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Fortunately for the wired traveler, mobile connectivity options have improved dramatically. We'll look at some of the many ways to stay connected while travelling.
How should I stay connected while travelling?
In a podcast a few years ago about mobile connectivity, I briefly reflected on some of the options available to the wired traveler. Even then, that podcast was an example of how I stay connected while traveling because it was recorded, written, and posted from my RV in a state park many miles from my home.
Since that time, while many of the techniques remain the same, the overall landscape has improved significantly. Staying connected while you're on the road is easier than ever.
Perhaps the single biggest change in recent years is that of technology related to mobile phones. Not only has coverage increased significantly, but speeds now sometimes rival that of low-end landline connections.
One of the most obvious signs of this trend are the phones themselves. Many are now not only small, powerful computers in their own right, but they're also constantly connected to the internet.
That naturally leads to the first and perhaps the most common approach to staying connected: simply use a smartphone.
In fact, this is what many people now do every day as they go about their lives. From email to Facebook to the most popular online activities, mobile phones and to a lesser degree mobile network-enabled tablets are rapidly becoming the primary means that many people connect. By the very nature of the technology, they're mobile and can connect wherever their provider has coverage.
Tethering is the act of connecting your phone to your computer in some way that the computer can use the phone's internet connection. Sometimes inaccurately described as a "modem" in these situations, the phone simply acts as a gateway of sorts, connecting to the mobile network on one side and to your computer on the other.
Not all phones (or providers) support tethering. When available, it may use an actual physical cable (typically USB) to connect the computer to the mobile phone.
An option that's becoming more popular recently is the ability of some phones to act as a Wifi hotspot. When enabled, the phone itself becomes a Wifi access point, and laptops and other Wifi-enabled devices can connect to the internet just as they would via any other hotspot.
If you don't have a phone capable of connecting to the internet or sharing its connection, another viable option are devices dedicated to providing internet connectivity for other devices:
USB 'dongles': many mobile providers offer USB devices that act as dedicated interfaces to the internet using the mobile network.
Mobile-enabled devices: certain models of laptops, tablets, and presumably other devices are often available with mobile connectivity hardware built-in. Because this hardware is typically vendor specific, it usually implies that it can only be used with one mobile network.
Stand-alone mobile hotspots: often referred to as "MyFi", these are small devices that when turned on, simply provide a Wifi hotspot connected to a particular mobile provider's network.
There are two primary drawbacks to mobile broadband: coverage and cost.
On a recent camping trip to the Washington coast, I was happy to find that my mobile connection was strong and my data transfer rates were high. While not their newest 4G/LTE, my connection through Verizon Wireless was a strong four to five bars and data was a 3G connection, typically around 1mbps or better.
My neighbors, on the other hand, had zero bars. Some were seen wandering the beach looking for a shred of connectivity.
The difference? The provider. Their provider had a much more limited coverage area that did not include the park where we were staying. If they were able to get a signal at all, it was weak and data transfer was slow. Their provider's coverage map showed a sliver of coverage on the beach, but none in the park proper.1
If you travel much, particularly to more rural or remote areas, coverage matters. It's something that you'll want to check on and it's one of the reasons why I've chosen the provider that I have.
Cost is another limiting factor to most mobile-provided connectivity. Most smartphone and other naturally-connected devices include some kind of base connectivity charge in their monthly fee, adding $20, $30, or more per month to the basic cost of the phone.
The ability to set up a Wifi access point using my smartphone costs an additional $30/month on top of the base charges.
Mobile dongles, MyFi's and mobile-enabled devices are typically treated as a completely separate mobile device (often being assigned an actual phone number, even though they may not have phone capabilities), and with that some kind of monthly plan and/or long-term contract.
At the other end of the cost spectrum are the networks of free open Wifi hotspots that you can find across the country.
Be it Starbucks, McDonald's, local coffee houses, restaurants, bookstores, and more, many retail businesses are providing Wifi as a free perk of visiting and/or doing business with them. In addition to businesses, often libraries and airports will offer free Wifi as well.
