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Internet Access, Driving Down The Road!

February 6, 2008 by Alex Sian · 34 Comments  
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Cellular Soup

1XRTT, EVDO, REV-0, REV-A, EDGE, GPRS, HSDPA, GSM, CDMA …Oh my! … pretty confusing already, isn’t it?

With this first blogpost, I hope to explain the options available to RVers who want internet access on the road using cellular towers across the nation.

Internet access using cellular towers has been around for many years, and as time has passed the choices have grown, the speeds have gotten faster, and the coverage areas have expanded. As most RVers will attest, cell phone coverage is very widespread nowadays, but certainly not everywhere. Boondockers routinely find themselves so far away from the world, that there are no cell towers.

What this means is that the first thing everyone needs to understand is that cellular internet access is not everywhere, but its likely to be where most everyone is at, most of the time.

Who makes it available? Each of the major cellular carriers offers internet/data access and there are two methods to make it work: tethering to a cellphone/handset/PDA, or using a dedicated data device like an ‘aircard’ or ‘USB modem’ that would normally be attached to a computer, allowing that computer to have internet access. I’ll explain the pros/cons of tethering vs. data devices in a future blogpost.

Sprint, Verizon and Alltel are the major carriers who use CDMA technology for their cellular data service. Two types of CDMA networks are currently in use by these carriers: the “slow stuff” is called 1xRTT and is also known as NationalAccess. 1xRTT means “1 times Radio Transmission Technology” and you can learn a lot of technical detail about it at this WikiPedia entry. 1xRTT connectivity from the major US carriers is limited to a peak of 144 kbps (kilobits per second). By comparison, a dial-up connection on old phone lines in a rural area will typically provide 20-30 kbps, so 1xRTT is at best 5-6 times faster than dial-up. Weaker signal from a tower as well as network load on that tower, can both result in slower speeds. Most people will get about 50-140 kbps as they travel in 1xRTT coverage areas.

The “faster stuff” is known as EVDO which means “EVolution-Data Optimized” and you can read a lot more about the technology itself at this Wikipedia entry. EVDO coverage currently consists of two ‘revisions’ — Rev-0 and Rev-A. The main difference as far as we’re concerned is maximum speeds. Rev-0 download speeds have a theoretical maximum of 2457 kbps and upload speed is capped at 155 kbps. Rev-A downloads have a theoretical maximum of 3174 kbps and upload speed is a theoretical maximum of 1843 kbps.

While the theoretical numbers sound impressive, the reality is that most people experience 400-800 kbps down and 50-140 kbps up on a Rev-0 network, and 600-1400 kbps down and 200 – 800 up on the faster Rev-A networks. Again, keep in mind that signal to the tower, and load at the tower will affect realized speeds. That said, a good EVDO Rev-A connection feels as good as a home DSL connection to most users.

The fast EVDO coverage is generally found in the more populated areas and expanding to more rural areas each week. 1xRTT is prevalent the further away from cities that you get, and should be available across 95% or more of US major highways.

AT&T and T-Mobile are the major carriers using GSM technology and they also two types of cellular service: EDGE and HSDPA. EDGE stands for “Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution” and you can read a lot more about the technology itself at this Wikipedia entry. EDGE is also the ’slower stuff’ and has a a theoretical maximum of 237 kbps download and upload speed, but most people find that the speeds are a lot like 1xRTT at 50-140 kbps.

The “faster stuff” for GSM networks is known as HSDPA which means “High-Speed Downlink Packet Access” and you can read a lot more about the technology itself at this Wikipedia entry. HSDPA downloads have a theoretical maximum of 7372 kbps and upload speed is a theoretical maximum of 2048 kbps. While the theoretical numbers are higher than EVDO Rev-A theoretical, the reality is that HSDPA speeds are very similar to EVDO Rev-A speeds: 600 to 1400 kbps downloads and 500 to800 kbps uploads, assuming good signal to a tower.

At this time, only AT&T offers HSDPA service, and only in limited markets. While its impossible to say for sure (because AT&T isn’t publishing statistics in their press releases) HSDPA is only in about 20-30% as many places as high speed EVDO is, and HSDPA is expanding coverage area at a snail’s pace compared to EVDO.

How much does it cost? The cost of the device you need is anywhere from free to $200, and in most cases the price will involve a mail-in rebate. Expect to pay for an ‘activation fee’, taxes, and shipping as well. Aside from those ‘up-front’ costs, there is also the monthly fee of about $60 and the carriers will want you to sign up on a contract for 1 or 2 years.

A word of caution about cellular carrier stores. Most store sales people are really savvy about cell phones and PDAs, but live in regular homes that have conventional high speed internet like cable and DSL modems. These store sales people rarely have any knowledge about data devices for internet access, and most of them have never even used one.

