Airstreamer's Computing Guide – Connectivity
I opened my own business in the early 1990’s that specialized in computers and networking. After relocation to Nashville in 1999, I became the IT Director of a local petroleum company designing a enterprise VOIP system. My education and training includes a BS in Business and Org. Mgmt. in 2006, MCSE in 2009 and MBA in 2011. I am currently the Director of IT for a International Truck dealership in Tennessee.View all articles by Michael Yeargin
The one thing more and more Airstreamer’s must have is connectivity; that is, they must be able to connect to the internet so they can stay connected to everyone else. This requires them to do many things, such as getting a service like AOL or XYZ Cable, right? No, you may not need to do anything but turn on your PC and click the mouse a few times. Wait just one moment, you say, when you got a computer the instructions said you needed something like AOL, AT&T, etc. before you could go surfing. Well, no; it said select one from the list and it was very forceful about you selecting one, but you could have said ‘skip’ and it still would have worked. Let’s start this section out by doing some basic defining of terms. First, any company that provides you access to the internet is known as an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and these companies make money in several ways. They charge you for connecting to them and they sometimes provide you software to use (more on that later) that tracks your usage or provides you local advertisements which the software helps determine. The second term you will need to understand is IP address, which is the number your computer is either assigned or gets automatically when you establish a connection. To understand how it is used, for the time being consider it to be like a phone number (it is actually made up of 4 groups of numbers ranging from 0 to 128), and just like a phone number for everyone who has a public phone, only one person can have that number on the public network. Now let’s look at the actual connection. It can be made one of two ways: wired or wireless. A wired connection is simply that, you connecting your PC to an ISP via a wire. Commonly this is done via an ethernet cable or in some cases you may use a modem and a phone line. The wireless can take two primary types. The first type, known as Wi-Fi, is wireless that uses something called an access point to provide a signal, similar to the cordless phone which you may have in your home. The second wireless type is cellular based, like your cell phone, known as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) or the newer 3G and 4G service.
Now let’s break this all down starting with the ISP. The software that you use MAY help you in the setup of your modem which can be a cable modem (i.e. Comcast) or a phone modem commonly called a DSL (sometimes called ADSL for most home use); other less used options are Frame, ISDN, and Asynchronous (also known as dial-p). All of these will use setup software to do the initial programming of the “box” that you are provided. After initial setup you normally do NOT need the software installed, and if you do not use it this will prevent the ISP from tracking and advertising. So, connection goes something like this: computer to cable, cable to “box”, “box” to ISP via whatever ISP you select (cable company, phone company, etc..). This hard wired method most often provides the fastest service. If you use a cable company then you do “share” the line with everyone else, so your speed can decrease as usage increases along the line. Most phone company connections are not this way due to their being individual copper connections back to the central point, which is then fiber optic. As for security, hardwire is the most secure as it is hard to ‘jump in the middle’ and steal the signal.
Let’s talk wireless, or more to the point, Wi-Fi. The common use of Wi-Fi is that “free” signal you get at many places while Airstreaming. Wi-Fi can best be described as you having a portable phone like those they sell for homes which allows you to use your own phone line when at home, but one which also lets you connect to another person’s phone line when out. The three steps to using Wi-Fi are: identify, authenticate, and obtain. Step one is to identify the system you want to connect to. Step two is authenticating to the system, as most use some type of encryption and password. Step three is to obtain the IP address for use on the system, which gives you a different ID than others using the same Wi-Fi. This doesn’t sound too bad, right? Not exactly, as there are risks to blindly connecting to someone else’s Wi-Fi. First you should obtain permission to use the Wi-Fi signal to be legal, and second, even if it is encrypted, your information may still be at risk, so know the Wi-Fi provider and use caution when doing personal things like banking. Also be kind to others (unless you own the Wi-Fi) and don’t do downloads of movies and such as because everyone connecting to that access point are all using the same connection to get to the ISP, and in this case, the more using it does not make anyone merrier. There is a lot more you can learn about wireless and making it secure and easy to use, but Wi-Fi can be a full article on its own.
But what about using the GPRS, which is the same digital signal used by all modern cell phones? You may have heard that many cell phones can be used as a modem for your computer, but this isn’t exactly the case. You can use it as your ISP if you have purchased the data package for the phone, but most won’t let you take or make calls when your computer is connected. Many computers today use either built-in GPRS modems or a dongle (those funny things you plug into the USB port). The services vary greatly as to cost and coverage, and many have their opinions as to which is best, me included. I have tried many different ones while Airstreaming and found my Verizon to give better coverage while on the road. While camping I find the issue of being in an aluminum can to be a big issue regarding signal. If you use a dongle style and have a long USB cable and a zip lock bag you can overcome some of this (by the way, this is where I say it is not recommended or approved use and to do so is risking harm to dongle and PC) by taping it outside. There are also many gadgets sold today to help overcome this issue. A good article on types of connectivity can be found at www.your-rv-lifestyle.com/RV-internet-access.html, although I am not entirely in agreement with them regarding some of their listed pros and cons. The other mentioned solution, which is questionable by FCC regulations, is the use of uplink satellite systems, but we’ll avoid going there, as I once used one for a period of time and know how regulated they are; unless you have a homestead location it would be suggested that you stay away from this as a solution from both a cost and a regulations perspective.
So let’s sum it all up: To connect to the internet all I need is an ISP either wired or wireless and you don’t have to use AOL, Comcast, etc. software unless it’s for the initial setup of a device. Once you select the ISP that you are going to use to get connected then you are on the internet. At this point you hope you have good protection software from viruses and malware. It can’t be that easy? Well it can be and it is, once you learn a little bit about how you are connecting and what you need to do, then you can always stay connected to the world.