Caution! This post refers to the unit of measure “GB” (gigabyte) to a degree some may find excessive. You have been warned!
One of our initial conditions for living the full-time RV life was high-speed Internet access. We had to have it. It became apparent pretty quickly that we either had to modify our expectations in this area or pay a fortune for anything close to the level of service we’d grown accustomed to in our loft. We decided to try living with the “free” WiFi most campsites advertised and take a wait-and-see approach to a more permanent solution.
While in Hungry Horse Montana we finally decided to Do Something About the Internet. The Boys at Bend didn’t have an Internet solution for the RV that met all of our needs (inexpensive, reliable, and most of all, inexpensive), it seems the technology doesn’t exist yet. We were still operating in business as usual mode, using campground WiFi where possible—not often—and getting by with our Sprint phones the rest of the time. It’s not impossible to compose a coherent picture-intensive blog post on a smart phone, but it’s hard, damn hard, “damn, damn, coal-burning dithering ding ding ding ding ding ding” hard.
This approach, the business as usual approach, was wearing really thin by the time we got to Montana. We’d been having issues with Sprint coverage in several areas of the Pacific Northwest, especially in Wyoming, and we hadn’t had a signal the entire time we were in Montana. The Hungry Horse RV park WiFi signal was strong but extremely erratic; one day it would work fine, the next day it would be up and down, so there were big chunks of time where we had NO Internet (GASP!). Pretty much everyone we’ve talked to said Verizon has far and away the best coverage. We decided to jump the Sprint ship and hitch our virtual wagon to Verizon.
We upgraded from our “old” Samsung Nexus S phones to new phones, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 (sticking with the Androids), and bought a Verizon Jetpack hotspot. The phones are nice: larger screen, better virtual keyboard, longer battery life, and faster boot-up were the immediate payoffs. We were very nervous about the hotspot. We’d held on to Sprint because we had unlimited data with our old plan, but we weren’t using it much on the cell phones and Sprint wouldn’t extend unlimited data to their hotspot devices. We bought the 6 GB per month package from Verizon knowing that it wouldn’t support the kind of streaming we were used to in the loft, but Sprint wasn’t helping us in that area either and not being able to surf, do e-commerce, and use Google docs reliably and securely on the various RV park WiFi networks was driving us crazy.
We were delighted to find that Verizon coverage in Montana was great. We were giddy with excitement and splurged on a Netflix movie while the kids were here. That shot our data usage from -1 GB to +4 GB in a single night. We resolved not to do that again, but I left the hotspot turned on. A few days after the kids left, we were sitting outside, surfing on our big new phones and reading our Kindles, when I started to get text messages from Verizon saying that we were about to exceed our data usage limit. As I was reading the messages I received another saying we’d exceeded the limit and that overage charges would be applied. As I was reading that, I received ANOTHER message saying that we had exceeded the automatic OVERAGE limit! At that point, I finally had the presence of mind to react and ran inside to shut the hotspot down, then called the Verizon location that set up our account to find out what was going on. The young woman at the store was sympathetic and bumped us from 6 GB to 8. She gave me some suggestions about what might have happened to consume our data allowance. Did we have devices on we’d forgotten about? Had we been surfing on dynamic web pages?
When the digital dust settled I started to think about what might have eaten through our remaining data allowance. For the past few years we’ve been doing Cloud backups, automatically pushing new and changed files to an Internet storage service. We don’t need to think about backing stuff up, the system does it for us, and our files (pictures and music represent the bulk of what we’re backing up) are stored offsite. If there’s a fire, we don’t need to grab the laptops, just buy new and restore the files as needed. It also means we can get to the files from any computer in the world with Internet access—except North Korea. Want to show a friend your pictures but you don’t have them with you? Log on to their PC and your pictures are right there. The process also synchronizes files across our two laptops so if a picture or music file is on one device, it should be mirrored on the other. This means the network is not just pushing files to the Internet, but between our laptops. In another form of Cloud backup, I had my phone set to push cell phone pictures to Google Plus whenever the phone was connected to WiFi.
Downside? The process pushes a lot of ones and zeros back and forth, ideally (and, in this case, unfortunately) when you’re not looking. Every time I take the Canon DSLR camera out for a day, I bring back between 1 and 5 GB of raw image files and dump them to the laptop, which means they’re now also engaging the Cloud backup process. I usually scrap at least 90% of the picture files and then compress the ones I want to keep to smaller JPEG files, but until that gets done, the Cloud backup is busily trying to push them to a server somewhere. I’ve tried to be conscientious about this issue and disable the backups until I can filter/reduce the images I want to keep. But I suspect some aspect of this is what killed us the day our data allocation went belly up.
Since that dark day, we’ve been miserly about using the Jetpack. We only turn it on when we’re actually using it and I monitor the usage obsessively. For the next billing cycle we erred in the other direction; we were so parsimonious we barely used 2 of our 8 GB. There have been a few times we didn’t get a Verizon signal, but so far those have been few and far between.
As I write this, we have a solid connection and signal from our current campground’s WiFi network. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been catching up on the blog. We use the Verizon Jetpack when we want security or we need to print something. In the meantime, we’re waiting for the technology to evolve some more.
The quest goes on.