Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Publication Date: 02/1/2008
Archive >  February 2008 Issue >  Tech Watch > 
Broadband at Long Last

Five years ago, as we formulated plans to take our lives on the road in the most literal sense, the biggest question mark was how best to get reliable Internet on a daily basis, no matter where we parked our rig. The answer at the time was unquestionably by satellite, so we opted for a MotoSat antenna and related modems.

The system was installed on our then one-day-old coach during a very cold December in Post Falls, Idaho. While the installer worked on our coach inside a very large garage, we took our car to nearby Coeur d'Alene to do some very last-minute Christmas shopping. The satellite Internet worked as billed: anywhere in the U.S. as long as there were no trees or other natural features blocking the line-of-sight, which meant that it could be made to work just about anywhere. But it was slow, and got slower as more customers got on the network. It finally got to the point where it was only slightly faster than dialup, and it cost an awful lot more. But unlike a landline, we were not tethered; we were able to get Internet parked in truckstops, in Wal-Mart parking lots, and of course most RV parks — but not the ones with a lot of trees.

At one point, after about two years on the road, there was a serious mixup with the tech support people, and I suddenly found that I had a different e-mail address, and there was nothing I could do about it. Okay, print new business cards, and notify everybody in the whole world.

There were a number of "tricks" that I learned in the course of many phone conversations with tech support, who were mercifully all American English speakers based in California. There were things to do with the various connectors, rebooting the modems, tweaking the antenna pointing — all neat stuff that made me feel much more high-tech than anyone else in the neighborhood. The antenna could be raised and lowered all electronically by clicking on an icon on the computer screen. It would miraculously find the satellite and fine-tune, with no human intervention needed, at least most of the time. The major aggravation was the slow up- and download speed. It got especially difficult when trying to buy an airline ticket, and the travel web site would time out and I would have to start all over again. This happened even more frequently when trying to buy baseball tickets. The system was sloooooow.

Then came the day that the Internet stopped working. Period. It didn't all happen at once. Initially, I thought it must have to do with increased foliage on the trees. I would have trouble getting my e-mail, then it wouldn't connect, then it would connect, and all of a sudden two days' worth of e-mails would arrive in a rush, then it would stop working for a week. The system had suddenly become very unreliable.

We were stationary at the time, and had a landline telephone. So I did the obvious and ordered DSL service. Okay, new business cards, and a lot of e-mails sent out to all of my business associates, people writing articles for U.S. Tech, family, friends, everyone. After struggling through a difficult deadline, I got on the phone with tech support, and four days of unsatisfactory conversations later, I had learned that the Hughes Network no longer supported the 4000 class modems, and then the real kick in the ribs: the Hughes Network no longer supports the type of antenna that I have. We were about to get out of Dodge so we would be losing our nice, handy DSL line.

During the four years that I had been using satellite Internet, the mobile phone companies had been very busy. I found that Verizon Wireless now had good solid digital coverage over so much of the country, that an air card just seemed to be the logical way to go. I went to the Verizon concession at Circuit City and after looking at the verious options, elected to get the USB air card so I could use it on my desktop computer as well as the laptops. Not only that, I would get a $50 rebate on the $100 air card. And it carried a fixed rate of $69 a month plus taxes for all the air time I wanted to use. I tried the USB on my notebook computer, and I couldn't get it to work. So after an hour on the phone with tech support, the technie on the phone suggested that I take the air card to a Verizon store and change it for a plug-in PC card for the computer and take the computer with me and have them install it.

The swap cost me an added $35 for the more expensive Express card for the new Sony notebook computer, and everything worked! I set up with Google's gmail, and of course had to order some new business cards and notify everyone in the entire universe about my new e-mail address. And inevitably I missed a few people.

I have found the Verizon card to be extremely reliable, very fast setup when booting up the computer, and very fast up- and downloading. So far, it has far exceeded my hopes and expectations. It works anywhere, regardless of foliage. I am currently sitting in the middle of the desert in Arizona, I have 5 bars on the Internet and 4 bars (the maximum) on my Verizon cell phone. There are several coaches around me with satellite dishes deployed and glowing with their ghostly blue Martian light in the clear desert night air, but I have the last laugh, because my service is so much faster and so much cheaper.

One day, I was sort of surprised to receive back from the shop my trusty Averatec lightweight computer, all fixed and raring to go. But it would not accept the Express card; being an older machine, it had a PCMCIA slot. This was shortly rectified with an adapter, not the easiest item to find. I was finally able to buy it on the Internet (naturally) for $37 plus S&H. The adapater, made by Novatel, is the only one to get. I have read bad reports about the other one — a Verizon branded adapter — and only good about the Novatel. I can tell you that it's simple, and it works.
No matter how you quantify it, that's all that really matters.  

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