download it to your disk and take it back to your computer and read it; then come back to the public access computer with your answers on a disk and transmit your outgoing mail.
Here’s a list of thousands of cyber cafes worldwide, updated daily.

Public library
Just about every public library now has computers linked up with the Web, and most will allow visitors to use them, free or for a small fee.

Kiosks in shopping malls
I have even seen computer kiosks in K-Mart

Truck stop computer kiosks
Ever wonder how a truck driver keeps in touch with the dispatcher office? Well, in the olden days, he would phone the dispatcher several times a day, to see if the dispatcher had any news. Today, they keep in touch by email with computer kiosks in truck stops nationwide. The driver can check his email - messages from home, from friends, instructions from the dispatcher - at the kiosk. Each of these truckstop chains have internet kiosks - the only thing that's not real clear on their website- are they for truck drivers only, or in a public area?
Petro Truckstops

Your Uncle Fred’s house
It may be really obvious, or it just may be something you never would think about. If you are visiting friends or relatives, and you need to read your e-mail, you just may find that your Uncle Fred has a computer and access to the Internet. It may seem extremely rude, to visit a long-lost relative and then sit in isolation while you surf the Web. But I can think of times where this might work out very well. Like maybe your wife and her sister haven’t seen each other for years, but you and your brother-in-law are running out of things to talk about. Now the two men can surf the Web while the women catch up on years of gossip.

Free Web-based e-mail accounts

These are really popular with a lot of people. Many people have their own e-mail address at work, or at school. But not all employers, and not all school administrators, are willing to have you use that e-mail address for personal messages. There are now several free e-mail servers on the Internet.
Some of the more popular are Hotmail.com, and Yahoo.com.  A free Web-based e-mail account may also be a good idea for some RVers. Establishing an account with one of these is similar to signing up with AOL, except that they don’t need your credit card info, since the service is free. (Paid by advertisers who post banners on the site.) You choose a screen name and a password. As long as no one has reserved the screen name, you can have it. Now, you tell everyone that your new E-mail address is (for example) yourname@hotmail.com.    From this point forward, you can retrieve e-mail sent to that address, from any computer in the world with Internet access! (Note that this also permits you to change ISPs at will, without changing your address each time.)
From any computer with Internet access, you go to Hotmail.com, (or Yahoo.com) enter your e-mail address and password, and retrieve your mail. You can reply to the messages, or compose new e-mail, and set up address books, just as you would through your online service provider  Advertising banners will appear on all your messages, and mail retrieval will be MUCH slower than you are accustomed to. It is slow, as each message needs to be downloaded individually from the Internet, along with all the banner ads. Each e-mail message will take as long to download as a typical webpage. Set up the free account and experiment with it first, by sending yourself a bunch of messages and then reading them! 
And you should be able to have your e-mail automatically forwarded to your Hotmail or Yahoo Mail address. You can find instructions on this at the Hotmail or Yahoo sites.
Do you still need an ISP?
Perhaps you have figured this out: It is therefore possible to receive and send e-mail, and access the Internet, without even owning a computer! Why carry a computer along in the RV at all? Go to public libraries along the way, or pay a cyber cafe or Kinko’s a few bucks only when you need to get mail. Or look for RV resorts which provide a computer terminal and Web browsing software as part of their facilities. The Escapees RV Club offers this service at some of their member parks.  As long as you don’t mind the inconvenience of looking for a library or cyber cafe from time to time, you could eliminate the cost of a computer, and if you have the patience to use a web-based e-mail program like Hotmail, you can avoid the $19.95 in monthly fees for an ISP.    

Free voice mail
U Reach - Manage all your personal information from one place; send/receive emails, create an address book, manage your appointments, save files, create bookmarks and get notified of messages via email, pager or instant messaging (IM). It's free! Plus calling card plans as low as $5/ month plus about 8 cents per minute.

One Box offers most of the same.

Fax service
If you operate a business while on the road, you probably will need to give people a fax number.  How can you possibly receive a fax on the road, without a phone line, and without a fax machine?  Simple.  Sign up for service which will convert the incoming fax to PDF, and send it to your email address.  There are many such services, I have been using Packetel.  I get a private fax number, for $3.95 / month, unlimited number of incoming faxes.

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