RV Lifestyle

Mike Has Gone Dark – No Internet Access

Well, Mike Wendland hasn't been heard from, and we're getting worried. It's not like his E-Trek came back to camp without him, but still, it's been almost two days and nary a peep. Last we heard he was in Montrose, CO and headed for the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a gorgeous wilderness area in central Colorado. Since then…. nothing.

It's probably not the case that the bears got him, or that he ran into a band of renegade mountain men holed up in the rugged terrain – the issue is Internet access. Like many RVers, Mike relies on a datacard, a Verizon MiFi, for internet access when he's traveling. These cards work great if you're within the reception area of the cellphone network, that ubiquitous infrastructure that covers the populated areas of out country. But there's no reason to build cell phone towers out in the middle of nowhere when there aren't any people there to use them, so they don't, and there are significant sections of the country where you can whip out your cell phone or data card, and get no reception.  Even with a cell phone signal booster, which Mike has, eventually you will be out of range.

Verizon coverage – wall-to-wall in the east, spotty in the west.

Folks in the eastern part of the country find this hard to believe because they've never experienced it, but come out west and holes start opening up in the cellphone coverage map. East of the Mississippi, you'd have to be in deepest Appalachia or the backwoods of Maine to be out of range, but out west it's often a question as to what IS covered, not what's not covered. The solid network coverage disintegrates into a spiderweb of access along major highways and near cities, and big white spaces out in the boonies, where the best camping is.

Now look, I'm not knocking Verizon – I have a datacard myself. But when the going gets tough, the REAL 21st century backwoodsman has a backup that never fails – satellite Internet. Sure, if Mike wants to prance around back in Michigan with his datacard, it will work everywhere (except places in the UP), and nobody will be the wiser. But out here in the rugged wilderness, you gotta aim for the heavens, because the nearest uplink point is in geosynchronous orbit, 23,000 miles above the equator.  It's bad enough that Mike drives that Euro-weenie Sprinter van with its excuse-me-could-I-please-get-through-here horn, let's not send him out West under-equipped with a tenderfoot data system. Mike needs satellite Internet.

If you live in a sticks and bricks house and want internet, satellite internet is a poor alternative to fiber optic cable. You have weather-related reception problems, it's slow, and there's a 1/3 second delay while the signal goes up to the satellite and comes back. Even at the speed of light, 50-55,000 miles is a long way. However, if you're on the road, fiber and other landline-based systems aren't in the picture, and satellite internet comes into its own.  Many Class A owners have been using the Datastorm automatically pointing dishes for years, and if you have the roof acerage and weight capacity, they're very convenient. Us Class B folks have neither. We use manually pointed dishes on tripods.

Mobile satellite internet is a dying technology – the old satellites are being replaced with newer birds that send spot beams – powerful, focused signals that cover a particular area. Here's a map of the Wildblue Satellite Internet Company's spot beams – 31 of them cover the country. Speed is faster with the stronger signal, but you lose the mobility because once you're out of your beam's coverage area, you get no signal.  Good if you're in a regular house, bad if you typically eat lunch in one beam and dinner that night in the next.

Us mobile satellite internet people use the older, Ku-band satellites. Spot beams are Ka, a different frequency. Ku band birds have been up there a decade or more, and are starting to show their age, but the beauty of them is that they broadcast a lower-strength signal clear across the continent, and up into Canada and down into Mexico. Look at the coverage map for my bird- Galaxy 16 at 99 west longitude. There is some shaping of the signal with the antenna to pick up Hawaii, Puerto Rico, etc, but in general if you can see the southern sky anywhere north of Mexico City or south of Alberta, you can get online. And you can move somewhere – anywhere – and get online again. That's what you need to be able to move around the country and access the same uplink.

I went through the particulars of cost, aiming techniques, etc. in my earlier post about satellite internet.  It's also a bulky item to store and transport in a Class B – the dish is .74 square meters, about three feet by two feet, plus the tripod, offset bracket, etc., but it's doable. If Mike really wants to step up to the next level, he's gonna have to do what the big boys do, and get a satellite system.   There's nothing sadder than a bunch of city slickers, wandering around the campsite holding their cellphones and datacards up in the air trying to get a signal. Us satellite internet folks try not to get amused by this spectacle, but it's hard sometimes 😉

Earth to Mike – come in please….   *sigh* I'm afraid we've lost him….


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