RoadTrip America

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

The Phoenix One Journals      Stories from the dawn of RoadTrip America

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Wired and Rolling: Surfing the ‘Net from the Open Road

From the beginning of our life on the road, access to e-mail and the Internet has been high on the list of priorities. A permanent address in cyberspace makes running a mobile business possible.

Finding ways to log on from the road has presented an endless stream of challenges, and most of the same ones that faced us back in 1994 are still with us today. Although satellite communications systems are tantalizingly close to completion, and some wireless data transmission services exist within limited areas, we still have to rely on cellular connections when we're on the road. A cellular connection is virtually useless for surfing the Web, since the fastest reliable speed hovers at a baud rate of around 4800. You feel wildly lucky if you can maintain a connection at 9600, and more often than not, you watch the minutes tick by as your e- mail crawls onto your hard drive at 2400. And you'd better be using a 3-watt telephone with a high-gain antenna, too, and parked in a spot with a strong signal. The little hand-held jobs can't go the distance, no matter what the glossy advertisements may lead you to believe.

Back in 1994, when we began our quest for mobile connection, cellular service was unavailable over large expanses of North America. The situation has improved over the last four years, but even so, problems still arise in areas where fraud has forced some companies to restrict access, and in places where the service companies can't agree on roam charges and reciprocal services. Just last year, for example, we had no service at all in New Mexico because local providers were feuding with AT&T.

Early on, we obtained an acoustic coupler, a streamlined descendant of the old dinosaurs used back in the seventies. This one has Velcro straps to attach it to the receiver of a pay phone, and when I got it, I thought I'd be able to forget cellular altogether. I was wrong. The acoustic coupler worked only occasionally, and at speeds so agonizingly slow I had to wait until midnight so I could hog a public phone without starting a riot. It usually takes a dozen or so tries before it can establish a connection, and even when it does, the slightest interruption will break it off.

All of this has meant renting motel rooms fairly regularly, just for the phone. Even here, however, things are not always smooth. Some establishments block data calls. Some have systems that aren't compatible with modems. Some have hard-wired systems with no telephone jacks. I've actually had to use the acoustic coupler with a hotel telephone.

"Aren't things getting better, though?" you may ask. "Aren't new products appearing every day?" Well, yes and no. Cellular service has improved, as I mentioned before, and hotels that cater to business travelers have responded to their need for data transfer. But the scenarios that these magazines deal in take place in major metropolitan areas. 'Mobile' usually means 'staying in a high-rise hotel.' Ads that show buff guys in kayacks logging on from a river in Costa Rica are fun to look at, but they are more than a little misleading.

So what's the good news? Slowly but inexorably, things are improving. As more and more people realize the unbelievable flexibility that electronic communication offers, the demand increases for truly mobile equipment and service. In the meantime, don't let the molehills stop you. You can be wired and rolling today, if you put your mind to it!

Yours from the road,

Mark, Megan & Marvin
Pasadena, California
April 27, 1998

Click here to read the last installment: "Notes From the End of the Rainbow"

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