RoadTrip America

Routes, Planning, & Inspiration for Your North American Road Trip

E-mail & Internet Options for Dashboarders


(Note: We know that much of the content on this page is now historical, but we keep it here because it still has value as a reference. It also shows how far we've come since 1996, when RoadTrip America first began publishing "on a roll.")


For up-to-the-minute discussions about mobile connectivity, please visit the Great American RoadTrip Forum.)



The chart below provides basic information about costs, types of equipment, and the advantages and drawbacks of each. Note that the wireless market is very complex because the companies change the names of the products frequently and new technologies are continually being introduced. The connection speeds quoted are reasonable expectations based on actual field experience, which means they are usually less than the "optimal burst" speeds quoted in advertising. Everything listed is "off-the-shelf" and currently available for purchase unless otherwise indicated.

A word about wireless networks: throughout the world, technology firms are attempting to create wireless networks that can deliver so-called "3-G" services. By definition, 3-G (third generation) is a high-speed data and voice network. It is supposed to be able to transmit wireless data at 144 Kbps for mobile users (traveling at highway speeds), 384 Kbps for pedestrians, and 2 Mbps through wirelines at fixed locations. 1-G was the analog system and 2-G generally refers to the digital cell phones in use since the early 90's. There are many types of technologies being employed by the major telecommunication companies to reach 3-G.

"Wireless Fidelity" or "Wi-Fi" was coined in 1999 and used to describe an international effort to standardize and certify the interoperability of wireless Local Area Network products based on the IEEE 802.11 radio frequency specification. Currently there are versions of this Wi-Fi specification ranging from "a" to "g" available to general consumers. 802.11(g)-equipped handheld devices are currently breaking all previous records for sales of new electronic products. In addition, beta versions of this radio specification are being developed up through "k".

In the simplest terms, Wi-Fi is radio technology that enables connections from a electronic device (like a laptop) to a broadband (wired) Internet connection point. These connection points are often referred to as "HotSpots, Gateways, or Access Points." The Wi-Fi Alliance maintains a free directory service for locating Hotspots throughout the world. Generally, Wi-Fi can enable connections within 500 feet of a Hotspot. By using antennas and repeaters, this access are can be extended up to two miles from a gateway. The thing to remember when companies quote "range" is to recall that this service is radio-based, so, just as you will start hearing static on your car radio when you get too far away from a station, the connection speed for a Wi-Fi enabled device will gradually degrade as you move away from a connection point. Virtually all of the carriers are incorporating Wi-Fi into their service offerings (although it may not be identified as "Wi-Fi" -- a variety of proprietary names are used).

In North America, there are two principal paths being employed by the major carriers to reach 3-G: CDMA (Sprint PCS and Verizon) and GSM/TDMA/GPRS (AT&T, Cingular Wireless & T-Mobile). In addition, there a number of other strategies employing satellites, fixed wireless, and non-voice data-only networks.

Wi-Fi (update 8/8/04)      
Chips can be on a PC card, embedded in the device or can be built into USB products.

Service is provided by a variety of providers. Two are:

Routers and wireless access point devices cost $80 to $200 depending upon configuration and security.


Within 60 feet of a connection point, 11 Mb are possible on 802.11(b)

