Improving your cellular connection

I think we were the only ones with cellular Internet at this rally in 2005

These days having Internet while we are traveling is almost as important as water and oxygen, at least for many of us. When I started full-time Airstream travel in 2005 having a cellular Internet “box” was a big deal and fairly rare.  The one I was using cost about $2,500 and was about the size of two VHS tapes (remember those?) and when I went to the WBCCI International Rally in Springfield MO, everybody wanted to borrow it to check their email.

Fortunately it was a loaner, because not long after you could get a tiny hotspot that did the same thing for about $79, and suddenly we all started getting them.  Now almost anyone can use cellular networks for their Internet, just by turning on a hotspot feature on their phone.

Of course, when Internet is free and easy you start to take it for granted, and then when it suddenly isn’t available it feels like a python has taken a grip to your neck.  You know what I mean if you’ve ever pulled into a campground and found their wifi to be completely useless once everyone in the campground starts watching Netflix.  Here’s your python—no more oxygen for you!

I skip the campground wifi because it’s almost always horrible, and use cellular exclusively for my work. Not only is it more reliable, it’s more secure. No unknown persons are able to share my hotspot, and that’s a good thing for security reasons. (This assumes, of course, that you have encryption enabled on your hotspot and use a hard-to-guess password.)

It’s rare when the cellular network runs slowly.  Usually I only find an overcrowded network in Borrego Springs, CA, where every winter hundreds of RVs park in and around the town.  Many of them are part of the current craze of RV “technomads”, people who rely on having good Internet every day, all day, and in the past few seasons they have completely overwhelmed the capacity of the Borrego Springs cell towers.

Far more often the problem is the reverse: instead of being overcrowded, we’re usually in a fringe reception area, competing with no one but struggling to pull a good signal into our Airstream.

Obviously the aluminum shell of an Airstream trailer is not great for reception (nor is the metal of an Interstate or Base Camp) so in the past I’ve been forced to set up my laptop on a picnic table outside.  Let me tell you, the fantasy image of blissfully working outdoors instead of a some cubicle is absolute nonsense.  Either the sun is too bright to see the screen or there’s a threat of rain, often there are bugs flying around and taking nips, the breeze may come up and blow your papers away, or it’s too hot or too cold. There’s a good reason officeworkers work in offices; it’s similar to why we camp in Airstreams instead of tents.

So in the real world we need to have a way to get the signal into the Airstream, and there’s really only one practical way: an external antenna, paired with a signal booster.  WeBoost (formerly Wilson) has cornered the market on signal boosters, and their product is good, so you’ll probably end up with one of those.  But the antenna that comes with most of their kits is, shall we say, “less than optimal”.

First of all it has a magnetic base, because it’s intended for cars and trucks. That’s not going to help on the aluminum roof of an Airstream.  Second, to get the cable out you have to drill a hole in the Airstream roof, or poke it out through a window (a hole in the screen, of course) which looks awful and isn’t a good installation for the long haul. Third, there’s a reason they throw that particular antenna into the kit—it’s a cheap, so-so option.

The best move is to permanently mount a good antenna on the roof. Yes, you’ll have to get over the fact that a hole must be drilled in the Airstream. If you use the right antenna there won’t be any problem making the installation completely leak-proof.

My feeling is that if you are going to drill a hole, do it once and install the best antenna you can find. After evaluating many (including installing several types on the roof of my own Airstream over the past 12 years) I’ve settled on the Laird Phantom antenna.

It’s just as effective as the big antennas (which run 19 to 24 inches tall), but it’s just under three and a half inches tall. It looks like an inverted shot glass, mounted directly to the roof.  Because it’s white and matches the roof color, most people will never see it, which is nice because I don’t like having huge antennas on my roof that virtually announce to the world that I’ve got laptops inside. And, it’s so small it won’t catch on branches during those “tree trimming” exercises we seem to do occasionally.

Another aspect I really like is that the Phantom antenna seals directly to the roof with a tight rubber gasket that prevents leaks. Nothing else is needed, but for a belt & suspenders approach I added a little sealant too. So it’s the last thing on my roof that I worry about leaking.

The other piece of the puzzle, after the WeBoost and antenna, is the cable. Most people seem to use a standard low-attenuation (signal loss) cable that works OK, but I found a better version that has less signal loss. We package the cable together with the antenna and complete instructions, in the Airstream Life Store. (You can buy the WeBoost separately.)

