Internet access for the RVer
by Ned Reiter
Today, it seems that everybody needs internet access even when on the road. For the fulltime RVer, that means all the time. Whether we only need email and occasional web browsing, or 24 hour a day access to run a business, we all have similar needs. There are now more options for internet access than ever before. They vary in cost from free to expensive, with cost more or less inversely proportional to convenience.
This article won't discuss using regular telephone lines and modems for internet access as this has been done by RVers for over 10 years and there is really nothing new in this technology.
Here are the various options available in approximate order of increasing cost.
Free or almost free
Many commercial businesses and some campgrounds offer a WiFi connection to the internet at no cost. These are called hot spots. Some will charge a fee, either by the hour, the day, the week, or the month for internet access. These charges are typically in the area of $1-3/hour or $2-5 night, and are generally cheaper the longer the period. Most newer notebook computers have built in WiFi capabilities, so using these places costs only the access fees that they may charge. For desktop computers or older notebooks, USB adapters are available. These cost about $50-70. For email and light web browsing, this may be all a person needs.
Although WiFi is being installed in more campgrounds all the time, not all are installing commercial grade systems so coverage may be spotty in some of these. Service may available in only certain sites, or just around the office. Before paying for such a service, make sure you can use it from your site.
If you have a cell phone, check with your carrier for WiFi access in their service areas. T-Mobile (http://hotspot.t-mobile.com/) for instance has WiFi service available in some areas.
Some resources for locating hot spots are:
As these web sites may come and go, a search at Google for "hot spot" or "hot spot free" (without the quotes) will show lots of references.
It's quite common to see one or more wireless networks in range of your computer and some of those will be unsecured. Many of those will also be connected to the internet. Why not just use one of those? Although it may not be illegal (yet) to use such a connection without approval, it is inconsiderate. If you do see such an unsecured network, try to determine who owns it and let them know that their network is visible to anyone who looks and ask them if they intend to allow others to use their internet connection. They will either tell you to go ahead or, hopefully, thank you for letting them know they are open to the world. In either case, you have done the right thing by talking to them first.
For additional information on WiFi see this article in our library.
If you have a cell phone, it's a good bet that it's capable of accessing the internet. Some carriers let you access the internet using the phone like a modem by connecting it to your computer using a USB cable. Some services will allow access to the internet using just your plan minutes. Speeds will typically be faster than dialup, but slower than broadband. The use of such access is subject to change, especially if it's used for large amounts of data. If you really need to move lots of data, then consider a data plan.
All the cellular carriers offer data plans typically using a PC card. These plans offer 24 hour unlimited internet access and cost $60-80/month. Not all data services are available in all areas, so check the individual carriers web sites for coverage maps and plans.
One advantage of the cellular services is that they will work when you're in motion. WiFi and satellite require that you be stationary while online.
Some cellular providers:
We have RVs because they let us go just about anywhere we like, and not all of those places have cellular service or phone lines. If you really must have internet access regardless of where you go, then satellite is the answer. Equipment costs range from about $1500 for a tripod mounted antenna and associated equipment to $5000 or more for a roof mounted automatic pointin4>g antenna and equipment. Service plans cost from $60/month to $200+/month depending mostly on the speed. For most people, a minimum plan for $60/month (tripod system) or $70/month (automatic system) is adequate. These systems will work anywhere as long as you can see the southern sky. Tripod systems have an advantage in that you can park under the trees yet place the antenna where it can see the satellite while the automatic systems can be setup without going outside at all, a big advantage when it's pouring rain and you just have to get online.
DSL and cable internet
Many RVers spend several months in one place year after year. Many own lots in parks or have long term leases. If you have cable TV or telephone service available, then you may also be able to get internet access from the cable or telephone company. One important consideration is the capability to place the service on hold when you're not there. Not all companies will do that, but it's becoming more common, especially in the winter snowbird areas.
It's no longer IF we can get internet access while we travel, it's now a question of what is most convenient and what does it cost. If you're willing to drive around looking for free hot spots or limiting your camping to parks that have it, then WiFi is a good option, but if you want to sit in your RV and get online regardless of where you are, then one of the more expensive options are your choices. If you're going to run a business from the road, your choices are really limited to a cellular data plan or satellite. The choice here is dependent on your travel patterns.