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Full-timers and even weekend campers need technology to stay in touch with our families, friends, business and banking interests. All I can say is, “Thank God for the new technology that brings us cellular communications and the World Wide Web!” I’m not sure how this absolute dependence on fast communications developed, but we are addicts. When we can’t get cell phone service, we are almost lost and devastated. Something might happen and we won’t know it within three minutes. OMG!! Sorry, I got carried away a little. It is true, however, that we desire the fastest and most reliable access to communications media. So then, how will we do this?
In my opinion, this is a primary need. We use cell phones to contact emergency services either by dialing 911, or to call a towing and/or repair service after a breakdown. A motor home with a towed car doubles the chance that you might need to call for assistance. Of course, we also desire to talk with our family members and friends for birthdays, anniversaries, and just to chat. Occasionally we use the phone to contact our bank, credit union, and Credit Card Company if problems develop. I could go on, but you get the point. We need cellular coverage.
Most cellular communication technology in use today is 3G or Third Generation. This refers to the technology used to move calls along a long string of cell towers. Lately, 4G or fourth generation technology is becoming more prevalent in the more densely populated cities and is gaining in the less populous areas as well. This is a much faster service and is capable of streaming video content without slowing down, depending on the area and high or low usage. Hopefully, 4G will roll out to many more rural locations soon.
Three companies are the most popular among full time RVers. They are AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. At the time of this writing, AT&T is stronger in the cities and Verizon has the best coverage nationwide. Sprint is gaining and may soon be equal to the others. All three have available electronic bill paying via the internet. We prefer that to getting bills sent through the mail and possibly arriving late.
What happens when you don’t have a strong enough cellular signal to make and receive calls? I’m glad you asked. Enter the cell phone amplifier. The purpose of a cell phone amplifier is to boost the signal it receives from its own antenna and feed that signal into your cell phone with a cable. That is fine as long as your phone has an external antenna jack, which many don’t. What to do? Enter the wireless cell phone amplifier. Now the amplifier has both an exterior antenna to communicate with the cell tower and an interior antenna to communicate with the cell phone. We use a cellular amplifier and antennas from WeBoost, formerly Wilson Electronics, the biggest and most well-known supplier of this type of equipment. Go to https://www.weboost.com/us/ . This technology works great if you are in a fringe area, or have buildings or hills between you and the cell tower. Unfortunately, there are areas in our country without cellular service of any kind. We have been in a few of these areas. The only thing to do is drive until you get to an area with enough signal strength to make calls. These areas are mostly in the unpopulated areas of the western states. Check the map of your cell phone provider to find these “dead zones”.
Over the last several years, “Smart Phone" technology has been introduced. These are cellular telephones that can be connected to the internet and are GPS enabled, so they know where they are. Besides having internet access, the coolest thing about smart phones is applications. You must have heard the current catch phrase “There’s an app for that”. Applications are mini programs that accomplish a specific function and run on smart phones and tablet devices. This technology started with the Apple iPhone and iPad and quickly migrated to other manufacturer’s operating systems such as Android and Blackberry. It’s hard to believe, but there are hundreds of thousands of applications such as games, finance and banking, business, navigation, and so many more. A search using the letters “RV” in the Apple App Store returned more than 250 different apps. It’s a little overwhelming, but we have settled on a few app’s we use a lot. “Allstays RV” is an application that uses GPS and your current location to find campgrounds along the way with descriptions, contact information, and even reviews. “Gas Buddy” gives the current fuel prices at either stations near you, or at a location you select. We use two weather apps frequently. One is “The Weather Channel” for current weather and forecasts. The other is called “Radar Now”. This one gives us the weather radar picture of our location using GPS. A lot of these apps are free, and most are less than ten dollars. New apps are being introduced constantly for all the various platforms. We make driving decisions based on the weather apps.
Next to a working cell phone, internet access has the highest priority among the communications mediums. There are several ways to get on the internet, including a telephone modem providing high speed DSL, or dial-up services if available at a campground, Wi-Fi, data communication via cellular technology, and satellite connection.
Dial-up internet service can be available at your campsite if there is an active phone connection available. Connected through the telephone jack installed in most later model RVs or at a connection jack in the clubhouse, this is the slowest and least reliable method of internet connection. High speed internet via a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) modem can provide fast internet speeds, but usually requires at least a three to six month local service contract commitment. Many folks do this when they winter someplace for an extended period of time.
According to the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, Wi-Fi is a popular technology that allows an electronic device to exchange data wirelessly using radio waves over a computer network, including high-speed internet connections. Currently, this is probably the most popular method to connect to the internet. It is used by laptop and desktop computers, new technology smart phones, tablet devices such as the Apple iPad, and others. Wi-Fi adapters of various capabilities have been standard in laptop computers for several years. The speed of the connection is dependent on many variables, including the strength of the received and transmitted radio signal, the capability of the installed Wi-Fi adapter, obstructions such as trees and buildings in the line of sight between antenna and computer, and primarily the bandwidth of the park’s connection to the internet. It is possible to have a five bar signal at the computer, but slow or no service due to too many users on a less than capable system. This happens frequently at larger parks. At first, campground Wi-Fi was free, but more and more campgrounds and resorts are installing pay-as-you go systems. This does not guarantee fast uninterrupted service, however.
