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Staying In Touch On The Road

By Pete Snidal (C) 1998

Been wondering about how you could stay in touch on the road? Thinking it'd be nice to take your computer along with you in your RV or Conversion for email, and maybe even some web surfing? Me, too! And I've got an idea or two. You'll have to figure out how to run a computer, and then how to connect to the internet. Let's look at some considerations:

1.) The Computer System

Your computer must fit into the rig, without taking up inordinate room. By inordinate, I mean more than it earns in daily use. If you plan on using it a lot, you won't mind if it takes up a fair amount of space. As for power, you can limit your use to the times when you're on "shore power" - in an RV park or otherwise plugged in, or you can use a low-power inverter - most computer stores sell ~200 Watt inverters specifically for computers. This will power most computers, but check with your salesman first - big monitors may pus it over the top. (Actually, you'd be best off with a small monitor, anyway - maybe even monochrome if you can handle it.)

Or you may prefer the obvious advantages of using a laptop. Since they're designed to run off their DC battery, adapters are available for most laptops to run them off the rig's 12V power. Easily stowable, this is undoubtedly the best way to go - you might be surprised at what can be done with even a 286!

You'll of course need a modem, and likely want to rig an internal phone jack into your rig, which will connect to an "umbilical" outside which once again plugs into a connection. Somewhere.

2.) The Internet Connection

As you've probably discovered, any given internet site can be reached from anywhere on the planet - all you need is a dialable internet service provider. The trick will be when you find yourself out of the area where you signed up. Fortunately, many ISP's now provide a multiplicity of dialup access numbers, and are thus accessible from a great number of locations. Look for one of these, if you don't want to be dialling long distance every time you want access to the 'net to check your mail or do a little web surfing.

Cel Connections

But what if you want to be able to connect without jacking into a landline? This will involve using a cell phone. There is already an excellent article on the techniques involved in this aspect of internetworking on the equally excellent web site Click Here To Go There

Orisus was at one time possibly the only truly mobile web site on the planet! (Although, of course, the server carrying their web pages is as solidly mounted as any other, the site itself is maintained from a mobile, self-powered location. Cheeky!)

(2000 update)Cellular internet connectivity has come a long way since this article was originally written, and now many cel phones come with a jack to plug into your computer. Check with your local friendly cel provider to find out how and (more importantly) how much.

Conventional Radios

Radios used to be about the only way you could stay in communication on the road. At first it was Amateur Radio or nothing, but when the FCC took away the amateur 11 meter band, and made it a low-power local-only "Citizen's Band," consumer radio finally became available to the average, well, consumer. But the CB band soon became taken over by Amateur Radio, or Ham, "wanna-be's, " who ruined it by using illegal power and broadcasting endless ego-trips for reasons known only to themselves and their analysts.

Nonetheless, CB is still a very valuable addition to any traveller on our highways. Although the "skip" limits its usefulness in the daylight hours, at night it becomes the local-only facility originally intended, and it is often the best way to find all-night fuel stops, dump stations, weather ahead, and lots of other things. Believe it or not, it's not all "rubber duckies" ruining its usefullness. One of its bigger problems is that it has so many channels - you can only cover one at a time, and you'll want to know what channel the locals use if you need to make a request for information. Fortunately, there are some standards. Here's how they go:

CB radio is also a very useful way to keep in touch with others with whom you're travelling. And a handheld is often useful as well, for more portable work, such as being in contact with the folks at the trailer park while you're out exploring/fishing/shopping.

Amateur Radio

Amateur Radio licences are much easier to get than they used to be. After much whining by those who wanted to use the bands, but weren't really interested enough in amateur radio operation to learn the Morse Code, the requirement has been removed, so a "ham" licence has become easier to write for than an airbrake ticket. And amateur radio can be very useful to the live-aboard busser. First of all, a licence entitles you to your very own call sign, which is listed in such databases as the Ham Radio Callbook, accessible on the internet and in print. Having a call sign which identifies you the world over instantly gives a validity to your communications that far supercedes "handles," like "lonesome busboy," or "tail dragger," or whatever.

You use this callsign in all amateur communication, on two main ranges of radio frequency, HF and VHF/UHF.

UHF/VHF is the main mobile range. Radios for this range look very similar to CB sets. The main difference is that they not only operate between one another, called "simplex" in the game, but also access one another through "repeaters," which amateur radio clubs erect and maintain all over the globe. These "repeaters" are situated in high places, such as mountain tops, which greatly enhances the range of the users. Furthermore, repeaters are often linked to one another, which increases the range even more. Suffice it to say that, while CB gives you a dependable range of from half a mile to maybe 6 or eight with a good tailwind, with UHF/VHF ham radios, the useable range will be at least 40 miles, and often in the hundreds. Furthermore, the necessary antenna, instead of an ideal 108" as with CB, will be about 17" for 2 Metres, and even less for UHF - much easier to find room for! (I know there are shorter CB antennas, but the ideal length for a vertical is 108"; any less is a poor compromise. Trust me.)

HF - High Frequency - is for really long distance work. I used to call Vancouver BC from as far away as the Baja regularly, finding a ham base station listening on the Canadian Calling Frequency of 14.120 MHz, who would connect me to the Vancouver phone system through a "phone patch." Thus, I could be talking to my folks while getting dressed in the morning, in a place where it would otherwise take a half-hour drive to the nearest town, and endless waiting for a phone call to be made from the local Larga Distancia outlet. Deluxe! Ham radio of this type is also a really fun hobby. "Finger talking" is my favourite - keeping the morse code alive while meeting hams from all over the place. I've worked Russia and Japan from Canada, the US, and Mexico, and of course around North America isn't much at all, even with the antenna systems you can have on your bus - my favourite is a wire on a kite string.

Amateur Radio is a fun hobby, and it's still a very useful way to keep in touch, although you're pretty well limited to other hams.

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