Stay connected while on the road with the help of new technology.
By Bill Hendrix, F761S
The evolution of the computer age and the exploding scope of the Internet have changed the face of business and personal communications. A high percentage of RV travelers have computers, cell phones, and e-mail capability. This has given rise to an array of equipment that is now available for accessing the Internet without a landline.
For the past several years, to gain Internet access while traveling we have had to hook up using a phone line or a data port at various RV parks, truck stops, Kinko’s outlets, fairgrounds, and the like. Frequently, a sign would be posted nearby stating, “Please limit your time to 10 minutes,” or something to that effect, and people would be waiting impatiently for you to sign off. Sometimes it was not a pleasant scene.
But technology has prevailed, and now there are options that will allow us to zip right on to the Internet with ease. Options vary in terms of price and equipment required, as well as connectivity speed.
For those who have a need for fast and virtually unlimited access, a couple of higher-priced options are available. They include systems from KVH Industries and MotoSAT.
KVH Industries is offering the TracNet system, which utilizes KVH’s TracVision satellite TV antenna to receive broadband Internet signals. The TracNet server also is equipped with a satellite modem and a cellular modem and automatically uses whichever one offers the stronger signal to provide the uplink to the Internet. This usually is referred to as a hybrid system with “dial-up and satellite return.” The KVH satellite dish must be a model L-3 in order to receive data while in motion or the model S-3 for stationary reception. Users have a choice of service plans. They can select the a la carte option of $99 per month plus 99 cents per minute or choose a package plan with no monthly fee and per-minute charges ranging from 76 cents to 33 cents. The downlink data speed from the satellite will be several times faster than the outbound data. The numbers I am hearing are up to 56 Kbps (kilobytes per second) for the uplink and up to 400 Kbps for the downlink, although with the compression software that KVH includes with its system, downlink speeds can reach 1 megabit per second. TracNet also includes both an Ethernet hub and a wireless Wi-Fi hub, allowing the system to support as many as five different users and computers at the same time. The TracNet system has a suggested retail price of $6,995, not including installation.
MotoSAT is offering the DataStorm system, which is a two-way transmission. The uplink goes from the roof-mounted .74-meter dish directly to the satellite and down to the earth station into the Internet. Data from the Internet goes in the reverse order back to the RV. This system will work only while the coach is stationary. The numbers I am hearing for the .74-meter system are 40 to 90 Kbps uplink and 400 to 1,200 Kbps for the downlink, with a price of around $4,500 plus installation and $100 per month with unlimited access. A larger, faster 1.2-meter dish also is being offered, but it more than doubles the price of the equipment. The MotoSAT system also can receive simultaneous satellite TV with the addition of hardware (ranging from $69 for basic satellite TV to $360 for high-definition TV) and programming (with the usual monthly costs) from DirecTV or Dish Network.
Both the KVH and MotoSAT systems require a clear view to the southern sky. Heavy rain or storms can block the signal to or from the satellite.
Less expensive options are available as well. For one, the Internet may be accessed from your personal computer using a wireless modem (sometimes referred to as an air card) that links to a cell tower and onto the Internet. Several of the major wireless carriers offer this service with a variety of plans and a seemingly endless price/plan matrix. Service is constantly improving with mergers, acquisitions, and tower-sharing agreements; however, you can’t count on cellular service being available constantly or consistently all over the United States with any carrier. Look at the company’s coverage map and compare with places you may visit.
Plans and prices at the time of this writing are as follows:
|Service||Kbps speed||Modem Card||Cost Per Month|
|AT&T||up to 130||$250||$80 (1)|
|Nextel||up to 56||$350||$55 (2)|
|T-Mobile & PCRV.US||up to 56||$350||$30 (2)|
|Sprint||up to 144||$300||$40 & up (3)|
This may not be a complete list, as other services may be available.
1) Unlimited use and other plans available based on limited use. 2) Unlimited use. 3) Cost based on usage up to $100.
Some plans offer a price break if your basic cell phone service is with that carrier, and offer special discounts on the card price from time to time. Also, it’s important to note that the cards do not work with all operating systems. If your computer is less than two years old, it probably is okay. Older operating systems could be suspect. I visited several company stores and found that sales personnel were not universally familiar with the service and most did not stock the air card. Regardless of what the salesperson tells you, holes in coverage do exist. And even in good coverage areas, tower overload and compatibility of equipment might be a problem. All of these companies offer a short trial period after which you may cancel the agreement if not satisfied. Be sure you understand the terms explaining when you may cancel without penalty.
Sprint, Verizon, and possibly other carriers offer a service that uses a cell phone and a USB cable that connects directly to the computer. The cell phone is then used as a direct dial-up to the Internet service provider (ISP) just as if it were a landline. The cost of this arrangement would be only the price of the cable and the time used on the cellular plan. In the past, this arrangement has been extremely slow and could heavily impact the cell phone bill. Unless you are a very light user of the Internet, this might not be the most cost-effective option.
