Internet, Cellphone, and Staying in Touch

To stay in touch with the rest of the world while on the road, I depend on my little Toshiba netbook. She has given me good service for several years now. I not only use her for editing and uploading book manuscripts for my job, but also to post messages and photos online, to keep up with the blogs and websites that I follow, and to send emails to friends and family.

To keep the laptop charged up, I have several options. The easiest and simplest is to just hang around in a shopping mall or library on days when I want to do computer work, and plug in to one of their outlets. Generally I spend three or four days a week camped out in libraries or shopping mall food courts doing work.

At night, when I use my laptop to watch TV or YouTube videos or read Kindle ebooks, I can plug in to the solar-charged battery in the back of the van. A full charge on the battery lets me run the laptop for 4-5 hours for two or three days, depending on what I’m doing. The battery then charges every day from the solar panel while I am out and about.

My third option, for when I am outside in a park or something and want to do some stuff, is to charge the laptop with a portable foldable solar panel. I have two of these which I have linked together with a Y-cord. One is 24 watts and the other is 12 watts. Since the electrical output from a solar panel is not steady but depends on how much sunlight is hitting it, I can’t run the laptop directly from the solar panels. Instead, I use the panels to charge up a Tekkeon portable battery, then plug the laptop into the battery and run it from that. Since I have two batteries, I can charge one with the solar panels while using the other to run the laptop. Each battery will run the laptop for about 2.5 hours.

So, how do I get on the Internet? When I want to work steadily for a few hours at a time, I use the free public Internet at the local library, and most shopping malls have stores that give free Internet. Most libraries have pretty good wifi systems, and if you are doing things that require lots of time and high bandwidth, like downloading movies or uploading photos, that will probably be your best option.

If I’m elsewhere, I can usually hook up for a little while sitting next to a McDonald’s or Starbucks or something. At night, I always try to park the van near some place that I can get a wifi signal. The signals at these places, however, tend to be slow and cranky. In general, they are only good for low-bandwidth tasks like checking emails.

Another option for getting online is a monthly Internet plan using one of the USB dongles that plugs into a laptop and gives you wifi access virtually anywhere. But these plans are pretty pricey, and they limit the amount of bandwidth you can use each month (and if you exceed this limit the charges go up a lot).

So far, I’ve always been able to scrounge up a free wifi connection whenever I’ve needed it.

As for a cellphone, I keep a Tracfone that I got in the Walmart, but I barely use it; I tell everyone to email me instead of calling. So usually the phone is buried in my backpack, turned off. I only keep it so I can make outgoing calls when I need to.

If you have a smartphone, however, in addition to making calls, you will probably have the option of using a USB cord to “tether” the phone to a laptop and use it as a modem to connect the computer online. You’d probably want a very generous data plan for your phone to do this, but it does have the advantage of allowing you to get online even in areas where there is no wifi signal.

Another option for staying in touch with people is Skype, which is a teleconferencing software found on most laptops. Skype is free to use. It is, however, an enormously high-bandwidth application, and it won’t work without a good wifi signal.

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