Staying Connected

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September 25, 2010

While I do not have any statistics to support this, based on what I see offered by the majority of the campgrounds, my assumption is that most campers are looking for an opportunity to get away from things.  The goal of these people is to get closer to nature for outdoor-type activities.  The only reason for most of them to carry a cell phone is in case of an emergency.  For these folks, this post may not apply.  However, there are others who need a little more connectivity.  For example, when I started my full-time lifestyle, one of the major considerations for me was ensuring I could stay connected in order to keep my full-time telecommuting job.  Of course, my feeling is that most campers/RVers fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

When I started my research (about 5 years ago) into staying connected from an RV, there was really only one viable option—satellite.  These systems (such as HughesNet) are expensive, but work well.  The major downfall of these systems is the same challenge we face with satellite tv—you have to have a view of the sky where the satellites reside.  We have found some parts of the country where this can be quite a challenge.  So, if you are looking for satellite as an option, you need to think about roof-mounted or tripod for your dish.  The tripod creates more work during set up, but gives you more of a chance to find a clear view of the sky in some areas.  There are some people who still need satellite; I have met people who must stay connected for business, but enjoy boondocking, so often find themselves in areas with poor cell phone coverage.  Since one of the requirements my wife put in place before she would agree to full-timing was “no boondocking,” I was not worried about being out of cell phone range.  So, I was able to eliminate the satellite option for my needs.

The next option I explored was using the wi-fi provided by the RV parks.  As I looked through my Woodalls book, I noticed that a good number of parks offered wi-fi.  Then I began to read the RV blogs and talk to the different groups out there.  What I learned (and this has been validated over the last 3 years by my own experience) is that while many RV parks offer wi-fi, very few offer anything that can be relied on to provide high speeds consistently.  We have been disappointed many times when we were told about the excellent wi-fi offered by the park only to find it did not work if you were in your RV or doing “peak” hours.  We have found a few parks that offer excellent and reliable wi-fi that we could count on; but we quickly realized that we needed another option.  I do want to point out that the level of wi-fi needed by most campers would be satisfied by the wi-fi offered by the parks; and it seems more parks offer it every year—not to mention, they are getting better at ensuring their systems are reliable.  In some campgrounds, though, an external antenna for your computer may be required.  This allows you to connect to a smaller signal when you are too far from the source, or your RV reduces the signal too much.  Also, many RV parks still charge for wi-fi, and some can be quite expensive.

Photo courtesy of CradlePoint

Photo courtesy of CradlePoint

The option we chose, though, was an air card from a cell phone provider.  We rarely find locations with poor coverage, and there seems to be less locations like this every year.  The broadband provided by the air card is normally faster and more reliable than what we find in the parks (with a few exceptions where parks have provided incredible wi-fi service).  The other challenge we had was that we had 3 computers—mine, my wife’s, and my work computer.  The air card could only connect with one computer at a time; which was not sufficient.  It was not financially feasible to purchase an air card for each computer, so we needed to find a way to create our own little hot spot.  We chose a product from CradlePoint that connects through your air card and then broadcasts to a small area.  They offer several boxes, one is quite small (about the size of a deck of cards), so is ideal for an RV.  This router also allows me to use my wireless printer.

Within the last year, though, some of the air card providers have begun offering their own systems that create a little hotspot where you can connect multiple devices.  These devices cost more than the regular air card (many of which are built into the newer computers as an option), but when you consider the cost of the CradlePoint router, it may be a viable option.

Through the air card and the router, I have been able to perform my job with no issues; this includes using VOiP for teleconferences, sharing of work products, and keeping up with e-mail and the company intranet.  There have been some challenges, so I always have a backup plan (for example, if there is a Panera Bread or Starbucks in the area, I know I can connect there), and you can look for public hotspots on line.  Also, there have been times when other employees were knocked offline and not able to work because of power outages or internet provider outages; however, I have always been able to log in.  If it is a loss of power, I have my own.  If it is a loss of internet provider, I have a backup plan.

In summary, there is a growing desire to stay connected even while camping in your RV.  The RV parks are responding to this desire, but you may need to find another way if it is important for you.  There are many options out there that can help out.

