Sunday, January 8, 2012

Trip Planning: Stay Connected

As I write this post, Susan and I are somewhere in southern Virginia on our way north up Interstate-81.  Consequently, I feel the topic of this post is quite relevant.  It’s a simple matter of how to stay “plugged in” while on the road.

For the short excursion, the smart phone rules.  Voice, SMS, internet, email—pretty much any modern device will keep you in the loop.  However, there are definitely times when a keyboard and a screen that doesn’t force you to squint can be useful things to have at your disposal.  A laptop is an obvious solution, but how to get internet access and power?

When on the road for extended periods needing  to get work done, the first goal is to secure a power source.  The simplest way to get power is to take advantage of the fact that you’re already putting out plenty of electricity in your vehicle.  A power-inverter will do the job.  Better yet, some vehicles (like our road trip transport of choice, a Toyota Matrix) come with built-in power outlets.  Coupled with a car charger or two for the phones, we’ve got all the juice we need to keep our electronics charged as long as we’re moving. 

For the less mobile times of the trip (like when we’re camping and climbing but only driving a few minutes a day, if at all), it becomes much more important to take advantage of the time the car is on to charge up the electronics.  However, eventually you’ll start to run low, and if you’re camping, you’ll have to go somewhere to recharge.  Usually, I try to do this at the same time that I’m looking for internet access.

Wifi internet is growing increasingly ubiquitous in many areas of the United States, but in general, you’ll either have to pay something for access to a secured network or resort to “war driving” in search of free wireless signal.  The trick is to know where you can reliably get free internet pretty much anywhere.  The answer is McDonald’s.

Every McDonald’s in the United States offers free wifi service accessible from inside or outside the building.  One of the first stops I make when rolling into an unfamiliar town is usually a McDonald’s parking lot.  As a general rule, McDonald’s likes to make it easy to find their establishments, and it only takes about 5 minutes to figure out where everything else is in town (such as the local library, which also usually has internet access and power).  The only downside to the McD’s plan is that the interior frequently does not have power outlets in the dining area, meaning you can’t plug in like you could at a coffee shop, library, or other establishment.

Sometimes, though, it can be inconvenient at best to find wifi signal.  Or perhaps, such as in my present situation, someone else is driving and you’re just along for the ride.  It can be nice to have internet access while making progress toward your destination.  Enter the smart phone tether.

Most major cell phone carriers offer a tethering option for use with smart phones with a data plan, effectively turning your cell phone into a truly mobile internet connection.  A fee of $15 or $20 a month will give you internet access that many times is better than the local library, provided that you have 3G signal at your location.  Fortunately, most major interstate corridors are populated enough that 3G signal isn’t often hard to come by.

But what about when you don’t have 3G signal?  As long as you still have bars, you can get a good deal of information through SMS and voice signal.  For example, facebook allows you to receive SMS (text message) alerts when notifications appear on your profile.  You can also update your facebook status via text message (as well as twitter, and many other providers).  For the truly intrepid, you can even get email via text message.  All you need to do is set up your email account to forward mail to your cell phone number through an SMS gateway, which you can then reply to via SMS.  For example, if AT&T is your cell provider, you can forward mail to your phone number by setting your email forwarding to the address [10 digit number]@txt.att.net

What if you need to find information from the web, not just stay in touch via email or social networking?  Google comes to the rescue here with 2 extraordinarily useful services.  The first is “Goog 411,” Google’s free voice-prompt automated 411 information service.  Just dial 1-800-goog-411 (1-800-466-4411) and you’re connected to the 8 best search results, with options to connect the call, text message you the appropriate information, refine your selection, and a host of other fast, useful, hands-free tools.  Unfortunately, Google discontinued this service at the end of 2010 as it was actually intended to be a research project on voice-command technology, not a long-term Google technology offering.  However, Bing recently released a similar product, “Bing 411” (1-800-bing-411 or 1-800-246-4411).  It does a decent job, but requires a lot more time and effort to get to the information you want thanks to a much more involved verbal menu system.  However, if you have a reasonably strong cell phone signal, you can still get info from the web.

Alternately, you can use Google’s text service, which often requires no more than one bar of cell signal (much easier to come by than 3G signal in the places I tend to go).  You can send a variety of selective searches to Google via text message.  Just enter a query (for example, “weather north conway, nh”) and send it to 466453.  Instantly, you’ll get a weather update for that area.  The service also works for movie listings, phone-book directories, sports scores, word definitions, and other searches, each with their own special command set accessible just by texting the word “help.”  By far the one I use most often, though, is the weather forecast, which is a convenient way to confirm what the clouds are telling you while you’re in the field.

If you’re totally out of cell coverage, you’ll have to resort to some sort of satellite technology.  Sat phones certainly have a place in extended expeditions far afield, but they’re an expensive investment if you’re going to be in relatively civilized areas, which in this case includes most of the continental U.S.  In that case, the SPOT satellite messenger may be a good option.  The handheld messenger device offers a variety of services via GPS, including sending emergency and SOS messages to local search-and-rescue units, location updates to friends and family, as well as the ability to send text messages, facebook statuses, and twitter updates.  This is all available for a yearly fee depending on the services provided.  The only downside is that the SPOT still cannot receive communication in any way, a distinct advantage still provided only by sat phone.

But how do you keep your electonics powered up in the field?  The short answer is to leave it off unless or until you need it.  However, if you’ll be gone for an extended period or anticipate frequent use, Goal Zero offers quite portable solar charging options for mobile devices.  Whether for better or worse, it’s possible to stay connected most anywhere on the planet now.

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