54 Mb are possible on a 802.11(g) system.
But throughput speeds are limited by the connection speed at the source.

Once set up, always-on access in the wireless network region
Boingo $8.00/day pay as you go    
T-Mobile $10/day pre-paid
or $6 for 1 hr + 0.10/min over the one hour
Security is a concern and data can be harvested without permission if security approaches are not used.
Click here for more information about real-world use of Wi-Fi, and click here for a field report. One of the best sources for current info about the Wi-Fi community is Sam Churchill's Wi-Fi has spawned a whole new breed of entrepreneurs providing wireless Internet access to small towns -- check out Cheetah's Wireless. A directory of Airport Lounge access is available here. Virtually every major telecommunications carrier in North America is providing support for Wi-Fi in their packages. (Note: Not all of them call it Wi-Fi, so be sure you understand what you're getting.)
Kinko's   Wi-Fi service at 1,100+ U.S. & Canadian locations Coffee shops are often placed next to them.
PC/Mac Rental $12/hour ($.20/minute) up to $24/hour for high-end design workstations   New, high-quality equipment
T-Mobile Hotspot Subscription prices
  Pleasant workstations with no surcharges for T-Mobile usage
Sony Picture Station $.59 for a 4"x6" print, $1.99 for 5"x7" print, $4.99 for 8"x10" print, $4.99 to burn a CD.   Print images as you travel without carrying equipment
Laptop Docking Stations Generally provided at no charge   No fee unless you need a printer
Kinko's was purchased by Federal Express on 2/12/04. There are over 1,100 FedEx/Kinko's stores in the U.S. and Canada. Click here for a directory of services and locations.
RV Parks
Overnight Dial-up Surcharges of $5 to $15 per night; sometimes included in base price 23-33 Kbps; requires registration with the park Easy hook-up, usually "instant"
Wi-Fi Many parks (including KOA's) provide service at $15/month. 11 Mbps - 55 Mbps  
Compression Software (Offered by some parks with dial-up service; enables a perceived speed at near-DSL levels) Often bundled with other Internet connection services Equivalent of 300 Kbps  
Many RV parks have "overnight" phone hook-ups that provide local area and 800-number dialup capability. Others provide a location where a laptop can be connected to a phone line (e.g. in the office or laundry room). As the cost of Wi-Fi transmitters drops, more parks are installing them.
Truck stop cafes Generally free 23-33 Kbps; often no local dialup number Have coffee or a meal while you log on
There are usually phone hookups at each booth in truck stop coffee shops. Tipping well is a must, as is not lingering too long, especially during busy times. Click here for a list of locations with dataport phones.
Truck stop
Park 'n' View

(Various prepaid plans; also includes TV and phone service)
$30/month (includes 60 minutes of long distance telephone service and unlimited Internet access)
Also, $5 for 24 hours
23-33 Kbps; generally limited to truckers with CDL licenses Cable TV, movies-on-demand, Internet access phone service right in your vehicle
Non-truckers should exercise extreme consideration and not use Park 'n' View hookups during hours when space is at a premium for commercial trucks.
Generally free Increasing numbers of libraries have high-speed access; usually no laptop docking Terminal provided; printer usage generally available for a fee.
Reservations are often necessary at libraries; a few offer high speed access for a charge
Hotel Business Centers Various fees Often limited to registered guests Often have high-speed access
Can be pricey, but often provide pleasant working conditions
Phone Booth Data Ports $1/minute 12-14 Kbps; credit card required  
Still found in some hotels, airports, and convention centers.
Usually free Usually 23-33 Kbps unless they have high-speed connections; Abuse could strain friendship Usually free

Pocket Mail (as of 8/8/04)

Composer $99 12-14 Kbps No need for a PC; easy to carry and operate
Monthly service $15/month; discounted rates for long-term contracts

As recently as mid-2001 there were four manufacturers—Palm, Sharp, Audiovox and Oregon Scientific—producing devices for the Pocketmail service. The Pocketmail Composer is the sole remaining device. The Composer is a 512K PDA with a built-in acoustic coupler that can access e-mail through pay phones, analog and most digital cellular phones. It features a small keyboard and screen and allows download of mail from POP3, IMAG and AOL accounts. It can be synchronized with popular e-mail software like Outlook. Its small size and ease of operation has made it a favorite for many members of the RV community.

Service plans are based on usage in North America. Generally, the plans include unlimited toll-free dial-up access and free WAP service for WAP-enabled PCS phones. Click here for review.

AOL — Voice (as of 8/8/04) $5/month over regular account rate Limited to e-mail Easy to use, inexpensive
"AOL by Phone" allows subscribers to retrieve e-mail by calling a toll-free number. Also includes some other "premium" services.

AMPS(as of 8/8/04) (Note: Retailers will tell you this is not available, but IT DOES STILL EXIST.)

