Internet Access on the Road

graphic of the Internet

graphic of the Internet

Now that so many RVers have become addicted to email, surfing the Web, and, for many, doing their banking and bill paying on-line, having Internet access while they are on the road is a necessity.

Accessing the Internet has now graduated through several ever-increasing technological levels. The enterprising RVer now has several choices of how and when to gain access to the Internet.

Local Library. Traveling RVers all over the country take a side trip to the local library, usually about once a week or more often, to use the computer facilities and Internet connectivity of the library to check their email and send replies. Many libraries frown on users surfing the Internet, but many allow the practice for a short period of time.

In most libraries, the use of the Internet is free, but for a predetermined time, usually about 15 or 30 minutes. There are still some libraries that feel the need to charge as much as $2 for a 30-minute session on the Internet.

The main difficulty in using the local library is wait time. Nowadays, kids are doing their homework assignments on the Internet, and there is often a waiting line for access to a computer. If you are in a heavily populated Snow Bird area (such as Yuma, AZ, during the Winter months), you will almost always find a waiting line of RVers waiting their turn for a computer.

Internet Cafe or Coffee House. Internet Cafes or Coffee Houses are another alternative for gaining access to the Internet. Many of the Internet Cafes have computers (and Internet access) that is available for an hourly fee—sometimes reasonably priced, and sometimes not.

Many of these same businesses also offer a wifi hotspot—where you can use your own computer (if it has wifi capability) to access the Internet. There is usually a charge for this connectivity, with time periods usually a half or full hour at a time.

Telephone Modem Connection. For many RVers, their customary means of accessing the Internet is to use their computer (with its built-in telephone modem). Most RV parks these days provide one or more modem connections somewhere in the park—in the office, club house, or laundry.

The biggest drawback to this means of accessing the Internet is that there are usually only one or two modem jacks, and a far larger bunch of RVers eager to check their email. The best time, for many folks, is after 10 PM when many of the folks have retired for the night.

Be sure to have your own telephone cable for connecting your compuer to the modem. These cables can readily be found in most home improvement stores, electronic stores, and even in Dollar stores. Usually there are several of these cables lying around, unused, in everyones' house, so just remember to add one to your computer "stuff." (For the technies, the telephone cable has male RJ-11 connectors on each end.)

Ethernet Connection. Many of the "slightly more advanced" RV parks provide an Ethernet connection for the use of park guests. An Ethernet connection is usually far faster than a modem connection (but that is not always the case). Most fairly recent computers have a built-in Ethernet port—it looks like a somewhat fatter telephone modem port, usually located on the back of the computer.

These Ethernet connections are almost always in the office, but can sometimes be found in the clubhouse.

For many computer users, the use of an Ethernet port, and how to set up their computer to use it, is totally foreign. Usually, you can find a computer-savy RVer who can show you how to set up your computer—just a bunch of button pushing on the keyboard in some unfamiliar display windows.

If you are going to be using an Ethernet port to access the Internet (when it is available), you will usually need to supply your own Ethernet cable—a six-foot cable with RJ-45 Ethernet plugs on each end will work nicely. These cables are readily available at electronic stores and computer stores. (I have found very few Ethernet connections in RV parks that provide a cable for you to plug directly into your computer.)

Cell Phone with Compatible Modem. Now that most RVers seem to have a cell phone hanging on their hip (or plastered to their ear), cell phones have become yet another means for connecting your computer to the Internet. Several cell phones, but definitiely not all, have a companion modem that can be used with that particular cell phone.

The modem is built into a small cable where one end plugs into your cell phone and the other end plugs into one of the USB ports on your computer. Special software is needed (that comes with the modem) to get your computer and cell phone talking together.

Using a cell phone to access the Internet is just about the same as using your regular telephone modem—you need to know an access number for your Internet Service Provider (ISP) like you most likely have at home. (For those folks who have cell phone accounts with no long distance and no roaming charges, it is a simple matter to always dial the same number that they use at home.) Otherwise, your only hassle with this method is looking up (before you leave) what the proper ISP access number is going to be at your next stop.

One major drawback to using your cell phone for Internet connectivity is that the connection speed is usually limited to only 14.4 Kbps (about half of what you might have at home, even with a slow connection). This speed is adequate for receiving and sending "most" emails, but if you are unfortunate enough to have some "friend" forward a large picture or video file (often more than 1 Mb in length), you will be irately cussing the slow speed—and your friend!

