When I was planning how to configure our Roadtrek for fulltiming, I had in mind the design criteria my bride of 27 years had lain down: king sized bed with memory foam mattress, high-speed internet, 250 channels of HDTV, a live-in chef, and a well-stocked freezer and pantry with lots of snacks. Everywhere we went.
Now that's a tall order, especially the high-speed internet part. Data cards will cover you most places, and I had one of those ordered, but Verizon and ATT rely on the cellphone network, and like most businesses tend to present their product in the best light. They do cover 98% of the people, true, but that's different than covering 98% of the territory.
If you've taken your cellphone camping with you, you'll know what I mean. Near towns and major highways, especially east of the Mississippi, you're fine. Go out west, however, and the coverage map starts to get white spots in it – especially in the wilderness camping areas we crave. For a fulltimer, the internet is the mailbox, the phone, the water cooler at work, the gossip fence, everything. We wanted to sit for a week or two at a time, far from the madding crowd. With our location preferences, we would be out of cellphone/datacard range at least half the time. I needed an internet connection that worked everywhere.
Further online research located the mobile satellite internet community – primarily composed of Class As with automatically aiming rooftop dishes called Motosats. That wasn't going to work for me – my Roadtrek was too small for such a large and heavy contrivance, and I had already covered the roof with solar panels, anyway. The poor relations in this family were tripod folks – free-standing, manually aimed dishes that people carry around and set up when they light somewhere. Looks like I'm destined to be a tripod person, I said to myself.
Off I went to order a tripod. Since I was closing out my sticks and bricks house, divesting myself of or storing everything that didn't fit in the Roadtrek, retiring, installing solar, an inverter, a MPPT, and extra batteries in my Roadtrek, and various other hobbies, I threw the system in the cargo carrier and decided I'd set it up when I got some free time. I did. It didn't work – I couldn't hit the satellite. I had bought the equipment from a company which promptly went out of business shortly thereafter, and rather than speak ill of the commercially dead, I'll just say I asked around for help and Barb Nolley and Joe Laube at Mobile Internet Satellite fixed me right up – great folks. I have been online ever since.
Mobile internet satellite is a dying technology, however – it relies on a set of Ku band satellites that the parent internet satellite provider company, HughesNet, maintains – well, sort of maintains. HughesNet is transitioning to faster (7-12 megs per second) Ka band spot beam systems from new and different satellites for new installations, and is aggressively trying to get everyone to switch to the “improved” stuff, which won't work for folks who move around. Spot beams are 400 miles wide – move further than that and you're out of the beam, just like local TV channels on satellite TV. Ku band internet, although old and slow (1 meg per second, about as fast as my 2G datacard) , works all over the continent.
To further complicate things, HughesNet doesn't support mobile applications. They will install it at your house and service it there, but if you're out in the woods somewhere and can't get a signal, an installer isn't going to show up and troubleshoot your system. If you want to see the technical support, look in the mirror. There is help, however, online at Datastormusers for free, and from Barb and Joe for a reasonable fee.
Startup costs? You have to buy a tripod, an offset bracket, and some cabling. A dish with dish bracket, a modem, and the LNB – the receive/transmit radio – is provided with your new Hughesnet account you also have to commission, along with an installation fee you get no benefit from – remember, you're the installer. Used equipment is available, but figure $1000-1500 total for startup costs. There's a $200 rebate available to get your installation fee back, but there's an elaborate procedure involving printed-out invoices and deadlines. Pay attention to them.
Ongoing costs? Right now I'm paying $60 a month for 250 megs per day – about 7.5 gigs a month if you use it all. The structure of data limits is different from the datacard rules, though – instead of a monthly limit and fees for overage, HughesNet uses a daily allotment – use more than your allotment in any 24 hour period and you enter the dreaded FAP (fair access policy) penalty – dialup speeds for the next 24 hours, unless you cough up $5 bail money to get back up to speed. My plan was sunsetted by Hughes, since they aren't encouraging new Ku band accounts – right now the cheapest plan you can get commissioned on a new account is $110 a month, with a much more generous FAP limit – 350 megs per 4 hours.
How hard is it to set up and use? Well, it's definitely harder than using satellite TV because you have to aim precisely. TV beams are “fat” – 2-3 degrees wide. You just bang around and you'll find them because even with sloppy aiming you'll eventually get close enough to get a blip you can fine-tune. Satellite internet setups are called VSAT (very small aperture terminals) for a reason – the beam is maybe half a degree wide. Ordinary hand tremor will take you in and out of the beam, so you have to set up very accurately and search methodically. With these three years of practice, I can set up in about 15-20 minutes, but plan on some trial and error at first.
There is software available to make life easier for bootleg HughesNet users – Don Bradner's DSSatTool takes your GPS coordinates as input and spits out the azimuth, elevation and skew numbers you need to aim your dish. It also reprograms your modem to your current location's parameters. The HNFapAlert utility tells you how much of your daily allotment you've used up. I also use a signal strength display, DW6KSS, which lets me know how accurately my dish is aimed. With this, I can carry the laptop out to the dish and aim it precisely – no pesky inline beepers or OPIs.
It's a far-flung but paradoxically close-knit community, all these mobile internet satellite users. Obviously we're nomadic, but the rare encounter with a fellow mobile HughesNet user is a welcome event, although the spouses usually roll their eyes and disappear into the rigs in a hurry, knowing that the conversation outside is going to be VERY long and VERY boring.
Here is a map we use to let each other know where we are. Everyone updates their location as they travel. We move with the seasons, just like America's original inhabitants. And until they manage to catch up with us and put us on reservations, we'll still be out here, wild and free, roaming the country. And connected – EVERYWHERE.
Kids today think they've fallen off the edge of the earth the first time they venture out of cellphone range – their smartphone gets dumb in a hurry. They are most grateful when I offer them connectivity. The real reward of this system, though, is when the park ranger sidles up to you and sheepishly asks if he can get on your WiFi network, because you're the only person within 100 miles who's online. It's a good time to ask them about extending your stay past the 14 day limit… 🙂