Monday, December 8, 2014

That Internet thing

Since Al Gore invented the internet it's caught on quite well.
Most people get their internet thru their Cable TV providers but using this connection when you're on the road would mean having a very long piece of coax cable!

So what do you do about that?

First let me show you some of the devices we have in our rig.
Here's the TV in the console and some other stuff around it, like the DVD player upper right, antenna switcher upper left and some boxes below I'll explain later.

Cell Phone. Most of us have one of those right? This one is an AT&T iPhone 5

A tablet. This one is an LG 7" and uses the AT&T 4G wireless system to pick up internet

This thing is actually an amplified TV antenna

This device lets you watch TV and Movies over the internet

This is a Cell Phone signal amplifier (Booster)

Here's the phone in the "Booster"

This is a wifi router. PepWave SOHO

We also use our Kindles a lot

We used this Jet Pack for several months with Millenicom until Verizon pulled the plug on their service
Next we need to consider what we want out of our electronics and where we will be when we want to use them.

Watching TV is a nice way to spend a cold evening. We've had cable, Dish Network, Direct TV and AT&T U-Verse in the past. The one thing they all have in common is monthly bills close to $200 and nights where there is nothing worth watching on any of the channels. We got really tired of each of them and made a big decision to go back to good old over the air TV with an antenna.

Having decided to go full time in the RV we chose to set up at hone the same way we would be on the road. If we find out that we can't live without some form of cable or satellite TV we'll do it with a system we can transplant into the rig. So far we haven't had any cravings.

The antenna we bought is a square plastic sheet with a coax coming out of it and it uses a USB power source for the amplifier. We find that at home it pulls in most of the local channels and a bunch of Mexican channels! enough for our requirements. If we get really bored with it we have a special control built into the TV. It's called the "OFF" switch and when you operate it you can read a book!

The antenna may need to be moved around to get the best signal. So far in the rig throwing it on the passenger seat up front seems to be about the best! At home we hang it in the window but we can't move it around like we can in the rig so we get more stations in the rig parked in the drive than we do in the house!

Be aware that since 2007 Over the Air TV has been broadcast in digital format and TV's made before that date won't pick the signal up without a separate digital/analog converter.

And yes our rig has a TV antenna but the previous owner had a water leak at the base of it and filled the thing with caulk to stop the leak. The rig also has a satellite dish on the roof that we don't use so moving to one of the satellite systems wouldn't be too difficult.

Second on the agenda for us would be a cell phone with e-mail capabilities. Reception in remote locations varies between the various providers with Verizon then AT&T being judged the best by most online sources.

Of course cell phones today have far more capabilities than phone and e-mail and internet access on a cell in easy. Some can act as an Internet "Hot Spot" which is in effect a wifi network that your cell phone hosts as the modem and router. This is GOOD! A small disadvantage if that when one of you leaves with the cell phone to go somewhere the Hot Spot goes with them.

We were until recently using a "Jet Pack" which is a stand alone wifi hot spot that works on the cell phone system. The advantage with that is that it can be left in place in the rig so you don't lose connectivity when the phone leaves the building. We  used one happily for several months until Verizon closed down the service we were using. Then we shopped around and got a sweet deal from AT&T that gave us 2 iPhones and a tablet for about the same as the Verizon flip phones and the Jet Pack was costing but with 50% more data. The tablet is cell phone based and can act as a Hot Spot on it's own so that solves the vanishing phone problem too.

Disadvantages of the cell based internet way of doing things is that generally you are tied into a 2 year contract and it will cost big bucks to break the contract. Also if you can't get a good cell phone signal you won't have any internet either.

But in our experience it's still the only way to go. There are campground WiFi systems in some campgrounds. In general they are slow and you may have to pay a daily fee to use them. They aren't very secure either.

There will be places where we can't get a signal or only a very weak signal. For that we have the cell signal booster. There is an antenna on the roof of the rig that is connected to the booster. The height of the antenna and it's design let it pick up weak signals much better than the antenna in the phone. Then there is an amplifier in the cradle which increases the signal strength when the phone is in the cradle. There is also a way to put the Jet Pack or Tablet in the cradle. Boosting the cell signal strength also boosts the chance of picking up a 4G internet connection in marginal conditions. 4G is the best but a 3G signal is OK but much slower. No miracles tho, if you can't get a signal you can't get a signal.

When camping in Agua Caliente in California, in the desert, there is NOTHING out there. No wireless, TV or cell. Our AT&T iPhone would occasionally show a weak signal but if you tried to make a call it would drop out completely. I put the phone in the cradle and got 2 bars! Enough to make a call I had to make but not enough for internet.

So what if you have a good internet/cell signal but no TV signal? What if the local channels suck or you want to rent a movie and there's no Redbox booth handy? Enter Roku or one of the other internet TV/Movie "Streaming" devices. This little gadget plugs into the HDMI port on your TV and uses your wifi Hot Spot to pick up a rental movie or a TV show and display it on your TV. 

