Options: Internet Access on the Road

by Kate Voss (Chicago, IL)

When I was five years old, my family bought a Damon Intruder, and we set out on a road-trip. It was the summer of 1995. My parents, along with my three siblings and me, ventured west to visit great American landmarks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. My favorite stop along the way was the Zuni Indian Reservation where we bought kachina dolls and spent the night in authentic teepees.

Our three month vacation was just like one that a family might go on today, with one key difference — we were without internet. Apart from using pay phones along the road, we were essentially disconnected from the rest of the world during our summer adventure across America.

But, oh, how today’s travelers rely on the Internet. It isn’t just a source of entertainment, but something that we’ve come to depend on in our day-today lives. RVers, especially full-timers, need to be able to check their email, get work done, and stay connected with their family and friends.

Internet options for RVs

There are several internet options for RVers to stay connected. These days, the majority of RVers either use cellular data plans, create personal internet hotspots within their RV, or just connect to their campgrounds Wi-Fi, depending on which campground they stay at. Satellite internet may seem like an archaic idea for RVers, which entails a bulky and time-consuming setup process. Satellite internet for RVs seems to have lost its popularity to what are perceived as the more modern, and sleek alternatives. All of these options have their unique advantages and disadvantages, though. For full-timers, a combination of newer internet options with a satellite dish is usually the best way to go if you want access to the internet no matter where your adventures take you.

More popular internet options:

Newer internet options today allow us RVers to get our own Wi-Fi hotspot within our RVs. These newer methods don’t rely on an outside signal (unless we choose to use a campground’s Wi-Fi.) Plus, they’re compact and relatively inexpensive. It’s no wonder why these options are so popular. There are four types of hotspot internet options for RVers:

1. USB-connected modem:

A USB internet “stick” is usually bought from your cellular provider (Verizon Wireless, Sprint, AT&T..). It is a small device that looks like a flash-drive which plugs right into your computer’s USB port. The data used is usually just added to your existing cellular plan. They are compact, easy to use, and usually faster than connecting to an outside Wi-Fi signal. However, USB modems only allow you to connect to the internet with one device at a time, and they require the device to have USB accessibility.

2. Phone tethered to computer:

This is a lengthier process, but still relatively easy. It basically turns your phone into a modem for your computer. First, you must make sure your phone is capable of enabling Bluetooth, or else you will have to use a USB cord. Then, on your computer, locate the device and connect. Your computer will then use the cellular data from your phone to connect to the internet. With Bluetooth tethering, you must make sure your phone is close to your computer (within a few feet) for it to recognize the device. Most providers will add an additional fee to your contract if you want to tether, and you must make sure your carrier is okay with you tethering — some carriers may actually terminate your contract. Again, with this type of internet connection, you can only connect to one device at a time.

3. Hot-spot device:

Mobile hot-spot devices are usually referred to as Mi-Fi (mobile Wi-Fi) and allows users to connect multiple devices to the internet, usually up to 10. They are wireless routers that are similar to a router used by a coffee shop — you locate the network on your device and either enter in a password (if your network is secure) or just log right in.

4. Phone hot-spot:

Another emerging option is to use your smartphone as a hot-spot. Androids and iPhones have a built-in setting where you can turn on your hot-spot capabilities. This may drain your phone’s battery so you may need to either have a second phone handy or to use this method for short lengths of time. It also requires your connected device to stay within a few feet of your phone to maintain a signal. Additional fees will usually be added to your data plan.

For most of these options, you may need to monitor your data usage. Another way to get internet inexpensively is to connect to a local Wi-Fi network, provided by a campground, a local coffee shop, or public library. Wi-Fi is usually free, depending on location, and very simple — all you have to do is enter a password to connect. There are online resources to help you find which parks have Wi-Fi access across the nation. As coverage areas for cellular plans are expanding. Hopefully, in the near future, you will be able to connect from anywhere in America.

Satellite Internet:

Satellite internet is considered a last resort for the most-remote places. Others may call it a back-up plan. But there are several flaws to newer technology which satellite internet helps to fix.

One problem with connecting via cellular plan or localized Wi-Fi is that you have to stay within a radius of either the cell tower or the Wi-Fi hub. It restricts your location for internet connection. With satellite internet, you have the ability to connect regardless of location. You could be in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada and still be able to check Facebook. With satellite internet you are not tethered to a cell tower, and don’t need to rely on one for the strength of your signal.

Another flaw of Wi-Fi and cellular is that data speeds depend on how many users are actively using the network: more people online will make speeds slower and fewer people online will make speeds faster. With satellite internet, you are not affected by the amount of users online — you are instead connecting to a satellite orbiting the earth. This means that you get your own personal connection to the internet and are not bogged down by a campground full of connected campers.

Today’s travelers want to adventure to Yellowstone and smell the pungent sulfur coming from the Dragon’s Mouth Spring — but then, we also want to tweet about it. We want to watch the sunset from Old Fort Marcy Park in Santa Fe, but then we want to photograph it and email it to our family. We thrive on adventure, and feeling independent, but we need to stay connected. If you are like me, eager to get on the road and on to your next expedition, but don’t want to sacrifice your connectivity, a combination of newer technologies — such as making your cell phone a hotspot — with satellite internet, will ensure you are always connected on the road.