Motorola 2900 3-Watt Bag Phone $215

4.8 Kbps - 9.6 Kbps

No network towers in national parks and rural areas

Best coverage in the USA

Some providers do not support roaming agreements & provide service only with use of credit card

Motorola CELLect 14.4 Laptop Modem (Requires cellular interface— usually a cable connected to a PCMCIA card inserted into a PC) $20
Motorola s1936D Cellular Connection $250 (seen as low as $170)
Service plan 1 $28/month for 30 minutes (44¢/min for additional)
Service plan 2 $35/month for 60 minutes (60¢/min for additional)
Roaming costs can exceed $3/minute

Analog— also called Advanced Mobile Telephone System (AMPS)— is a Circuit-Switched system that divides geographic areas into small areas called cells. A cellular tower is built within each cell site. Each tower's coverage is 1 mile to 20 miles in diameter. A central computer in the system provider's office monitors the weakness/strength of the radio signals that emanate from a cell phone and can switch the cell signal from tower to tower as needed. Also the system can switch the cell call into the public telephone system. Each cell user occupies an entire frequency (no "sharing"), and there are a limited number of users allowed per tower.Most providers assign an area near the subscriber's address as being "home" with a flat service rate. Any cellular calls placed or received outside this "home" area are subject to "Roaming Charges." The Motorola S1936D Cellular Connection is the infamous "Black Box" used in the Phoenix One.

As of 6/17/02, both AT&T and Verizon have succeeded in eliminating any marketing support for their existing analog services to consumers. Analog transceiver devices and service plans are still available to large business customers like utilities and oil companies. A number of excuses ranging from the size of batteries to lack of interest by consumers have been raised by the major carriers as the reason for phasing this service out. However, the primary reason that the carriers have sought to eliminate analog service for consumers is that analog is inefficient and expensive for carriers to support at the usage levels used by most consumers. Analog service requires two channels to carry messages (either voice or data). Only one such communication can occur at any one time. Carriers using the newer coding techniques found in 2.5 and 3.0 generation digital phones can run hundreds of conversations and data sessions at the same time in channels formerly used one at a time for analog services. For large companies, the usage levels of the analog bandwidth meets the economic requirements of the large network providers, and they also purchase and deploy connectivity devices not used by consumers. AT&T does provide (unofficial) analog service to consumers at the rates shown above. But if analog were utilized at the consumer rate to check e-mail daily (30 minute per day) the cost would easily exceed $400 per month.


Rental Equipment

Digital phones $28-$42 per week or more 12 - 14 Kbps Satellite phones work in places where there is no cellular service, but the antenna must have appropriate sky exposures
Satellite phones $0.50 per minute.
$129 to $155 per week or more
1.8 - 128 Kbps
PocketPC devices $2.00 to $5.00 per minute $75 per week 12 - 14 Kbps
A variety of firms provide rental cellular phones and satellite equipment, requires use of data cables. Click here for more information.

RIM Pagers

RIM - 950 $400 and $60/month 8 Kbps with a 10 second latency E-mail messages can be marked "keep as new" so messages can be downloaded on PC later.
RIM - 957 $500 and $60/month
Research in Motion (RIM) pagers use the Mobitex data network - also known as BSWD (Bell South Wireless Data)coverage in many USA cities. Blackberry is product name for the two RIM PDAs that come complete with airtime and software. The RIM950 is very compact — use thumbs to enter e-mail. The RIM 957 has larger screen— easier to read e-mail. GoAmerica has added a clipping service, "Go.Web 6.0") that does not require sync with a PC to retrieve updated information about flight changes and corporate e-mail alerts. More info about the RIM 950.

(as of 8/8/04) (Note: This technology is incorporated into other products -- it's hard to find "pure" CDPD.)

JP Mobile
$300-$1200 12 - 14 Kbps

E-mail access wherever analog service towers exist


Wireless Data
8 to $116/month +
Mobile IP
$35 to $300/month
(limited info available)
On-Line Plus
$15/month Nextel offers direct service to Hotmail e-mail accounts
Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) is a digital network that uses the unused cellular frequencies found along the voice channels in the 800 to 900 MHz range now found on the analog towers. Most of the service is in urban areas, but users have reported service in rural areas like the top of Pike's Peak in Colorado. In 2001, there were four carriers actively promoting and selling CDPD services. The remaining three carriers are trying to migrate their CDPD customers into the so-called third generation digital services. Transmission speed is subject to the number of users using the system.

CDPD requires a portable computing device, (PDA, laptop, or PocketPC-type), specialized software known as IP Stack software, a wireless modem, (a variety of PCMCIA cards) and a special wireless account known as an NEI which provides the IP address. It features always-on connectivity and supports a variety of compression technologies. Pricing is usually based on types of usage according to three classifications: same location (like an utility tower); mobile but consistent as to areas traveled; and unlimited, where no consistency of use is anticipated.
Each of the major carriers have different names for the basic CDPD coverage. (For example, AT&T's version is "Wireless Data Services", Verizon is "Mobile Wireless IP Internet," etc.) The chart above compares the basic types and products.


