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