If your travels take you along routes populated with these types of establishments, you can travel from one to the other, taking advantage of their connectivity as you go.
While technically free, the assumption is that you're a customer – so at least buy a cup of coffee.
The drawbacks here include security (be sure to read How do I use an open Wifi hotspot safely?) and possibly speed. Depending on how heavily used the location is, your speed of access may depend on how many other users you're sharing the connection with.
Where hotels used to offer only what they labeled as "data ports" that you could plug your modem into, it's now not uncommon for them to offer in-room high speed internet or Wifi. Sometimes, it's for an additional charge, but many are now starting to provide it for free as part of your stay.
In general, hotel connections these days are good and the most frustrating aspect may be the additional cost, if one is charged.
Commercial RV parks are now also frequently offering Wifi connections to their guests, often free.
One important thing to remember is that even when you are using a wired hotel connection, you must treat these as you would open Wifi hotspots and take the same security precautions.
For the very remote user, out of range of hotspots, Starbucks, and cellular phone towers, satellite may be the only answer. Before you shell out the time and expense to set this up, however, you should be aware of a couple of issues that might affect you.
I have heard (and the fine print in the provider's agreement may state) that your bandwidth may be throttled if you use too much. By that I mean, if you are doing lots of large downloads or other high-bandwidth operations, the satellite company may slow you down – often to speeds that are worse than dial-up. The reason is simple: the total bandwidth on a satellite is extremely limited and they don't want any one user hogging it.
Satellites are a long way up – over 22,000 miles to be more precise. That's a significant enough distance that the speed of light starts to be noticeable. It can add a significant delay as a signal travels up to the satellite, back down, and the response follows the same path in reverse. By "significant," I don't mean that you'll notice the delay, but that your computer might. The delay you'll notice will result from certain internet communications protocols failing or slowing to a crawl, because they can't handle the additional transmission delay due to transmission via satellite.
Still, when all else fails, it's certainly better than no internet at all.
Have an alternative that you recommend? Post a comment and share your mobile connectivity solution. This field is growing every day, so there are bound to be new approaches that I haven't touched on.
Because internet connectivity is a critical part of what I do, I thought I'd share my approach to connectivity when away from home:
I have an Android-based smart phone, connected using Verizon Wireless as my mobile provider. You'll often see me catching up on email, Google Reader, or even your questions as I wait for restaurant orders or take a coffee break.
Speaking of coffee breaks, I often take advantage of Starbuck's free Wifi, where you might see me sitting with my Motorola Xoom, or Amazon Kindle Fire – both Wifi-only devices.
When I travel by air, I frequently take advantage of airport and hotel offerings and have occasionally purchased in-flight Wifi for longer flights, when available.
I do have the "mobile hotspot" option on my phone and can enable or disable the feature – and its associated cost – as needed via Verizon's website or my phone. Lately, I've been leaving it enabled and using the hotspot as I travel. The most recent camping trip was 30 miles from the closest Starbucks, for example. (Don't worry, I did bring my own coffee. )
I also carry a MiFi mobile hotspot device from Virgin Mobile. This is on a pay-as-you-go no contract plan. Because internet connectivity is so important to me, I keep it with me in case one of my other approaches above isn't available. It's on a different carrier than my phone, so I can use it if there's a problem with the Verizon network or connectivity and Virgin has coverage that I can pre-pay a month and be online. (For the record, I did check on my recent camping trip and Virgin had no connectivity – confirmed by their coverage map. It's still a safety net in other areas and at no additional cost until I need it.)
As technology and my own usage has evolved, so have my options; so I fully expect that this setup will change over time as well.
(This is an update to an article originally published March 6th, 2005.)
1: To be fair, the Verizon coverage map also did not include the park with coverage shown ending quite literally at the park entrance. I was quite pleasantly surprised that my connection was as good as it was.