(updated 11/04/02)

PCS Vision
by Sprint

50 Kbps to 70 Kbps with peaks to 144 Kbps

Basic plan is limited to 2Mb of data transfer per month

Network works with existing Sprint handsets; upgrades available as shown below
Samsung A500 $300
Samsung LG 5350 $200
Hitachi P300 $300
Handspring Treo $500
Infohand Camera $100
Personal Service $30-$60/month
Business Service $85-$100/month
Laptop PC Card $40-$100/month 20 Mb to "unlimited" access
Merlin C201 Card $250
This is the first roll-out of a "3-G" network and new services and applications are scheduled to be introduced over the next 12 months. New compression data software is included that will optimize bandwidth usage and could increase data transmission by three times the stated speed. The new phone features include take and send photographs, view personal and corporate e-mail, play games with full-color graphics and sounds and browse web sites at close to dial-up connections.
A variety of dual and tri-mode handset are available in different areas of the USA. $150 to $750 for equipment & software

12 - 125 Kbps

Some of phones are dual or tri-mode - so voice will connect in areas where data will not.

Express Network service by Verizon $35 -$300/month + 3¢ to 80¢/Kb

Works in areas where CDMA service is available

Limited to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Salt Lake City, eastern Texas, Michigan, Florida, and Eastern Seaboard

One price for data & voice

Uses Fourelle's Venturi compression software for enhanced performance

Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) is a digital technique for the transmission of data/voice over radio frequencies. Sound bits or data are split into data packets that are encoded with unique identification tags. All of the data/voice is sent over a spread range of radio frequencies. The cell phone or data device receives all of the data packets but only reassembles those packets with the correct code, and transforms the broken-up bits of data into useful sound and data. This allows more traffic for a finite number of available frequencies than analog or the other digital standards. "Mobile Office Kit" includes software, serial cables, and Fourelle Venturi compression software. (Compression software enables faster through-put on both circuit-switched and digital networks.)

TDMA(as of 6/17/02)




Ericsson $50-$100

12-14 Kbps

Five lines of text, no attachments

Provides direct access to AOL & Yahoo e-mail accounts

Voice & data on one PCS handset

Nokia $80-$150
Motorola $250
Panasonic $50-$130
PocketNet service by AT&T $18/month + digital rate plan: $60 for 450 minutes to $200 for 2000 minutes
TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access), rather than encoding bits of
data like CDMA, breaks each frequency into time slots through
which bits of data flow. Data can only flow in their assigned time

PocketNet was originally introduced as a data-only system using TDMA digital service for consumers. It has now been incorporated into the business market and includes voice service. There is some doubt as to whether or not it can be purchased by consumers who are not a part of a corporate enterprise. A PCS digital phone is required, along with a general service digital calling plan. Coverage areas are substantially more limited than those for voice service. In November 2000, AT&T adopted GSM as the network of choice for third generation services, making the future of TDMA service unclear.


GSM/GPRS (as of 7/1/02)

Service by AT&T  

75 Kb up and 150Kb down are expected but not confirmed as of this date.

High latency problems will make file transfer seem slower than data rates suggest.

Ability to receive voice calls while sending/receiving data. E-mail, corporate applications, news & weather on enhanced web sites

"Always on"


Timeport P7382i
S46 (Multi-Band)
Able to access both GSM/TDMA (better USA coverage)
Voice $20 to $60/month 60 min to 500 minutes+additional @ 40¢/min Roaming outside "home calling area"@ 69¢/min + "long distance fees"
Data (mMode)

$3 to $13/ mo for 50Kb to 2Mb + additional 1¢/Kb

2-way text messaging for about $5/month

Roaming fees at 0.02/Kb on non- system GPRS.
Pocket PC
$20 to $40/month for 2 Mb to 10Mb + less than 1¢/Kb
$60 to $200/month for 20 to 200 Mb + less than 1¢/Kb Requires PC NIC card
Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) Is a standard for both wireline and wireless protocols. It allows for more time slots per frequency than straight TDMA. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) provides packet service for data transmission over the GSM networks. GPRS provides TCP/IP and "Always On" Internet connectivity. As of 6/26/02, AT&T launched the wireless version of this service for both voice and data, but it is operable in fewer than 30 major cities in the USA.It is estimated that there are less than 53,000 web sites that have been "optimized" for the wireless web functions that this mMode service was created to use. This compares with the estimated 2 billion sites currently available on the WWW.