With a cell phone connection to the Internet, you will find that it is adequate for sending and receiving emails (without large attachments), but you will soon discover that trying to surf the Web is almost impossible. Most Web sites seem predisposed to having lots of fancy graphics and pictures on their home pages—sometimes taking more than five minutes to download with a cell phone connection!

There are some cell phone providers that will be more than happy to add a "data" package charge to your monthly cell phone bill. For some folks, this extra charge is well worth it, since the data rates with a "data" package are far higher—giving you enough speed to adequately surf the Internet.

Air Card. Some enterprising RVers have eagerly embraced the ever-changing cell phone technology evolution—and are enjoying ever-faster connection speeds.

The latest wrinkle is to use an Air Card (e.g, from Sprint or Verizon) to take advantage of the latest digital data technology.

An Air Card is, essentially, cell phone electronics (but faster speed) packaged into a card that fits into your laptop—providing your laptop with an always-on Internet connection (as long as you are in a digital data coverage area), but at higher digital data rates than a regular cell phone connection.

Air Cards come in three distinct flavors:

The price of an Air Card is fairly reasonable, but the cell phone companies charge you a rather hefty monthly connect charge.

One enterprising RV friend has even set up a system in his motorhome where his Air Card is plugged into a wifi router—effectively giving him anytime wifi Internet access, as long as he is in or near his motorhome.

So that I don't steal his thunder, here is a link to Norm Payne's web site where he describes, in detail, his Air Card and Wifi Router setup.

I applaud Norm's implementation of a nifty system —and, yes, I am jealous.

Our Latest Internet Setup. Linda and Mike finally joined the tech-savy group of RVers after watching the cell phone and Internet industries expand at a phenominal rate—providing more and more capability in more and more locations.

Somewhere back in time (maybe 2009 or so), we decided that we were too ham-strung trying to use a tethered cell phone to access the Internet for our emails. Even though the price of an air card was fairly reasonable, the price of the monthly data service seemed rather steep.

However, mild mannered Linda got so tired of Mike's grousing about slow or no connections, that she finally decided to do something about it. She bought Mike a Verizon air card for a Fathers' Day present. Wisely, Linda left it up to Mike to make the monthly data plan payments to Verizon!

Having a much more reliable source of Internet (except when way out in the boonies), both Linda and Mike were much more happy campers. However, the easy access to Internet connectivity soon caused a different sort of rift between the two RVers—only one person could use the Internet at a time, since the air card had to be moved from one laptop computer to the other!

That problem was solved by purchasing a Cradlepoint CTR500 wifi router. When the air card is plugged into the router, both of our laptops are then able to access the Internet at the same time via the wifi capability in each laptop. Peace and tranquility once again descended on the Backroad Travelers!

Isn't it interesting, though, how one thing always seems to lead to another? Now that both Linda and Mike had ready access to the Internet via the router and air card, their next point of contention was the hassle of picking up their laptop computer, walking over to where the printer was located, and then plugging the printer into the latop in order to finally be able to print a page from their computer.

Being the ever resourceful individuals that they are, the answer to their printing problem was to purchase an HP Wireless Print Server. This device connects directly to the printer, but it receives the printer instructions via the local wifi coverage provided by the CTR500 router. Now, Linda and Mike can stay seated wherever they are using their laptop computers, and easily send a file to the HP 1600 printer that stays in the motorhome—without having to get up and walk over to the printer. Now, we have a very workable and convenient system of accessing the Internet and using our computers without a lot of irritation.

After getting used to this configuration for awhile, Linda decided that she would bring her Mac mini along on our RV adventures. The flat screen display, the wireless keyboard, and the wireless mouse stay in the motorhome&mdash and Linda only has to drag the Mac mini in and out of the house along with the laptop computers.

While we are in the motorhome and the air card is plugged into the router, Linda also enjoys the accessibility of being able to use our Internet access for both her iPhone and especially for her iPad (even while she is sitting outside enjoying a sunny afternoon).

We have become so comfortable with this arrangement of Internet access, computer operation, and easy printing access, that we can't imagine how we ever got along without all of our new computer-related toys.

Wifi Hot Spot. If you are fortunate enough to have a fairly new computer, it most likely has wifi capability already built into it. For those less fortunate individuals, if your computer has at least one USB port, then you can easily add a USB wifi adapter purchased from an electronic store or a computer store.