Cellular Data Connection
This is the method Kathy and I use to access the internet. The simplest way is to have a Smart Phone such as an Apple iPhone, or an Android smart phone. These are capable of internet connection and retrieving e-mail. Small screen and limited battery life are concerns. Lately the introduction of the Apple iPad and other tablet devices has overcome the small screen and battery life issues. Kathy can get by with nothing but her iPad for all her internet use. Of course, being a techie, I need more. It is possible to tether a data capable cellular phone to a laptop computer with the addition of some inexpensive software. This could be great if you have a cell phone with an unlimited data account. Those account features are going the way of dinosaurs. The next possibility is an air card, which is essentially a cellular phone optimized for data. This requires a separate plan from your cellular phone provider which is priced according to the amount of data you expect to use each month. It is a small device that connects to a computer’s USB port. With the proper software and activation codes, you will be able to have high speed internet access whenever you have a cell signal. The MI FI device has gained much popularity. It can simultaneously connect up to five devices such as computers, tablets, and wireless printers to the internet.
We have added a wireless router to our home network. This device will accept either an air card or a Wi-Fi signal and transmit it with an onboard radio. This is similar to your own Wi-Fi hotspot, but with a hardware firewall to provide security for your data. It can handle many more devices than I will ever own. When there is no cellular signal, it will default to the strongest Wi-Fi signal available.
Now that we have added a wireless cellular amplifier to our arsenal of communication devices, we have both a cell phone “cloud” within our rig and a secure Wi-Fi cloud as well. Probably the very best book written about this subject is "The Mobile Internet Handbook" by Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard. Check it out here:
Satellite Connection to the InternetPrior to cellular internet connection, satellite internet systems were the best and most reliable way to connect to the internet. Hughes Corporation, which provides internet connectivity by way of the HughesNet Company, operates a constellation of communications satellites accessed by dish antennas mounted on houses and other structures. The Datastorm Company has made this technology portable. They provide a roof mounted collapsible dish with automated raising and pointing electronics for motor home or trailer use. The system costs around five thousand dollars and installation can add another thousand. Monthly service fees start at about sixty dollars a month. This works great in Alaska and Mexico where cell service is spotty to non-existent. Unfortunately, internet signal speeds at best are slower than cellular internet for the same monthly rate. Another drawback is that the bandwidth on the particular satellite you are subscribed to may be oversold. This means that when many users are online, the speed can drop as low as dial-up slow. There is a tripod mounted satellite dish available for around fifteen hundred dollars, but the monthly fees are the same and the same speed roadblocks apply. Unless you are stuck in an area with no cell service, I cannot in good conscience recommend this type of system when cellular internet is so easy and affordable.
No discussion of Technology for RVers would be complete without mentioning our friends Jim and Kris Guld, otherwise known as the Geeks on Tour. We met these folks early in our RV journey and we have learned so very much from the excellent seminars they do at RV rallys and RV shows across the country. Kris had her own business as a computer software trainer and Jim was a hardware and network guy. They married, hit the road full-time and now they give hundreds of seminars about software and hardware RVers need to know about. Some of their seminars are on Blogger, Facebook, Google Maps, Microsoft Movie Maker, the Picassa photo program, Microsoft Streets and Trips, and general topics like smartphones, Microsoft Windows, and more coming on line every year. Check out their website at: http://www.geeksontour.com/
Some more long time friends of ours are Phil and Tracey May, and their business is called Techno RV. They are a presence at many RV Shows and Rallys like the Geeks on Tour. They sell such things as WiFi boosters, cell phone boosters, electrical protection systems, tire pressure monitoring systems, and many other products using modern technology to enhance our RVing experience. Tell them John and Kathy sent you. Check them out at: http://www.technorv.com/
I have included television because it is a form of one-way communication. We love to watch TV, but having The Weather Channel can be a necessity during severe weather. It must be important because almost every RV we see has a crank-up “Bat wing” antenna installed. We have one, and we use it wherever we have adequate local channels available. These antennas are also capable of receiving High Definition (HD) signals if you have a newer television set with an HD receiver.
If you absolutely “must” have TV, satellite reception is the answer. Satellite service is available from Direct TV or from Dish Network in the US and there are several Canadian providers. We have had both and I see little difference in either content of service. Customer service can be difficult because most of the agents do not understand the fact that our antennas move around, but eventually you will convince them. There are many packages of satellite service you can order with increasing monthly subscription costs.
If you have a roof mounted dome satellite antenna, bear in mind that if you desire HD programming, you are limited to Dish Network. Direct TV HD broadcasts require the acquisition of at least three satellite feeds. Consequently, a larger antenna than what will fit in a dome is needed. Also remember that your dome could be blocked by trees in your campsite.
Our rig came with a crank-up satellite dish. We used it for five years with our Direct TV subscription. At the same time, we had another dish we used on a tripod when we were parked where trees would block the satellite signal. Now we have upgraded to a High Definition technology TV so we needed an HD compatible dish. It is larger and heavier than the standard dish. We had to find a heavy duty tripod for it, but it works well and we are quite pleased with it. I recommend a website that I found when searching for the tripod. Go to http://www.tv4rv.com . They have a monthly newsletter with plenty of valuable advice for setting up and pointing satellite dishes.