The reality of the Internet on the road is that by the time I post this article on my web page, the technology will have changed. That’s reality one. Reality two is that there is still, after all the changes and advancements, little or no easy Internet access on the road. Now that you’ve heard the worst, let’s look at the reality of the Internet for the traveler.
We will cover The Reality of the Internet on the road from three different aspects. The reality of the Internet today, the hardware and software needed to stay in touch on the road, and lastly we will examine the Internet of tomorrow and how it will influence travelers in the future.
The Internet provides extensive resources for the traveler, from planning and organizing your travels to making reservations and purchasing tickets before leaving the comfort of home. Once you step out onto those lonely foreign streets, the link with the technology you take for granted changes.
To stay connected with the Internet once you leave home you need a computer. Technological advances are happening daily as companies bring email and the Internet to hand held devices, cell phones and beepers, but it is still primitive technology. Traveling with a quality laptop computer and a high speed modem will get you farther.
Three Ways to Connect: Begging, Borrowing, and Celling.
Begging and borrowing means working with phone lines out of your control. There are many Internet cafes, libraries, and businesses offering hookups to the Internet for a small fee. The libraries are quiet and excellent places to get Juno.com and Hotmail.com emails and for surfing the net. Some may have phone jacks for use with your laptop. Internet cafes provide another way of getting access to a phone line. In foreign countries, these are often smoke-filled technological dives, occassionally featuring loud music and a lot of distractions, so time your visit during the off-times.
Many businesses will let you borrow their phone lines. Watch out for networked phone systems as they may damage your laptop and modem. Check carefully with your modem manual and instructions before trying this. If their phone system is incompatible, ask to borrow their fax line as it is usually a dedicated analog line.
Many hotels, motels, and campgrounds are now set up for internet access, often right from your room or campsite. Check with them about the costs of using this service before jumping online as some can be very expensive, even for local calls. Modern campgrounds which offer to rent a phone during the traveler’s stay are few but growing. Compuserve’s RV Forum and other RV-oriented web pages offer lists of such campgrounds. For long-term stays, most campgrounds allow you to pay to have a telephone hooked up at your site.
Read the fine print of an Internet Provider and check with the telephone company to find out when the cheapest rates are. The costs add up and make you think twice about those long hours surfing the net.
After battling with the local phone company and the sad service from local Internet Providers, we decided to go cable and wireless, and we’ve never looked back. If you are still connecting on a telephone line, do everything you can to switch to digital or cable. The price for these services has dropped considerably and we are now actually paying less for our cable connection than we did through our phone line. And now the telephone can be used when we need it without competing for Internet time. When we return to life on the road, we hope cell phone and wireless access will have taken over, but for now, we’re thrilled with the great speeds we are getting. And don’t forget to check the small print when you sign up. Digital and Cable Internet is still new enough that there are some greedy people out there waiting to take advantage of you. Research your options well first!
Many times we’ve arrived at a campground and were told they wouldn’t allow us access because someone before us had abused it. It takes only one to spoil the whole experience for the rest of the good people. Keep your time online short. Campgrounds, hotels, motels, and other accommodations go out of their way to provide phone access in their offices, but remember it may tie up their only line and they are in a business requiring access. Keep it short and be polite and pave the way for those coming in behind you.
Many large highway truck stops provide telephone access for laptops. Similar to Internet cafes, you sit at a table and hook up while munching burgers and fries. Similar connections can be found at airports and payphones in heavily traveled, modern areas.
If you have a cell phone with mobile connections to hook to your laptop, you can hook up anywhere at anytime. Expect to connect at very slow speeds. Some report maximum speeds of 9600 baud, but that’s on a good day very close to a cell tower. If you are getting email with a text based email program, and not surfing the net for hours on end, the speed of this system is often enough for the traveler.
Once you are online, you can go anywhere. So how do you get online? Through a phone number that connects your computer to other computers in the network, but what number do you dial? Major national and international Internet providers offer 800 and local numbers all over the country. Smaller providers only have local numbers to their service, forcing you to make a long-distance call when you are away from home. Outside of the USA, many 800 numbers don’t work and long distance can be expensive. Check with your provider on what access they provide for the traveler. While Juno.com and Hotmail.com are free and accessible from anywhere, you still need an internet connection. Currently Compuserve and AOL are the world’s largest providers of phone access all over the world, though Earthlink is growing and is available in Europe.
Finding an Internet Provider with a wide range of international phone numbers for modem access is a challenge, but finding someone willing to hook you up to their broadband service is an even bigger challenge. Analog modems still hold the reigns in the international travel arena. The wireless technology of Bluetooth is linking laptops and palm computers with cell phones, but the process is slow and troublesome as not many web pages are easily viewed by palms (ours is, by the way!). The expense of Bluetooth technology in your computer and cell phone added to the cell phone online charges…it gets expensive, but the process for the traveler is getting easier and slowly cheaper. Satellites were seen as the way to go, and now that they are smaller and recharged through solar panels, CNN and reporters around the world are taking advantage of them. We’ve all watched the jerky visual reports from Afganistan and elsewhere. This technology is improving, too, it’s just a matter of time before the future arrives making it easier for the traveler to be anywhere and stay in touch.
Look Ma! No Wires! Wireless Connections on the Road
Wireless network technology is becoming all the rage, too. Currently there are two wireless network systems that allow people to connect to the Internet through compatible wireless devices: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Starbucks, McDonalds, and other cafes all over the world are now featuring wireless network technology (Wi-Fi) for their customers to eat and surf the Internet for a fee. Bluetooth is gaining popularity all over the world, especially in the Orient and Europe while Wi-Fi is popular in the United States and in parts of Europe. We invested in a new laptop with wireless technology while in the US recently. Setting up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the home of Brent’s parents, I was able to connect to two other wireless networks for free via neighbors’ home wireless computer systems, cruising the Internet for free. In several airports, I found I could connect to their wireless networks for a small fee, pre-paid time by credit card. Spending a week in Ticonderoga in upstate New York, away from most signs of civilization, I was shocked to find it connecting to someone’s wireless network there, allowing me to once again surf the Internet and email for free. It’s amazing! A friend told Brent that no one in Israel had wireless network systems, and yet, I immediately connected without any problem to a wireless network in Tel Aviv, probably a neighbor. A far cry from when we used to string hundreds of feet of phone cord from our trailer across the campground to the payphone or a willing telephone owner.
Keeping up with the constant evolution in technology for the traveler is a full-time job. There are some very good resources on the Internet to help you keep track of the changes, so you can decide what items you need to invest in to help you stay in touch with the world while moving around it. We list some of those resources in our December 2003 newsletter to help you stay in touch no matter where you travel.