We 'camped' at Walmarts across the country. Walmart welcomes RVs in most of its parking lots.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Verizon broadband card keeps RV connected on the road

July 22, 2007

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, The Post-Standard

   I'm writing this on my laptop in the parking lot of a small shopping center in Rapid City, S.D. All the stores in the strip mall all closed except the laundromat, where my wife is drying clothes while I take care of our dogs. We've just passed the half-way point in a five-week, 8,000-mile motor home trip around the country -- and we've been connected to the Internet nearly all the way.
   After the dry clothes are hung up in the wardrobe of our Navion motor home -- it's got a Mercedes-Benz diesel engine and has been putt-putting up and down the countryside at 18 mpg -- we'll head down the street for the Walmart parking lot. It's the "campground" of choice for us and hundreds of thousands of other RVers nationwide. The night before, when we stayed at a Walmart in Sheridan, Wy., I counted at least 50 other motor homes and trailers parked in the back of the Walmart lot.
   Walmart welcomes RVs in the lots at most of its stores, with only a few parking lots off-limits because of local regulations against overnight parking. We like this kind of overnighting -- it's called boondocking -- for three reasons: First, you're staying in a very well guarded area with many other RVers for company; second, you have the world's best-stocked department store a short walk away; and third, you can always count on an Internet connection if you're using a broadband wireless card.
   That's because broadband wireless cards connect to the Internet using signals from cell-phone towers. Walmart stores are always within range of cell-phone towers -- usually, within close range, which translates to a strong signal. We have two laptops, and both connect using the single wireless card that Verizon loaned to us for the entire journey. I'll tell you how we get both computers to connect simultaneously through one broadband card shortly. I need to explain how the card itself works first.
   By "card," I'm referring to an electronic device that's usually about the size of a credit card, except much thicker, that plugs into a slot on a laptop computer. The standard version is called a PC card. The Verizon card I've been using is a new variety, smaller and easier to store in a laptop carrying case. It's called an Express card.
   Our Apple MacBook Pro laptop has a slot made to accept Express cards. My wife, Nancy, uses the MacBook Pro, and I use my Apple iBook. The iBook doesn't have a slot for either kind of card, so we set up the MacBook Pro's built-in wi-fi networking to share its Verizon connection wirelessly with the iBook. As long as my iBook is within 100 to 150 feet of my wife's laptop, any connection she has is piggybacked onto my computer. (Apple builds this capability into its Airport wireless networking, which is standard on every Apple laptop. Seeing it work is enough to turn you into an Apple fan forever.)
   The Verizon broadband card gets its high-speed connections from special transceivers mounted on cell-phone towers. When you're close enough to a tower, your computer should be able to connect at a relatively fast rate -- about as fast as a cable Internet connection, I'd estimate. If you are farther away, with only a marginal connection, you'll usually be able to maintain the link, but at a slower rate. That's a much better arrangement than one that loses the signal now and then.
   The Verizon card, like a cell phone, works while you are on the move. On much of our trip, Nancy belted herself into one of the dinette seats and worked on her laptop for a few hours while I drove. She found dog parks (and Walmart parking lots!) and kept in touch with her friends by e-mail. I did the same while she was driving and while we were camped at Walmart stores. A nice touch while we traveled: We both maintained our own blogs and I kept my Technofile Web site up-to-date.
   I mentioned earlier that you "should" be able to connect at a fast rate. I made that qualification because the Verizon card we borrowed was pokey all the time, running at the speed of a slow dialup connection. In an e-mail, Verizon assured me that this is not typical. When I find out what the problem was, I'll test the card again and write an update.