As an RVer or soon-to-be RVer, when it comes time to research what carrier will best suit your needs and what gear works best for your situation, your best bet is to do online research and benefit from the experience of other RVers who use this technology on a daily basis.

There is so much more to this subject than can fit into one blogpost… stay tuned for much more… but if you’ve got burning questions and need answers quickly, feel free to ask by participating on the RV.net forums at this thread I’ve started for this blogpost.

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Last 5 posts by Alex Sian


Comments

34 Responses to “Internet Access, Driving Down The Road!”

  1. Earl Smith on February 7th, 2008 4:06 pm

    Thanks for the article! Well written without getting too theoretical! Suggest the acronyms CDMA and GSM be explained briefly with links provided to more in-depth explanations – same as you did for EVDO and others.

  2. Alex Sian on February 7th, 2008 4:10 pm

    Thanks for the compliment, and the suggestion.

    Talk about alphabet soup… CDMA means “Code Division Multiple Access” and here’s the link to more technical info at WikiPedia — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cdma

    As for GSM? that means “Global System for Mobile communications” but was originally from “Groupe Spécial Mobile”. And here again, a WikiPedia link — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GSM

  3. Dennis Carlson on February 7th, 2008 4:57 pm

    Good info. The system I have been using is Verizon Quick 2 Net, which is very slow access through my cell phone ,but as a retired RV traveler I’m not in a hurry anyway! You purchase a Verizon ” Mobile Office Kit” for a one time charge of about $40.00 ,hook your phone to your laptop with the supplied USB cable and if you don’t mind waiting till 9:00 PM or weekends all usage is FREE!

  4. Jeffrey Foley on February 9th, 2008 3:08 pm

    Verizon Wireless is shutting down their old analog network on Feb 18. I believe Quick 2 Net will be impacted by this. If you don’t have a digital modem, you will not be able to make a connection after that date. Otherwise, enjoy!

    I appreciate the work Alex put in as a volunteer for this site. Keep up the good work!

  5. Ron Engelsman on February 9th, 2008 3:54 pm

    Great article! I’m using Verizion, USB720, and Internet Connect on a MacBook. How can I determine if I’m connected to 1xRTT, Rev 0, or Rev A service?
    Thanks,
    Ron

  6. Alex Sian on February 9th, 2008 4:21 pm

    Jeffrey,
    Shutting it down? or letting it die? in other words, where it continues to run without issue, they let it run… but as it dies from area to area, they don’t repair it.

    If its truly a matter of turning off a switch, can you point to a press release that makes it clear? so we can link and advise everyone else? thanks!

    Ron,
    Unfortunately, Mac OSX’s support for WWAN doesn’t provide for a means to identify the type of digital network you are on. You’d need to install verizon’s access manager application for that info, but most Mac-heads (like me) advise against vzam if you can avoid it. OSX’s built in wwan drivers are typically faster than verizon’s.

    another way to judge network is simply doing a speed test at some place like http://speedtest.net — if you get download/upload that is sub 140 kbps and with latency up over 250ms, you are likely to be in 1xRTT territory.

    anything faster than that is verizon’s rev-a network.

    there supposedly is no more rev-0 network for verizon… they announced as much back in May, 2007:

    http://www.evdoinfo.com/content/view/2023/64/

    thanks again for the compliments! :-)

    – alex

  7. Ed on February 10th, 2008 1:23 pm

    Great Blog.Looking forward to even more information.
    You are definitly correct about the instore sales folks,they know their phones
    but they get lost and confused in a hurry when you bring up air card,let alone EVDO !
    I’m ready for a new card, VZN new every 2 plan, thinking that the new USB 727 will be the best.I’ll be watching for your next blog to possibly gain more info.
    Thanks, Ed

  8. Jeff Foley on February 12th, 2008 4:40 pm

    Alex,

    Analog is being shut down in the US. All carriers have already started or finished the process. Verizon Wireless will complete its analog shutdown on Feb 18. All customers with analog only handsets have received numerous (3 to 12) notices and can get a replacement handset. Many handsets can be “tethered” to a laptop for use as a modem–some of them at broadband speeds, but that varies by device. Lots of great choices–best bet for the REALLY remote users is an Israeli made digital bag phone from Motorola. It can be used as a modem (1xRTT speed), you can leave it plugged in and charging all the time, and WHO WOULD STEAL IT? It weighs 10 pounds!

    VZ Access Manager will tell you if you are connected on 1xRTT, EVDO Rev.O or EVDO Rev.A. Current modems are backward compatible to the slower speeds. Almost all EVDO Rev.O has been upgraded to Rev.A. Verizon Wireless is ONLY building new Rev.A cell sites nationwide, and will build an impressive number of them by 2010. An additional $18 BILLION+ will be invested in network by then, on top of everything on the ground today.