Really, everyone who wants reliable Internet in their Airstream should install one of these, but most people don’t, and I think that’s because they’re horrified by the idea of drilling a hole in their Airstream roof.  I get that. It took me a while to get over it, too. Fairly often we sell one of these kits and it comes back a couple of weeks later with a sheepish email saying, “My [significant other] won’t let me drill a hole in the Airstream.”

That’s why we include a set of step-by-step instructions with the kit. The instructions show how anyone with moderate DIY skills can handle this job. Still, if you’re not comfortable with it you can always have the local Airstream dealer install it for you—or bring it to the factory sometime. It’s really not that hard; basically you just drill two holes and run the cable.

The end result is great. Not only is the antenna nearly unnoticeable, but the cellular performance is greatly improved.  You’ll get faster data speeds and be able to get online easily in places where the system would struggle before. You’ll quickly forget the trauma of drilling a hole, and you’ll enjoy the boost in performance for years.

How to stop burning up your cellular data plan

Bert G. has an important question:

“We have a good phone plan with a major cellular carrier that gives us a generous data allowance each month, but we’re burning gigabytes like camp wood,” he said. “We can’t figure out why. What’s happening?”

This problem seems to be epidemic lately among travelers. Part of the reason is that we’ve got more data-capable devices now, including laptops, tablets, phones, game platforms, fitness bands, cameras, etc. You should be careful about which devices you allow to connect to your wireless hotspot.

The other part of the problem is the fault of new software that automatically updates itself to the latest version. Go through your laptop and tablet and look for settings to disable “automatic updates” of any kind. If you have a choice, tell the device to “Ask me” every time before loading new software.

You’ll find these settings in several places, including for the operating system itself (Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, etc.) and for individual programs like browsers, Adobe Flash, Microsoft Office, iTunes, and many other commonly used programs.

Be wary of a setting that says something like “Update only when connected to Wi-Fi”. When your laptop or tablet connects to your hotspot, it thinks that’s free Wi-Fi. The device can’t distinguish between the unlimited Wi-Fi from a coffee shop and the Wi-Fi your “pay-by-the-gigabyte” hotspot provides.

Finally, don’t let friends and campground neighbors “borrow” your Wi-Fi for a little while. Once their device connects to your hotspot, it will continue to automatically connect (and possibly download massive software updates) without being asked, unless it is specifically told to “forget” your hotspot.

The Dark Side of Being A Digital Nomad

Over the last decade cellular and wifi coverage has gotten so good that it’s feasible for many people to break free of their office desks and work from their recreational vehicle. This has spawned the term “digital nomad” or “technomad” and for many, it’s the ideal life.

Digital Nomad
Photo courtesy of Weaselmouth

Compared to just ten years ago, things are great today. Back in the bad old days, cellular internet was based on slow “2G” networks, which meant that you’d need to find a wifi hotspot to do serious

downloading, usually miles away. Campground WiFi was spotty and indifferently supported by the campgrounds, meaning that usually it didn’t work. (That part hasn’t changed much.) Some people used satellite connections on tripods, and if you’ve ever seen the rigamarole involved in setting one of those up, and then suffered the tedious upload speeds, you can understand that they were really desperate.

Today it’s an entirely different situation. We have high-speed 4G cellular all over the country, and with usable signal in places we could only fantasize about a few years ago. Even campground WiFi has gotten a little better (although still terribly unreliable on the whole). The bottom line is that anybody can get online almost anywhere.

Because it’s getting easier to get online and bosses are starting to recognize that “work form home” doesn’t always equate to “slacker,” the number of digital nomads living in RVs seems to have skyrocketed. But before you pack up to work from the road full-time, keep in mind that finding usable and fast internet can still be a challenge, because everyone else is looking for the same thing.

It’s hard to find an RV that doesn’t have a laptop or two inside it, along with smart phones and tablets for every member of the family. Even the dog might have a GPS tracking collar that uses a cellular network to send his location. Every one of those devices is pinging the same cell tower, creating local congestion.

