Exploring RV Living – Staying Connected

(This post is part of a series. If you’re new to my blog or this is the first you’ve seen of this series, you might look at the introduction first.)

As humans, most of us are social creatures by nature. We also need to stay on top of business communications, both personal and professional. While it remains a challenge to live a location-independent lifestyle, recent advances in technology have made it much less so, at least when it comes to communication.

Trip Down Memory Lane

Thirty years ago, mobile phones were an expensive toy for those who could afford it, or couldn’t afford to be without, and the internet was just getting its start. Twenty years ago, mobile phones were starting to be almost affordable for average people, and the internet was becoming popular with 56k dialup modems. Mobile internet was possible, but excruciatingly slow and prohibitively expensive.  Ten years ago, WiFi became popular, and cell-based mobile internet was just beginning to become faster and more affordable. Today, almost everybody has a cellphone, and wireless internet, while still slower and more expensive than wired, is affordable and tolerably fast.

Cutting The Cord

My cellphone is my only phone, and it was my only phone even when I lived in a regular house. It just made sense to me. For about the same price as a wired phone, which only works in my house, I can have a wireless phone, which works in my house as well as almost everywhere else. To me it was a no-brainer.  When I was ready to move from house to RV, the telephone was a non-issue, since I’d already made the transition to wireless.

Internet Options

There are a number of options for internet access. If internet isn’t a part of your daily routine, or you expect to only stay where there is WiFi available or nearby, then that’s a great option, and inexpensive or even free. Some people go with satellite. It gives decent speeds, and will work anywhere you have a view of the southern sky.  It is also expensive, both for the hardware and the monthly service. Setup and aiming of the dish can be finicky, but systems are made that automatically track the birds, even while in motion — for a price. Some people use cell-based internet by tethering their phone to their computer, or they use a dedicated device.

What I Use

For me, cellular was the best balance between cost and usability.  I have a cellular modem and router that gives me ethernet and WiFi connectivity whenever I’m within range of a cellphone tower. I have an outdoor high gain antenna and an amplifier to stretch that range and make sure I have the fastest connection possible (speed is directly related to signal strength). Speeds can range from slow-as-dialup in rural areas, to a respectable, if not blazing, one or two megabits per second.

Hello Radio!

The cellular system does a good enough job with phone and internet, but sometimes it goes down, and there are also plenty of places with poor or no coverage. That’s when amateur radio becomes more than a hobby. It becomes my only communication link. HF (shortwave) bands offer the ability to communicate with stations all over the country and even around the world. It offers true point-to-point communication that doesn’t rely on cellphone towers nor other infrastructure. One of the earliest uses of radio was to maintain contact with ships at sea, and it still serves that function today. There are also groups of RVing hams who keep in touch daily not only to keep track of friends’ travels, but also as a means of checking welfare and relaying messages when necessary. Formal message handling isn’t as common as it once was, but it is indispensable as a means of getting an important message to or from a traveler who is out of range of other communication methods. Ham radio also gives me the security of knowing if there was ever an emergency, be it on the road or at a remote campsite, I would be able to summon help. Amateur radio can even be used to send and receive email.

Neither Rain Nor Snow…

What about the mail? Even with email and the internet, and despite the decline in use of postal mail, there’s still a need for snail mail. But how? There are a number of options. If you tend to stay mostly in one general area, or frequently return to a particular town, you could get a post office box. While the US Postal Service offers the best rates, a third-party mailbox store offers the ability to receive packages from any carrier as well as an actual street address.

Follow Me

If you expect to be roaming far and wide, with no plans to regularly return to any “home” location, you’ll need your mail forwarded. You could get a trusted friend or family member to do it for you. This probably offers the best flexibility. They would be able to recognize potentially important mail and alert you to its presence. They could recognize and discard junk mail. If they follow your travels and know your habits, they’d be better equipped to anticipate your needs than a stranger at a commercial establishment.

There are a number of mail forwarding businesses that can do this for you. They will receive and save your mail for you, and, on your request, will send it on to the address of your choice — often General Delivery in the town you are staying in. These companies specialize in mail forwarding and offer many services (sometimes at an extra charge). You can call them and ask them to tell you what mail you have waiting, or look for a particular piece you may be waiting for. Some will even open and read you your mail to you at your request.

Mail-To-Email

There is a variation on the mail forwarding service. These services open all of your mail, scan it, and email you the scanned images. You can then instruct them, on a piece by piece basis, to shred, save, or forward the original.  There are varying options you can specify as to default actions for different types of mail, and pricing varies with features offered and options selected. This is a good plan for someone who has good internet or email access, wants the ability to read their mail as quickly as possible, and isn’t bothered by the thought that somebody else is opening and handling their mail.

Reduction Strategies

Along with forwarding, you’ll want to practice mail reduction, too, to save on the cost and frequency of re-mailing.  In fact, everyone should seek to reduce their paper mail to the absolute minimum as that will help reduce your ecological footprint. Cancel any catalogs and junk mail that you can. Even if you like reading catalogs, you can do that online. If you subscribe to any magazines, see if they are available on the web (sometimes as a PDF-like electronic version that attempts to mimic the print edition). Check with creditors and service providers to see if they offer electronic billing (online or email) — most do. You can even take that to the next step and do electronic bill pay to save yourself a stamp, a check, and a trip to the post office. You can even have predictable recurring bills paid automatically so you don’t have to worry about forgetting them.

As you can see, even though the government and many businesses would prefer you to have a fixed address so they know how to find you, it isn’t too hard to meet all your communication needs while maintaining freedom from location.

Your Turn!

Please feel free to ask questions or share your experience in the comments.