  9. Donna Smith on February 14th, 2008 9:32 am

    Alex,

    You say you would advise against vzam for Mac users, if they can avoid it. Is this advise for Mac users only, or would it stand for others as well?

    By the way – love the blog! Thanks for getting it started!

  10. Internet Access Using A Cellphone or PDA on February 14th, 2008 2:28 pm

    [...] are many different ways to take advantage of broadband cellular for internet access. For the next few articles, I’ll cover some pros and cons of internet connections [...]

  11. Alex Sian on February 14th, 2008 3:25 pm

    Donna,
    Thanks for the question, and the compliment!

    My advise was specific to Mac OSX users because OSX has built-in WWAN drivers that allow many EVDO devices (but not all) to work without the need for installing anything else from a carrier.

    Many Mac users find that the native stuff from Apple, performs faster and provides more reliability than anything added on by carrier software.

    – alex

  12. JD on February 14th, 2008 9:25 pm

    Here’s why tethering an EVDO-capable cell phone may be better than buying a PC card or USB modem, etc. With Verizon both cost $60/month for access, but with the phone you can call customer service and deactivate it during times you don’t need it (e.g., not traveling or parked for the duration in a place with good wifi). The PC card or modem entails a separate phone number and a 1 or 2 year contract with a stiff penalty for early termination.

    So if your phone doesn’t support EVDO it may well be more economical to upgrade it than to buy a separate card.

  13. Ted on February 15th, 2008 8:11 pm

    Ah, but the tethered phone generally won’t work in Extended Network, while the card/modem generally will. So you have to decide which is more important to you – ability to turn on/off when needed…..or a wider service area. I’m using the tethered phone approach, but am about to switch to the USB modem. I plan to use it at home as well for my internet access, so I’m not concerned about the contract.

  14. Rick on February 16th, 2008 9:33 am

    I have been using the Verizon card for about 6 months now. The card was free when I signed up and the service is about $100 a month. It works pretty much everywhere we travel. I often work from the RV and it has plenty of bandwidth for me to connect to my office via a VPN (virtual private network) and remote control my other PC’s in the office. Pretty impressive…. No complaints from me, Verizon has done a great job.

  15. Stan on February 16th, 2008 5:23 pm

    Great info, all gathered into one spot with additional info through links.

    I recently got the Alltel aircard, we have been using it since the first week of January. Nice thing about it, I can download my bank or credit card statements, and while still on-line through my aircard… wirelessly print to my printer through my laptop WiFi to my WiFi HP printer sitting in one of top shelfs with paper loaded.

    Recently, while traveling on I-10, my wife needed to make plane reservations for the following week, we didn’t have to wait till we got to a campground or truck stop to get wireless access. She made them while we we driving 60 mph down I-10. Now this is the way to go, $59/mo unlimited access and/or downloads. Only restrictions, do not download movies, and no on-line gaming… something we don’t do anyway.

  16. FritoBandito on February 16th, 2008 5:55 pm

    Does that POSSIBLY mean that the Nokia phone through ATT (Cingular) that we bought two years ago, MAY perform better in most areas? We have (almost) never been without reception or the ability to send, in every state we’ve traveled.

    Thanks for the easy-to-understand info.

  17. Jeff Foley on February 18th, 2008 1:37 pm

    FritoBandito,
    It wasn’t clear to me what other service you were trying to compare your ATT phone, but if you were comparing a 2 year old Nokia phone with ATT service to a phone with Verizon Wireless data service, then you are comparing GSM (non HSDPA) to CDMA. Your handset offers comparable service to 1xRTT only, which is available from Verizon where EVDO is not. Many VZW handsets are forward and backward compatible between 1xRTT and EVDO, and they also work throughout much of the US.

    In the above scenario, your ATT phone will provide greatly inferior performance (average 80 Kbps vs. 1.2 Mbps download speeds) to VZW in most areas and comparable performance ( average 80 Kbps) where only the older networks exist.

  18. Andy Skinner on February 21st, 2008 5:04 pm

    I recently purchased the Blackjack II phone on the ATT network. What a marvelous piece of equipment this is! I am in the I.T. Business and can access my email and the internet from virtually anywhere.

  19. Mr Whit on February 24th, 2008 10:46 pm

    I use Verizon. $59.00/month unlimited use. I have not been in a spot that I lost service

  20. Nancy Sleeper on February 26th, 2008 4:31 pm

    I recently purchased an ACER 5610-2966 for use while on the road in our RV. The operating system is VISTA. I am having difficulty finding an internet/data access card that is compatible with this operating system. Already tried ATT…..no service. This unit comes with a built-in network adaptor card. The only drawback…your location has to be WiFi accessible. You’re all correct….the salesmen are clueless when it comes to the PC. They know how to “sell” the card….the risk is buying something you can’t use. A lot of reasearch…..One good thing about ATT….they give you 30 days to try it out. If it doesn’t work, no obligation, refund all your money.