With wifi capability, you have a larger selection of places where you can find Internet connectivity. More and more coffee houses, restaurants, truck stops, and other such places, are adding wifi capability to draw you in as a customer. The disappointment with this method, however, is that most of the places want to charge for their wifi connectivity—but there are many places that do not.

The frustration, for us cheapskates, comes in trying to find a wifi spot that will not cost us anything to connect to the Internet. Sometimes parking next to one of the larger electronic stores or a coffee house will yield an "open" wifi connection to the Internet. (I still chuckle about one time in Quartzsite where a friend would take his laptop, jump in his toad, and drive around the desert trying to find someone who had an "open" Internet connection, so that he could update his web site. Sometimes his search would take more than an hour, and sometimes he would be skunked.)

Wifi at RV Park Office. More and more RV parks are now advertising "wifi" as an inducement for you to stay at that park. However, like many other businesses, many of the RV parks want to charge you as much as $6/day or $25/week for the privilege of using their wifi connectivity. It is refreshing to see, however, that more and more "with it" RV parks are providing free wifi.

In many parks, the "free" wifi is only available near the office or in the club house, since they only added a wireless router to their office computer equipment. One of the problems with this type of connectivity, is that the connectivity usually severely slows down or disappears when the office staff needs the Internet. However, for those of who enjoy, yeah almost crave, Internet connctivity, walking or driving down to the office or clubhouse is not an onerous task.

Wifi from your RV. Ah, yes, now we are getting to what most RVers would love to have—at every place they stay. To many of us, our smiles broaden quickly when we find that an RV park has wifi throughout the park.

But, alas, all is not quite as it seems. Some of these parks want to recoup their investment in Internet equipment and, thus, deem it OK to charge us for the privilege of using the Internet. Some parks provide wifi throughout the park, but it is via a third-party vendor who expects to make some money. For some of the larger RV parks, providing wifi connectivity throughout the park takes quite a bit of electronic equipment, antennas, and cabling that does not come cheaply.

However, as time marches on and technology gets faster and less expensive, more and more RV parks are offering "free" wifi throughout their park. (Hooray, finally, yipee, big grin!) As I write this, I am in a faily large RV park that provides free wifi throughout their park. They have five different access points for their different areas. As with many wifi connections, however, sometimes the connectivity is solid and fairly fast; whereas other times, the connectivity seems to disappear for a few minutes before it mysteriously reappears. Yes, the outages are an irritation, but it sure is nice to be able to sit anywhere in the motorhome or out at the picnic table under a shade tree and a cooling breeze while emailing or surfing the Web. Yes, folks, this scenario is definitiely addicting—and I love it!

Satellite Internet. At the top of the wifi pecking order are those fortunate folks, usually Full Timers, who have invested in a satellite internet system (either portable or on their RV rooftop).

pic of Direcway portable satellite dish

pic of Datastorm automatic satellite dish

The portable (manual) satellite internet systems are far cheaper than the roof-top (automatic) satellite internet systems. It is possible to get a portable satellite internet system for less than $2,000. However, the setup time can sometimes take as long as 20 minutes—but for the RVer who is going to be parked in the same place for a couple of weeks, this time is infinitesimal compared to the many hours of enjoyment to be received from constant-on Internet in the hominess of their own RV.

The more fancy automatic roof-top satellite systems are the true Cadillac of wifi (some costing as much as $5,000). The satellite antenna is mounted to the roof of your RV and folds down almost flat while you are on the road. When you arrive at your next stopping over place (and you have avoided any close-by trees along the southeastern horizon, setting up your satellite antenna is a breeze. Almost as if by magic, your roof-top antenna will rise to the working position, go to the proper elevation, and search and lock-onto the correct satellite for Internet access. Viola—in less than two minutes, you are ready to play.

Once you have a satellite internet system, you pay a monthly access fee of somewhere between $60 and $80/month. For many RV folks, however, this is a small price to pay for the ability to have Internet access, just about regardless of where they are (in the United States).

Depending on when you sign up for satellite internet access, you might be "assigned" to one of many different satellite "birds" orbiting the equator. You need to know the areas of the country that you frequent, since not all satellites have the same footprint (where you can see them with a strong-enough signal to be useful). There are some satellites that have a footprint that extends a short way into Canada and also into Mexico.

If your potential "assigned" satellite does not have the coverage that you desire (you can look at a coverage map before you are assigned), talk to your satellite internet system provider and ask him or her to assign you to a satellite that has the desired footprint—not always an easy task to accomplish, but most experienced satellite system folks know the ins and outs of getting what you desire.

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