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15 responses to “Exploring RV Living – Staying Connected

  1. Hi Mike, Great stuff. I’m doing a series on Travelers’ Tech Tips for nomads and Rvers on my blog right now, too. I just acquired a new Motorola Atrix 4G cell phone on AT&T. This phone gives me the ability to either buy a docking station that turns the phone into an actual laptop computer – or I can hook it up to a TV or monitor with the HDMI output and use a usb or bluetooth keyboard and mouse device to surf the Web or take care of email either on wifi or the AT&T wireless network. I can also watch TV shows and movies on my Netflix subscription. Fantastic flexibility and freedom. As I may have mentioned earlier, I’m also a ham radio operator (over 52 years – yikes). I’d be interested in how to do email over the ham bands. That’s of great interest to me.

    I’ve already moved my “residential” address to SD and use a great RVer owned service to handle my mail, provide my residential and business address and resident agent address for my LLC. It works great.

    I just did a post on using Skype as part of the communication mix as long as you have high enough speed Internet connectivity. I actually use Skype to save using some of my anytime minutes on my AT&T service (I have unlimited data on my plan). Indeed, there are so many ways that technology has made being location independent so much easier and efficient. Keep up the great posts.

    Enthusiastically,
    Ed

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Hi Ed. For email via ham radio, take a look at http://www.winlink.org and http://www.pskmail.org — Winlink is the more mature system, and may require a special modem (it uses Pactor, though I think they now have some servers running soundcard modes); PSKmail is a newer system, more common in Europe than North America, but only needs a sound card interface.

      Yeah, VOIP is another telephone option if you have consistent internet connection. OTOH, with all the wireless carriers moving to capped or throttled data plans, you have that to worry about. Especially if you’re streaming movies, too.

  2. Hey Mike,

    I’m outclassed to even leave a comment on this post, I still don’t have a cellphone, and I use plain old Brighthouse for my internet connection.

    I’ve figured that when I get my income up a bit more and can travel more that I’d get one of those mobile internet dongles. I priced one at around $80 a month, which would translate to, yowsa, $160 a month if Patrick and I were both to have it.

    When we lived in the boonies our cabin didn’t get cell phone reception, so we used the county available internet which was slow as molasses, but which I was insanely grateful for. 😉

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      I’m guessing Brighthouse is your local cable or phone provider? If you’re staying in one place, wired is the way to go. You’ll get faster for less money.

      Wireless isn’t quite that bad. You should be able to find something in the $20-60 per month range, depending on how much you’ll use. You won’t need two, either, unless you’ll each be traveling independently of the other. As long as you are geographically together, you can share one wireless device either by networking your computers together or by getting a portable hotspot type device (MiFi is a common brand) that lets up to five people share.

  3. goodness mike! i don’t know why but i never even thought of all the techy situations of mail, etc. in an rv er’s life on the move! silly to not think of it.
    your ideas are very sound and well thought out.
    you should send these posts as articles to the rv’er magazines!
    to show how ignorant i was about it… i never realized there are companies or services that simply deal with forwarding mail! and on so many levels too.
    i know a lot of people know this stuff. but there are always novices who might not want to ask such basic questions. and you address them here.
    thanks for the informative post… as always!
    tammy j

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Yeah, it’s not the first thing most people think of. Maybe because people just look at RV living as a permanent camping trip, and forget that full-timing means all facets of regular life need to be considered.

      I hadn’t considered approaching RV magazines with this series. I wonder if one of them would be open to reprinting something that’s already run as a blog? I suppose it can’t hurt, and I’m sure many of their readers are not blogreaders. Thanks for the suggestion, Tammy!

  4. Good work! You might be able to find an online RV’ing magazine or big-readership blog that would pay you to edit your pieces into a series that would fit their requirements. Many would actually want less detail.

    Another way to perhaps make some money from these articles is to find ways of getting spinoff articles published on paid blogs or in paid publications that link back here for the full story. I don’t know if there are any paid blogging opportunities in RVing, but there might be.

    Great information, as always.

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Thanks, Gip. I’m not sure how I’d go about trying to shop it to print magazines. I’ll look into the paid blogs thing, too. Thanks for that idea.

  5. This post is amazingly comprehensive Mike! I agree with Tammy and Gip, this information would be so helpful to people. Tiny house publications would love this!

    I’ve often considered buying a CB radio (again). Thirty four years ago I purchased one for a boyfriend. I was the one sitting in his truck out in the front yard chatting away with truckers from all over the country. Shortwave and CB radios are THE communication device to have in times of serious emergency. There is no signal jamming or system overload issue.

    I LOVE auto-pay for bills. No paperwork, no worry of getting the bill in the mail on time. Automatic bill pay online is a great way to simplify life.

    I dream of living small but look around my house and wonder what more I’d give up to do it. You always keep me in the mindset of paring down, simplifying, focusing on what really matters to me. Thanks.

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Hi Darris. I did CB radio back in the 70’s, when it was popular and before I was a ham. It’s still a useful service for travelers and even for entertainment, of sorts, provided you don’t have sensitive ears, if you know what I mean. Amateur radio is like CB on steroids; so many bands throughout the spectrum, so many different operating modes, and wonderful people.

      Living small is just a matter of deciding what you really need and how much space that will take. FIgure out what you own that is preventing you from downsizing, and then figure out if you really need it or not.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. Great post! People tend to be short-sighted when it comes to technology and communication. I like how you show that with a big of creativity and imagination, there are always communications solutions out there (especially these days!)

  7. Good article, Mike. As a fellow RVer, with a website about RVing, and being technologically challenged, I appreciate the opportunity to get information about things where my own knowledge and experience are lacking. Keep writing!

  8. Pingback: Exploring RV Living – Supporting Your Lifestyle | Homeless On Wheels

  9. Another fantastic post! I’m going to refer to it when I finally go full nomad! 😉

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