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

My Campsite, My Worksite

More and more Airstreamers are taking their jobs on the road with them. No, not camp hosting, or even work camping — they’re keeping an office job afloat as they travel from place to place, either temporarily in extended vacation mode, or on a permanent basis, year ’round. The rewards are obvious (like that view, below), but there are challenges, too.

Oceanview from an Airstream
Airstream ocean view (photo by Laura Domela)

Kevin Morris and wife Laura Domela run their own business (an online publication for electrical engineers) and manage ten employees. “We really can’t take much of a break from work,” said Laura, a professional photographer—but that hasn’t stopped them from regularly traveling in their 27-foot, 2010 FB Airstream International. “Kevin does the writing and manages most of the business side, and I do the layout and publishing of our articles and newsletters,” she said. “After eleven years of taking our work on the road we find that it’s really important not to just work the day away without taking a good break to go see or do something new.”

The Airstream office of Morris and Domela
The Airstream office of Morris and Domela

Kyle Bolstad, (who has traveled to every state in the nation and all ten Canadian provinces while succeeding at his job as a software developer), concurs. “My one piece of advice for others who work while they travel is to try and take breaks during the day, to get out and explore,” he said.

Kyle Bolstad - jobs on the road
Kyle Bolstad

Itching to see the country, Kyle moved out of his apartment and into an Airstream five years ago. He maintains a full time job while full-timing in a 2008 23-foot CCD International, towed by his trusty Touareg. He’s currently in Hawaii (the only state he has visited without the Airstream).

“I typically work a bit in the morning, take a break during lunch to explore the area during daylight hours, and then continue working later that night when it’s too dark to explore much,” he said. “If your job doesn’t allow you to take a break during the day, try to mix up your work environment by getting out of the Airstream to work in a cool coffee shop, park, hotel lobby, restaurant, you name it.” As Kyle’s website states, “with a MacBook Pro and an internet connection, he works out of an Airstream—anywhere.”

Getting (and staying) electronically connected to employers, coworkers and associates while traveling is a challenge that Kevin, Kyle and Laura solve by using a sophisticated variety of hotspot technologies and all the associated gadgetry. More casual users will be glad to hear that plain old campground wifi is increasing in reliability.

As recent as three or four years ago, the internet connection at most campgrounds was nonexistent or spotty. “When they first started out they used consumer-level, homeowner solutions,” said Michael Sullivan, an Apple certified support professional and owner of MPS Consulting. “They put the router in the clubhouse, or the laundry room, or some other ‘central location’.” RVers requiring the internet learned to ask where the signal was strongest when checking in, and then selected the nearest campsite. “You’d put up with being next to the laundromat just so you’d have a good wifi signal, or you had to walk over with your laptop and sit there,” said Sullivan.

“There were a couple of problems with the campground wifi setup,” he explained. “Obviously, the range—the further you’d get out, the slower it would be, if you got a connection at all. And the consumer level units providing the signal were a combination of router and wireless device all in one box that wouldn’t give very good partitioning.” Each user on the network was visible to all. “You could look at your neighbor’s dirty laundry very easily,” he laughed, “especially if they have their computer set up for guest sharing. You’d be able to print to their printer if they had one! That would be really funny.”

Campground owners have recently wised up and learned from commercial hotels. “Mid range hotels provide reliable free internet, and they realize the better it is, the more likely you are to stay with them,” said Sullivan. “The campgrounds are just now figuring this out. They know wifi is a major pull. A high speed, high bandwidth connection is the new swimming pool.”

Look for higher-end campgrounds that have installed professional level equipment; meaning, a wifi controller box in a central location with a wire loop running throughout the grounds with a series of WAPs—wireless access points—broadcasting out. “Instead of one antenna, you have a whole series of antennas throughout the property,” said Sullivan. “So you could be parked way out on the end or wherever you liked, and still get a strong signal and high bandwidth.”

“Another problem with consumer level units is that they’re only meant to support a small number of wifi connections before there’s a great degradation in quality of the signal,” he continued. “Often times if you exceed the number of people, the wifi unit kind of freezes. The manager had to unplug it—knocking everyone off—plug it back in, and then everyone can get back in the pool…until it exceeds the quantity again, over and over. The commercial ones don’t tend to do that; they’re better controlled and better partitioned, with better security, and better availability. They don’t tend to croak.”

Another good thing: professional equipment usually comes with a maintenance contract. “If somebody has a problem, they call an 800 number instead of the poor hapless guy running the KOA who might be really good at cleaning pools and maintaining the site, but with the internet, not so much,” Sullivan said. “Now you can get a guy on the other end who will be able to remotely see what’s going on with your system and fix it for you, or troubleshoot the problem.”

Sullivan’s consulting business is located in a town popular for it’s outdoor recreation. “We have a lot of clients that we do tech support for that say ‘do you mind, I’m not in a traditional house, I’m not in a traditional business, I’m in an Airstream’ halfway to nowhere,” he said. “Do you mind dropping in on us? I say ‘no, we live for that!’”

“You see somebody with a really nice Airstream, and pulling it is a really nice rig — that’s somebody that wants to be taken care of in the same way as somebody living in a really nice house,” Sullivan said. “That’s our market—we take care of these people. And the mobile market is growing.”

“It seems like every mammalian species out there has an iPad or iPhone,” he joked. “Everybody wants to be mobile, and everybody wants to be able to take care of business while they are lounging about at their cabin, or in their RV. It’s getting harder and harder to cut the cord, so to speak; to say “I’m going on vacation and I’m not turning on my cell phone or device.”

“We’ve even snowshoed to a client, with our equipment in a backpack,” he said.