Internet, Cellphone, and Staying in Touch

[NOTE: I’ve blogged all these “how-to” posts before, but am gonna re-run them on occasion, since folks may have missed them, and many of them have been updated or expanded since they were first posted.]

To stay in touch with the rest of the world while on the road, I depend on my little netbook laptop. It has given me good service for several years now. I not only use it 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. The battery then re-charges every day from the solar panel while I am out and about. My third option, for when I am away from the van and outside, in a park or something, 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. Because 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 portable laptop battery, then plug the computer 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 computer 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 YouTube videos 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. Most Walmarts now have wifi. 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 or websurfing.

Some van campers like to use an amplified wifi antenna connected to their laptop, which allows them to get a better signal from anywhere in the parking lot. This is often helpful since the van’s metal walls will sometimes block a portion of the signal.

Another option for getting online is a paid “hotspot” plan, usually from a cellphone service provider, that allows you to login from a computer to wifi access points across the country. Although advertised as “unlimited”, most of them are actually not: there is a monthly cap on your data usage and extra charges if you exceed that. I’ve never used one of these services, since I’ve always been able to scrounge up a free wifi connection somewhere whenever I’ve needed it.

But for most people, another necessity will be a cellphone. This will lead you into a thicket of plans and options, all of which are changing constantly. If you need to make a lot of calls, your best bet is a contract plan with one of the major carriers who has coverage across the entire country. If, like me, you do not make calls very often, your best option is a no-contract pay-as-you-go plan. I keep a Tracfone that I got in a 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 voice calls you will probably also have the option of either using a USB cord to “tether” the phone to a laptop and use it as a modem to get online, or to set up your phone as a wifi hotspot to which you can connect your computer. 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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