Wonderful! And they tell you you get free TV shows and Movies. Well in our experience (Very limited as we've only had it a couple of weeks) most services require you to pay a monthly subscription and the cable channels like A&E and History Channel will only let you stream if you have a cable or satellite contract that includes those channels. Still there are a couple of places you can go and watch a show or movie free.

So say you are in a great spot for cell signal and there is also a free campground internet system that is pretty good too? Well you can set your phones, tablets, Roku etc etc to pick up the free wifi and enter the password into each one separately, but at the next campground you'll have to do it all over again.

That's where the PepWave SOHO comes in. It is a router will pick up all those external wifi signals and even your cell/tablet signal. With a Jet Pack you can plug it straight into the SOHO using a USB cable which improves performance a little. 

What's the advantage? Well when you set up the SOHO it becomes a wifi network. It picks up all the other sources and re-transmits them thru itself so all your devices see one source and keep the same password to access it. When you move to another campground you plug the SOHO into the laptop, search for any other signals, set the passwords up for them and it does the rest. It will even jump from one wifi signal to another if the signal drops on the first one.

If we have wifi we have access to for books and videos on our Kindles. If we think we are going to be out of range soon we can download books onto the Kindles and access them without an internet connection. Of course the tablet we have can act as a Kindle too!

Sounds like a winner right? Well it can be. All this streaming and downloading comes at a price. When you buy a contract from your favorite provider you select a "Data Plan" which gives you a set amount of data (Gigs) per month. Go over that and you pay BIG. Just like the old Roaming charges in the early cell phone days.
So how much data is enough??

When we had the Jet Pack we had 20 Gig a month but the counter was always a couple of days behind the actual usage. The good thing was that when you went over the limit they sent you an e-mail then cut you off! That let us see that 20 Gig was pretty good for what we were using then but I occasionally ran out of data a couple of days before the end of the month. We now have the Roku and streaming TV or Movies uses a LOT of data. Luckily when we changed to AT&T we got 30 Gig and a much better usage counter that updates instantly and lets you set an alarm when it gets low. I have mine set for 20 Gig right now.

What if it's halfway thru the month and you're almost out of data? Well if you are on a wifi network that's not going thru your phone (Say Starbucks or McDonalds), then you don't use your data. So if you get low or want to stretch your data further when you find a local wifi signal do some of your internet stuff on it, but remember not to do financial stuff on those public networks as they are not secure. I work from home and get sent big files for my engineering job. When I get an e-mail with a large attachment I ride down to the local Starbucks and download the files on their network while I sip a coffee. Saves me running out of data halfway thru the month.

We try and make sure we have a 110v and a 12v charger for each device so we can run them all on the coach batteries if we are camping somewhere with no 110v supply (boondocking). Unfortunately the TV we have only works on 110v so we'd have to use the generator if we wanted to watch on it (But we could watch on the tablet if we were desperate). 12v TV's are available but we already have the TV's in the rig, we could also set up an inverter that changes 12v DC to 110v AC but that seems too much like work right now.

The other devices in the very top picture are an antenna switching box and a DVD player. The antenna switch lets us play the DVD or watch TV thru the antenna on either the living area TV or the bedroom TV.

The DVD player is pretty obvious, we keep a reasonably small amount of our favorite movies in the rig for when everything else is out of range.

Lastly we have a few paperbacks for when even the DVD player isn't working.

Oh! We just found out that the Rand McNally GPS unit we use in the rig is also capable of working with a wifi signal to get weather and traffic information and to automatically reroute around problem areas. It also looks for the cheapest gas along the route. We can tie that to the tablet Hot Spot and keep the tablet charged thru the 12v charger as we go. Cool.....

UPDATE 6/13/18
What has 3 years of fulltiming taught us about our connections and devices?
We got it right!
We still use most of the devices shown. The one we have not used was the Soho router. We get such good service from the ATT phones and tablet and most RV park Wifi is so poor that we haven't plugged it in once in the last 3 years.
We've changed phones after the iPhones died and we both have Androids now and the Roku we still have but we bought a "Android Box" for TV but it's so complicated that we rarely use it.
We tried "DirectTV Now" on a special offer from ATT that would allow us to watch 30 channels and not use any data. We were tempted only because we love Formula 1 car racing and ESPN 2 was the only channel showing it. Unfortunately it was very unreliable and the "Customer Service" sucked big time so we got rid of it.
We also decided last winter to splash out and replace the roof antenna that didn't work. $500 later and we find the square plastic antenna we throw on the dash still picks up more channels than the roof antenna does!!
When we winter in Arizona we get cable TV for $16 a month and we found that the coach has a connection in the back to connect to cable. Using the switching box connected to the plastic antenna and the cable lets us flip from one to the other which suits us because we can get better PBS channels on the antenna.

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