Stay Connected on the Road
Article by Chris Wilson
We live in an age of instant communication, where shopping, socializing, and banking are all done online, and physical mail is largely limited to bills, catalogues and assorted solicitation offers. This is all very well and good when we are curled up in our living rooms or dens, with electricity, high-speed internet, and endless supplies of hot water, but what about when you live on the road. If you’re spending any length of time in your RV, or living in it full-time, you have to be able to communicate. How do you do that?
Snail mail — paper mail and physical packages — so nicknamed because of its slow transport time, generally requires some kind of physical address. If you know you’re going to be at an RV park for any length of time, you can probably arrange to use that address, but if you’re not, or if you no longer have a permanent address of your own, you’ll need to set up service with a mail forwarding company. Such companies vary in degree of services offered, but all will generally supply you with a unique address, and a method of having your mail forwarded to your actual location at regular intervals (which you pay for). One such company, hosted by the RVers club Escapees.com caters to the new car dealer and RV community, and will even open your mail and read it to you, should something important arrive. Their annual rates range from $85 – $125, but you can expect another $100 or so in initial setup fees. As well, you have to keep a “postage deposit” with them — a positive sum of money they use for forwarding your mail to you.
Mail forwarding is great for things that aren’t time-sensitive, but for every-day banking, bill-paying, and just keeping in touch, going digital is really the best bet. While some campsites are now offering free wifi, and others still let you use the phone, you can no longer count on even finding a payphone, even if you have an acoustic coupler to use with it. Getting a cell phone, then, is crucial.
Cell phone plans vary by carrier and location, of course, but if you’re on the road for a significant amount of time, you’ll want a national plan, which will treat any number in the US as if it’s a local number. Most companies also have add-on plans for people who do a lot of international calling. At AT&T (including the former Cingular stores), $5 month gets you a rate that’s about 50% lower on calls within and to/from other countries.
Once you have a cell phone plan, and a cell phone, you can use it in combination with a plan from an ISP in three different ways:
- Smart Phones:
These are phones like Blackberries, iPhones, Blackjacks, and self-branded phones from your provider that run some kind of operating system (Windows Mobile in some, proprietary OSs in others) and allow you to check email, use instant messaging and have limited web browser capability from the phone itself. Most providers require some kind of data plan with these phones — for $30 – 50 / month you can get unlimited data transfer. This fee is often in addition to your base connection plan.
- Tethering a Cell Phone to your Laptop
Most late-model cell phones, especially those made by Motorola and Nokia, will allow you to use a pigtail cable to tether the phone to your portable computer, so you can use your phone in place of a modem. Connection speeds will vary, and you will need to have access to your ISP’s phone number in order to do this.
Bluetooth enabled phones and Bluetooth enabled laptops can often perform the same tasks without the need for a pesky cable, but a special software interface may be required. (Rumor has it that Blackberry software for MacOS will also work with Blackjacks). Your cell phone provider may require a data plan for this sort of usage.
- Cellular PC Cards
PC (formerly PCMCIA) cards available for Mac or Windows laptops from your cell phone provider can either share your existing cell phone number or be assigned a number of their own. The cards themselves run a couple hundred dollars, and if you put them on their own line (the advantage of this is that you can still use the phone for calls while surfing the net) there will be a data plan fee (around $50/month gets you unlimited data at many providers), but they generally offer cellular connectivity as well as functioning as a wifi card if your laptop doesn’t have the latter already integrated. With these, not only can you surf the net at pretty impressive (faster than dial-up) speeds, you can also use software like Skype for voice communications while surfing;
Cellular cards work wherever they can get a cellular signal, just like a cell phone, and generally come with a proprietary interface for connecting. Some antivirus software will conflict with the cellular software, however, so do your research on both before making a pricey commitment.
There’s Always Free Wifi
If committing to a data plan is beyond the scope of what you want to spend on communications, take heart. Free wifi hotspots are becoming more prevalent every day. While Starbucks and Barnes and Nobel offer free connectivity only to members of their partner plans (T-Mobile and AT&T respectively), anyone can buy a couple of hours for comparatively little money.
Otherwise, many office centers (FedEx/Kinkos, Office Max) restaurants (Panera, McDonalds), and truckstops (Flying J) offer free wifi as well, as do local libraries in many towns.
With a cell phone and a laptop, and an account from your ISP of choice, staying connected on the road is only a little more challenging than it is in a conventional home, and for those moments when you get frustrated, you can look out the front window, or step outside, and let the peace of the great outdoors calm your frayed nerves.
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