The Connected Traveler: Internet on the Road
It's probably happened to you. It's late afternoon as you pull your rig into an RV park for the night. You level out, connect the hookups, get dinner started and then try to hop onto the park's wifi to download emails and check your favorite web sites. You've entered the proper password and it looks like you're connected, but nothing happens.
Welcome once again to the frustrating world of Internet on the road. RV web sites and blogs are full of tips, gripes and workarounds for travelers who want to bring their digital life with them.
RV park wi-fi complaints are pretty high on most traveler's lists. As the Internet exploded in importance over a decade ago, park owners started putting antennas up to offer this new benefit. Some followed the model of hotels and motels who, years earlier, charged for any kind of phone call to defray the cost of their system. Other RV park owners decided to simply offer the service for free.
What park owners didn't anticipate was that the thirst for digital consumption would become so great. Think of it this way: a park owner generally has a single connection feeding the property. It's like a small water pipe. When everyone in the evening tries to log on it's like flushing every toilet at the same time -- the water pressure drops. And when that happens, your little spinning hourglass, or beach ball, or clock icon just keeps turning. Because a lot of parks are more rural they don't have any good options in getting higher bandwidth. And even with the parks that do, the other issue is cost. Beyond a park owner's monthly cost of connecting to the Internet there's the expense of wiring antennas and routers to cover the park which requires far more expensive gear than you'd buy for home.
Good wi-fi is expensive. It's a sensitive issue for park owners. While they'd like to offer this amenity, they find that most of their customers expect it for free and they're worried that charging an extra fee for the service will drive business away. One high end park that we know of in southern California is spending $200,000 dollars putting a better wi-fi system in. And yes, they will be charging for higher quality service. However, given the slim profit margins most parks already operate on it's hard for them to afford that kind of investment with no certainty of payback.
Time of day matters. When you're connected to a park wi-fi you should think of it like a freeway. You're objective is to avoid rush hour. You can often get a better connection later in the evening (usually past 10), in the middle of the night (if you can't sleep), or the middle of the day (when everybody's out and about). But, you might as well forget about mornings and early evenings.
The hottest spot in town. For the data dependent, the nicest luxury is a mobile hot spot device. A hot spot connects to the cell data network and works as a mini wi-fi router so your phones, tablets and laptops can all share the connection. More and more, the cellular companies have broadened their coverage in most areas of the country. There are still pockets of slower service (3G), but the faster networks (4G and LTE) have become much more universal. LTE speeds can be surprisingly fast and rival those of telephone line DSL. Depending on how and where you travel you'll need to determine which carrier has the most universal coverage. The top coverage carriers are Verizon and AT&T followed by Sprint and T-Mobile.
All mobile carriers sell hotspot devices. Without a subsidized discount a mobile hotspot costs about $200. The monthly charge will be like that of a cell phone (a hotspot actually is assigned its own phone number) at $10 to $20 a month. Many of the newer smartphones also have the ability to act as a mobile hotspot. There's usually a nominal "tethering" fee for this service, but if this solution works for you it will save you a monthly device charge. Either way you'll also have to pay for a data plan. Data plans aren't cheap. Depending on how big a data plan you buy you can easily spend $30-$50 per month. Fortunately, you can call your carrier (or go online) and adjust usage up and down as your travel plans require.
Looking to the future. The long term economics for an RV park to upgrade its wi-fi aren't particularly rosy. More and more, if parks want to improve their systems to handle bigger demand they're going to have to start charging guests. That strategy will run headlong into the inevitable decrease of cost for using cellular data (remember when a long distance phone call was expensive?). In time, RV park wi-fi will probably go the way of pay phones and charging for local calls as all our devices are wirelessly connected to the cell networks. But until that time comes, the quest for RV connectivity will still be challenging and a little more costly.