Photo courtesy of Weaselmouth
Photo courtesy of Weaselmouth

The result is that in many popular places, internet data speeds still suck. It’s not because of any fault of Verizon or AT&T, or the campground management, but simply because too many people are inundating the local network. Just a few years ago you might have been flying along and getting work done efficiently because you were the only person in the park working on a laptop in your Airstream trailer on a nice day—while everyone else was sensibly out on a hike or starting their campfire. Now they’re sitting inside their trailers and watching YouTube.

Campground managers say they can’t keep up. One manager of large Arizona KOA said he had spent $20,000 in the previous month upgrading the campground wifi system, and boosting the data plan to the maximum available, and it still wasn’t enough. Most campgrounds try to lighten the load by blocking certain services, like streaming video (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc) and streaming audio (Skype, iChat, Facetime, etc).

That doesn’t make customers happy. Many view blocking as an unfair restriction, like telling you that you can use the campground water for drinking but not for showers.

The digital nomad is at the forefront of this problem. Come Monday morning, working people can’t afford slow internet. This has spurred a sort of arms race, because he who has the biggest antenna and booster setup will get a stronger signal and hence more bandwidth. Specialty stores have popped up to advise you on the latest technology to get an edge over the average person using a basic Jetpack or MiFi-type device. High-gain antennas, cellular-compatible routers, wi-fi extenders, low-loss cables, and signal boosters are the tools of the serious RV-based digital nomad.

There are also tricks for working around slow internet. First, at peak times do only the bare minimum that you must do online, because otherwise you will be staring at your computer waiting for things to load. Wake up early or work very late at night on things that take serious bandwidth.

Second, save a list of things that require high-speed internet (like big file uploads) and do those jobs at some public wi-fi spot in town, like Panera Bread, McDonald’s, public library, coffee shop, etc. This has the side benefit of getting you away from your desk for a few hours.

Third, when possible, use your smart phone instead of a laptop. Mobile apps are designed for narrow bandwidth, and you can do quite a lot with a tablet or phone on slow internet connections. For jobs like online banking, short emails, checking weather, and social network updates, today’s smart phone apps are definitely a great way to go.

Fourth, be very careful about cloud-based applications and automatic updates. Today’s laptop operating systems are loaded with options to automatically synchronize data, including emails, calendars, preferences, passwords, photos, files—even entire hard drive backups and operating system updates. This is frustrating when you are paying for every gigabyte of data, and it slows things down. Seek out and turn off everything that sends data to the internet without explicitly asking you for permission first. You’ll probably be surprised how many apps and features are doing this on your laptop and cell phone.

The bandwidth wars probably won’t get better when faster networks become available. Cellular networks have come a long way, but as they gain, there’s always some new application that will suck up every bit of excess bandwidth plus some. The “arms race” for serious mobile workers will continue.

Finally, if it all becomes too much hassle, remember why you are in an RV. You’ve got wheels. Consider moving to somewhere less popular. Or, take a break and go for a hike where cell signals don’t penetrate anyway, and get back to work at another time!

-By Rich Luhr

How to Weigh Your Airstream, part 2

Here’s a bit more detail on how to use a truck stop scale, following up on our previous article “How To Weigh Your Airstream, part 1“.

“Don’t be intimidated by the truck stop and the Big Truck dudes there,” says Lexie Kensington, an avid vintage owner. Here’s more you need to know about weighing your rig:

“A weigh costs money. Usually about $10, but each additional weigh for the same equipment is only $1 extra for a 24-hour period at the same scales. The weigh will come to you from a licensed weigh master and is a legal document. Sometimes it will be stamped or embossed like a notary seal. It will show the individual scale sections and the total of the entire combination of equipment.

Never drive on a scale the wrong way. Wait your turn if there is a line which almost never happens. It’s painless, easy, and the employees at the truck stop will be glad to help. They work hard for lousy money. By just being a cheerful customer you’ll make their whole day.

The scales platform you drive onto is in two or three sections. Usually each section is marked by yellow or white stripes. These sections are for semi trucks to place the steering axle, the driving (rear) axle of the tractor, and the actual trailer on individually. The tractor and the trailer are weighed in two sections, on two scale platforms.

For best results, go onto the scales all packed for your intended trip, tow vehicle along, with your Airstream, kids, pets and spouse.

Unhook and park the Airstream in a section of the lot out of the way of other traffic. Note: It is considered poor form for a semi-trailer driver to “drop” a trailer and unhook at a truck stop, evidently abandoning a load, or engaging in some other suspicious behavior. As an RVer, you have more latitude, but be courteous in using up blacktop space.

