Staying Connected on the Road: Internet Options for TravelersJanuary 17, 2011 No Comments
Anyone who is an adult today can remember when staying connected during a trip meant an occasional phone call to the office and postcards to friends and relatives. Today, however, we live in an always-on internet world. Disconnecting for a week or more can be impractical or simply impossible. While there is no magical solution that works well in every situation, a variety of internet solutions are available at a reasonable cost.
Wi-Fi, or wireless internet, has been available since the mid to late 1990s. At that time, hardware was expensive, service was slow, and hotspots were tough to find. In the early 2000s, technology improved to the point that Wi-Fi became a sort of de facto standard for internet on the road. Today virtually all new laptop computers are sold with a Wi-Fi card. Most hotels and many campgrounds offer some form of free or paid Wi-Fi access. A few major cities offer Wi-Fi blanketing, in which the downtown district or even the entire city provides Wi-Fi connectivity.
There are several standards representing the evolution of Wi-Fi technology. Newer standards, such as 802.11n, are backwards-compatible with older standards. This allows you to purchase a new computer with an up-to-date Wi-Fi card and still connect to older networks. However, your speed and the range at which you can get a signal may be lower on an older network.
Wi-Fi is a terrific option for travelers who only stay in locations that provide it and do not need connectivity while going down the road. Increasingly, fast-food and casual restaurants provide free Wi-Fi for their customers, allowing you to pull off the road for a few minutes to use the internet. Wi-Fi signal ranges are quite limited, so you may need to take your computer inside the restaurant rather than tapping into the signal from the parking lot.
Wi-Fi also works well when traveling internationally. Two years ago, we were on an Eastern Caribbean cruise. Shipboard internet is available on most cruise lines, but is frightfully expensive. Instead, I opted to work while in port. In St. Maarten, we did a shortened version of the America’s Cup regatta. After the race, we took a water taxi to downtown, where I slipped into the local library. After figuring out how to use the French keyboard, I was able to work for about an hour at no charge, meeting my deadline. We then re-boarded the water taxi with enough time left to do some shopping before the ship departed.
The biggest limitation on Wi-Fi is availability. We live full-time in an RV and often camp in state or federal parks, which do not offer Wi-Fi connectivity. We also drive for long periods, providing me an excellent opportunity to work in the car. So we decided that we need a more permanent solution for our internet needs.
Remember when cell phones only made telephone calls? I recently purchased my first Android phone, which provides full internet access and hundreds of productivity applications. My cell plan offers unlimited data usage, but only when connecting directly from the phone.
I have found that my phone is sufficient for responding to email, taking notes and performing limited research, but between the screen size and the touch screen keyboard, I cannot write a full article on it. However, if your work needs primarily involve staying in touch and receiving emails, a smart phone might work for you.
My phone also offers the option to create a wireless hotspot at an additional monthly fee. As a hotspot, my phone will allow five different devices to connect to the internet. The major drawback is that the speed of connectivity is based on the speed of the phone. If we happen to be in an area with a strong signal, that’s great. If not, then we could experience speeds similar to dialup or worse. When using the hotspot function, I am limited to 5 gigabytes of data per month, like most AirCard solutions.
AirCards have gone in and out of favor since their debut in the early 2000s. An AirCard, also known as a mobile broadband card, allows you to connect your computer to a cellular network. The current iteration is known as 3G, or third generation. Fourth generation, or 4G, service promises speeds resembling traditional broadband, but is only available in specific major cities.
You must purchase both the AirCard and a monthly data plan. Some carriers, including Sprint and Clear, offer unlimited data for a single monthly fee on the 4G network. Others, such as Verizon, have monthly data caps on 4G. All carriers currently limit 3G access to 5 gigabytes per month.
Virgin Broadband2Go made a huge splash in late 2010 when the company announced that it was offering truly unlimited (no cap) 3G on a no-contract pre-paid basis for $40 per month. Unfortunately that offer was short-lived. Virgin announced last week that in February, it will begin capping data usage at 5 gigabytes per month. Some carriers, such as Virgin, slow down users’ speed when they exceed the limit. Others, such as Sprint, charge users a per-megabyte fee for excess usage.
To put the data cap in perspective, we had a Sprint Overdrive for several months. The Overdrive is a 3G/4G hybrid device that automatically connects to 4G when it is available, and 3G the rest of the time. In the year that we had the Overdrive, we were only in a 4G area once, for a few minutes. So we were subject to the 3G data cap every month. We had two computers connected to the device and were careful to avoid watching streaming video or listening to music. We turned off our automatic updates, and used settings in our browsers to prevent videos from automatically loading. Despite these precautions, we exceeded our usage twice, both at a significant cost.
The major advantage to mobile broadband is the ability to use the service while traveling down the road. Dad usually drives, and I am able to settle back in my seat and write articles as we go. The air card works about as well as a cell phone–sometimes the signal drops when we enter a remote area, and the speed varies according to our distance from a cell tower. However, I have successfully connected from deep within a state park.
Satellite internet is the most expensive but most reliable option for long-term travelers. If you have an RV or house boat, you can have a dish permanently mounted, preventing the need to set it up and tear it down each time. Some systems also offer automatic pointing, saving you time in determining the proper coordinates.
The initial cost outlay is significant for a permanently mounted system, ranging from $3,000 to more than $20,000. Monthly fees range from $40 per month for a consumer-grade plan with a daily download cap of 200 megabytes to nearly $1000 per month for a commercial-grade plan with no download caps.
Due to price, we have decided not to invest in portable satellite internet at this time. We currently use the Virgin Broadband2Go mobile broadband service. Once the 5 gigabyte data limit kicks in next month, we may weigh our options yet again. The price of satellite equipment has fallen dramatically in the past five years, and we hope that it will continue to fall. Until and unless that happens, however, we will continue to use a mix of mobile broadband and Wi-Fi.