We wanted to be able to get online at any time, in any location, even while cruising in our motor home.
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T e c h n o f i l e
On the road for two months but still online: How we did it

Feb. 3, 2008

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, The Post-Standard

   Readers of the "Travels with Otto" blog at travelswithotto.blogspot.com know that my wife, Nancy, and I just came home from a 12-week journey crisscrossing America in our motor home. Despite our nearly constant traveling -- we averaged more than 1,000 miles a week -- we were never out of reach of e-mail and the Web.
   How did we do it? Many of you have written to ask. It was actually quite simple.
   Nancy and I each have our own laptop computers. They're Apple Macs, which we prefer because of their reliability and freedom from Windows viruses and spyware, but the methods we used to maintain our Internet connections and e-mail aren't specific to any kind of computer. They'll work on Windows laptops, too.
   Our goal had two parts: We wanted to be able to get online at any time, in any location, even while cruising in our motor home, and we wanted to be able to get our e-mail from one source, even though we have multiple accounts.
   We achieved the first goal using a wireless broadband modem. When I think of a modem, I usually have memories of the slowpoke devices I had to plug into my telephone line to get onto the Internet back in the '90s. But a broadband modem is a much faster critter.
   The one we use is the Sierra Wireless Air Card 595U from Sprint. It costs anything from almost free to about $100, depending on the deal you make, but the real cost, of course, is the monthly fee. It's high: Sprint charges $40 a month for limited use (40 megabytes a month) or $60 a month for unlimited use. (Warning: 40 megabytes a month -- only 750 kilobytes per day on average -- isn't enough for most people.)
   The Air Card model we use plugs into one of the USB ports on any modern computer, Windows or Mac. Most people use wireless modems with laptops, but there's no reason you couldn't plug one into a desktop computer. There's another Air Card version that slips into a laptop PC card slot, but I like the idea of a USB connection, because every modern computer has USB.
   The Air Card, like all other wireless broadband modems, works more or less like a cell phone. Technically, "less" is more accurate than "more," but I'll stick with my description, which conveys the workings in simple terms. On our Macs, the Air Card connects any time it has to, a feature I'm sure works on Windows, too. If the Air Card can't find a high-speed connection, it will look for a slower one. We found only one place -- a campground inside Death Valley -- where the Air Card couldn't connect at all.
   What sets wireless broadband apart from regular wireless, called wi-fi, is its range (virtually unlimited, vs. 150 feet for wi-fi) and its ability to operate from vehicles. Nancy often surfed the Web, played online games or checked e-mail in the motor home while I drove.
   The second goal -- getting all of our separate e-mail accounts funneled through one service that we could use while traveling -- was much easier than I'd thought it would be. We each created our own accounts on Google's free Gmail service and set up each one to redirect mail from all our regular accounts to the Gmail address. (This is a largely unappreciated feature of Gmail.)
   This made it possible for us to handle all our e-mail on the road. Most Internet Service Providers let you read your e-mail from afar, but only a few allow you to send mail from outside your local area. This is done to block spammers. But Gmail uses some technological wizardry so you can send and receive e-mail from any location.
   Although most Gmail users probably get their mail by using a Web browser -- in other words, using Google's Web mail function -- we chose Gmail because a simple configuration change allows Gmail users to read and reply to mail using their regular mail software. We used Apple Mail, but I've tested Gmail with Outlook under Windows and with Thunderbird on Windows and Macs, and it worked fine.
   For more on using Gmail this way, go to www.technofileonline.com/texts/tec101605.html.