High Technology: Web Working from the Road (Part 1)


Upon a request from a reader, I thought I’d divulge a bit about the tech that we use to power our mobile lifestyles. Thus far we’ve been everywhere from middle-of-nowhere to downtown-big-city, and plenty of small towns and truck stops in between. This country is vast, broad and often times sparse with cell towers, but thus far we’ve had pretty good luck staying connected to the Internet as often as we need to be. A few quick notes:

This post will be part of a four-part series. Today I’ll discuss some general thoughts on being a web worker and what you can expect if you set off on your own adventure.

There Isn’t a Whole Lot of Free Internet Out There

The city of Pittsburgh is stuffed with free WiFi access. Many individuals leave there wireless networks open: which, while exposing them to vulnerabilities from sneaky hackers out to steal their mp3 collections, also does a great service to the world. “Stealing” WiFi from your neighbor isn’t much worse than “stealing” the ambient glow his porch light sheds on your porch: it’s there already and you using it doesn’t affect him much at all. Particularly in cities, where broadband speeds are high enough that we don’t typically use them fully for anything, it’s not noticeable. Pittsburgh also has a great tendency for coffee shops and their ilk to provide absolutely free WiFi.

By “absolutely free” I mean you don’t have to pay anything (including buying something from the store first) and you don’t have to login to any provider’s site. Memphis wasn’t like this, in fact Memphis had relatively little free WiFi access at all, and Austin providers typically want you to log in and will often restrict how long you can use their free hotspots. Portland, OR is another city that has plenty of truly free WiFi.

Once you get outside of the big cities, though, you’ll be desperate to find a connection. While home’s will often have unprotected hotspots leaking out of their houses, just try and sit on someone’s porch and checking your Gmail. If you aren’t kicked off of their property in the first 15 minutes, you’ll be shot at in the first 10. The idea of a “cafe” in most small towns is also unheard of as well, so you’ll have to look around a bit to find a free spot.

What’s a Poor Boy to Do?

The best place to look, regardless of the size of the town you’re in, is the local public library. They very often have free WiFi, typically have no limits to the length of time you can use it, and not many people get bothered at the library.

I’m Not Worried, I’ve got a Data Card

Also known as aircards, data cards are basically devices that allow you to connect to wireless networks like AT&T’s 3G or EDGE networks, or Sprint’s EVDO. These are great, and work wonderfully in towns and cities, but just like your cell phone, they cut out once you get into cow country.

Out of maybe 24 different places we’ve stayed thus far, though, I’ve only not been able to get connection on my Sprint card once (very shakey connection with AT&T in that area as well) which was deep into Pennsylvania farm territory. Due to this, I suspect that the majority of the Northeast, the South, the Great Lakes and the West Coast will have connection. If you’re in a red state, though, God help you if you get more than a few miles outside of the town limits.

Planning for the Internet

You could easily travel indefinitely in your RV and never be forced to go without the Internet, but you will be restricted compared to those without the need to constantly be connected. If you want to delve deep into Yellowstone, for example, don’t count on getting a connection. If you don’t mind hanging around towns and truck stops, though, you’ll likely never go without. Personally, I have the mindset that I need to work, but I don’t need to work every day. So if we want to spend say, a week in the middle of the desert, I can plan my work schedule around that.

You can also research what type of connectivity you can expect to get from the different cell providers by using their maps:

Over the next couple of days I’ll be covering How to Connect to the Web via your Cell Phone, Creating a Wireless Network in your RV with Time Capsule, and How to Prepare for No WiFi.