iDEN (as of 6/17/02)

iM1100 modem $400

45-55 Kbps*
Available in only 190 metro areas

VPN is not supported

Phone, data, and "Direct Connect" 2-way radio service on one bill

No ISP required; no roam charges

Connection kit $40
Packetstream by Nextel $13/month for 256K to $60/month for 20Mgb
Packetstream Gold by Nextel $55/month flat pricing
*Higher data speeds achievable only while on local Nextel system and while using compression software. Designed to work on the Nextel network on both PCs and PDAs.

Note: The services listed below are low-speed (and therefore lower cost) satellite services. Click here for information on new 2-way broadband satellite services.

Globalstar GSP-1600 (as of 6/17/02)

Basic Handset $700

7.7 Kbps

Satellite will not work indoors or in deep canyons.Phone is larger than most handsets.

Car kit is prohibitively expensive.

As a tri-mode phone, can access analog (AMPS), digital (800 MHz CDMA) and satellite service.

Also supports text messaging (4 lines of 12 characters each)

Car Kit $1000
Service Plans

Five service plans ranging from:$25/month for 5 minutes to $400/month for 500 minutes, plus $10/month for voice mail.

Data is sent by the handset to a land-based Gateway (via a system of 48 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites ) is converted into packet data using CDMA and sent to the internet in IP. No cellular roaming charges in continental USA. Since the data is encoded in packets, a lost connection does not require re-sending the entire file, and the system keeps track of the information still to be sent. Review. Data kit ($70) is required to connect PDA or laptop.


Magellan - GSC-100 $1000 1.8 Kbps World-wide coverage*
Service plan $30 per month for 10 messages with max of 500 characters per message.
This is a hand-held satellite device used for an e-mail-like messaging system. It uses the Orbcomm LEO satellite network (48 Low Earth Orbit constellation). *These devices work best when the satellites can "see" the receiver. When they can "see" each other, messages are limited to a maximum of 500 characters and cannot support attachments. The GSC-100 has a built-in GPS, can provide weather updates and voice messages can be delivered in the text form known as "Globalgrams." (When the receiver can't "see" a satellite, maximum message length is 180 characters and the GCS-100 operates in a "buffered" mode, which means that there may be a delay-- as long as several hours-- in message transmission.)

Inmarsat Satellite System

Mini-M (mobile) $2500 + $2.65 per minute to $8.40/minute 1.8 - 53 Kbps  
M4 $8000 + $2.30 per minute to $17.50 per minute 53 - 128 Kbps
The Inmarsat satellite network is a Geostationary system (GEO) that is considered to be fixed in relation to the earth (at over 28,000 miles from earth). There are a number of devices that can be used to surf the web or send e-mail in this system. The principal manufacturers are Thrane & Thrane, Nera, and Magellan. Most of the applications use compression techniques and there is no monthly service fee. Usage is billed either on the bandwidth used or on cost per minute basis.



Fixed Wireless Ricochet
(updated 8/8/04)

Type II PC Card Modem $50

Rated at 176 Kbps with peaks to 400 Kbps (Actual is closer to 110 Kbps)

Always on data service—no dial-up
Monthly Service $25

This "Fixed Wireless" network uses radio transceivers operating in the relatively secure 900 MHz band that are mounted on utility street poles and other towers in certain urban areas. It allows high-speed access to the Web from any PC or Mac device that is equipped with a Ricochet modem. A FAQ that compares this service with other connecting options like RIM, CDPD, DSL, CDPD, CDMA, etc. can be viewed here.

The original "Ricochet Network" was developed by Metricom, Inc. and in August, 2001 had partial service in 21 cities including Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C The first use of this network was plagued by inconsistent access and high monthly service fees. After Metricom's bankruptcy on 08/08/01, much of the wireless radio transceivers in the various cities were acquired by other firms and the cities themselves.

Now owned by YDY Wireless (as of 6/30/04), the service is again available in the Denver and San Diego Metropolitan areas, with plans to reactivate the network in the cities listed above within the next year of so.

Browse travel deals
    Name Your Own Price
    Fuel Cost Calculator