For a more localized service, another option is Wi-Fi, which stands for wireless fidelity. This form of high-speed Internet access uses a wireless network interface card (NIC) or a USB device. Places such as Flying J, RV parks, and local businesses may install the Wi-Fi (802.11b) equipment at their locations, and users transmit a short distance to their antennas. The range will vary with terrain and the type of antenna in use. Better range can be achieved with an external wireless device, but a few hundred yards would be the limit. Some newer laptops come with 802.11b installed, and some RV parks provide an NIC without charge if you subscribe to their service, which may cost as little as $2.95 per hour or up to $35 per month. Data speed can be anywhere from 256 Kbps up to 2 megabits per second, but the average is around 512 Kbps. Coach Connect, C9772, offered Wi-Fi service to FMCA members attending the association’s March 2004 convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico (see the accompanying “Wi-Fi: An FMCA First”).
The advantages of Wi-Fi include the fact that it is relatively inexpensive and no long-term commitments are required. Access generally is offered on a pay-as-you-go basis, and hourly, daily, monthly, and seasonal rates may be available. The service is becoming more accessible to RVers as campground owners and other businesses install systems. However, the technology is not at the point where RVers can pay a single fee as they do with their cell phone service and have access across the country; multiple subscriptions may be needed.
For a list of many RV parks that offer wireless Internet access, visit www.rvtravel.com/wifi.html. To find other locations where Wi-Fi is available, visit www.wi-fizone.org, a Web site hosted by the Wi-Fi Alliance.
With any Internet connection, security is a concern. Install a good anti-virus program and firewall and any other protection to improve security on your personal computer. Don’t leave your computer online and unattended.
Whether you are using a wireless Internet connection or are dialing up through a provider such as AOL or Microsoft using a phone line, it is advisable to avoid sending sensitive financial information, such as credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, bank account information, etc. in any kind of a text-based document “” for example, in an e-mail message. Doing so could place the sender at risk since text-based transmissions can be intercepted easily. However, in the case of secure Web sites “” which are universally used by banking and financial institutions, among others, and make use of 128-bit encryption that is nearly impossible to decipher “” users can be assured that their connections are equally secure regardless of whether they are using a wireless or wired (phone line) connection.
Keep in mind that technology is always improving, and changes occur rapidly, with new goodies appearing all the time. Equipment that is only two or three years old might already be outdated. For instance, an older computer may not work on a Wi-Fi system. Wi-Fi users have found that Windows XP (the newest version of Microsoft Windows) works best with such systems. Check with the vendor if you have questions about whether your computer will work on a Wi-Fi system.
The providers of wireless Internet services vary their plans, so it often is difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison. Before jumping in, do your homework, ask questions, and discuss the service with people who are using the equipment you are considering. Most of all, mark the trial period on your calendar. If you have problems getting connected or are not satisfied with the service you’ve been provided, you’ll find that many vendors have 24-hour customer support to answer any questions you might have.
Wireless Internet connections can add to the freedom already enjoyed by motorhome owners, and we’ll undoubtedly be hearing and reading more about this technology in the RV world and beyond.
Web Sites Of Providers
Wi-Fi: An FMCA First
By FMC Staff
FMCA’s Albuquerque, New Mexico, convention this past March was the first-ever association event where the member campground area became a Wi-Fi hot spot.
The wireless fidelity service was set up by Coach Connect, C9772, a company based in Austin, Texas. Coach Connect placed 10 Wi-Fi antennas around the perimeter of the 76-acre Balloon Fiesta Park, where thousands of FMCA members stayed while attending convention activities at the EXPO New Mexico fairgrounds.
Coach Connect president and CEO Jamison Stewart said that his company had never set up such a large hot spot. However, the company focuses on providing the service to RVers and has ample experience in setting up Wi-Fi access at dozens of campgrounds around the United States.
“Wi-Fi is an exciting option for RVers, because it offers high-speed Internet access that is inexpensive and doesn’t require long-term commitments, and it’s becoming available in more and more places,” Mr. Stewart said. “And this is happening not just in the RV industry. Places like McDonald’s and Starbucks are providing Wi-Fi access.”
Nearly 300 FMCA members paid a $15 access fee to utilize Wi-Fi service during the convention. When they turned on their computers “” which needed a Wi-Fi network card or adapter “” Coach Connect’s custom Albuquerque convention-related home page popped up automatically. From there, they could surf the ‘Net. The connection was made available beginning March 12, a few days before the convention began, and continued throughout the event. Coach Connect sold Wi-Fi adapters to members who did not yet have one installed on their computers.
Like most people, many FMCA members were curious about Wi-Fi and had a bevy of questions about how it works and how to use it. Mr. Stewart, along with Coach Connect’s Frank Drew, offered answers during a seminar called “Get Away, Stay Connected.” Those who attended “” along with RVers who talked with Coach Connect representatives throughout the convention “” learned how to use it.
“We were excited about the FMCA convention, because we viewed it as an opportunity to educate people about the service,” Mr. Stewart said. “As an experiment, it was an extremely successful one.”
Since the March convention, many more members are now looking for places in which they can connect to the Internet as they travel throughout the country. Mr. Stewart noted that he has had RV owners tell him that they are planning their campground stays based on whether the campground has Wi-Fi access.
For additional information about Coach Connect’s Wi-Fi service, visit www.coachconnect.net.