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  1. Mark Walsh

    Hoby; thanks for the excellent information. Did you do any research on satellite telephones?
    I am planning an extended trip next year to Newfoundland and Labrador and there are areas where cell service would be questionable. In Labrador most areas will be remote and the satellite phone would be the only communication form available.

  2. Hoby

    Gary, while I have not been to Puerto Penesco, when I was in South Texas last winter a number of people warned me about having your cell phone connect to a tower in Mexico–apparently, depending on your carrier and your plan, you can rack up some pretty steep charges very quickly. You definitely need to look at how to handle your “international” usage.

    Bob, I’ve found a few places where the air card did not have a signal, but not many (of course, I have not traveled in OH, MI, or IN with it). I have not tried any of the Netgear routers with my air card, but have used 2 different products from Cradlepoint and both were easy to set up and use. With the new “MiFi” that is available, though, that might be the best option.

  3. Bob Garlits

    I have used a Verizon UM175VW for about 1 1/2 years now and I get very frustrated as there is no service at my Mom’s in Roann, IN. It’s even poor in Wabash, IN. No signal on the West Coast of lower P. of MI unless we drove a mile into town. For $60 month I was hoping for more. Of course just north of Atlanta we got a great signal. It’s poor at home in southern Ohio. Had bad luck with Sprint, all of southern Ohio is a dead zone except right by cities so don’t know how Virgin would work for me. Bought a Netgear wireless router that the Verizon 175 would plug into and never could get it to work right.

  4. I use Verizon’s MiFi, I have used Verizon’s service for about three years now and rarely have I had any connection problems. True I have not done any boon docking off of the main roads and I am quite sure that there are many places Verizon’s wireless will not work but for the dollar I do not think you will find a better service for the price.

    There are components available for marine use that can boost the range of your wireless service. They include antennas and amplifiers [check the legality before using on land]. There is also a wireless router that you can use with your air card if you do not want to use a MiFi.

  5. Gary Worrell

    I also run a business from my coach and found that the Verizon aircard works great almost everyplace and when other services will not. Sometimes I have a companion, so I installed MiFi from Verizon, which works equally well and allows others to use. I totally agree with your article about park Wifi’s. Service is often a problem and can not be relied on. I would mention that e-fax is cheap and that provides me with a fax number and fax in and out services. My back up is my Blackberry (unlimited minutes), where i also receive my e-mails also, even when out of the coach. My travel companion used Virgin services last year and her results were not as good as mine. My Verizon total bill is expensive at around $180/month, but that gives me unlimited phone and e-mail which I must have for business.

    I am going to Puerto Penesco in February. Does anyone have experience there?

  6. Hoby

    Beata–excellent point about the public libraries; I often forget about them when I’m looking for internet access.

    Patrick–Excellent tip about Virgin Mobile. I have not looked into it, but I have run into issues where the “unlimited” access plans are not really unlimited, so no matter which provider you use, it is important to verify the plan limitations. I saw a commercial for Virgin Mobile just the other day.

  7. Patrick Greenburger

    For Mobile Broadband Internet access, check out Virgin Mobile and their $40 a month, unlimited plan, with no contract. Their Mifi unit (available cheaper at Walmart) can handle 5 computers through Wifi at a time. Virgin Mobile, is owned by, and uses Sprint 3G ‘primary’ coverage areas, but not their Broadband ‘roaming’ coverage areas.

    To the best of my current research Virgin Mobile is the best no contract mobile broadband plan and the least expensive.

  8. Patrick Greenburger

    For Mobile Broadband Internet access, check out Virgin Mobile and their $40 a month unlimited plan with no contract. Their Mifi unit (available cheaper at Walmart) can handle 5 computers online through Wifi at a time. Virgin Mobile, is owned by and uses Sprint 3G circuits, but not their roaming circuits.To the best of my current research Virgin Mobile is the best no contract plan and the least expensive.

  9. We are seasonals in our RV in a park that does not have wireless connection. The whole area is still quite wild and lacks towers, so even the card didn’t work.
    Fortunatelly I did not have to work online, but I wanted to work on my website during the summer, so we had to visit a local library, which was quite comfortable (and my son could do some reading at the same time).
    I recommend public libraries for good free connection.