    Any advice with VISTA??

  21. Jeff Foley on February 28th, 2008 4:47 pm

    Here is the weblink to Verizon Wireless Supported Devices & Platforms, including Vista. http://www.vzam.net/download/supported.aspx

    No risk, 30 day trial available.

  22. Pat Bisson on March 7th, 2008 1:28 am

    My wife and I sold our home and are full time in an RV now. We use ATT with a Sierra 875U aircard for internet access. It works great wherever we have cell phone access; and that applies to Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Califoria, so far. The only place we’ve had access problems was in Henly,Tx in a campsite there.

    Our problem is that we often both want to use the internet at the same time from the RV. Counting the built-in computer used for the navigation system, we have two other computers in the RV, one operating on VISTA, the other on XP-SP2.

    We’d like to set up a secure wireless network in the RV with each of the computers able to access the internet concurrently using the one air card. Does anyone have any expertise as to whether that is possible? Is there a wireless router that the aircard could be plugged into?

    I have a linksys wireless router that has a USP port; would that work?

    BTW, I really appreciate this BLOG and the comments on it.

    Thanks!

  23. Bob H on March 7th, 2008 5:36 pm

    I use the Verizon Mobile Office. With the Express Network I use a LG4400. When I upgraded one line to a newer phone, I found out that the newer phone (LG8700) would not work with Mobile Office. I was told that I would have to use a broadband plan.

    Does the PC card work in the extended network on Verizon?

  24. Alex Sian on March 7th, 2008 6:16 pm

    Bob H,

    Yes… thats one of the advantages of the Verizon dedicated data devices that I mention near the end of my 2nd blogpost:

    http://blog.rv.net/2008/02/14/internet-access-using-a-cellphone-or-pda/

  25. Mark F. on April 9th, 2008 4:33 pm

    I am new to this blog and enjoy your articles on cellular internet! I have used a Verizon USB720 for about 8 months and it works great with my Dell laptop. I am living in my RV parked long term in Maryland and the reception is weak, so I purchased a Smoothtalker amplifier, which has made reception very reliable.
    The USB720 is great when traveling anywhere with the laptop, because I do not need to look for Wifi or wired connection. I highly recommend it for most internet activity, unless you download much video; it is quite slow.

  26. Phyllis on April 15th, 2008 1:00 pm

    Alex, When will you publish the next article in this series? I am hoping it will answer my questions. I want Internet access and cell phone at home and on the road. I am thinking about cancelling the home phone. I currently use ATT and BellSouth.
    Phyllis

  27. Marvel on April 16th, 2008 6:54 pm

    Nancy Sleeper,
    I am currently using an Alltel UTStarcom UM150 USB modem with my Dell with Vista and so far it works great, still on the 15 days trial period. I get reception with it even where I have trouble with my Alltel phone. The speed is comparable to my satellite connection. Plus side is that I can use it traveling down the road as well as non-wifi camping areas. Minus side is to get a wireless router system set up at home is expensive.

  28. Bob McCrady on April 21st, 2008 9:23 pm

    I recently got a Verizon USB720 aircard for my Toshiba Satellite laptop and am very satisfied being able to get on the net anywhere. I cancelled my home cable modem service and put away the wireless router. I can almost pay for the $59 a month unlimited access with the cable savings. Wifi, even if it’s free, is no longer a desired feature at a campground.

  29. Mary M on May 12th, 2008 6:36 am

    I have recently purchased an AT&T sierra wireless USB aircard and it has been working very well for us. We recently traveled from Florida to Blacksburg VA and back and I was able to use my internet connection almost 90% of the time we were traveling (both while driving and parked). I had some varied strenght in signals but mostly useable. The speeds are not as fast as most home cable connection speeds, but I found them fast enough for recreational use. We downloaded several pictures and e-mailed them to friends and I did not find it painstakingly slow -without taking note of all of the numbers… I would compare it to many DSL connections. I looked at the coverage maps for Verizon, Sprint (which is my current cell phone carrier) and AT&T and it seemed that AT&T was the largest coverage, when you looked at the United States as a whole. I also chose the USB rather than the card for the slot, as the USB will adapt to any computer, and the cards may not fit into all computers (there are a few different sized cards).
    Heres to staying connected!
    Mary M

  30. Ann Parrack on May 29th, 2008 3:17 pm

    Hi,

    Great blog! My question is how to find free wifi sites. Is there a website that gives such information for various areas? We like to stay at Regional or state campgrounds and they very rarely have internet of any kind. We look for McDonalds that have wifi, and also truck stops. Some motels have strong enough signals that if we park outside we might “catch” a ride. Any other ideas?
    thanks,
    Ann P

  31. Rick Johnson on July 16th, 2008 2:11 pm

    Alex…do you own or work for 3G store.com? I’m confused, are you providing info here, or making a sales pitch?

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