Drive onto the scale platform when clear, with your passengers. If you can, park with your steering axle on the most forward platform, and your driving (rear) axle on the platform just behind it.

Your rig might be too light. Some scales are are set up so that the modest weight of your tow vehicle divided between the two platforms does not register on their equipment. In this case you may need to get both of your tow vehicle’s axles on the most forward platform. It will fit, but you may need to get out and inspect it.

Call for a weigh. There will be a push button call box located for the semi tractor driver to push and ask to be weighed. Since most of the calls for weighs are by semi drivers, it will be far out of reach from your tow vehicle’s window!

An almost unintelligible person (many times a young overworked lady) will holler “COMPANY NAME?” meaning to which trucking company should the bill for this weigh be sent to. You should respond “private weigh,” meaning you are going to come inside and pay for this on the spot. While this is unconventional, they will understand that you are not a big semi tractor.

After a few seconds, they should call back or signal you that they have the weigh. Pull off the scales, go inside to the Fuel Desk and identify yourself as the person with the “private weigh” and they will charge you and hand you the certificate.

Now is a good time to review the weigh and see what your different axles are bearing. With your tow vehicle’s published data, you’ll see what each axle is rated to carry and what it is actually carrying. Also you can see what your tires are carrying per axle, and if you need to unload or leave a family member at home after all. If the numbers are all inside the published guidelines you can proceed. If not: UNLOAD SOME STUFF! Some like to leave a safety margin of +/- 10%

You’re half done. Now hook up your trailer and again drive onto the scales, with steering axle, driving axle, and trailer axles sets all on their own platform if possible. Ask for a Private Weigh again, wait for the weigh master to get the data. Pull off, park, and get your additional weigh (it should be only $1 this time) and review the data. You can now deduce the following:

The hitch weight (the static pressure on the hitch ball) is your second driving axle weight subtracted from the first. Have you overloaded your hitch? Check against the published numbers of your hitch.

The gross weight of the trailer is the trailer platform weight plus the hitch ball weight. Are you within the weight range of your trailer’s gross weigh limit? If you exceed it, your brakes will be mighty unhappy.

The weight on your trailer tires is the trailer platform number. Are you over? Are you inflated correctly to manage this load?

The weight upon the rear tires of your tow vehicle (the driving axle platform number). Are you over your driving axle or tires limit? It will be different (heavier) now that you have the trailer hooked up!

And finally—how much weight has your front axle lost by the weight of the trailer pushing down on the rear? (Second front axle weigh subtracted from the first.) Do you need to adjust your weight distribution system? If driving feels uncomfortable with that weight loss on the front axle, you can fine tune it by successive weighs. At only $1 per, it’s cheap insurance. Insufficient weight on the front axles can make steering feel weird, and in an emergency, leave you without good control if you have to make a sudden-avoidance maneuver.

Don’t be intimidated by truck stops, folks who use them, or those who work there. They all wish they could be you: enjoying RVing with an Airstream!

Recommendations for your mobile office

Julie and Ken C.—on the road to Georgia—need some tips about Airstreaming with office electronics.

“Please share with us the various electronic office equipment you take with you. What is the small size printer (and scanner/copier?) you take along? We are needing to purchase one soon!”

Julie and Ken, if you’ve got a mobile office and need to print and scan documents, there are several good solutions to consider. The smallest and lightest printers are ink jet printers. Hewlett-Packard’s Envy series are medium-sized and very inexpensive, at about $80-100. They print in color, scan, and copy.

However, if you boondock frequently and want a battery-powered printer, or need something physically smaller (and don’t need scan capability) the HP Officejet 100 Mobile series might be your choice at about $200. For that price, you also get Bluetooth wireless connectivity, so you have fewer cords to deal with.

There’s another option for scanning, too: your smart phone. Look for a smart phone app like Genius Scan, which uses your phone’s camera to “scan” documents. These apps are surprisingly good for routine document scanning. Genius Scan will help you crop and optimize the scans for best readability, organize your documents into folders, upload them to cloud storage like Dropbox, or email them to yourself as PDF or JPG files.

It’s much quicker than pulling out the scanner and laptop computer, and so convenient you may find yourself scanning fuel receipts and bills just because you can!